This story contains depictions of a missing child.
My upper lip was oozing sweat like syrup and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Thinking that months from now, someone would interview me in jail and I’d say, “Well, I guess I remember that. Feeling sticky.” Some young journalist writing a long-form essay, hungry for these humiliating details. An editor over their shoulder like, “Don’t write ‘A child has gone missing.’ That’s too passive.”
No. I lost a kid. Active.
The chirping of my watch was beginning to sound a little accusatory, and I paused my panicked shambling. I didn’t know how to turn the birding app off; I’d just gotten it this morning, before Ash and I left the house. His mute entreaty, holding his wrist up. “Oh, you can’t get it on yours, hey bud? Never mind. I’ll put it on mine.”
I panted and dripped and surveyed the park, the tall unmoving trees. My watch still refused to find his; the normal red dot marked A was now a vague green square covering the entire city.
“I know that much,” I muttered. “Thanks a fucking heap.” LOCATION DATA UNAVAILABLE, it said. “No shit.”
And why was the park so empty? I’d never seen it like this. There were always people jogging, pushing strollers, walking dogs. Never this expanse of unrelieved green and grey. Did people know something I didn’t know?
I pushed down tears, began to walk again. The watch chirped on, muffled in my jeans. Your fault, you little feathery bastard.
Ash and I had left at dawn. The sun rising trumpet-bright over the dewy grass as we walked through the gates. Smell of the clean morning like a colour, like spring, pale green. He had begged me to take him to see this…. No, I couldn’t remember.
How had it happened? The small form at my side in the khaki pants and green shirt he insisted would help him get closer to the bird. Binoculars I’d taken from my neck, the strap so long they hung down to his knees. “Hey, let me fix that.” Silent headshake.
One second he was telling me its name (yes, that’s what it was, Great Crested Flycatcher, that was it, as if there weren’t millions of birds that caught flies) and how it wasn’t supposed to be here. “Because climate change,” he’d said, the small high voice still strange to me, so rarely used. “They aren’t supposed to be this high up. I mean this far north. But their range is shifting.”
“Oh, so it’s not lost,” I had said. And I looked down when he didn’t reply, and he was gone.
A bolt of panic. Absolutely like lightning. Standing there calling his name for twenty minutes. I told him, I said if we ever got split up and the app failed: Don’t move, I’ll come find you. Or I’ll stay put, and I’ll call for you.
Thinking the whole time: Lost a kid. Not even my kid. A stranger given to me because my cousin, a stranger herself, gave the cops my name when they grabbed her. So Ash wouldn’t end up in social care or whatever they called it these days. Seven years old, in a group home: no, absolutely not. “I’ll take him,” I’d said to the cop on the phone.
And what do I know about kids? I’m thirty-one, I can barely take care of my plants. And on the news every day this new disease they say shows up in kids first. Did I sign up for this? They don’t even know how it’s transmitted, how to test for it, what it does. “Maybe it just sits in you,” someone said on TV last night. “A harmless squatter.” They hadn’t even agreed on a name for it. Something-myces. A fungus. The real name so long the general public had immediately got lost in its length and convolutions, like a password, and just called it “Cad.”
Not harmless, others said, and that was gnawing at the back of my mind now, almost audibly, a thin high violin-whine of terror. Scientists in Australia saying no, not a squatter. An abuser. Behavioural changes. And if Ash had caught it when he came to live with me, what did that tell you? Was that why he had run?
Worse if he hadn’t run. If some perv had simply and silently snatched him from my side. Low, a stooping predator. A human pretending to be a mountain lion. Or an actual one, hell if I knew. One here last year. Remember that, pawprints in the mud, shaky footage of a furious amber blob in a tree.
And the watch not finding him? When he’d activate the app if we lost track of one another for a minute in Superstore, Wal-Mart, Jump City? Hardly surprising, his therapist told me. I mean if you had been taken from your mother and given to a stranger, wouldn’t you be terrified of being given away again? Of being lost again?
“I guess so. But like, I’m not here to fix him, you know? I feel like that’s your job. Or his mother’s job. I’m just going to keep him alive till someone more qualified comes to get him.”
“Okay,” she said. “That’s okay.” Her face saying: You monster.
Where would a Great Crested Flycatcher hang out in this strange land? I did not give one fuck, but I had to guess for Ash’s sake. Never a runner, never a bolter. Didn’t like to hold hands but always had a hand on your jacket or your bag. His sad, tired little face.
And yet, this last week. Prowling the kitchen, restless. “Are you hungry?” Headshake. Twitching so that his pen stabbed through his paper. Afraid to use the swings at the playground all of a sudden. “Did something happen?” “No.” “Are you sick? Do you feel okay?” “I’m okay.” How had he caught anything, let alone some fungus? It was just me and him in the house. Only the rich kids still “went” to a school.
A darting figure in the undergrowth. “Hey!” I loped towards it, and it froze rabbitlike, so I froze too. A child, obviously not Ash, bigger, blond, bright red Captain America shirt. “Hey! Wow. Sorry. Stranger danger, huh? Listen, have you seen another kid today? About your size. Black hair, brown skin, green shirt. Black binoculars.”
The kid stared at me, mouth open. Eating blueberries maybe; his bottom teeth stained violet and black. “There’s nobody,” he said.
“Well, there’s you. Look, if you haven’t seen him, you can just say.”
“I didn’t see nobody, and I’m not seeing you,” he said declaratively.
He spat, a blue blob falling far short of my runners, and spun and ran lightly through the bushes. For a second, I heard his shoes on the asphalt of the bike path, pat pat pat, then crashing leaves, silence.
“And where’s your grownups?” I yelled after him.
My voice broke, ruining the effect somewhat, and I sobbed for a few minutes, wiping my face with both sleeves. Okay, that’s enough, said the voice inside me that sometimes spoke reason, sounding like my dead mother. Call the police, Meredith. You can’t talk yourself out of it any longer.
Yeah. Look at that sky, the shoulders on those clouds. So dark I can see the lights on my shoes and it’s not even noon. Call the police. Just say it: I lost him.
Jesus. And then what. Then what? You think they’ll swoop in and save him? Not after I show them a photo. That’s not for people like us. Reforms or not.
Okay, but they have things you don’t have. Helicopters. Dogs. The infrared drones.
But when they find him, if they find him, they’ll take him, and he’ll disappear into the system. Sick as he is.
Why do I keep thinking that? He’s not sick.
I started walking again, scanning for colour, movement. The trees birdless despite their thick new spring leaves, and oddly hunched as if already flinching under a downpour, though no rain was falling. Only those thunderheads piling up bruise-black, and all the light falling stiff and gold from the remaining square of blue. And the kid out there without a jacket or umbrella.
Those early days. The thin weepy child who couldn’t tell me that he was sad or why but asked me to please read the entries in his special book: a guide to the birds of Alberta. Dense paragraphs of tiny text next to photographs.
“I’m too old for this,” I joked one night.
“We can stop,” he said instantly.
“No, it’s okay. I didn’t mean that.”
“How old are you?”
He smiled uncertainly, the first smile I’d seen in the week of him living with me. Surrounded by boxes and bags and the plastic-swathed Christmas tree in the spare room.
“Ouch, buddy. Ouch.”
My cousin never said: Weird little kid. Only likes birds. But it didn’t take much figuring out, after I’d established the most basic terms of our engagement: Can you wipe your own butt, and can you cook your own food? Yes and no.
Okay. Now we can be friends.
What did I feed him that day? I’d been so rattled by the hour-long train trip across town to the police station, I think when we got home I just gave him whatever I was going to eat. Pasta, that was it. Mushrooms, white wine sauce. Would he be a picky eater? I pictured a fridge full of chicken nuggets and hotdogs. But he’d listlessly put away a plateful of food, and then asked if there was somewhere he could lie down.
The world slapping him around from place to place like a tetherball. And now this, cut adrift in a huge strange wilderness looking for a bird fleeing unfamiliar warmth.
Maybe Ash didn’t even care that we had been split up, maybe it wasn’t sickness or disobedience, maybe it was just… Ash being Ash. And all that mattered was that bird.
I turned from the path and plunged into the trees, the humid grey stillness, colour draining away as the light faded. In minutes, muffled by the trees and undergrowth, came a new sound, loud, massed. Not one kid, but kids, instantly identifiable.
He’d go towards the voices. Of course he would. Didn’t he watch them go chattering and skipping past our living room window every afternoon. Didn’t he…. Strange though, actually, when you came to think of it. That they did that. When they should be in school.
The voices came from the Phair Wetlands Area, and as I pushed through the mud and the shrubs, I realized how many there were. Dozens, some on the boardwalk, others cautiously squelching along the shore where it became willows, then aspens.
They were calling to each other but not in words, somehow. Just noises, like the kind of joyful screech toddlers made when they discovered just how loud they could get.
“Hey!” I called. “Where’s your—” I paused. Parents? Teacher? “You guys out here on a school trip or what?”
Several kids turned, startled, as if there had indeed been a memo saying NO ADULTS IN THE PARK TODAY. The last of the sun squeezed into a spotlight, highlighting a face here, a shoe there, the reflective decal on a T-shirt.
But there was Ash, thank Christ. Shaking, folded in on himself at the edge of the boardwalk. Diminished somehow: oh — they’d taken his (well, my) binoculars. One of his shoes was missing. Tied, I noticed, as a trophy around a little girl’s belt. She sneered at me when she noticed me staring. Across the bog, an egret flapped down, glanced around, thought better of it, fled. Chalk-white against the storm.
“Ash.” The kids straightened, blinked. Took their hands out of their pockets. Not a one of them more than ten years old: and several of them marked like I’d seen on the news. The dark curlicues of the fungus under their skin, lilac and plum in the whites of their eyes. “Ashten! Come here, bud.”
He shivered, looked up with a certain wild desperation: Come get me.
It didn’t mean anything. The sickness is merely a sickness and they’re not…. Listen to yourself. Don’t be ridiculous. Right. They’re not a pack of wild dogs. They’re not zombies. They’re just kids. Some of them aren’t even really infected: they’re holding waterproof markers, they’ve been colouring on themselves.
But just a minute. That one scientist. What did he say about…. Something about fungus specifically. The way it communicates. Because something was happening today and these children did not make the plan. Who did? They had no watches, no phones. No signal on my own devices. Haven’t seen a drone since we left the train station.
“Get up,” I called. “Come on. I know you want to hang out with your friends, but we gotta go. It’s gonna start raining soon.”
Still staring, the dark eyes wild. Come get me. And the ring of children around him tightening against the intruder. School videos of white blood cells surrounding an invading bacterium. I’m not the enemy here, I tried to say, but nothing came out.
People in zombie movies act like they’ve never seen a zombie movie and people in vampire movies have never heard of Dracula and oh my God. Their chirruping and squawking. No words for me. Not for the intruder.
That fucking bird. If I see that thing, it is going into the pot. Swear to God. Swear on my ancestors.
Another movie scene: velociraptors. Crying out to startle their prey, herding them. “Out of the way, guys. Let him up. You…. You gotta listen to grownups. Where’s your parents, huh? Where’s your teachers? You out here playing hooky? Do kids still say that?” I realized I was talking to them like you’d talk to a strange dog and shook my head. “All right, that’s enough. Ashten! Get over here, or I’m going home. I’ll leave you here.”
Even as the words left my mouth I regretted it. His face went dead and grey at once, losing colour like the trees in these last moments before the storm. Distantly, we all heard the first cough of thunder.
“I’m sorry. Jesus Christ.” I sighed, and stepped onto the boardwalk.
I didn’t even see them move and in that sense, as I hit the warm thick water, it was like those first moments of losing Ash. One minute there, the next gone. Shock first, then fear.
I paddled wildly, sinking, rising, spitting the sour water, bitten weeds, things slithering through my mouth in a terror of their own, taken from their safe home. “You little shits!” Yes. See it in their faces. Something that is not theirs, not of them.
A flash again of that show: the Australian doctor saying it was like…. What was the name of the thing? The parasite, this infection, it made you protect it. There’s precedent, he said over the laughter. Yeah, in ants and crickets, said the host.
The doctor again no no no. The mechanism’s unknown. Maybe complex. But if it perceives a threat, it’ll defend itself. It’ll do what it needs to do. Removing the host from danger. Studies are preliminary but….
Studies were watching me, and they wouldn’t let me back up. But they wouldn’t get in and hold me down either, I realized. That was something the infection would not let them do. Not even the uninfected children could, being held back by the others, still calling to each other. Little dinosaurs. Showing their small white teeth, their gappy smiles. Maybe I had a few minutes.
It was hard to swim in the cluttered, viscous bog, and it had been a long time since I had had to. Hadn’t even gone to the waterpark. Kid came to me in the winter, and now it was spring. These kids, or their parasites, had taken his love for this thing, the only thing he loved, and trapped him with it, and I could do nothing about the love, or them, but I could still go get him. Wire-strong stems snatched at my ankles, unseen things bumped against me. Nothing with teeth.
Ash was surrounded now, closed in, their fists on his T-shirt. I glared up at them, trying to imagine my face: the furious mermaid. Swamp mermaid. “Jump, Ash.”
He shook his head.
“We’re swimming for it. A little adventure. And then we’re going home. Okay? Trust me. Just jump. Don’t be like them.”
“But I….” Want to be like them. I know, baby.
“You can do it. I got you. I’m not leaving you.”
He stood suddenly, surprising them, and did not dive so much as simply slide vertically off the edge of the boards. Their wails followed us as I towed him to shore, as we crawled on all fours through the mud to solid ground, cutting our hands on trees and rose stems.
Above us something called, answering the thing in my pocket. Ash looked up automatically, scanning the leaves; I did too, narrowing my eyes, but didn’t see it. Little bastard.
Back at the townhouse, bathed, fed, pajama’ed, we stood at the window and listened to small fists hammer at the door, then retreat. The disease replacing their old rules with its own. “Look,” he whispered.
“Look at them. I wish I….”
“…Nothing. I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. What are you apologizing for? You’re fine.”
But outside the children leapt and tumbled in the long flat golden light, looking like scribbled-on cutouts of themselves. I said nothing, and wondered what he envied in their joyful faces now that we were safe.