The story came to me by way of Arlo McBride, a man whose light blue eyes seemed oddly shattered.
“Sorry about your little boy,” he said quietly.
He meant my son Teddy, who’d gone missing seven years before, and who, as it happened, would have turned fifteen the next day.
“So am I,” I said dryly.
There’d been the usual community searches after his disappearance, people tromping through the woods, parting reeds and brush, peeking into storm drains. They’d been strangers for the most part, these many, nameless searchers, so that watching them I’d felt a glimmer of that human kinship the Greeks called agape, and without which, they said, one could not live a balanced life. That glimmer had gone out at the sad end of their endeavors, however, and since then, I’d hunkered down in the little foxhole of myself, the days of my life falling away almost soundlessly, like an ever-dwindling pulse.
“His name was Teddy, right?” Arlo asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Teddy.”
His body had been miles away by the time the last search had ended, all further effort given up. It had been weighted with stones and sunk to the muddy bottom of a river, where it fell prey to nature’s customary indifference, the rot of bacteria, the hunger of fish. When it was at last discovered by an old angler, there was no feature left that might actually have been identifiable, nor any way to know just how long my little boy had lived captive to the man who’d taken him, nor what that man had done to him during the time they’d been together.
“I’m sure he was a great kid,” Arlo said.
And indeed Teddy had been that: a sweet, winsome child, not the consolation prize for the wife who’d died giving birth to him, but a blessing all his own. For a time after his death, living in Winthrop had been like living in his coffin. There were little reminders of him everywhere: the ice-cream parlor he’d favored, the town park where he’d played, the small stretch of Jefferson Street we’d often walked in the evening, usually from the nearby ball field where we’d slung Frisbees at each other. Mildred, the retired schoolteacher who’d lived next door and often served as babysitter for Teddy on nights when I’d had to work late at the paper, had suggested that I move away from Winthrop, perhaps even back to New York, but I’d remained adamant about staying in the town I’d made a home, however briefly, with my wife and son.
“I’m not the guy who kidnapped and murdered an eight-year-old boy,” I told Mildred. “He’s the one who should be hounded to the far corners of the earth.”
She’d noticed my hands clench as I said this. “But he’s not going to be, George,” she’d replied. “It’s you the dogs are -after.”
Which they angrily were that night, a kind of snarling I could feel in the air around me as I sat in my usual place at the back of O’Shea’s Bar, remembering Teddy, the slow burn of his lost life still scorching mine.
“A terrible thing,” Arlo said, those little blue circles of cracked sky now gleaming oddly.
I took a quick sip of scotch and glanced toward the front of the bar, the usual late-night stragglers in their usual places, mostly men, any one of whom might have killed my boy. “Yeah.” I shrugged as one does when confronted with an unbearably bitter truth. “A terrible thing.”
“No one ever gets over it,” Arlo added. “Which makes it even more terrible.”
Suddenly I recognized his face. He’d been one of the people who’d organized search parties for my son.
“You worked for the state police,” I said.
He nodded. “Missing Persons. I’m retired now.” He offered his hand. “Arlo McBride.”
He looked to be about seventy, but there was a certain youthful energy about him, the sense of a still-faintly-glowing coal.
“So, what does a cop do when he retires?” I asked idly.
“I read, mostly,” Arlo answered. “As a matter of fact, I read the book you wrote.” He seemed faintly embarrassed. “The title escapes me at the moment.”
“Into the Mist,” I said.
As it had turned out, it had been my only book, written before Celeste and Teddy had lured me from a travel writer’s vagabond life.
“I liked the section on that little town in Italy,” Arlo went on. “The one where that barbarian king died.”
He meant Alaric, the Visigothic chieftain who’d sacked Rome.
“Do you think it’s true?” Arlo asked. “The way he was -buried?”
After his death at Cosenza, the River Busento had been rerouted, Alaric buried in its dry bed, the river then returned to its course, all this great labor done by slaves who’d subsequently been slaughtered so that no one could reveal where Alaric lay.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “But it keeps the town on the tourist map.”
Arlo glanced at the clock, though absently, a man who no longer had appointments. “Anyway, I just wanted to say I’m sorry about what happened to your son.”
I recalled the way he’d looked seven years before, a robust figure, with short white hair, close-cropped military style, clean-shaven, with a ruddy complexion that gave him an outdoorsman’s appearance that struck me as entirely at odds with his sedentary profession. Now I saw something else: a curious intensity that attracted me, and which was probably why I pursued the conversation that evening, though it may also simply have been that he was linked to Teddy, my murdered boy, on this, another anniversary of the life he’d never had.
“Missing Persons,” I said. “Did you like that work?”
Arlo’s voice suddenly took on a quality I couldn’t quite decipher: part gravity, part wistfulness, a nostalgia for the dark. “It’s a strange kind of mystery, a missing person. Until that person’s found, of course.”
The memory of what I’d identified as Teddy flamed up inside me. I doused it with a gulp of scotch. “You must have a few interesting stories,” I said.
“Is there one that sticks out?”
“Yeah, there’s one.” Arlo seemed to sense that my gloomy solitariness was not impenetrable and slid into the booth across from me. “Her name was Katherine Carr.”
“A little girl?”
“No, a woman,” Arlo answered. He appeared to see this missing woman take shape before him, then like any other such apparition, slowly fade away. “Thirty-one years old. She lived on Gilmore Street, between Cantibell and Pine. Last