It was late in the winter, the time of year in that northern place when the snow lay in a hard, dirty crust pocked here and there by frozen footprints. We lived in a mining town, and the smokestacks belched soot high into the sky, and the soot filtered down to the snow, so that the snow was almost black when it had been on the ground for long. Then came a Chinook wind, and with it a hard rain. The mercury in the thermometers, stuck below freezing for a month’s time, rose steadily, and with it the waters of Pine Creek rose.
That area is desolate. The surrounding hills caught fire half a century ago, and with the steady outpour from the smokestacks almost nothing grew there afterward. Twisted scrub pine and tangled thornbushes and here and there by Pine Creek a stand of poplars or cottonwoods. The soil is hard and dry and rust-colored. On the day when the Chinook came and then the rain, Pine Creek was swollen with brownish water cold as ice.
The creek rose and rose, and the men of our town were called to help sandbag against a flood. For a long cloud-swollen night I stood in a line passing the heavy, rain-soaked bags hand to hand. I am not a miner, not used to hard work, and soon my mind and back and arms were numb and I passed the bags to the next man no more than a foot off the ground. I had not thought to wear gloves, and the burlap rubbed my hands raw, and I could not tell whether the moisture on my hands was blood or rain. There was a kind of desperate goodwill along the line, those who were fit for the work exhorting those who weren’t: You can do it. That’s right. Just keep’em coming.
But the water rose faster than our mountain of sandbags, and soon it came over the top in rivulets and then in an icy stream. We were told, by someone who assumed authority, to go home and take care of our families.
Our house was one of the most vulnerable, just across a narrow street fifty yards from the creek, but there was a slope that began at our front yard, and I hoped it would protect us. As it turned out, there was little time before the water came. I found Natalie asleep with our six-year-old son, Alex, in the upstairs bedroom. If the water rose that high we could climb from the sundeck onto the roof. Our power had been out for hours already, and I rushed in the dark down the split-level stairway to my ten-year-old son’s room. I expected to find Michael awake, scared and excited by the storm, but he made no sound when I came through the doorway. His small basement window cast almost no light, and I had trouble making out the shape of his bed across the room. I stumbled over toys and game pieces and reached my hand out for his shoulder only to find the rumpled covers thrown back, the empty pillow. I called his name, then proceeded to search the basement—the closets, the furnace room, behind the chairs near the fireplace. I searched the garage—under the shelving, behind the lawnmower, in the car. Upstairs again, I asked Natalie, but she had thought he was in bed sleeping. We lit candles. Frantically, we carried them with us from room to room, but found no sign. I returned from yet another look in the basement to find Natalie hunched over on the living room floor, her arms stretched out before her in an almost penitent attitude, making no sound, staring into the carpet.
I woke Alex and brought him out to her, made sure that she acknowledged he was there, that her eyes were alive again and focused on him, that she knew he was her responsibility, that there was a task at hand. Then I lurched back down the staircase and out the front door into the yard. There was no more snow, all two feet of it melted magically. I ran to the backyard, thinking Michael might have retreated there, but there was no response to my call. So I headed back toward the creek, shouting my son’s name as I went. I stepped carefully down the slope until I was in the water. It bit at my ankles, swelling steadily and moving fast, even though I was only partway down the slope. The rain swept down, hissing as it met the rising stream, and the stream itself spoke in a steady sigh, and the wind blew my words away. I got as close as I could to the creek, or where the creek had been contained before. The sandbags were immersed already, invisible beneath the water, the water waist deep where I stood now, just across what had been our street. Despite myself I began to grow afraid, more afraid for my own life than I was for Michael, more afraid of the stream pulling greedily at me than I was of this absence that I couldn’t, even then, get my mind around. Surely Michael must be in the basement. Surely Michael was somewhere in the house. The water pushed at me steadily and my legs shook from cold and weakness. I began to retreat, struggling for my balance, shoved along downstream; and as I fought my way back toward the strip of dry ground that lay before my house I found that I was talking in my head about Michael, as if I were explaining to some stranger what a fine boy my son had been, but at the same time believing that nothing had really happened, that when I walked back in our door I would see him standing there with Natalie and Alex, that everything would be explained, that even while the house flooded we would laugh hysterically with relief.
But Michael wasn’t home. I spent an hour scurrying around the neighborhoods behind our house, knocking on every familiar door. Natalie had recovered hope, was sure that Michael had gotten scared and run to some friend’s house in the opposite direction of the creek. But no one had seen him. The neighbors came to look with me until the water rose to their own front doors. Again I struggled home, this time arriving in the backyard. Before I reached the steps to the sundeck, I looked up to see Natalie behind the sliding glass doors, and the look on her face almost sent me back out into the water again. But now we were all in danger, the water flowing fast around our house, our house like a ship plowing through waves.
I spent the rest of that night on our roof, shouting my son’s name into the rain until I could no longer shout or even speak, while below me my wife and youngest child huddled tight and cried together, and below them the water poured in torrents through broken windows, flooding high above Michael’s empty bed.
By daybreak the rain had stopped and the water had become a slowly ebbing tide. I renewed my search. I was found eventually, standing nearly frozen in the stream, by two policemen in a rowboat. They took me home and forced me into bed, and there were missing person reports and widespread alerts and, in the days that followed, stories on the local and regional news. And still Michael did not come home.
When the basement was pumped clear, we were afraid that we would find his body there after all. But it was empty save for the muck brought in by the flood. I went into my son’s room and tried to straighten things. Picking through the mud, I found the toys and game pieces and put them back in their soggy boxes and stored them in the closet. I placed the bookshelves back upright against the wall, filled the shelves with the ruined books. I made the room as ready as I could for his homecoming.
Because we went on as if he were alive. For long hours during the night Natalie and I would number the ways we should blame ourselves. I should have known to evacuate the house instead of going to help sandbag. And yet there had never been a flash flood before—who would have believed it? Natalie shouldn’t have fallen asleep, shouldn’t have left Michael in his downstairs room. And yet the danger had seemed so remote, and Michael had been so proud that he wasn’t afraid. We should have known somehow that he would try to leave the house. And yet who could have imagined him doing such a thing? We should never have moved to that awful town to begin with.
Always these discussions would end with an elaborately constructed scenario that left Michael alive, and if not well, at least capable of being rescued. He had wandered from the house and been kidnapped. The kidnapper was neither a murderer nor a child molester. The kidnapper was a gentle but misguided soul who wanted desperately to have a child of his or her own, and was treating Michael kindly. Soon the kidnapper’s better nature would assert itself, and the police would be informed by means of an anonymous phone call that Michael Dwyer, the child who had been on the news, had been dropped off in front of a service station or a grocery store. We would work ourselves carefully into a state of half belief, which meant, really, I feel certain now, that each of us would arrive at the conviction that the other believed, and that if the other believed, there might be some real chance, even though we didn’t believe ourselves.
And that was enough to get us started in the morning. It was enough to make us talk to Alex about the time when his brother would come home. It was enough to keep us from going crazy when we talked to the police or the reporters or the volunteer workers who came to repair our basement for free. It was enough to keep Natalie going around the house, taking Alex to school and cooking dinner and cleaning. It was enough to keep me going to my job at the real estate office, in a building absurdly shaped like the dome of a miner’s helmet, where I never, not once, told my bosses and my co-workers that I hated them for allowing me to work there, where I never told my clients that their concerns about cracks that ran along the ceiling or lack of counter space in the kitchen or laundry rooms that were in uninsulated additions were ugly and narrow and selfish.
But really our lives were intolerably empty. Alex continued to play around the house, although rather listlessly now, without all the noise and the fighting that we’d always found so aggravating before, and without any of the laughter. At times I tried to play with him, but he told me that I didn’treally know how to play, that the games weren’t real games like they had been when Michael was there, and in the end he preferred to play alone. I would stand at the door to his room watching while he engaged, wordlessly, in a pale imitation of those games, wildly imaginative, he had let Michael conduct. I knew their substance, vaguely—there were plastic soldiers and knights and monsters, and cities made of stacked books, and mountains made out of blankets and pillows. But I had never paid enough attention, never really listenedto the games, and now the games were gone.
Natalie and I wandered through the house absorbed in our own thoughts, never sharing them until that desperate time when we retreated to our bedroom at night, after we made sure that Alex was fast asleep between us. Worst for me were recollections of my thoughts during the flood. Your son is not there, at a time when you desperately need him to be there. But this has happened before, you say to yourself. There have been other times when he wasn’t there, and at these times you have felt yourself at the edge of panic, and you have calmed yourself with the reminder that in each of these cases things have turned out all right. That time when you arrived home to find that he wasn’t in the car seat, and you felt sick momentarily—it turned out, upon a second’s reflection, that you hadn’t taken him in the car to begin with. There he was in the window of the house, waving at you, and you were almost overcome with tears. And so you shouldn’t panic now, not now, because this is just another one of those occasions. All will be well in a minute. You should not run immediately from the house into the storm flailing your arms like a madman, screeching at the top of your lungs. You should take a deep breath, stop to consider. You should search for a logical explanation. When you find the water rising around you, consider it foolish to dive into the stream, foolish to risk sacrificing your own life, because after all when you return home he will be there waiting for you. And yet I should have run like a madman from the house at the very first; maybe Michael wasn’t too far away then to hear me. I should have dived into the stream, no matter how hopeless. Better that—better my own death—than the guilt over not having done anything.
When spring came, I made a habit of walking at night by the creek. I left the house armed with a flashlight, and I was drawn always to a church at the end of our street. Behind the church was a wooden bridge that spanned the water in an arc, and behind the bridge an old rundown shed. I walked the banks there stubbornly, over and over, each night shining the flashlight in the same places and never finding anything. At all times I cast a suspicious eye on the shed, at a leaning woodpile covered with moss that ran alongside it. Soon I began to examine the woodpile in earnest, shining the light behind it, between the cracks in the stacked wood, lifting the rotten pieces. One night, finally, I kicked in the door of the shed, but found in it only a wheelbarrow, bags of cement, old boxes, empty coffee cans. I gave up walking.
More and more, I blamed my wife for what had happened. Why had she left him in his room downstairs? How could she have fallen asleep? I distanced myself from her, and the house grew silent. Even Alex had almost stopped speaking. The three of us sat on the couch one evening, trying to empty ourselves into the noise of the TV. During a commercial, I went quietly downstairs into my son’s room. The ruined carpet had been stripped and replaced, and I stood barefoot on this new carpet that no one ever walked across, staring at my son’s bookshelves. So many books—so many for a ten-year-old to have found an interest in. I folded my arms tight across my chest and closed my eyes and tried hard to remember what Michael had looked like stretched out on the bed, his eyes ticking over the words, his hand held lightly at the corner of a page, his lips moving slightly. What were his favorites? The Hobbit. A book called Men of Iron, about knights and castles, a book I’d loved myself as a child. I’d given it to him for Christmas one year. I scanned the shelves but couldn’t find it. Maybe it had been washed up under the bed or into the closet, and my wife had found it later, and thrown it away. But The Hobbitwas gone as well. Some others—Tom Sawyer, at least one of the Harry Potter books, The Giver, maybe more titles I couldn’t name offhand. Could he have taken these books with him that night? I tried to picture him with an armload of books, opening our front door and walking out into the storm. Couldn’t someone have seen him? Wouldn’t he have aroused someone’s suspicion? What could he have been thinking? And as I left his room, I stopped suddenly and put my hand to the door frame. The week before, I had looked for a ream of paper I’d brought home from the office. I knew where I’d stored it—in my bottom desk drawer—but it wasn’t there. I had looked all over, and finally decided that the memory I had of bringing it home with me wasn’t real.
That night, I faded in and out of sleep, and at one time I felt Michael so close to me, right there beside the bed, that I held my hand out to reach him. I almost felt him breathing in my sleep—as if it were his sleep, or as if I were him.
As the weeks passed, it became clear that Michael would never return, that he was dead, but I harbored my doubts, my secrets. By summer Natalie and Alex seemed to have moved on to some degree. I would come home from work to find them laughing in the kitchen, and at the sight of me they would stop, as if I were freezing them in their guilt. I was a mere ghost there, just a reminder of the family we used to be, but I would not give up Michael to join them. Every small object that could not be found around the house served as proof of Michael’s presence there. When I wanted the last apple from the refrigerator and found it gone, it was because Michael had taken it. The open spaces on his bookshelf seemed to grow wider, and I noticed more missing titles. Maybe Natalie had her own secrets, maybe she pirated the books and stuffed them in drawers in the bedroom, to feel she had something of Michael’s close by. But I preferred to think that wasn’t the case. Often I was awakened by noises at night, shuffling sounds like footsteps, the creak of doors that seemed more ajar than I’d left them, and a noise that I could call nothing more definite than the weight and volume of a body in a room. It’s the cat, Natalie would tell me. But I sat wide-eyed in the dark, my heart hammering into my throat.
I was constantly on the verge of some discovery. My senses became more acute. I could feel the slightest movements of the air, could feel a breeze so soft it did not lift the curtains at our open window. I could hear the wind in the treetops, the noises in our neighbors’ yards and bedrooms, the groans of our roof beams. I lay awake for long hours in the dark, watching the shifting shadows of tree limbs on our bedroom wall, unaware of Natalie curled up next to me. And then one night as I lay there that way, almost lost in a dream with my eyes wide open—a dream of Michael in his room, surrounded by hundreds of toy soldiers formed in battle lines—I distinctly heard the click of our front door closing. Entranced by the shadows, by the intensity of my waking dream, I continued to lie there, hearing that click but not understanding it yet. Then, as suddenly as the dream was broken, I was up and dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, forgetting the flashlight, moving quietly down the stairs and out of our house.
The wind blew warm as I stood in our yard, the grass cool and comforting to my bare feet. It was a magical wide night with a million stars. But there was no sign of Michael, unless the twitching in my fingers at the feel of the wind, the smell of earth and grass and creek water assailing my nostrils could be taken as signs. I was tugged from my spot, as always, in the direction of the church and the little bridge and the shed on the other side. But I moved past the brick church and felt the thump of my feet on the splintery wooden bridge, and I paid scarcely any attention to the shed and the dim shape of the woodpile. These were not it, I felt certain. What drew my attention was the open field that went on past them, the field I moved across like a shadow.
At the opposite edge of the field was a winding road, I knew, and I could see it in my head very clearly before I reached it in the dark. I stood there before this road, which contained absolutely nothing, no vehicles of any sort, no other men out wandering under the stars. I looked up and down the road, peering into blackness, and I could find nothing, and I turned to look back through the distance in the direction of my house, and there was nothing. And yet I felt myself nearly vibrate with Michael’s presence, and I would not leave that spot. Soon I became aware of the tiniest noise of water, almost a trickling beneath my skin. There was nothing else but a low hum, either the air sifting other noises far distant or the sound of my own blood. Maybe the trickling was inside me as well, but it was persistent, and I did not move, I took great care to silence everything inside of me. I don’t know whether I slept there on my feet, if I entered the world of dreams, but it were as if my head contained another picture of the night and all the stars and the weeds and the road before me, and in this picture was a tiny stream bending away to the west, and I saw that it issued from a rusty culvert in the road bank, and when I had lost this picture, when I had awakened, the night’s edges were softened with purple light, and there were the culvert and the little stream right in front of me.
I could barely squeeze my way in, so small was the opening. On the night when Michael disappeared, it occurred to me, the culvert must surely have been filled with water. And yet I knew that he’d gone in. I struggled for a long time, moving myself forward with my hands and my elbows and my knees, my shirt front and pants sopping wet. The darkness sealed me in; there appeared to be no opening to the culvert other than the one through which I came.
Then I reached a point at which there was nothing but open space before me. A hole, nothing else. Balancing myself at its edge, I reached as far as I could with my hand, but I touched only air. My choice, it seemed, was to turn back or drop down. I had no room to maneuver there in the culvert, I would simply have to fall headfirst into whatever lay below. And, once down the hole, there might be no way to return. Strangely, the thin stream of water still trickled over my hands, as if the water were being pumped up from below, as if it climbed on its own from some point deep in the earth.
Again, lying there on my belly in the absolute dark, no sound but the running water and my breathing, I felt a current pass through me, like a memory or a dream taking physical form, a sense that Michael was right there with me. I shouted his name into the hole, and my voice disappeared. There was no echo and no answer. I was reminded of standing waist deep in the flood, calling my son’s name, not daring to go under. Slowly I pulled myself ahead with my hands until I fell.
My falling was outside time and space. There was no duration, no displacement. I was myself, and that was all I knew. Then I was on my feet, immersed in light, a brightness so entire that only gradually did I become aware of standing in a sort of hallway. The difference between the light and the space I occupied could only be described as an iciness—a sheen and a texture and a coldness to the surfaces. I could make out, dimly, white walls, a white ceiling that I could touch when I raised my arm, even a white floor. And across this white floor ran a thin, curling stream of clear water. I walked on.
And after some time that I could not call short or long, the hallway opened into a blinding white room, and I found my son’s body resting there. He lay on the floor, twisted up awkwardly in a corner. His clothes were ragged and muddy, his face was turned away from me. His white shoes were ruined, the sole torn loose from one and a gash in the leather of the other, and above one shoe his pants leg rode up to reveal that he wore no socks, and his bony ankle and thin calf were white as pearl. It was that sight somehow—the shoes, the ankle, the thin unmuscled calf—that made me cry, and when I reached him it was to that thin leg that my hand went. I couldn’t tell whether the coldness I felt was in his skin or in my fingers.
But his eyes opened wide at my voice and my touch, and he was awake then, sitting up, smiling at me—the Michael I’d always known, the Michael who had never left me. “Hey, Dad,” he said, and then I took him in my arms, and it felt as if we were melting, as if we couldn’t hold each other solidly enough.
I had not seen the room. It simply appeared there to my sight. In the corner where Michael sat were the books—dozens of books from home, more than he ever could have carried away on the night of the flood. Next to the books were colored markers, tape, and two stacks of paper, one blank, one covered with his neat handwriting.
The rest of the room was covered with colorful paper. On the floor were crudely drawn—but beautiful, dazzling—roads and forests and castles and cities and oceans, and tiny stick figures populating these landscapes, wandering here and there, gathered in clusters that may have been battles or celebrations. The walls were covered, too. Along one ran an elaborate, life-sized sketch of Michael’s own bed at home—he had even attempted to reproduce the pillow and blankets. He had reconstructed his room entirely, even down to the small window through which the water had poured that night. But here the window contained stars, a half-moon, the silver light of clouds, the dark shape of the gangly pine tree whose shadow I watched at nighttime. And there was the shadow, too, drawn in black above the bed. There were the bookshelves, the desk, the closet doors, the posters on the walls drawn to the best of my son’s abilities.
And in the middle of all of this, there at the center of the floor, ran a quiet stream, flowing past the mountains and the forests and the meadows and all the people. As I stood looking, Michael bent down to the stream, and when he put his finger to its source a jet of water spurted upward, and the water gathered strength, overflowing its banks and flowing faster out into the white hallway.
“This is where I live, Dad,” Michael said.
I was crying, softly, without wanting him to see or hear, and I reached out and held my son’s hand the best I could—it was really just a feeling in my cold fingers—and I did not say, You live at home with us, Michael, or Michael, you come with me. “I like it very much,” I said. “Show me.”
And he did. He explained every feature of the vast terrain, the world he’d created, or re-created. “What are these?” I asked him, pointing to the papers.
“Adventures,” he said. “I don’t need toys anymore.”
We smiled at each other, and his smile looked the same as it always had. “May I?” I asked with feigned politeness, as if I were asking to see a particularly good test score from school.
I skimmed through the stack. The adventures involved a family named Mom and Dad and Alex, and the hero was a boy named Michael. The family sailed on pirate ships and traveled to other planets and fought demons and explored musty castles. Accompanying them on their journeys was a ten-year-old girl named Gabrielle who was “fond of Michael but not Alex” and “as pretty as something from a dream.” The adventures were thorough and meticulously detailed, and I felt that I lived in them, too, that the world of my son’s imagination was more real than the house and the wife and the other son, the ones whom I’d left behind.
And yet I did try once, even knowing that it was hopeless, for him and for me. “Let’s go home now, Michael,” I said. “You can take all of these things with you.”
“I don’t want to go home,” he said. He looked at the floor, watching it as if the stick figures were actually moving.
“Weren’t you happy there, Michael?” I asked, my voice breaking when I tried to say his name.
“I was happy,” he said. “But I was sad sometimes too.”
I looked into his face—so pale—and his eyes that shined like a far-off fire. “Don’t you miss us?” I asked him.
“I’m with you sometimes,” he said. “I come there. I watch you while you’re sleeping.”
I held him close again, and if I could have held him tightly enough, gotten him firmly in my arms, I might have tried to take him with me. But there was something in him that couldn’t be held or moved, and something in me that couldn’t do the moving or the holding.
“I’m sleepy,” he said, and he lay down in the corner again, in the position in which I’d found him. “Stay here with me,” he said. And then he was fast asleep.
And in a rush as I stretched out beside him I let go of all that was not in that room. I grew very tired and peaceful, and the last thought I knew before I slept was that it was better here in this world with Michael, and that no one alive out there in that other world could blame me.