“Here. We’ve got to get some sleep.” Bob hands his wife a pill and takes one himself.
Elaine pretends to put it in her mouth.
After Bob begins snoring, Elaine slips out of bed and goes downstairs to an end table by the sofa. She moves a framed photograph aside, remeasures the table, then breathes a sigh of relief and returns the picture to the piece of blue painter’s tape. She starts to go back to bed, but notices the lamp on the other end table, a vase on the mantle, knickknacks — all out of place. Elaine begins to panic knowing it’s the same throughout the house….
…She’s adjusting the strips of tape that mark where the plates, cups, and utensils should go on the table as dawn breaks, and Bob comes into the kitchen.
“You’re up early.” Bob turns on the coffee maker and looks out the window. “Tulips.”
“Not hungry.” Bob turns toward his wife. “Elaine, I still don’t understand why you weren’t at the bus stop.”
Elaine reaches into the cupboard. “I told you. I thought it’d be OK now. I thought we agreed.”
“I just don’t remember that.” Bob sits at the table. “What’s with all this blue tape?”
Elaine shakes her head and sets two cups on their marks.
“Fran, is Steven over there with Jimmy?”
“Hi, Elaine. No, Stevie’s not here. James is playing video games. Is something wrong?”
“No, I’m sure not. It’s just that Steven hasn’t come home yet. I called Mrs. Kurtman, and she said she saw him get on the bus. Could you check with Jimmy?” …
… “Elaine, James says Stevie was on the bus and got off. But since the stop is right in front of our house, he didn’t see where — You didn’t meet him?”
“Well, the days are longer now. It’s just two blocks.”
“He must be with one of his other buddies. I’m sure he’ll be home soon. You know how they get toward the end of the school year.”
“Yes, yes, I’m sure it’s ok.”
“Another scorcher. Guess I’ll water the grass. Dog days of summer…” Bob’s voice trails off.
A scorcher. Khaki cargo shorts, red tee shirt, black sneakers.
Bob takes a sip of lemonade then sets his glass down a couple inches left of its blue tape.
Elaine quietly moans. “Bob, please.”
Bob looks at his wife, then down at the table. “Sorry.” He puts his glass on the tape. “I still don’t understand —“
“It helps, Bob. OK?” She glances at a ripening tomato centered on the window sill.
After talking to Fran, Elaine slowly walks the two blocks from her house to the school bus stop. Returning home, she starts watching her feet. Step on a crack never get him back, she says to herself over and over. By the time she arrives at their front porch, she’s in a cold sweat, heart racing, ears ringing. Feeling like the spinning earth is going to fling her off, she holds the door handle tightly, takes a few deep breaths, then goes inside.
She heads toward the kitchen to get a glass of water. On the way, she passes a small picture of her son and moves it more toward the middle of the end table.
A moment later, she returns and repositions the picture slightly.
Shortly after that she comes back again with a measure and blue tape.
“Thirteen. Five feet, three inches. One hundred ten pounds. Khaki cargo shorts, red tee shirt, black sneakers.” The detective mumbles to himself as he writes in his pad. “Do you have a recent photo we can have?”
Bob removes a picture of his son from his wallet. “Took this last week. We …” His voice trails off.
“Thank you, Mr. Wallis. Mrs. Wallis, you say the last time you saw,” the detective looks at his note pad, “Steven, was when he left to catch the bus for school yesterday?”
“Yes, but his teacher, Mrs. Kurtman, saw him get on the bus to come home. And his friend Jimmy saw Steven get off at our stop.”
“You didn’t meet him?” The detective writes in his pad.
“I…we thought…There’s enough daylight now.”
As soon as the detective leaves, Elaine goes to the end table and fidgets with the picture of Steven.
“I need to take a break,” Elaine says to her husband and drops her rake beside the large pile of leaves. She goes inside, remeasures the end table, and nudges her son’s picture with her finger.
The little girl storms out of the house and stomps her foot on the sidewalk again and again. Step on a crack, break her back. Step on a crack, break her back.
“ ‘Lainie, Sweety.” Her father puts his hands on her shoulders, then gently caresses her arms. “It wasn’t your fault. Your silly little game had nothing to do with it. The driver of the other car was …” His voice breaks. “Your mother loved you very much. She knew you loved her, too.”
“Looks like it could snow,” Bob says at breakfast.
Elaine nods, takes a sip of coffee, and returns her cup to its place. Khaki cargo shorts, red tee shirt, black sneakers. Please don’t snow.
She puts her and her husband’s plates in the dishwasher, her son’s back in the cabinet.
Elaine cries out. Steven’s picture is off to the side of the end table. The room begins to spin. She lays on the sofa and goes through her breathing and relaxation exercises. After several minutes, she gets up and sets the photo back on the blue tape.
“I swear, Elaine. I didn’t move his picture. I wouldn’t.” Bob hugs his wife. She stands with her arms at her sides. “I was wrong to say it was your fault in the beginning. I was just in shock back then. What happened had nothing to do with you. You have to stop blaming yourself.”
The next day, Elaine finds the photograph out of place again.
“I believe you, Bob. Steven moved it. It’s a message from him. He’s telling us he’s OK, that he’s coming home. Don’t you see how wonderful?” Bob stares at her and slowly sinks to his knees. Elaine sits on the floor beside him and rubs his shoulders then gently caresses his arms. “It’s a message,” she says.
Four miles over, four up, four down. Go around the hole in the sidewalk, Steven. Four miles — too far away for a little boy’s bus stop. “Elaine.” Don’t you know they’ve seen wolves on our street? He was wearing khaki cargo shorts, red tee shirt, black sneakers. He was wearing his cap and gown. “Elaine.” His wedding tuxedo. Walking hand in hand with my grandson. Turn around so I can see your face, Sweetie. — “Elaine.” She wakes up. Bob is gently shaking her by the shoulders, whispering in her ear. She’s down in the front room, standing at the end table, her son’s picture to the side of the table and still in her hand.
Elaine goes into the kitchen and makes coffee as dawn slants through the window. Inhaling the dark-roasted aroma, she traces a finger along the strips of blue on the table. Then, taking a deep breath, she peels one off. It’s a start.
Banner Image: Pixabay.com