Authors: Dan Deweese
It is now quite close.
I LOST MY DAUGHTER ONCE. She was three. It wasâ¦
AS THE ELEVATOR IN Grant's building carried me upward withâ¦
LATE ON A SATURDAY afternoon in October of the yearâ¦
LOST MY DAUGHTER ONCE.
She was three. It was after dark on Halloween, and we were standing on the sidewalk in front of a house down the street from our own. She wore yellow rain boots and a fuzzy brown puppy dog costume that zipped from her feet to beneath her chinâblack spots dotted the costume's body, and two black ears flopped atop the hood as she peered with undisguised suspicion at the cement walk that led to the door of this stranger's home. When I told her to go ahead, the door was right there, she shook her head and put her mittened hand in mine. “No,” she said. “You go with me.” I told her she was big now, she could do it herselfâdid she remember what to say? She mumbled the phrase, and I gave her a little pat to move her up the walk, but she turned back and hugged my leg, wordlessly holding on. “Miranda,” I said, exasperated, “I'll be right here. You can do it.” “No,” she said, clutching even more tightly. “
A group of six or seven ghosts, animals, and witches roughly
her age or a bit older shuffled up behind us, bunched together in the dark. A few carried flashlights with orange plastic pumpkins over the bulbs, spheres that wobbled through the damp night air. A woman in charge of the groupâin the dark it was just the shape of a woman, reallyâlooked down at Miranda as the other kids moved past. “Did you want to go up, too?” she asked. And as if the words of a single stranger were all it took to hypnotize her, Miranda moved obediently up the walk with the others, the woman following. I watched them make their way up three stairs and congregate on a small concrete porch beneath the glow of a weak light above the door. A middle-aged woman in orange sweatpants and a black sweatshirt opened the door and asked with great astonishment who all these little creatures were, and the kids eagerly extended their bags. The homeowner distributed candy, the kids sang their ragged chorus of thanks, and the woman in charge herded the group laterally across the front yard toward the next house. Once beyond the reach of the porch light, only the orange glow of the flashlights betrayed their location, and when they passed behind a thick laurel and some rhododendrons that bordered the yards, even those lights disappeared from view.
My breath rose in a mist as I navigated the tilted and cracked sidewalk slabs toward the next house. It had rained earlier, and fallen leaves covered the concrete. They had formed a tapestry of rich browns and reds and golds during the day, but at night had become a slick material that slid easily beneath the pressure of a foot, so I chose my steps with care. I heard kids chattering nearbyâwhether it was the group I was following or just one of dozens of other groups nearby, I couldn't tellâbut when I reached the head of the walk to the next house, I saw the little group of
creatures and their trailing chaperone scramble up the four wide wooden steps that led to the next porch. The woman caught one stumbling little ghost by the arm, raising it up the steps to where it could join its fellows, and a brave lion pressed the bell next to the red front door. An old man in slacks and a cardigan appeared, dispensed treats into the pails and bags, and after another chorus of thank-yous, the woman herded the group off the porch and brought them out to where I stood on the sidewalk. “They seem to have the hang of this,” I said, searching the group for my puppy. “It's the incentive,” she said, laughing. I started to grab what I thought was a puppy, but realized it was a bear. Present also were the lion, a Darth Vader, a ladybug, witch, and ghost, and a gorilla. But no puppy.
“But she was right with us,” the woman said.
I walked toward the house and checked the porch, but it was empty. I crossed into the dark area between houses then, calling Miranda's name, but all I heard was the woman telling the children in her group to wait, that everyone should stay together. The glare of porch lights pushed the space between houses into deeper darkness, and I could easily have tripped over any child dawdling there. I called Miranda's name into the void between the twisted rhododendrons, and called it again as I moved behind and around a laurel, but there was no response. Children's voices carried from multiple directions, their shouts and laughter bouncing through the cool night air. A car coasted slowly up the street, and I thought, But what ifâ¦, and found myself running toward the street, intending to head right onto the pavement to throw myself across the car's hood and bring everything to a halt. I stopped at the curb, though, and gazed breathlessly into the section of street illuminated by the vehicle's headlights while I shouted Miranda's name again, as if
the sound of my voice would prevent her from appearing in their pale sweep. The car passed without incident, its taillights dissolving in the distance.
“I hear you're missing one,” a voice behind me said. I turned and saw a man in blue jeans, a jacket, and a ball cap. It was the same outfit I myself wore, as did any number of other fathers in the neighborhood that night. Two boys stood silently beside him: the taller was a pirate with an eye patch, the other wore a bathrobe and held a sword.
“Yes,” I said. “Somewhere between these houses.”
“Could she have wandered home?”
“Not in the dark. She wouldn't find it.”
“Which direction is it?” he said. “We can head that way.”
I pointed down the street. “She's three. Dressed as a puppy.”
The man patted his boys on the back and they headed off.
I walked again into the dark section of lawn between houses, calling her name. If she didn't make it across the lawn with that group, then where did she go? Did she double back and return to the house she'd just visited? Did she wander into a backyard? I shuddered at thoughts of dogs and chains and darkness, but decided a child wouldn't do thatâshe would follow the lights, the people, and the candy. I heard the approach of another car, but when I planted my foot to move toward the street, I slipped and fell in the wet grass. My knees hit, but I steadied myself, fingers in the sod, and pushed myself up, calling her name until the car passed and disappeared down another street.
I continued through lawns, past groups of parents and children who must have wondered why a lone figure was cutting through the darkness. Which way had the woman with the group of children gone? There was no way I would find them, or that they
would find me. What had the man with the two boys looked like? I had hardly glanced at him.
I wondered how I was going to walk into the house and announce to Sandra, my wife, that I'd lost our three-year-old. It wasn't possible. Jack-o'-lanterns sat in windows and on porches, flames dancing behind their grins, while knots of adults and costumed children strolled the sidewalks. What would I say? That my only job had been to keep track of our child, and I had failed, and she was gone? Someone had probably stolen her, with the intention of doing unspeakable things? Sandra would run out the door and through the neighborhood, screaming. There would be police and questions and a massive search.
If I can just find her right this moment, I thought, then none of that needs to happen. So I will find her.
The sky, a sodden wash of clouds during the day, had become a great charcoal swath at night. Every breath clouded silver in the air and then vanished, and I jogged to the far end of the street so that I could turn and start slowly back. Miranda knew not to cross the street, and no adult would stand by and watch a three-year-old step alone onto the asphalt, so she couldn't have left the block. I tried to walk casually, while still examining every tree and bush and yard and adult and child I passed. From one lawn a whining motor powered a scarecrow that waved its arm and turned its head, and from elsewhere a stereo played a loop of creaking doors and demented cackling. I listened for her voice or cry or laugh, but there was nothing, and the closer I came to our house, the bolder I was about scouring other people's property: I circled cars, walked through side yards, and flattened bushes. By the time I reached the yard of the house next to my own, I felt as if I were floating, and walked through the grass in silence. A couple and a small boy in
a vinyl skeleton costume walked past on the sidewalk. The couple nodded politely to me while the boy looked into his pail and talked excitedly about candy he had received at my own house. I was at the foot of the porch by then, and had a last, desperate thought:
Maybe she came home
The broken gate to the backyard stood ajar as always. I made my way through it and to the concrete pad behind the back door, where the dark sphere of the barbecue grill sat atop spindly aluminum legs. Miranda's tricycle lay on its side in the grass, as did her broken plastic lawn mowerâin the weak glow of the back porch light, everything appeared bronzed. Beyond the light's reach, in the dark back corner of the yard, sat the little wooden playhouse I'd bought at the beginning of the summer. It had a little doorway without a door and a little window without a pane, and it was through the window that I saw movementâthe shift of a shadow within shadows. I reached the house in a few quick strides, looked through the window, and my knees buckled: there was the puppy, sitting amid her scattered candy. I breathed, collecting myself, and knelt at the window. “What are you doing?” I said.
She looked up with an excited, guiltless smile. “Putting my candy away!”
“Come out of there. Right now.”
I reached through the door and grabbed the scruff of the costume's neck. She struggled and cried, demanding to be released so she could gather her candy, but I was stronger, and pulled her kicking and wailing out the door. She watched anxiously as I swept the candy toward me, gathered it up, and dropped it into her bag. When she was satisfied that not a piece had been lost, she let me pick her up and carry her around to the front of the house. “What have you been doing?” I said.
She opened her mouth, displaying the contents.
“Well, that's enough now. Halloween is over.”
“We can go again.”
“No. You can only go once.”
She twisted in the direction of the street, but I pressed her to my chest, and it was a crying and struggling Miranda that I ended up carrying through the front door. Sandra didn't question the tearsâthey were an expected part of Halloween, as well as a daily event in the life of a three-year-old. She pulled the costume off Miranda and threw the crumpled thing down the basement stairs to be washed, wondering aloud how it had gotten so filthy. I didn't answer.
Later, after Miranda was asleep and Sandra, too, had gone to bed, I stayed awake, manning the door for late-evening visitors. When I stepped out onto the porch at only ten-thirty, though, I found the neighborhood empty. Even the candle of our jack-o'-lantern had gone out, the monster turned to nothing but an empty gourd with a sinking lid. The woman with the children, the man with the boys: the absence of police cars or of anyone running through the neighborhood must have convinced them the situation had been resolved. As I locked the door and turned out the lights, I reminded myself that children are lost and found every day. A brief episode did not necessarily need to be mentioned.
WENTY-TWO YEARS LATER,
on the night before my daughter's wedding day, I dreamed of that Halloween. This wasn't a surprise, as by that point I'd been suffering the dream for months. I
had never in my life had trouble sleeping until that year I turned forty-nine. A whirling of image and sound began to descend on me in the small hours, and I would find myself again in the dark, hearing children's voices and laughter as I marked the progress of those wobbling orange flashlights. Often it seemed I wasn't even dreaming, but was trapped instead in an undreaming and unthinking bewilderment. So before dawn on the morning of Miranda's wedding, exhausted by my mind's interminable running through darkened yards, I rose and stumbled down the hall, dread trailing me like a nightshirt's ragged hem.
It was cold in the houseâstrangely cold for what the forecasters had warned would be one of the hottest days of the summerâand outside it was raining. I squinted in the kitchen light's harsh fluorescence until I had successfully started the coffee, and then I turned the light off and stood in the dark, listening to the machine hiss and cough. On the microwave, a glowing digit flipped from one minute to the nextâa reliefâand I wondered if across town Sandra, too, was awake. If so, she would be stealing her own glances out a window, probably while ironing or folding or wrapping or arranging somethingâwhatever she could to stay in perpetual movement. Though we had been divorced for almost a decade, the thought of her bustling created a sympathetic nervousness in me, as if we were still a team, and I, too, should have been doing something for the cause.
I had warned Sandra the previous evening that it would rain in the night, and that she shouldn't panic when it did. This was after the rehearsal dinner, when Miranda and her friends had led us to a bar where, despite its old-sounding Irish name, the bartenders were two college kids, Asian and Hispanic, respectively. A large adjoining room held a number of pool tables, and the whiplike
snap that announced each game of eight ball was heard at regular intervals. Classic rock blared from a jukebox in the corner, forcing me to incline my head in Sandra's direction so I could hear her ask how I knew it was going to rain. When I told her I could just feel it, she laughed and said, “Feel it how? In your knees or in your nerves?”
“Neither,” I said. “In the air.”
She raised an eyebrow. “In the air? That seems suspicious.”
“It's just a feeling. I'm telling you to reassure you. Any rain or clouds will burn off. Everything will be fine.”
“I think it's cute that you're reassuring me,” she said, patting me on the arm.
Sandra had remarried four years after our divorce, and her new husband, a genial insurance agent named Alan, was engaged in an earnest conversation with Sandra's sister and brother-in-law a couple tables from where we sat. It sometimes seemed that because I hadn't remarried, Sandra didn't quite know what to do with me. That was my guess, at least, as to why regardless of what I said, she often responded as if she found me mildly amusing. Before I could say more, though, an unfamiliar woman sitting to the other side of Sandraâthe mother of a bridesmaid, perhapsâasked Sandra to identify the friends and family gathered in the bar. Sandra began by pointing out a few people at various tables, a spatial strategy that allowed her to point out “my husband, Alan” and then several other people before arriving at our own table and saying, “And this, of course, is Miranda's father, Paul.”