Copyright © Neal Eric Yeomans
My boy. My beautiful boy.
I hold a picture of him forever in my mind. His wide face and smile. His blue eyes. The small birthmark just above his lip. His light brown hair that I would run my fingers through as we cuddled together on the couch watching dumb cartoons on the television. I would kiss his hair. Inhale his scent. He still had the smell of a new born baby.
Sometimes I can still hear his gravelly little kid voice. His laughter. I used to hear his laugh all the time after he was gone – in crowded stores, walking alone in the park – but not so much anymore. My boy has been gone for a long time.
My boy. My beautiful boy.
Only a memory now.
Ten years. Ten years gone from me.
My Robbie. My LOST BOY.
I’m laying here in bed. I’m looking up at the cracks in the ceiling. The shades are drawn in this quiet room. It’s either day or night outside. I need a drink.
The phone starts to ring.
I don’t answer right away. The phone continues its incessant ringing. I think I pick up on the fifth ring.
What? My voice is groggy.
It’s Hap on the other end. I’m not surprised. He asks me how I’m doing. He knows the significance of this day. It’s Robbie’s Day.
Fine. I tell him things are fine as I drink straight from the wine bottle on my nightstand. I have a terrible migraine. I need my pills. I want to know why Hap can’t just leave me the fuck alone. Typical small talk is made for a few excruciating minutes. He wants me to come out tonight with him and Rachel and their twins. He tells me about the fair downtown and how fun it would be for all of us to go together.
I don’t know why Hap still talks to me. We were separated about three months before Robbie disappeared. I wanted to cut ties completely after that. Hap has told me more than once (over the phone) that he still cares about me and wants me to be in a good place – emotionally and spiritually and all that other happy horse shit that he’s regurgitated from his therapist over the years. Perhaps I envy Hap for his life. He has been able to move on and start a new family. I’ve remained stagnant. I wonder how often he thinks about our son.
Please consider it, he tells me over the phone. He says it would be nice to see me. Hap’s voice sounds far away.
I don’t answer him. I hang up the phone. I smoke a cigarette in this silent room.
The morning ritual. I shower. Dress in my uniform for my shift down at Beckman’s Café where I work as a waitress. I put some makeup on and do something simple with my hair. I attempt to eat some breakfast. A piece of dry toast. Black coffee. I’m losing weight again.
Ten years. It hits me like a punch to the gut. Ten years gone.
I’m still living in this small duplex here on Summit Avenue. I never considered moving away. What if Robbie were to find his way back to me somehow and discovered that a new family now lived in this place? I still leave the outside light on for him just in case he should come in late. Last month that light burned out; it just sizzled and popped and the porch was in total blackness. I could not stand having that light out. I drove down to the hardware store immediately and bought back several more bulbs. I replaced the one outside and stashed the rest of the bulbs on a shelf in the hall closet. Relief washed over me in a great wave.
Ten years gone.
There was a time when this place was filled with police officers and reporters. Crowds formed in the street hoping to catch a glimpse of me. I was interviewed by a reporter from Action News. I broke down during the interview and we had to stop for a moment and someone had to fix my makeup. We started the interview again. I sat at the kitchen table and told my story to the camera. To the viewers watching at home.
Ten years gone.
This very day. This very moment Robbie and I were getting ready to leave the house. I needed to buy a new lamp at the mall. It was my weekend with Robbie. This was the day everything was to change. It was mid-morning. The calm before the storm. My life would forever be divided in two halves. Before and After. Nothing has been the same since that spring day.
Can we get pizza for lunch? Robbie asked me.
I was searching for my car keys. I lost them. I was always losing something.
We’ll see, I told him as I felt inside the crevasses of the couch. I eventually found the keys. Along with some change. I stuffed the keys in the pockets of my jeans. I gave the pennies to Robbie. He was all excited.
Can we go the gumball machine? Can we go to the gumball machine? He was jumping up and down.
Yes, yes. We’ll go to the gumball machine.
I still have a flyer from that terrible time. My boy’s smiling face stared back at people from storefront windows and on telephone poles for over several months. I pasted that flyer into the scrapbook along with the rest of Robbie’s pictures that I had taken over the years.
It read like this:
Robert “Robbie” Mitchell
6 yrs. old
Blonde Hair, Blue Eyes
Wearing Green Jacket, Blue Jeans, Sneakers
Last Scene at Spencer’s Department Store
May 12, 2007
Spencer’s Department Store. That’s where this nightmare started. The place isn’t there anymore. It went bankrupt about three years ago. I read online that the building was demolished. I’m not sure what stands there now. I never went back after that day.
It was a typical mall crowded Saturday afternoon. A Motown Jazz number – something smooth with a saxophone – was playing over the airwaves. Robbie hung at my side as we went down the Lysol smelling aisles, circling the store like mice in a maze.
I hardly paid any attention to the people we passed. An elderly couple was buying cat food. There was a group of teenage boys goofing off over in the electronics section. A salesgirl was hanging up bathing suits on a display rack. In AISLE 3/HOME ACCESSORIES I found what I was looking for. There it was. A perfect bedside table lamp. I had broken the last one. I told myself that I just bumped into it on my way to the bathroom the other night. That was kind of true. Except for one little detail. I might have been drunk and I might have purposefully thrown the lamp after stubbing my toe on the table leg. I held the new lamp tight, feeling somewhat embarrassed by the way I sometimes let my drinking get the better of me.
Robbie was tugging lightly at my shirt. Mom?
I was looking for a price tag on the lamp.
What is it?
He pointed to the gumball machine over by the doors. Can I go over there…please?
I noticed that there were no lines at the service desk. The silver-haired lady working the counter could probably help me with a price check on the lamp.
Okay. Go over there and get what you want. Don’t move from that spot. I’ll be over in a minute.
He ran off, a little kid without a care in the world.
I went up to the service desk. The silver-haired lady smiled at me. She had several rings on her thin fingers. I told her about the lamp. She took it from me, scanned it, and punched a few keys on her computer. I looked over at Robbie putting his pennies into the gumball machine. The silver-haired cashier told me that the lamp was on sale for just over nine bucks. I thanked her and she asked me if I wanted her to ring me out. I said yes, thank you. I had no other shopping to do that day.
Robbie was gone. That moment is forever etched in my memory.
I didn’t register his disappearance right away. I looked around. Dumbly confused. He was here. He was right here. My heart was pounding rapidly in my chest.
I called his name. ROBBIE! ROBERT MITCHELL!
There was panic in my voice. People continued with their shopping.
I let the lamp fall from my hand where it broke on the linoleum floor.
I went down random aisles. He just wandered off. He just wandered off. Please let that be it. Be alright Robbie. I promise I won’t be angry. We don’t even have to tell Daddy.
I tried to stay calm, to reassure myself that he was somewhere around here. Fear won out. My throat had gone dry. A coldness had settled around my heart. I started to scream.
Beckman’s Café. The lunch crowd. I’m grateful for my shift today. It is a chance to break free from the prison of my mind. For a little while.
I go through the motions – taking orders, bringing out drinks, cleaning tables – like it is second nature to me. I suppose it is by this point. I’ve worked at this place for the last five years. No one here at Beckman’s knows my story. No one knows about my Lost Boy.
I’m wiping down Table #3 (four elderly ladies had just finished up their chicken salad sandwiches) when Amy comes up to me. She’s a nice kid, a typical twenty-year-old paying her way through college with a part time job here and at Starbucks. I like her. She tells me that the man sitting at the bar wants me to take his order. Amy says that the guy is a cop.
Detective Michael O’Connor is a frail-looking man. His rumpled trench-coat hangs on his body like a second skin. He is writing in his small notebook.
I come up to him. He gives me a weary smile. I notice that his blue eyes are sunk deep in his skull. He looks older than his sixty years. The last decade has aged both of us.
Hello, Valerie. It’s nice to see you again.
I take a pad from the pockets of my apron. What will it be this year?
O’Connor doesn’t even have to look at the menu. The usual. Number 14.
I knew it. We’ve done this routine many times before. A hot pastrami sandwich. You want that on marble rye?
Do you even have to ask anymore?
I tear off the piece of paper and put it on the ticket wheel. Frankie, our short order cook in the back, has several orders ahead of him. I sit on the empty stool next to O’Connor.
Eli brings over a Coke. O’Connor waits until he walks away to tend to another customer before responding to my question. Nothing.
The news shouldn’t come as a blow to me anymore but it does. Whatever happened with the Bianchi lead?
Patrick Alan Bianchi had been in the national spotlight for the last year. He was a drifter who had been crisscrossing the country murdering strangers at random. He confessed to sixty murders over the last ten years. Bianchi had also done time in a prison in upstate New York for child pornography back in the late-1990s. At the time of his arrest in the summer of 2016, O’Connor wanted to question Bianchi about Robbie’s disappearance because he had learned that Bianchi had been traveling up this way during that time. He was the best lead we had going for us. The monster had been caught.
It’s fizzled out, Val. I’m sorry. Bianchi isn’t tied to your son at all. We’ve corroborated evidence that he was actually down in Florida at the time Robbie went missing.
I was picking at one of my cuticles. I wanted to cry. But I didn’t. The years have turned me into stone. Where does that leave us now?
It’s still an active case. Our department will continue to follow every lead no matter how promising or small it may seem. No one is giving up on your boy, Valerie. I made that promise to you a long time ago.
I couldn’t say anymore. A family comes in just then. I watch them. A father. A mother. Their little boy. Amy escorts the happy family right past us to their booth in the corner.
I look back at O’Connor. I feel angry. Well, is there anything else you want to tell me?
He looks at me gravely. Yes. As a matter of fact, there is. I’m going to be retiring at the end of this year. Now Robbie’s case isn’t going anywhere, Val. All active cases will be transferred internally and be given the proper attention. I wanted you to know all of this before reading about it in the papers.
I watch the family sitting over in the corner. The little boy is laughing at something his Daddy just said. The family doesn’t notice me.
So, you’re all done?
Forty years on the force. Out with the old, in with the new. That’s the old saying, right? It’s okay, though. It’s time. I wasn’t going to be there forever.
Two high school students enter the cafe. A boy. A girl. Kids on a date most likely. They are waiting to be seated.
I get off the bar stool. I say goodbye to O’Connor and go back to work.
The Spring Festival was put on every year by the town of West Allenton. It was a three-day event (Friday through Sunday) and people came from all over the Rhode Island area to have a good time. There was the Ferris Wheel, the Tilt-A-Whirl, the dunk tank, and games all set up by the Healey Brothers. There was a striped tent where you could get your face painted and then go have a corndog or some stale popcorn. There was the petting zoo where the kids liked to feed the goats and the sheep and hold the baby chickens. Local bands played on stage every night. All over the place there was a pungent smell of fried food and animal shit. I took Robbie one year. He loved every minute of it. We got our picture taken in the photo booth.
After my shift at Beckman’s, I reluctantly got into my small car and drove over to the fairgrounds. Hap had texted me about an hour before my shift ended asking if I still felt up to the festival. I wrote back a simple yes. What I really wanted was to just go home, take off all my clothes, crawl under the covers, and sleep for days. I take a nip from the bottle of vodka that I had stashed in the glove compartment as I drive down the road.
The dirt parking lot at the fairgrounds is packed tonight. I park next to an old Jeep Cherokee with Massachusetts plates. Another tourist. I park and get out of the car. I can hear country music and kids screaming with delight. The Ferris Wheel towers above the trees and the black sky is full of stars.
I see Hap and Rachel and their girls standing in line with everyone else. I swallow the lump in my throat and walk over to join them.
Hap greets me with an awkward hug. I say hello to Rachel. She gives me a wan smile and pulls her girls – Emily and Sarah – a little closer to her. It was a subtle gesture, but I noticed it right away. Rachel knows all about me. She thinks I’m cursed in some way; I can see it written on her face.
The line is slow moving. Hap tells me how swamped with work he’s been this semester – he teaches English Literature at the local community college – and I do my best to seem interested in this conversation. I smile at the girls and ask them how they’re doing. Emily and Sarah are uneasy around me. Rachel says that she and Hap are taking the girls to Disneyland this summer.
The line begins to move again. A teenage boy with shaggy red hair and acne scars on his neck takes our money when we get up to the ticket booth. My heart is racing; my palms are sweaty. I think I’ve developed a phobia over time for certain places where many people congregate. I stuff my hands in the pockets of my jacket.
Kids are everywhere. That smell of animal shit and hot dogs intensifies. Voices and shouts come from every direction. STEP RIGHT UP AND WIN A PRIZE! DON’T BE SHY! DON’T BE SHY! Every game booth is occupied. Clowns walk around giving out balloons. The Tilt-A-Whirl is spinning crazily. For a brief, fleeting moment I consider running back to the car. I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t want to be here.
Hap is looking at me. He’s waiting for me to say something. He had asked a question I hadn’t caught. Rachel and the girls have gone on ahead of us. They are getting cotton candy.
I asked, how are you?
I’ve perfected this response over the years, especially when it comes to Hap or my own mother. It’s what everyone wants to hear. Fine. I’m still working down at Beckman’s. Manny finally gave me those full-time hours that I kept hassling him about. You guys should come down sometime for lunch or dinner. We totally revamped the menu.
Hap stops walking. His blue eyes are intense behind his glasses. That’s not what I meant, Valerie. I mean how are you really?
I don’t answer right away. I’m looking at his family. Emily and Sarah are all giddy as Rachel hands them their cotton candy. It was a lifetime ago that my Robbie was their age. How old are your girls now?
Hap looks at his children wistfully. Four now. It’s crazy.
Standing amongst this jubilant atmosphere with my anxiety rising, I finally ask the question that has been on my mind for a while now. Do you still think about Robbie?
All the time.
Do I hear a crack in his voice? Do I see a tear in his eye?
Rachel and the kids come back up to us. The girls want to go on the bumper cars. They won’t stop nagging me about it. Hap, you take Emily and I’ll go with Sarah.
A barrier had just come down between me and Hap. He looks at me, his expression carefully set. Go ahead, I tell him. I’m just a tag along. Have fun with your kids. I’ll wait for you guys.
I’m walking amongst the crowd when I hear Robbie’s laugh. I suddenly stop. A woman – frizzy red hair, pulling her crying toddler by the hand – goes around me with a look of annoyance on her face. I’m paralyzed with shock. What I had heard had been Robbie’s laugh. I’m sure of it.
I look out at the ever-changing crowd moving around me. That’s when I see Robbie. Blue jeans. Sneakers. That green jacket. Only a flash of him in the mass of people. Could I really be seeing this?
I start to move through this sea of people. I keep the boy (ROBBIE! ROBBIE!) in my sight.
I’m getting closer and closer. Things are moving in slow motion like in the movies. I reach out and grab the boy’s arm. I’ve found him. I have finally found my Robbie.
The boy looks up at me with these wide green eyes. I’ve startled him.
What gives lady?
He’s a little punk. No more than twelve years old. He’s too young to be my Robbie.
I’m sorry. I’m very sorry.
He looks at me like I’m nuts or something and continues over to the Ferris Wheel.
I stand defeated. Drained. Tears sting my cheeks. The crowds of people continue to flow past me.
I am sitting on a bench. The fairgrounds are closing down all around me. I’m shaking a little as I smoke a cigarette. The lights of the Ferris Wheel have gone off.
I’m exhausted. I feel like I’m losing my mind.
Hap and Rachel come up to me. I’ve nearly forgotten about them. Hap carries a sleeping Emily in his arms. Sarah holds a big stuffed dog to her chest.
There you are, says Hap. The kids are beat. Where were you?
I don’t say anything. A man wheels a big trash can around. Happy families walk back to the parking lot.
Valerie, are you alright?
I look up at Hap. Something occurs to me just now looking at my ex-husband standing in front of me with his new family. This man doesn’t know shit. He doesn’t know me.
Fine, I say. Things are fine.
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