The headlines read, “Where did the Children Go?”
We didn’t believe it. Billy and I were just married. Flush with new heat and happiness, we stunk of having just spent the equivalent of a nice car on a party to celebrate what would have happened anyway. We set up house in a four bedroom McMansion with its manicured lawn. Located in the right school district for what would come in a few years—little clones to raise and call our own. We weren’t ready for those future babies yet. We worked sixty hours a week, building a nest egg and reputations and careers.
But they weren’t far off.
Every morning, while I sipped coffee and let my leg slip from the split in my robe, I imagined how handsome the little Billys would be. How bright the little Veras would be. Billy smiled at my flash of skin and I slid my bare toes up the cuff of his trousers. Within minutes we were back in bed, practicing for making our first.
So, the headline didn’t seem to apply to us.
But as the weeks wore on, more of them vanished. Like a stone in a pond, the vanishings started in some central location—a city with many kids. Within a few days, all were gone. The ripples spread for miles, into the farmsteads and the villages. Coming closer all the time to our home.
The television filled with video of wailing mothers and fathers tugging at ragged lips, wiping shaking palms across sweaty foreheads.
Cousins Darla and Joe lost their brood while the two of them put away groceries. One minute, Darla heard the twins singing along with the t.v. and the next, silence. The girls left their favorite plush dollies. Danny, upstairs doing homework, disappeared without taking shoes. Darla counted them to be sure. She counts them every day.
Walls of affected places filled with government graffiti like plague warnings on the doors of houses. Symbols and words—gibberish at first, but we learned to read them. How many lost? Boys, girls. Dates. They coded the marks to save us pain but we saw through their efforts.
“Vera, let’s try for a baby,” Billy said one morning. His eyes didn’t warm as he asked. Heat and wanting had nothing to do with it.
“We said we’d wait.”
“But what if we never get a chance to even have one. What if they start to disappear from the womb?”
I’d considered that. I thought it might even be a kindness to never hold a baby you couldn’t keep.
Or maybe not.
“Maybe our child will be the first that doesn’t go missing.”
Poor Billy. My man wanted the world to make sense again. He was willing to sacrifice my flesh, stretch my body, invest my soul in a baby that might disappear to do it. For the first time, I realized that this wasn’t the fairy tale I’d wished for. In the expectations and the roles we’d wedded ourselves to, there was a sort of horror. Like being at the top of the tallest hill on a roller coaster you’d wanted to ride, only to realize, too late, that it is much too scary to survive.
His expectant eyes and tugging at my hand brought forward in me all of the expectations I’d hidden behind during the fun of playing house. I didn’t mind all the cleaning. I’d be doing that anyway. But my career would be set aside. I would take the calls from teachers. I would be the stitches that held the family together.
How many times have mothers I know said, “Oh, I have one more child than I gave birth to—my husband.”
Why hadn’t that horrified me before? Their condescending tones aimed at the man they partnered with. Their acceptance of being mother to all, forever. Feedings, changing, bathing, driving, shopping, worrying. The expectations were endless. Was there a switch in women’s hearts that took them from sexy, effective women to giving, sacrificing mothers?
It occurred to me that these same expectations, these pressures to be something for someone else, had been layered on the children, too. Select soccer at four. Dance class three nights a week. ACT prep. Three season sports. AP curriculum. Prom queen. Marching band. Straight A’s. Timed play dates. Television content enriched to impart vocabulary, math concepts, and social skills. No freedom. Planned fun. Decisions and expectations and disappointment.
No wonder they’d fled.
“Not yet, Billy,” I said, horrified that perhaps we’d driven them away.
“Tonight then? Can we try tonight?”
He clutched my hand closer, tapped me. I’m sure he meant it to be a sweet gesture, but the breath pressed right out of my body. I had to get away!
A glimmer appeared off to the side of my vision; a shade was thrown open on a window I’d never seen. I disentangled myself from his clutches, nodding, smiling, anything to get away. He sighed happily and went back to sipping his coffee and reading the papers spread on the table. If I was going to be pregnant, he would have to work twice as hard. The grooves of the record we played led to one place.
A place I didn’t want to be anymore.
I stood and walked toward that glimmer. I don’t know if he saw, but I stepped into the light at the side of my vision. You just can’t look at it directly, but it opens wide if you try it. A whole other place—no houses or jobs. Second star to the right and straight on until morning.
Oh, and I found the children. And we are happy playing pirates together. Yo ho, matey.