At the Park on Saturday
“Okay, let’s start with yesterday morning, after you woke up, before he disappeared. What’s the first thing that happened?”
I was here yesterday too, not in this exact room, but an identical one down the hall. It isn’t what I’d expected. It looks like a meeting room at a rec center, windowless, but neat and well lit. They said they wanted to question me again, to make sure they didn’t miss anything. I know they are hoping they will catch me in a lie. “Julie,” the male detective says, when I don’t answer right away, “can you tell me what happened the morning your son disappeared?” “It was very normal, a normal Saturday,” I said. “Reed got up around 6:30 like usual. I made him breakfast and let him watch some cartoons. Terry, my husband…me and him got dressed and cleaned the kitchen and had our own breakfasts, and then I said I would take Reed to the park.” “What time was that?” “Around 10:00.”
It was, in fact, a normal morning. When Reed burst through our bedroom door at 6:15 and cheerfully announced, “It’s wake up time!” I muttered, “I’ll get up, I’ll get up.” It was my husband’s turn to sleep in. I still resented him for staying in bed, and I made more noise in the kitchen than I needed to, slamming cupboard doors and shoving the dishwasher drawers in hard.
I shoved a bowl of Panda Puffs in front of Reed, turned on Paw Patrol and lay down on the couch. He ate and once he was done, climbed to the top of our cat tower so he could be eye level with the TV. Gus, our poor cat, shuffled by, saw his favorite perch was taken, and collapsed in resignation by the patio door. I watched all this out of half-closed eyes as I drifted in and out of consciousness. At some point, Terry got up and found me asleep, our son teetering on the cat tower where he expressly wasn’t allowed to be, the coffee unmade, the table littered with stray Panda Puffs and splashes of milk, and the dishes from the night before still in the sink. Terry went about fixing the mess––pulling Reed down despite his protests, grinding the coffee, washing the dishes––without a word to me. “Sorry,” I said. “I’m getting up.” “Did I tell you to get up?” You strongly implied it, I thought but didn’t say. It was too early to get into it with Terry. I went and changed into my clothes. When I returned, I found he’d made poached eggs––my favorite––for himself, without offering to make any for me. For weekend breakfasts early in our marriage, we’d French press coffee and fry up potatoes, then go for a walk and snicker at all the hipsters stuck on line for brunch. I poured myself a bowl of cereal. Two hours later, Reed was still entranced with the Paw Patrol pups, and Terry and I were on opposite ends of the couch looking at our phones. The apartment was still a mess. The fridge was almost empty. I got up and grabbed a granola bar from the kitchen and sat back down. “Didn’t you just have breakfast?” Terry said. “It’s none of your business what I eat,” I replied, though ever since I’d failed to lose the thirty pounds I gained when I was pregnant, he’d certainly made it his business. “Those have a lot of sugar,” he said. I switched the TV off and got up. Reed wailed. “My Paw Patrol!”
“We’re going to the park,” I said.
“No! I want to stay inside!” Reed said. “It’s a nice day, we’re going outside.” I took his hand and dragged him into his room to put on his clothes as he sniffled and protested.
The male detective looks down at his notes. He is in his fifties, I’d guess. He has the severe posture of someone who had once been very good at sports. Now he is balding and has a paunch jutting over his belt.
“And the park you went to, Dogwood Lake, you go there often?” “Yes,” I say. “Every day sometimes, in the summer. It’s walking distance from our place. It’s very nice.”
The lake was really a smallish manmade pond and its shores were usually blanketed in geese shit, but there was a decent playground. I sometimes took photos of Reed playing there, the pond far enough in the background to shimmer, and put them on Instagram.
Truth be told, I found the playground pretty tiresome. At three years old, Reed wanted a playmate, and since he was an only child because we were too broke and mired in marital problems and work stress to have another, that responsibility fell to me. I had no enthusiasm though. I’d spend five minutes chasing him around and eating pretend ice cream by the swings, and then I’d tell him I needed a break and sit on the bench with my phone while he slunk off disappointed. When we got to the park that morning, Reed asked to go to the swings. I took him straight over and pushed him for a while, till he boosted himself off and said he was going to play on the slide. He didn’t ask me to join him. As he’s gotten older, he plays by himself more. I could have disappeared into my phone, but for whatever reason, I didn’t. I watched him take careful steps up the ladder, give a brief, nervous glance over the guardrail at the top, then fly down fast enough for the wind to blow back his hair.
He was very serious that morning. He didn’t laugh or randomly tell me I looked like dog poop. I wondered if he was picking up on the tension between Terry and me. He’d seemed wonderfully oblivious for so long, but I knew that couldn’t last forever.
I had a sense I couldn’t shake that something was off, and at first I thought it was Reed’s strange mood, but then it hit me. We were alone in the park. From where I sat by the playground, I couldn’t see a single other person, and now that I thought about it, we hadn’t seen anyone else since we arrived. That seemed impossible for a sunny Saturday in the spring.
For a moment I panicked and thought perhaps I’d mixed up days. Was it still Friday? But no, everyone was saying, “Have a nice weekend” at the office the day before. I supposed more people would show up soon.
“Let’s pull it back for a minute,” the female detective says. This is the first time she’s spoken since she introduced herself. She’s younger than the male detective, and strikingly pretty with fine features and a symmetrical smile. Not that she’s smiled at me––when I first came in I saw her chatting with the male detective, probably about something less depressing than missing children, like gardening or barbecues or youth soccer.
“Did you and your husband plan to have kids?” “Yes! We…” “I’m not suggesting you didn’t want Reed,” she interrupts. “But I’ll tell you the truth. My second kid was a big ‘surprise’.” She makes air quotes when she says surprise. “I mean it happens, right?” “I always wanted children,” I tell her. “And yes, it was planned.” This is true. I did always want children, but pretty much as soon as I got pregnant, I realized that I had more so wanted the idea of a child. I wanted the congratulations and the big belly and the pregnancy glow. I wanted the mewing newborn pressed to my chest, the My First Christmas onesie, the birthday cake smash, the likes on social media, the sense that I’d checked “have kids” off the to-do list of life. Then I found myself pregnant, dry heaving till my body ached, tired in a way I hadn’t imagined possible, and overwhelmingly, unceasingly terrified of losing the flickering life inside me, and I realized that motherhood was going to be something very different from what I’d imagined. And it was. That might sound negative, but that’s not how I mean it. It wasn’t worse than I expected, it was way beyond what I expected. I hadn’t imagined the intensity of it, of a love that felt more like fear.
“And your husband,” the female detective says, “what about him? It can be hard for the dads sometimes.”
“Not for him,” I say. “He’s an amazing father. He’s a natural.” I’m not lying. Terry is the best father––patient and playful and naturally attuned to Reed’s little kid logic and variable moods. Terry’s certainly a much better parent than a spouse. You could say the same of me. Whatever changed between us changed gradually. We started as the best of friends and lovers. We could talk about anything, we talked endlessly. We had a language of jokes and pet names and personal anecdotes that excluded everyone else. Once, we both got sent home from work early because of a snowstorm and we made love on the living room floor at 11:00 am. The idea of doing something like that now––so frivolous and spontaneous and fun––is completely unthinkable.
Now we are like co-workers who’ve been side by side in the same toxic job for too long. We communicate because we have to for our lives to function, but every interaction between us is charged with suspicion and resentment.
What happened in between to make us this way? A million little disappointments, I think, disappointments in life and in each other. A job in another province I couldn’t take because he wouldn’t move. Our condo, the one I loved and talked him into buying, that has mold in the bedroom closet and special assessment after special assessment. The promotion he didn’t get. The way he smiled when he got a text from a woman he knew from his hometown, who he told me was just a friend, and yet.
All of this was before we even threw a kid into the mix, and you might wonder why we would do that, all things considered. We did it because we both wanted a child even if we didn’t necessarily want each other, and at some point we’d started down this road of marriage, jobs, kids––a conventional life––and we weren’t quite sure where the exit ramp was.
“We’ve had a chance to speak to some of the teachers at Reed’s daycare,” the female detective says. “They had nothing but good things to say about you. They told us you’re a wonderful mom. Is that how you see yourself? As a great mom?”
I pause for a moment. This feels like a question that has no good answer.
“All I can say is that I try to be a great mom every day. That’s what I aim for.”
“But some days you don’t make it?” she asks.
“No one is perfect, but yes, yes, I am a great mom. I love Reed. He’s my whole life.”
A few days ago, I was trying to get Reed out the door to daycare. I had expected Terry to take him, but Terry had an early meeting that morning. He’d told me about it. I’d forgotten. I’d been planning to get to work early and make headway on a report that was due to my boss at noon.
The night before, Terry and I had argued after he told me (not asked) that he was going to spend over a thousand dollars to go to his high school friend’s bachelor party in Ontario. So I asked him why the fuck I was buying clothes for Reed off Facebook Swap and Shop and planning our meals around flier specials when he was just going to go and do whatever the hell he wanted?
That didn’t go over well.
I’d had only a few hours of shallow sleep on the couch. After I ate breakfast, I zoned out, scrolling through Instagram and then I looked at the clock and saw it was ten minutes after when I should have left and Reed was sitting on the floor in a tee shirt and socks, playing with blocks. I ignored his whining and I shuffled him into his room to get dressed.
“Don’t like this one!” he said when I pulled out his brown bear sweatshirt.
I had to admit it was getting to be too small, but I said, “Too bad,” and shoved his head through anyway.
I got to the door and realized I’d forgotten Reed’s lunch. I got his lunch and realized I’d forgotten my work laptop, which I’d taken home in hopes of making some headway on the report after Reed went to bed, but then Terry had walked into the bedroom and announced he’d just bought a round-trip plane ticket to Toronto on our credit card.
When I returned to the door, lunch bag and laptop in hand, hot and sweaty from rushing around the apartment, I saw Reed had, for some reason, taken his socks off.
I knelt down and set about putting them back on.
“No,” he yelped. “Don’t like this one.”
“Too bad,” I said. “These are the ones we have.”
His face turned red and he let out a long, hard scream.
“No! No! No! Don’t want it!”
He threw himself on the floor, kicked and pounded his fists into the dingy carpet.
I grabbed him by the arm, hard, and pulled him into a sitting position. He screamed louder.
“Yes!” I screamed, loud enough to drown him out. “Yes! You’re putting on your fucking socks and we’re going now! We’re going now! Shut up! Stop crying and shut up!”
He gave a quick shake of his head and made a little whimper and then he was quiet. He looked surprised, more than anything, as though he’d just learned something unexpected and disappointing.
I put on his socks, his boots and jacket and led him by the hand to the car.
I was most of the way to daycare before my anger cooled and hardened and I could see the shattering unfairness of what I’d done. I’d frightened and cowed him with anger that had nothing to do with him. It was meant for his father, for my boss, for the yawning gap between the life I’d expected to have and the one I was actually living.
“I’m sorry I got mad,” I told Reed. “Mommy is grumpy today. It’s not your fault.”
He didn’t say anything. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw his eyes, wide, confused, worried.
I’d read in some parenting book or another that if you apologize to your child for losing your temper, you can repair any damage caused just by admitting your mistake. I wish that were true, but I don’t think it is. Remorse is a complex emotion. Many adults can’t understand or manage real forgiveness. It’s too much for a little child.
But anger is raw and primal. Even an animal can recognize anger. The apology in the car wouldn’t stick with Reed. The feeling he had, when I grabbed his arm tight enough to hurt him and looked at him with nothing but blank rage in my eyes, he would remember that.
When you have a child, first you feel love so strong it shocks you, but soon enough you feel something else, too. Maybe it’s in the early days, when the only thing you want to do is sleep and the baby will do nothing but cry. Maybe it comes later. Love is one side of the coin and the other side is cruelty. The tremendous trust and adoration of a child, their endless needs, their inherent weakness––it makes them so vulnerable. Sooner or later, the monster in you will recognize that. One day, you’ll be so mad your thoughts break apart, and the only person who doesn’t know how to fight back or get out of the way will be your baby, sitting on the floor with his socks in his fists.
“Let’s get back to the park,” the male detective says. “Take us through what happened after you got there, up until the point he disappeared.”
“Reed asked to play hide and seek,” I said. “He just turned three,” the female detective said. “That’s a little young for hide and seek in my experience.” “Yes, I mean, that’s what he calls it, but he doesn’t really understand the rules yet.”
“Hide and seek” for Reed meant that he’d walk ten feet away from me, stand next to a tree or a bench, and yell, “I’m hiding!” I’d wander around, casting my eyes to every corner of the park, except for the place he was standing, and say, “Where’s Reed? Where’s Reed? I don’t see him anywhere!”
He’d giggle wildly the whole time and as soon as I “found” him, I’d wrap him up in my arms and he’d giggle harder.
It was very charming.
That morning, when I noticed we were the only ones at the park, I thought of my own childhood in a scrubby little town on the other side of the country. I thought of all the times I’d lingered outside to play as the sky grew dark and thunder rumbled in the distance. I knew to head indoors when the birds stopped chirping and the deer lay down in the woods. As I stood in the empty park, I had that same feeling, the drop in my gut telling me the storm would be here any minute. I almost took Reed and went home, but I told myself that was silly. Sure, the quiet was a little unsettling, but it was just a fluke. What else could it be?
“Okay, go hide,” I told Reed, but he looked at me and shook his head. “Your turn,” he said. He’d never asked me to hide before, but okay, I thought, maybe he’s getting the hang of the game. I walked away from him and he turned around so he couldn’t see where I was going. That was odd, too. The whole idea that a hiding place was supposed to be secret had never occurred to him before. I scooted behind the trunk of a big oak tree and yelled, “Come find me!” I expected to hear Reed calling for me or the sound of his laughter, but there was no noise, not even the chatter of birds, I realized, or the rustling of leaves in the breeze. I thought again of a summer storm, how the air grows still just before the first raindrops fall. The sky was blue. There was no storm coming. But there was a sharp smell in the air, something familiar, metallic, a warning. “Reed?” I came out from behind the tree and looked to where he’d been standing when I hid. He wasn’t there. “Reed? Come find me!” I scanned the park, convinced I’d see another person this time. Someone who’d been in the bathroom or crouching behind a picnic table to pick up after a dog. A person I’d missed somehow. But the park was still empty, and now Reed was gone, too. I jogged into the clearing by the playground. I looked under the slide and behind the play structure. “Reed!” I felt tears heating under my eyes. How stupid of me to stand where I couldn’t see him. What was I thinking. I started running, looking behind every tree and bench. Anywhere his little body might fit. “Reed!” Here’s the thing about having a kid: you imagine them dead all the time. For me, it started in that heady moment right after Reed was born. He came out and there was a long beat of heavy silence. Is he there? I wondered. Will he cry? He did cry, and every night when I snuck into his room and stood over his bassinet, he was, in fact, breathing. I still saw him dead everywhere. In every ashen child hooked to a chemo line, in every skinny, wide-eyed refugee. Every day, in my mind, I watched him suffer and whimper and call out for me, but there was nothing I could do. Love so intense it hurts. It hurts because everything in this world is fragile and fleeting and can burn and bleed and disappear out of nowhere. I was the vessel that brought Reed into this existence, so I know better than anyone how tenuous it all is. Every night, you sneak into his room, lay your hand on his chest and feel it rise and fall. He’s still breathing. But what if one night, he’s not?
“Mommy!” I felt the weight of him slam into my legs. “I finded you!”
“Reed!” I dropped down to me and grabbed his shoulders. “Where were you!” He stared at me but didn’t respond. “I couldn’t find you anywhere! Where did you go? I couldn’t see you anywhere. Reed! Where were you?” His lip quivered. I realized how loud I was speaking, yelling really.
I pulled him into me.
“I’m sorry, kiddo,” I said. “Mommy was scared.” He didn’t say anything but he pressed his face into my shoulder and I leaned my face against his hair, still thin and silky like a baby’s. “You know I’m not angry, right?” I said. “Mamma was just scared.” I pulled away from him and looked him in the eye. “I’m not mad at you,” I said. He gave a little nod, but his shoulders were stiff. He didn’t look at me. I felt a sharp pinch in my chest. “Okay, let’s go home,” I said. “No! I hide. My turn.” “Reed, sweetie, it’s time to go home, we’ll play later.” “My turn,” he said. Tears began to gather in the corners of his eyes. This wasn’t idle whining; he was crying real tears, and it broke my heart. True, I was feeling drained and shaky from losing him, but what had actually happened? He’d drifted out of my sight for maybe a minute, maybe not even that long. He’d never been in any real danger. All the terror was in my head, and if we had a good time playing together, maybe I could still salvage the morning for him.
“Did you interact with anyone else in the park during this time?” the male detective asks.
“No.” “You’re aware that witnesses saw you in the park yesterday morning, but no one saw Reed.” “Well, as I’ve told you, we were playing, so we weren’t together the whole time.” “What happened next?” The female detective asks. “After he found you?” “Then it was his turn to hide.”
“Okay,” I said. “One more time, and then we’ll go home.”
Reed bounded away from me towards a stand of trees about twenty feet away. I didn’t even make a show of pretending to turn around. I needed to see his hiding place. I stood and watched him as he ran away from me, clumsy and weaving like a little drunk. He hadn’t quite outgrown his toddler awkwardness.
As he got to the trees, he slowed down and walked towards a large beech tree. Its trunk had split, nearly to the base of the tree, making a V-shape. It was a handsome tree, I thought. Good for climbing, with thick, low branches. Soon, Reed would be old enough to start climbing trees. I watched as he steadied himself with one hand on the bark and lifted his little leg up high, then stepped into the space between the two trunks and passed through the tree. And then he was gone. That was the last time I saw him.
“We’ve spoken to a number of other people who were in the park yesterday,” says the female detective. “They’ve all said they saw you standing in the clearing and you seemed fine one minute and then the next minute you were screaming that you’d lost your child.”
“I’m sure that’s how it would look to someone watching.” “But why didn’t anyone see Reed?” “I guess they just didn’t notice him.” The female detective folds her hands on the table. She looks me directly in the eyes and I think she expects me to turn away from her but I don’t. “I’ve got to be honest with you here, this just doesn’t make sense to me. We’ve got five separate witnesses, and no one saw your son. Okay, maybe one or two people don’t see the kid, but five?” “I can’t explain that. I can only tell you what happened.” “Where is Reed?” “I don’t know.” “You say you left home around 10:00. The 911 call came at 12:27. You were at the park for two and a half hours?” “I guess so.” “From what you described, it doesn’t sound like you were there that long.” I shrug. “Maybe you took Reed somewhere, before you went to the park?” “I didn’t.” “You know,” the male detective says, “we just want to find Reed. We want this all to be over. Isn’t that what you want?”
When I lost Reed, I screamed, of course. I called the police. I begged strangers to help me. The whole time though, I knew it was pointless. I wasn’t screaming because I thought I’d find him. I was screaming because I knew he was lost. As soon as I saw him step through that tree, I understood it in my gut. He was gone and he wasn’t coming back.
I know the police think I killed him. The story is all over the news now, and I’m sure that’s what most people will think. Terry can barely look at me. I know he blames me too, and perhaps he should. I was one the one who lost Reed, after all. I knew there was something off, something askew, and I should have left. Maybe that would have changed what happened, or at least delayed it. Maybe not. That’s not to say I think I deserved to lose Reed, that it’s some kind of punishment for getting angry too often or letting my own frustrations and disappointments shade the way he saw the world. That’s not how it works and that’s the great injustice of children––they’re given to people whether or not they deserve them. I lost Reed because no matter how much I loved him and tried to protect him, nothing can save children from the wildness and randomness of the world.
“I’m helping you the best I can,” I tell the detectives. “I told you everything that happened.”
The female detective lets out a quick, sharp sigh. The male detective leans back in his chair. After a moment, they both get up and walk out of the room.
I don’t expect I’ll be arrested. They’ll never find any evidence that I hurt Reed, because I didn’t. They return after a few minutes and tell me I can leave. The male detective hands me his card. He says he’ll be in touch.
By the time I get home, night has fallen. The apartment is empty. Even Gus the cat, who usually greets me at the door, weaving between my legs and whining for food, is nowhere to be found. I wonder for a moment if he has disappeared too, but I find him in the kitchen. He’s pacing from one room to the next, his tail high in the air. I reach down to pet him, but he looks at me with wary eyes and then darts into the hallway, the fur on the back of his neck spiked up straight.
Terry left to go stay with friends, I think. He didn’t really say. He packed his bags early in the morning and was gone by the time it got light. I go into Reed’s room and sit down on his toddler bed. It’s unmade, with the blankets clumped and twisted together and the pillow lying on the floor. I’d meant to tidy when we got back from the park. It occurs to me that if I smell the pillows, I will probably be able to catch his scent. The smell of milk and dust and baby shampoo. But I can’t bring myself to do it. I can’t take in the last remaining traces of him. I know that to everyone else what happened to Reed will seem very strange, impossible, in fact. But to me it makes perfect sense. That’s why yesterday, when search parties formed to fan out across the park and into the surrounding neighborhoods, I said I needed to go home. I knew it would be better to keep up appearances, to wait at the community center near the park where the police had set up a makeshift command center, to approach each search team as they returned and ask hopefully if they’d found Reed or any sign of him. As I walked away, Terry jogged after me. He grabbed my arm. I pulled it out of his reach. I couldn’t stay. I didn’t have the energy to pretend Reed might come back. When I fell in love with Reed, I fell in love with oblivion––he came to be out of nothingness so miraculously. Whenever I pressed his body into mine, I couldn’t help but remember that there had been a time when he was nothing and nowhere. We like to think that we’re part of the fabric of this world, woven deeply into it. But we’re not, and the people we love aren’t either. One day, Reed flickered to life inside me, and from then on, I knew that as suddenly, as magically as he appeared, he might one day go.