For Peter, the end of civilization begins quietly with the disappearance of his mother. At the police station he learns that thousands of others have gone mysteriously missing overnight, and that tens of millions more are vanishing daily across the globe. Without explanation humanity finds itself facing its final year on the planet, and it is only then that Peter falls in love.
Her name is Sophia, and though both are haunted by loss they find in each other a passion that is as real as it is worth fighting for. As the government buckles and then collapses, as the darkest registers of human nature are sounded and a brutal demagogue rises to lead a reign of terror, they strive to find meaning and purpose in a world that is bereft of all certainties but one: that they too are fated to disappear.
In the kitchen the kettle was singing. The sound was thin and desperate and when Peter became aware of it he realized that he was unsure for how long it had been sounding. His fingers paused, hovering over the keyboard, and he cocked his head to one side, listening to the ongoing shriek of steam. His train of thought which had but moments ago been so urgent was now irrevocably broken, and with irritation he realized that he had forgotten what he had been about to write next.
“Mother,” he called. “Mother get the kettle already,” but there was no sound of shuffling feet and the thready song of the kettle continued. Peter straightened, sighed, dropped his hands to his thighs and looked up at the wall, staring blankly through it as a wave of irritation washed over him.
“Mother,” he called again, but with the continued absence of a response his irritation was replaced by fear and he stood, already imagining the worst. She’s had an attack of some kind, he thought, leaving his bedroom with long and urgent strides, a reaction to the medication.
Their apartment was small and well-lit and Peter saw that she was neither in the tiny kitchen where the kettle screamed nor in the small living room beyond, where the clear sunlight of late afternoon streamed in through the vertical plastic blinds and cast a white glow over the old but well-loved furniture.
“Mother,” he yelled, hoping that she would suddenly step into view, making a face at the ruckus he was causing, telling him to quiet down she had only been in the bathroom, couldn’t a lady take care of herself without his starting a riot? But she didn’t appear, and he turned back to the small hall and checked the bathroom door, hoping for it to be locked but it wasn’t and the bathroom was dark and empty. Another step and he looked into her bedroom but she wasn’t there either and he turned around, real panic beginning to flutter in his chest.
Stay calm, he told himself, think. Once again the sound of the kettle impinged on his thoughts, and with a scowl he strode into the kitchen and shoved it off the stove top, killing the heat so that even as he watched the cherry red circle upon which it had rested darkened to crimson and then burgundy and then faded into the scuffed gray of the stove’s smooth surface. The kettle’s song immediately grew weaker and he stared at its bright sunflower yellow surface as it gasped and then finally died. The silence was worse than the sound of the steam escaping and he almost returned it to the heat, but that would be irrational, he decided, he had to think.
She had probably stepped out into the hall, gone downstairs to the lobby in a stubborn show of independence to check for the mail, forgetting that the mailman had already come that morning. He went to their front door, saw that the locks were all locked from the inside, which they shouldn’t be if she had let herself out for a moment, no need to lock up completely with him still inside, but perhaps she was growing paranoid, the neighborhood was not what it had been, so he let himself out and began to descend the stairwell to the lobby below.
An old man was making his way laboriously up the stairs, taking one step at a time, planting his walking cane above him and then with the help of the balustrade levering his whole body up one step closer to the first floor.
“Mr. Parkin have you seen my mother?” asked Peter, and the older man paused as if confused to look up at him with blank incomprehension. Peter was about to repeat himself when he saw Mr. Parkin slowly shake his head.
“No I have not. Why, has she gone missing?”
Peter didn’t answer and instead slipped by the older gentleman who turned carefully to track his descent, the lack of an answer troubling him more than the pallid color of Peter’s face and watched him run down into the checker-floored lobby and pause, looking about before opting for the front door and leaving his line of sight.
Outside the sunshine came down through the thin canopy of the trees that lined the narrow street, casting splashes of pale gold across the pavement. Peter paused, eager to begin running in some direction but uncertain as to which way to go. He looked up and down the street, tried to spot the familiar figure of his mother, the golden hair of her wig so similar to what her own hair had resembled but a year ago. There was no sight of her, though for long seconds he continued to study the spaces between parked cars, the distant corners where their narrow street intersected with a broader avenue. No sight of her and after all why would she have gone that far, for what reason would she have taken off without a word as if she were a prisoner making a break for it right under the nose of an inattentive guard?
Disconsolate, Peter saw that her car was still parked across the street where he had left it the night before, an older model Mercedes-Benz. She had not been capable of driving it for some months now. Growing frantic he turned back and let himself into the building, taking the steps two at a time so that he gained the first floor before Mr. Parkin—who still labored up the steps—managed to take another step himself. Down the hall he rushed into the apartment, the door having been left wide open, and then he stopped, moved slowly across the hall and living room to the balcony door that opened to the central courtyard. Could she have jumped? He saw her vividly in his mind’s eye, his imagination always ready to supply him with the worst and most morbid of possibilities. It was a short fall but sufficient for somebody to kill themselves if they were determined about it. He opened the door and stepped onto the small balcony which was crowded with boxes of herbs, a small and aromatic jungle that had always been his mother’s true domain. Nothing appeared to be disturbed, none of the window boxes had been knocked off the balcony’s edge, but still he paused, closing his eyes to gain strength before peering over the railing at the courtyard below.
The courtyard was of course empty and he felt immediately a sense of relief, embarrassment, and a subsequent increase in fear. Where was she? he asked himself, turning to regard the small apartment, a place that had always seemed a corner of intimacy, love, and security but was rapidly gaining a strange and oppressive air of menace. Never before had the furnishings, the small rooms, and the very air of the apartment seemed so indifferent to him, inimical to his desires.
Not knowing what else to do Peter took up the house telephone, thankful that his mother had insisted on keeping a land line despite his buying her a cell phone shortly after he arrived to take care of her, and dialed 911. The phone rang and continued to ring past all measure of reason. Peter thought, If I were being attacked by an intruder I would have died long before somebody answered, this is ridiculous. Had he any other course of action he would have hung up, but not knowing what else to do he hung on, staring at the bright yellow kettle, the last indication of his mother’s presence in the apartment.
“What is the nature of your emergency?” asked a voice.
“My mother has disappeared.”
“Do you mean she’s gone missing?”
“Yes, she seems to have vanished.”
“Is there a difference?”
“She’s sick you see, she can’t move around very well but she seems to have disappeared completely.”
“When did you last see her?”
“About fifteen minutes ago she said she was going to make tea and put the kettle on and now I can’t find her.”
“I’m sorry but did you say fifteen minutes?”
“Well it’s possible she might have stepped out, why don’t you wait a little longer?”
“I know it sounds silly but she’s sick, she can’t have disappeared, she never leaves the apartment.”
“Sir, you can come down to the station and file a missing person report but I’d recommend you wait a little longer.”
“Fine, thank you.”
“Not a problem, goodbye.”
The woman’s advice made sense, but did nothing to reassure him. Instead he picked up the phone again and dialed his aunt.
“Mother’s gone missing.”
“What do you mean missing?”
“I mean she’s vanished.”
“Yes, yes, that’s what I said, she’s vanished, gone and done a disappearing trick that would do David Copperfield proud.”
“All right, calm down, she can’t have vanished.”
“I checked the street, the lobby, the bathroom, even the courtyard but she’s nowhere at all.” Peter ran his hand through his hair. “Did she say anything to you the last time you talked, did she mention any plans to go anywhere?”
“No, nothing like that, that wouldn’t make any sense given her condition.”
“I know, but what else am I to think?”
“Look, you don’t sound too good, I’m coming over.”
“Okay, that might be a good idea.” When he hung up he set the phone down carefully and decided he might as well be thorough about the situation.
Moving into the kitchen he scrutinized the countertops, saw that two mugs had been set out, each with a tea bag lying within it along with a stick of cinnamon. The cupboard door was open but his mother hadn’t taken down the sugar or the box of chocolate biscuits she loved and neither had she taken out the small silver spoons to stir with. There was nothing on the floor, no sign of spillage or indication that she might have fallen, sweeping something down as she went, so he drifted out of the kitchen into the living room and stared at her armchair, the place she spent most of her day draped in a blanket, saw that her book was resting open and face down on the arm, that the blanket had been folded back and left neatly piled on the footrest.
From there he tracked into the bathroom, feeling faintly ridiculous and proud of himself at the same time as he checked the sink and found it dry, the toilet bowl empty, her toothbrush similarly dry and untouched. Not sure what he was seeking to prove but unwilling to remain still he then went into her bedroom, stopped in the doorway and dragged his gaze slowly across the bed, observing the neatly made covers and the abundance of useless decorative pillows, the nightstand with her silver hairbrushes laid out, the dresser and photographs of all their family members and closest friends crowding the wall, looking down with blind smiles and sightless eyes.
What did detectives search for, what would Sherlock Holmes do in such a situation? Peter stood still and realized that he was listening, waiting for the shuffling step of his mother as she moved from one spot to another, a sound he had grown used to like the touch of clothing on one’s skin, so constant and gentle that eventually one tuned it out. The silence was unnatural, strange, for though his mother was generally quiet and not given to drawing attention to herself the apartment now had a dead and empty feel to it, the silence indicative of absence in a novel and unwelcome manner.
Returning to the kitchen he took up the kettle and poured water first into his own large red mug and then into his mother’s own blue and white china one. It was a gentle act of protest, a denial that felt at once futile and necessary, and he finished drawing down the objects that completed their customary ritual of tea time, setting sugar, stirring spoons, and the biscuits on their own special plate. He took them all out to the living room coffee table and set them down where they had their tea every day. Once seated he stared at the assembled mugs and plates and fell still, hands in his lap, and it was in this posture that his aunt found him when she let herself in, tears running down his face as he stared at the empty armchair that for the past year had held his mother’s frame as it grew ever more gaunt and unrecognizable until now it seemed to have swallowed her altogether and she was finally and irrevocably gone.
As if she did not believe in his abilities to search the apartment properly his aunt immediately set about entering each room while calling her sister’s name in a loud assertive voice, a no-nonsense call that seemed to imply by its brassy and stern tone that the game had gone on for long enough and it was now time for everybody to behave as adults and for her to appear. His aunt checked each room twice, trying Peter’s patience but he still had no better suggestion so he forced himself to wait in the kitchen, holding his mug of tea which he had finally begun to drink, his aunt’s appearance restoring his ability to act as if she had wound a key in his back and set him moving once more.
When his aunt joined him in the living room he could tell that she was doing her best not to appear flustered, determined as he had been to discover the rational explanation or at least to attempt a sane course of action in resolving this increasingly frightening puzzle.
“Does she have any friends in the building she might have gone to visit?” asked his aunt and Peter set his mug down, suddenly buoyed by this idea.
“No, not that I know of, she never really speaks to the others much, you know how she is.”
“But still, it’s possible.”
“Then let’s check.”
They went from door to door in the four-story building, knocking and waiting for each occupant to answer, both intent on projecting an air of casual normalcy which faded and grew more strained with each negative, whether it was a denial of having seen her or a door that failed to open altogether.
“Hi, how are you, good thank you, it’s a strange question I know but has my mother come by to visit or have you seen her within the last hour—no? Thank you all the same, no everything is fine, of course, these things happen, she’s been ill, yes, no, nothing serious, I’m sure we’ll find her in a moment, you know how these things go, thank you good evening.”
By the time they had finished the last door on the fourth floor they had been away from the apartment for at least twenty-five minutes and both were suddenly seized by the attractive idea that she might have returned while they were going from door to door, have allowed herself inside after having decided to walk to the farmer’s market perhaps and was even now wondering where Peter was, why he hadn’t left a note, pouring her cold tea into the sink and setting the kettle on to make another mug. They raced downstairs, Peter abandoning all pretense while his aunt sought to retain some measure of calm but when she entered the apartment through the front door that he had left open in his haste she found him standing alone in the living room before the empty armchair and they held each other’s gaze before he dropped his and said, “We have to go down to the police station, there is no other way about it.”
The drive was a short one but made longer by his aunt’s insistence that they loop around all the local blocks, both of them craning and peering about the streets as they slowly rolled by, searching for some sign of her. Disconcertingly enough they became aware of another car, a small, faded blue Fiat that was also circling the neighborhood with another pair of people within who were also clearly searching the streets. They passed each other once, twice, three times and on the last Peter was forced by some embarrassed sense of familiarity or at least sense of common purpose to raise his hand and wave but the driver of the other car simply stared at him blankly and drove past.
The police station was crowded but that was to be expected, it had once been an upstanding neighborhood but had since fallen on hard times such that the rate of crime had increased within the last few years, cars being burgled or stolen where they were parked at night with only a splash of broken glass on the pavement to mark where they had been, and even word of several assaults and break-ins. Not enough to precipitate flight to another neighborhood but sufficient for residents to place new locks on doors, to check their windows each night and consider installing alarm systems where previously none had been needed.
Peter parked the car a few blocks away and then together they approached the station, expressions tight and chins raised, prepared to brave the mild disbelief or outright scorn that their report might engender. Peter had already received a taste of it over the phone and little time had passed since that early skeptic had bid him wait and in so doing disagreed however politely with the urgency of his case. They entered through the broad front doors beneath the austere mantel in which had been carved lions rampant about an unfamiliar crest, a sign that the building had once belonged to a bank or other institution of august nature, a palimpsest that manifested its elegant past in such subtle touches as crown moldings along the tops of the walls and the scuffed marble floor that had not been polished for years.
The entry room was large and at first reminded Peter of the many hospital waiting rooms he had visited with his mother within the past few months as her illness had taken a more severe turn, the hard plastic chairs lining the walls beneath cork boards and posters, a large counter bifurcating the space beyond which were desks where policemen and women worked though there were not many in evidence. A tired but efficient looking woman was manning the desk, a strange term and perhaps not one that she would have appreciated but there it was, the holdovers of an older sexism were apparent in even the most innocuous of words.
His aunt asserted herself and told him that she would wait in line and that he could sit, he must be tired, worn out by the experience and for once he chose to not argue. There were few seats available, the waiting room being fairly crowded, and he selected a chair next to a slender young woman whom he did his best not to study despite her subtle attractiveness. Not having thought to bring a book and lacking the desire to search for a magazine to thumb through he simply sat still, fingers interlaced in his lap, watching his aunt as she stood in line behind five other individuals, and then allowed his gaze to drift across the assembled faces, attempting to divine from their expressions what might have brought them here.
The similarity between the emergency room at the hospital and this police station only grew more evident in that there was a layer of quiet desperation over a core of efficiency and cheerful indifference.
“What are you here for?” asked the girl beside him and he started, turning to look at her and blinking rapidly as he did so.
“I’m sorry, I’m being nosy, I’m just trying to distract myself.”
“No, please, that’s okay, I was just surprised. My mother has disappeared and I’m here to file a report.”
“Really? How strange, my brother has vanished as well.”
“Vanished or gone missing?” asked Peter, remembering the operator’s question and the girl gave an apologetic smile.
“Vanished does sound rather dramatic.”
“Actually my mother has also vanished.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry too.”
They sat still, both aware of each other but looking straight ahead, Peter searched for something to say, some way to break through the sudden silence even as he watched his aunt take another step forward and then he shook his head slightly, reproofing himself, how could he think of chatting up a girl while his mother was missing, was he really so shameless?
“My brother is seven,” said the girl. “He was in his bedroom one moment and then he was gone.” She seemed to be speaking almost more to herself than to him, her voice distracted, eyes wide as she looked at the floor.
“It doesn’t make any sense, does it,” he asked, voice low, and they met each other’s eyes, both finally recognizing a similar bafflement and desperation over what should have been an impossibility.
“No, it doesn’t make sense at all, though everybody keeps coming up with rational explanations.”
“I know what you mean,” and Peter was seized by the urge to hold her hand and squeeze it but he didn’t. “Have you already filed your report?” he asked and she shook her head.
“I’m waiting for my father to arrive, he was at work when it happened.”
“He must be very upset.”
“I mean with you, does he blame you for it?”
“No, he’s great, he’s reserving judgment.”
“I wonder if my aunt will.”
“Is that her in line?”
“Yes, oh look she’s reached the front, excuse me.”
Peter joined his aunt and stood silently by her side studying the policewoman’s face as she sat, looking across at them, her chair raised so that nobody could look down upon her, a subtle change to affect power dynamics Peter thought and turned to glance back at where the girl sat watching him. He smiled tightly, embarrassed to have been caught looking back at her when he should have been focused on the matter at hand and looked away quickly despite her sympathetic smile.
The policewoman had the rare ability to listen carefully and for the first few minutes she did so, letting his aunt explain the matter and why despite the brevity of the elapsed period of time it was urgent to find his mother due to the medications she had to take each evening, the consequences of failing to do so being disastrous. That wasn’t the case Peter knew, at this point it had become clear that the medications were failing to have any effect, and most of them were for anti-nausea and for her blood pressure anyway, treatments that she could go a day or two without taking but it was smart to imbue the situation with a sense of urgency so as to gain more attention.
The policewoman nodded and handed his aunt several forms, explaining in a brisk voice that they should fill them out while waiting to explain the situation to a police officer which would hopefully be soon, but that they were incredibly busy today, this wasn’t the first nor even the tenth disappearance being reported and that it might indeed take a while to be seen. His aunt took the paperwork, explained that she had her own pen—it never paid to leave home without it—and turned to survey the waiting room, holding the papers to her chest until she realized that there were no two chairs available next to each other. Peter remained silent, hoping she would not elect to sit next to the girl, and was relieved when she didn’t, choosing to sit as close to the desk as possible where she began to fill out the forms with an efficiency borne from having filled out numerous such over the past year as they took his mother from one medical institution to another.
Peter regained his seat and the girl looked over at him. “How did it go?”
“Nothing to report, really, just filling out some paperwork and then we’ll talk to a police officer about it.”
The girl nodded and he saw that she already had a sheaf of completed paperwork set on the small corner table beside her, her letters neat and probably quite legible should he peer a little closer but of course he chose not to, that would be taking their burgeoning familiarity a little too far.
“The policewoman said that there have been a number of disappearances already,” he said.
“I think most of the people here have actually come to file missing person reports. I suppose more people go missing each day than we realize, after all I remember reading somewhere that five hundred thousand people go missing each year.”
“Well, then perhaps we’re nothing more than part of that statistic.” Peter pursed his lips and after a moment he glanced at the girl and something in her expression, her pensive stare at the people before them indicated that she too did not believe this to be the case.
“What’s your name? Mine’s Peter.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“It’s nice to meet you too,” and then both of them smiled, amused by their observance of social niceties despite the gravity of the situation.
“This feels so surreal,” he said. “I can’t quite grasp what’s going on.”
“I know what you mean, my brother’s disappearance is so strange that I keep expecting him to call my phone and ask me when I’m coming back home.”
“Exactly, I’ve been expecting my mother to appear just as suddenly as she disappeared, but she continues to fail to do so and at some point,” he said, trailing off, his throat tightening. “I mean, where is she, people don’t just vanish, this is ridiculous.”
The girl watched him but remained silent and he was glad that she didn’t say anything meaningless as others are wont to do in such moments such as I’m sure she’ll turn up soon, or Everything will work out fine, you’ll see, instead choosing to be silent and in doing so express a solidarity that he had not found in his aunt’s brusqueness.
“There’s my father, excuse me,” said Sophia, and she stood and hurried over to a middle-aged man in a rumpled suit who had just entered through the front doors. He recognized her and walked over so as to meet her halfway, and from where he sat Peter studied their interaction, deciding that indeed the father seemed like a good guy, listening intently and then hugging the girl as her calm suddenly cracked and she began to cry. Peter watched, unable to look away, wanting to walk over and hug her as well, to wrap his arms around both of them and give as much comfort as he could, their pain after all was his own and he felt as if they shared a bond that nobody else yet understood, a bewildered pain in the face of the impossible.
Sophia’s father hugged her tight, placing one hand on the back of her head as she curled her arms against her chest and pressed her face into his shoulder, her shoulder blades shivering as she cried, and Peter looked away as her father’s eyes tracked unseeingly past him. She was lucky to have somebody to comfort her in that manner; his aunt believed firmly in action and being positive to the point of being impatient with signs of weakness or pain, demanding in the past that both he and his mother be strong and continue to fight, not understanding that grief was as much a part of survival as strength, and making Peter feel lonely even while she protested that she would always be there to help him get through this time.
Her father led Sophia to the desk, cutting to the front and leaning forward to exchange low words with the policewoman who did not seem irritated by his cutting the line. The others who were awaiting their turn similarly held their tongues, moved perhaps by the sudden raw grief that had appeared on Sophia’s face, by the manner in which she held to her father’s arm; who could blame a man for prioritizing his children over other polite considerations?
The exchange was brief and the pair of them moved to stand to one side where they continued to converse in low tones. His aunt looked over and saw that the seat next to his had vacated and quickly came over to claim it, a protest rising in Peter’s throat but he remained silent. It would be ridiculous to claim it was still taken.
“I’m almost done here, these forms are much simpler than the medical ones.”
“Yes, I’m sure the police will be able to help. They have a lot of experience with these types of problems.”
“The most important thing is that we stay positive and work at finding her; there’s no sense in going to pieces like that poor girl over there, though we shouldn’t judge, everybody approaches life in their own way.”
“Her brother has gone missing.”
“How strange, the fellow next to me over there was also filling out a Missing Person report.”
“It looks like we’re all disappearing.”
“Don’t be silly, people don’t disappear.”
“It seems that they do.” His aunt didn’t answer, simply shaking her head in disapproval and turning back to the forms, no ready answer coming to her lips.
Sophia and her father were called in, and Peter and his aunt were similarly summoned perhaps thirty minutes later. They rose and walked through a side door, Peter disappointed that he had missed Sophia’s exit, unsure of what might have transpired but wanting to see her one last time before she disappeared into the city. They were led down a hallway to a large open room where many desks stood facing each other, policemen and women working busily at their computers. The sound of industry was comforting, the click of keyboard keys, the hum of a copier somewhere, voices discussing important issues in earnest. There was no sign of Sophia and her father in the large room, so Peter sat down with his aunt before one desk of many where a policeman took their papers without comment and began to read them.
“All right,” he said, setting the papers down and leaning back. “My name is Officer Manzo, could you please begin from the beginning.” His aunt began to explain at once, not giving Peter a chance to interject, and the officer listened with what Peter thought was insufficient attention, his gaze wandering away occasionally only to snap back moments before Peter could call his attention. When his aunt finished Officer Manzo sat forward. “All right, I understand the particulars, you say she’s very ill and has been missing for several hours now. I’m sorry for your loss but we will do everything we can to help.”
“What will that involve?” asked Peter.
“First that will involve entering your information in our database and seeing if anything comes up, and then we’ll alert the force, but I’m afraid we are currently overextended and it will have to be a passive search rather than an active one.”
“That’s ridiculous, you need to search for her immediately,” said his aunt.
“I understand your concern but please, this is the fifteenth missing person report I’ve filed today, and this month has seen an incredible jump in the numbers.”
“Don’t tell me about your numbers, I want you to find my sister.”
“I promise you we will do our best.”
“This is an outrage.”
“My apologies but it is unreasonable to expect more than that which is physically possible.”
“It is outrageous for you to be so cavalier about this.”
“I can only apologize once more and in my defense say that this is the standard procedure for dealing with such matters when there is no evidence of foul play, especially when so many cases are brought to us at once. Now let us begin from the beginning—could you please describe your sister as accurately as you can?”
Evening was encroaching when Peter finally returned home after having dropped off his aunt at her apartment and promised to keep in touch and alert her as to any new developments. Rid of her determination he found himself driving home slowly, allowing his mother’s grand old Mercedes to cruise gently along with the tides of traffic, not surging forward to pass through orange lights but pausing to allow other drivers to cut in or merge, feeling nothing so much as a sense of compassion and sadness that in this twilight hour extended to encompass all of humanity, much to the advantage of other drivers except for those directly behind him who found his pace to be annoyingly sedate and consequently were not shy about honking their horns.
Though the drive was but five minutes Peter did his best to extend its length, being understandably loath to return home to the empty apartment, the plate of chocolate biscuits still set on the coffee table, the pot of sugar, the single dry stirring spoon by the now cold mug of tea. He would have to put it all away, store it since he was as a rule a tidy young man, given to order as much to please his mother as to satisfy some inner desire for neatness. Thus he drove slowly, taking alternate routes, telling himself that he was still searching though he had given up on seeing her on the street; knew on some level that he was dawdling, which on some deeper level meant a weak attempt at denial that was undercut by an awareness of its own futility.
He parked the Mercedes with fastidious care, and then walked down their narrow street, deciding to pass their building and two old men who were seated before the entrance in rickety beach chairs. He nodded to them both and averted his eyes so that they would not have an opportunity to ask after his mother, after all he had questioned them but a few hours before and it would be but polite for them to inquire. Wisdom or moroseness however prevented them from speaking so that Peter was able to exit the narrow street at its base where it let out into a small plaza and find a measure of solitude quite different from that which awaited him in the apartment.
The square was dominated by an ancient oak that grew in its center, its huge trunk scarred and pitted and cut with decades’ worth of assertions of love and cruder sentiments. Its branches were broad and expansive, so that the farthest twigs seemed to reach out and touch the buildings on all four sides of the square, blocking out the sky but for wavering patches of blue turned to dusk close by its eaves where the canopy was thinnest. Peter crossed the smooth cobbles that had been set down centuries ago, making his way to his favorite bench that was parked directly beside the oak tree’s trunk, and there he sat.
There was no traffic at this hour, and the lampposts that stood on each corner of the square had already lit up so that a soft amber glow diffused through the gloom, lighting up the underside of the branches and the leaves above. In the distance the sounds of the city came to him, the rush and susurrus of traffic, a tinny call of music from an old radio, voices raised in argument from around a corner. A city filled with people and amongst them surely somewhere his mother, it stood to reason that she had not literally vanished, that she had by some thus far unimagined means relocated herself to some other place and there sat or stood or waited and walked, living and breathing and for some reason unable or choosing not to communicate with him.
Or so he told himself. But behind this reasoned line of discourse was a strange certainty that had gripped him while waiting in the police station, that had descended upon him while speaking to Sophia, and that was that his mother was simply gone, gone in the most absolute of senses, no longer existent, disappeared as if she had combusted or fallen into a pocket dimension, gone forever and never to return. A numb certainty filled him even as he reasoned with the laws of physics, how mass could not be destroyed, how energy was a constant and she had to have gone somewhere if she was no longer here, that simply because he had no explanation did not mean there wasn’t one; after all this was a rational world built on a foundation of science and logic and such things were ultimately explainable even if they defied us in the moment.
He heard the sound of racing footsteps and looked across to where a man rounded the corner and burst into the square. The stranger staggered to a standstill and cast desperate looks about himself, searching for somebody and then seized upon Peter’s presence.
“Excuse me,” he cried. “Have you seen my boy?” Peter rose to his feet and shook his head. The man approached him, face open and beseeching. “Please, think, he’s only five, about this tall and with brown hair, his name is Tommy, have you seen him, a boy his age?”
“I’m sorry,” said Peter, and shook his head again.
The man continued to approach him, stopped when he was but a few yards away. “Please,” he said. “Please, I can’t find him, I can’t find him anywhere.”
Peter did not know what to say. Again he was seized with the same urge he had felt in the police station to step forward and place a hand on the older man’s shoulder, to break down the barriers of social propriety and tell him I understand your pain, I too have lost someone and know that I will never see them again, but the man’s grief was too raw, his pain too vivid, and Peter held back, sure that he would be cast aside should he attempt to do so, and anyway, one simply did not touch strangers, it wasn’t done.
The older man reached up and rubbed at his face as if trying to wake up, trying to snap out of this dream and claw free into a world in which his Tommy yet remained, and then dropped his hands and his shoulders slumped.
“I don’t know where he is,” he said, voice numb now. “He’s only five. Where could he have gone?”
The sound of a woman calling a block over reached them, the voice desperate and it seemed to invigorate the older man who bellowed, “Tommy, where are you?” and took off at a run, pounding away down another street, looking as if he might fall at any moment but somehow managing to keep his feet despite his erratic gait.
Peter stared after him, his heart pounding in a manner similar to the man’s pace, and when he sat down he ceased all attempts at reasoned discourse with himself. He allowed his words to fall from his mind, he who had always prided himself on his ability with language, his ability to capture any thought or sensation in a string of words, and allowed his pain to become actual fear.
For the first time, listening to the man’s crazed calls ringing off the buildings, he began to suspect that something far more encompassing and terrible was afoot, a strange certainty replacing his creeping suspicion and he listened intently, willing the man to find his son, to let out cries of joy and rapture that would dispel this impossible suspicion. But such cries never came, fading away instead so that even though silence returned it was tainted as if by a miasma of the man’s despair.
Shivering, pulling his mind back from the position it had been on the verge of adopting, not wanting to follow such thoughts further, he rose and decided to return home, to see if his mother had appeared, knowing she had not, but choosing willfully, almost blindly, to attempt to believe one last time that the world was not changing in an irrevocable, unfathomable, and terrifying manner.