Excerpt from Not Anywhere, Just Not by Ken Sparling
The girl goes to her inbox. She finds the ‘Do Not Reply’ email she got from the government after she sent the form. She wants to reply. She knows her reply will be lost. It will disappear, like the boy. She rereads the email. This is stupid, she thinks. She deletes the email. She closes the laptop and gets up to make herself a coffee. While the coffee brews, she makes a piece of toast. She puts the toast on a plate and butters it. She gets her coffee and adds cream. She brings everything back to the table and reopens the laptop. She finds the ‘Do Not Reply’ email in her trash and moves it back to the inbox. She rereads it for the umpteenth time, then hits the Reply button. ‘Dear Sir,’ she begins. But what if someone actually reads her email? What if it’s a woman and she’s offended at being called ‘Sir’? The girl backspacesover ‘Dear Sir.’ She replaces it with: ‘To whom it may concern.’ But then she doesn’t know what else to write. Have you found my boy? This seems so dumb it makes her do that thing she’s been doing so much lately, which isn’t really laughing but isn’t really crying either. It’s a new emotion, one she never knew until the boy was gone. It isn’t exactly confusion, because confusion isn’t an emotion as far as the girl is concerned, it’s a lack of emotion. Maybe that’s what she’s feeling: nothing.
In the bathroom mirror, the girl’s face looks empty. She goes to the kitchen. The cat follows. The girl opens the pantry, gets out a can of cat food. It’s the last one. I’ll have to go to the grocery store, she thinks. This scares her. The boy always did the shopping. I’ll just get the cat some food and come straight home, she tells herself. I’ll get a lot of cat food. I’ll get us both a lot of food. And toilet paper. And maybe some cinnamon for my oatmeal. If I get enough, I won’t have to go back until all this is over. At the grocery store, everyone is moving in the same direction. The girl doubles back. Her buggy looks empty. She’s got the cinnamon, but she can’t remember what else she wanted to get. She stands still at the back of the store. Just get the cat food, she thinks, then get out. The fluorescent lights make her tired. She’s cold. She smells meat. She doesn’t know what aisle the cat food is in. She sees a woman stacking pop on a shelf. She asks where the cat food is. The woman looks at the girl. ‘I don’t work here,’ she says. The girl sees the Pepsi logo on her blouse. ‘Sorry,’ she says. In the end, the girl grabs sixteen cases of tuna. We can both eat this, she thinks. She tries to decide what else to get. All she has so far is the cinnamon, a carton of milk, and all that tuna. I should have made a list, she thinks, heading to the checkout. The man working the cash eyeballs the girl after she’s loaded her items onto the belt. ‘Eat a lot of tuna, do you?’ he asks. ‘Some of it’s for my cat,’ says the girl. After she’s paid, she rushes out of the store, loads the tuna into her trunk, and closes herself into the car before anyone else can say anything to her.
The girl goes downstairs to look at the boy’s shoes. He has three pairs sitting on the little shoe rack in the basement hallway. She picks up his running shoes. What shoes was he wearing when he disappeared? she wonders. He almost always wore his running shoes. She feels like this must mean something. She picturesthe boy on another planet, Mars maybe, standing on the dusty surface in just his socks. She takes the shoes into the rec room and sets them down among the piles of journals. She steps back. It’s like some kind of performance art. She imagines the boy standing there, invisible, wearing only his shoes. She pictures a ghostly version of the boy, his body transparent, his old wrinkled penis hanging between his legs. Sometimes, in the right light, it looked sort of cute. Most of the time, though, it looked like some kind of hairy little one-eyed monster, rising up blind in its efforts to find her.
On a Friday morning in late October, the girl sees the boy riding his bicycle. He’s hunkered down close to the handlebars and it looks as though he doesn’t know how to ride a bike at all, which is ridiculous, because he’s been riding a bike since he was four. The girl is in her car, driving in the opposite direction on the other side of the road, but the way the boy is weaving around on his bike, there is the very real possibility that he is going to crash into her. The road is clear of snow, but there are wet patches, and the girl is afraid the boy is going to hit some ice. She can see his breath trailing out behind him. She slows the car. She doesn’t think the boy is even going to see her. She clutches the wheel. Glances in the rear-view mirror. Maybe she should just stop the car, pull over. Her foot hovers between gas and brake. The boy seems to be focusing solely on the front wheel of his bike. At the last minute he swerves in front of the girl’s car and she hits the brake. The boy comes up along the passenger side of the car. He looks up and sees the girl through the passenger window as he goes by in the opposite direction. He gets this crazy grin on his face and lifts his hand to wave. It isn’t the boy. It’s just some random guy. He doesn’t even look that much like the boy. The guy stands up on his pedals and turns to look back at the girl as he continues wobbling away along the wrong side of the road. The girl realizes she’s sitting stopped in the middle of the road. She checks her mirror and pulls away. When she looks again, the random guy is in her rearview mirror, lying on the snow at the side of the road, his bicycle teetering on the curb, front wheel still spinning. Further along, the girl stops at a red light. She looks in her rear-view mirror again. The guy and his bicycle are gone. For a moment the girl wonders if she’s imagined the whole thing. As soon as she gets a chance, she turns the car onto a side street and pulls over to the curb. She shuts off the car. She thinks about walking back to check on the guy and his bike, but she can’t even locate the real boy, so how’s she going to find this random guy who seems now to have also disappeared?
It’s around one o’clock in the afternoon, the day before Halloween. The girl is drinking coffee at the kitchen table with her eyes closed. The wind outside sounds like the boy’s voice whispering something to her from far away. It’s nice to have the boy back here with me, thinks the girl drowsily, her eyes moving visibly beneath their lids. The boy continues to speak to her in his distant whispery voice. The girl keeps her eyes closed. ‘I started walking back to shore,’ the boy whispers. ‘I was pushing my legs through the water, which came up to just below my knees, but I wanted to go under the water again, so I walked back out to where it was deep enough to dive in.’ There is a brief silence as the wind outside dies down, but then picks back up again. ‘When I broke the surface, I couldn’t touch bottom,’ says the boy. ‘I had to tread water. I could smell the raw cold of the water just beneath my nose.’ The girl hears the boy take a sip of his coffee, and it’s then that she remembers he isn’t there. Her eyes pop open. ‘Where are you?’ she whispers. ‘Can I come there?’ But all she hears is the wind.