I wanted to wait downstairs. To sit with Julia and Bre and Hank and Sophia. To wait with them. I wanted to let Julia know that I was there too. That Max would come home. I wanted to tell her it would all be okay. Instead, I paced upstairs. The bathroom sink started to drip.
The police said that they were doing everything they could, that they were talking to anyone who might have seen him. I watched from the closet as they searched his room, took his notebooks, tablets, anything that might have a clue to who Max had been talking to, where he might have gone when he left the school. He’d left on his own they knew, but after? Had he been taken after?
No one wanted to mention that the first twenty-four hours after a disappearance were the most important. That if he wasn’t found soon, he might not be found at all. When the sun peaked its head over the trees, I returned to my room. Helpless. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t search for Max or talk to his friends. Drive with Hank around town looking. Being a ghost sucked.
Usually days move fast, lightning speed. I blink and it’s night again, or the next night or the next. Time has never meant much in the Darkness. And what is my room but a tiny pocket of that nothingness? A tiny bit of something. The day dragged by. I could feel the turning of each second. The slow drop of each minute. There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t face the darkness. Not as risk getting lost like before. Plus I could feel something watching me beyond that door. Just waiting for me to leave. My fears?
When night fell again I rushed back to the house, hopeful to hear Max’s voice, to learn it was all over. His room was still empty.
Bre and Juila sat together on the couch downstairs. Julia was pretending to grade papers, but as I watched she let the page slide to the coffee table and leaned against Bre. Bre wasn’t trying to do anything at all, she was just sitting there staring at the phone. He hadn’t returned. Why hadn’t he returned? Where had he gone?
“Yes?” she asked breathlessly. I wondered who had been on the caller id, the look she passed to Bre when she’d answered was impossible to decipher. “You have? He is?” Her voice caught on the edge of panic. “Yes, we are.”
Hearing only half of a conversation was twice as maddening as no conversation at all.
“Thank you,” Julia said and lowered the phone. She was smiling as she turned to Bre. “They found him.”
Max stared at his shoes as they rode through the streets. Every time they passed under a streetlight it would illuminate his feet. His sneakers were muddy. The clock on the dashboard said it was 9:15.
“I’m really glad we found you,” Officer Nick said. “People are going to ask all kinds of questions you know.”
Max nodded. Serious trouble, right.
“But just remember that the fact you’re here now is all that really matters. Were you up in the woods?”
Max nodded again. “I got lost,” he admitted. “I fell asleep and couldn’t find the way back.”
“You were there by yourself?”
Max paused. The streetlight shone through the window as they passed and he caught another glimpse of his muddy shoes. “Yes.”
He could still feel Briar’s dark eyes watching him.
“Max, you don’t have to worry. You’re going to be safe now.”
Max nodded again staring down at the darkness that hid his feet. They stopped at a light.
“So you were in the woods by yourself for two days?” Officer Nick asked again. Max looked up, surprised.
The policeman nodded. “Today is Sunday.”
Max gulped and looked back at the clock in the car. 9:23. Expect it wasn’t Friday anymore. He’d lost two days somewhere. In the fairy house? Before? After?
“Who was with you in the woods?” Officer Nick asked again.
But Max shook his head he wasn’t listening anymore. No. No. No. When had that happened? When had he lost the time?
Julia stood next to Bre by the window waiting. They’d said they were going to bring him straight home. Every time they saw a headlight they tensed and then sagged as it drove past. How long would it take?
Her phone rang. Her heart froze as her fingers dove for the phone. Were they calling to say they’d made a mistake? Please, no.
It was Hank.
“Hi dad,” Julia said relief melting her. She’d called him immediately after she’d learned about Max being found, but he hadn’t answered his phone.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to miss your call. I didn’t hear it ring,” she could hear the tension still in his voice. He didn’t know yet. Didn’t know if she called with good new or bad.
“They found him. He’s coming home.”
“I’ll be right back.”
Julia hung up and pulled Bre tight. She couldn’t quite believe that it might soon be all over.A headlight appeared at the end of the street. Slowed. Stopped. The police officer got out and walked over to the passenger door and opened it. A smaller figure stepped out.
Julia scooped him up in her arms and held him tightly. She didn’t remember leaving the house or coming down the steps. Max was too heavy to lift but she didn’t care. He wrapped his arms around her just as tight.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
When Bre put her hand on her shoulder, Julia remembered to breathe again. She pulled back a little so her wife could join them. She looked up at the policeman through her tears. It was Nicolas. And Julia struggled to find the proper words to say to thank him. How did you thank someone who’d given you your boy back? Your life back?
“You okay?” Bre was asking Max. Julia felt him nod against her shoulder. His voice was muffled.
“Yeah, sorry. I-”
“You hungry?” Bre asked, standing up and pulling Max to her side. Julia felt the loss of his warm body, but stood as well.
“I’ll be around tomorrow,” Nicolas said. Julia turned, she’d forgotten he was there. Bre and Max kept walking to the house and she couldn’t bear to let them go without her.
“Thank you,” she said. “I can’t thank you enough.”
Inside they got a good look at their son. He sat at the table, covered in dirt and leaves, but as much as Julia looked, she didn’t see any injuries, no blood. Her heart was still beating a mile a minute. Someone pinch me. This better not be a dream.
“I’m..um,” Max swallowed shakily looking at the plate Bre had set in front of him, “not very hungry. Sorry.”
“Oh, of course,” Bre pulled the plate away. They sat in awkward silence a moment. Julia wasn’t quite sure what to say. What to ask? How to ask it?
The door flew open and Julia’s dad rushed in, her mom not far behind him.
“Max!” He flung his arms around his grandson. “You’re home.”
That was right, Julia thought. He’s home. The rest of it all, the questions, the answers could wait.