Age: 15, Grade: 10
School Name: Spence School, New York, NY
Educator: Alexandra Cohl
Category: Short Story
“I’m confident he’s still somewhere in the area, ma’am. We’ve searched the place where he was last reported to be seen and have found evidence that strongly suggests he is still alive.”
“But where is he? Where is my son?”
“We don’t know at the moment, ma’am. However, we can be certain that––––”
Today Aunt Elise pulled up in her bright blue Cadillac and helped Mom and Dad clean out the shed where you once slept. Three years ago she drove you to our house and we stayed in the yard and converted the shed into a hideout and called it a treehouse even though there was no tree––––there are none around here able to support the weight of any house you would build on top of it. The branches would just snap, the same way your legs did all funny when you smashed into the sidewalk after you fell from an oak right outside our house. (That’s how we knew the trees weren’t strong enough.) Your limbs looked all weird and bent that day and you cried and your mother picked you up in her blue Cadillac and drove you to the hospital five miles from here, cigarette in hand. Aunt Elise used to be a heavy smoker. Before then I thought you were invincible––––I thought boys didn’t cry until your brother Emmanuel did when he started spending all day every day just looking for you and couldn’t find you anywhere.
It’s been two months and your disappearance is in the process of being preserved like a leaf pressed between the pages of a dictionary. (Your straw-brown hair is immortalized in the “Lost Child” posters Aunt Elise nailed to everyone’s front door.) Mothers use it as a cheap fable to scold their children, and the people in town use it for gossip, savoring it like wine. They whisper in a hushed frenzy about a boy who went missing after he decided to take a walk in the woods.
Lately people have also made a habit of showing up on our front porch offering condolences and bouquets of flowers and trying to say something, anything, to fill the space you left behind. The problem is that they don’t know the shape of the void they’re trying to fill so nothing they say comes out right. (You’re also allergic to the flowers but they don’t know that.) They don’t think you’re coming back, or even that you’re alive. They say things like, you have our thoughts and prayers. They say, it is very tragic.
“Hey, Chris, did you hear about that kid who disappeared a while back?
“Yeah, Fido or something, right? Heard the trail went cold, though. Doesn’t seem like he’s going to be back anytime soon.”
“Wait, no, Fido doesn’t sound right, I don’t think that’s what––––”
When we were taking down the rest of the shed this morning Dad and Aunt Elise found a photo album filled with pictures of your ninth birthday. We had bought chocolate cupcakes with blue frosting from the local bakery, and two years ago today you ate three of them and your tongue was stained purple for the rest of the afternoon and Aunt Elise didn’t let you eat any sweets for a week. Afterwards we went fishing and caught a crab the size of your entire hand––––the moment was captured with a faded photograph of you holding it up triumphantly, a striped birthday hat sticking out from the field of dried brown straw growing from your head that masqueraded as hair. I took the photo, a three by four the size of a heart, and tucked it into my pocket for safekeeping. You’ll want it when you get back.
Sorry I haven’t written to you for so long. Lately Mom and Dad and I have been busy with visiting your mother as often as we can and offering our condolences. (She went back to her house on the street corner to get some rest.) We also make sure to get her something from the bakery at least once every week, a small indulgence––––Aunt Elise loves sweet things. But I think you might be feeling a bit lonely without my letters, wherever you are, and I just wanted to make sure you know that things are okay back home. Emmanuel and Maria took down the last of the shed to let Aunt Elise catch up on sleep and now the backyard seems very quiet, even though that can’t be true because unoccupied sheds don’t make noise. But something about the yard seems oddly silent.
Aunt Elise left her Cadillac in our driveway and Mom and Dad aren’t sure what to do with it. Remember when we painted it? It used to be darker and a lot shinier but then she scratched it by the intersection and drove it, peeled paint and all, all the way back to our house. We asked her if we could help repaint it, and Mom and Dad agreed too since it was cheaper than getting it done at a shop. The only problem was that we couldn’t find the same shade of blue as it was before so we had to paint the entire car, but she said that was okay––––she had never liked the old color anyways and, according to her, a fresh coat was just what it needed. I mixed the paint and you used it to cover the car everywhere except the windows, so by the end of the day, we had finished the job and ended up exhausted, and Aunt Elise’s Cadillac ended up almost the same color as the sky, a bright, scratchy cornflower blue baking underneath a sunny-side up sun. It dried quickly in the heat of last year’s summer. Nowadays I sometimes walk past and see it rusting on the street corner, the orange rust and blue paint mixing together to make the entire car the color of a nasty bruise.
I just wanted to tell you that you are loved back home. I still feel bad for not writing to you for a month so hopefully writing two days in a row will make it up. I was reminded about writing to you three days ago because of a dream I had earlier this week. You rode Aunt Elise’s car to our house and stood right outside our front porch, the summer air shimmering around you like a mirage, half in reality. I beckoned to you to come closer but you wouldn’t respond, staring at the house in confused disbelief, and when I tried to walk over to you the distance between us didn’t seem to grow or shrink at all, like we were somehow being kept apart by an invisible boundary which had been drawn between the sunny sidewalk and our front porch, dividing them into two different worlds. The shed had also somehow resurrected in our yard and was painted an astonishing shade of blue.
Lately Aunt Elise has been walking to our house every day at noon and sitting on the front porch to smoke. She has long fingers and knows how to hold a cigarette. (Once I went to your house and you told me Aunt Elise learned how to smoke from your father, the penny-pinching one living overseas who has balding hair and a tiny, tiny nose.) The ash is clogging Aunt Elise’s breath and sucking the color from the bright blue in the sky which is reflected in her car and her eyes––––your mother’s eyes are usually the color of rain but lately they have begun withering away like flowers on saltwater. A collection of crushed cigarette butts is growing and growing on the front steps.
“Look, Elise, you gotta stop and do something else in your life. You’re just wasting your time.”
“Wasting my time trying to look for my lost son?”
“Well, it’s not like trying to give yourself cancer will help bring him home! Plus, you know that wasn’t what I meant. I’m just saying this for your own––––”
Every day the face printed on the “Lost Child” posters we nailed onto everyone’s front doors fades a little more. Aunt Elise put them out the day after you got lost and I doubt that anyone would be able to recognize you from them now. The buzz of gossip in the town is slowly dying down to a quiet, uneasy murmur. Emmanuel has gotten sick from searching for you and spends his time reassuring Aunt Elise that he’s okay, who spends her time believing him a little too much––––your mother already has another son to worry about. He is instead being nursed by Maria. Between waiting tiredly for a sign of you and waiting for Emmanuel to recover the air has been breathed and rebreathed so many times it has gone stale. Our street has never been so quiet.
Just in case you aren’t going to be back in time for us to meet again, in this letter I’m going to say goodbye. I realized I didn’t ever get the chance to properly say it, but really it’s because I didn’t know that I was never going to see you again. I’ve already worked something out in my head but since you only deserve the best goodbye I’m going to work on it some more before I write it to you for real and make it a proper one. Besides, those people who think you’re not coming back can’t know for certain. They can’t see until the end of time, Fiachra, so they don’t know what they’re talking about. They talk about you as if they know everything. As if you were already dead.
The sun looks like a white button stitched to the sky today. I hope it’s a little bit warmer wherever you are––––fighting dragons, rescuing beautiful princesses, slaying monsters. I know you must be very busy with your own adventures, but when it’s all over remember me and your brother and Maria, and please make sure to tell your mother that you are well. Aunt Elise has been getting very worried and Emmanuel is still sick and always angry. The blue Cadillac is growing old rusting outside on the street corner, looking like a big, blue bruise.