a serial by MARCELLA ROBERTSON
Black water poured out. She had expected sludge or little bones, toe bones. But water? Water suggested more questions, not answers. Water suggested the shoe in her hand, the shoe she had retrieved from the bottom of a well, had not been on a body while it decomposed. If it belonged to a body at all. She wondered whether the sneaker, once white, had even been his. It looked like it could have been, looked familiar. She bought all of his shoes, surely she would know. But she couldn’t be sure anymore. Too much time. Too many doubts.
Alda couldn’t be sure anymore whether she wanted certainty or hope. She wanted the search to be over. She wanted to stop pulling shoes out of wells that may or may not have been her son’s.
A woman, a police officer, had suggested the well and the area surrounding it. The brief, late-night text – CHECK WELL BY GAS STATION OFF FRONTAGE. MILE WEST FROM WHERE FOUND SUNGLASSES – was Alda’s first lead in weeks. The officer hadn’t said any more, even as Alda tried responding and calling back. So with little reason or understanding, she had gone alone.
Alda was alone when she found the shoe, pulled up in a bucket by a rope that was more rot than fiber. Her fingers returned to the bucket, sifting through leaves and twigs, separating what was likely trash from what could be something. But then, she thought, even the trash could be something. She laughed at the absurdity of it. No, somebody else laughed.
“You’ll be back here if you don’t take notes now,” said the voice behind her.
Alda turned around. A woman who could have been a projection of herself – late thirties, sleep deprived, and covered in dirt – approached. She stepped out noiselessly from the thick bramble that separated them, the well from a frontage-road gas station.
“A year ago, I was here,” the woman continued, “but I can’t remember now whether that shoe was a six or a nine.”
“Maybe you’re afraid to remember.”
Alda inspected the shoe she had set beside her: the bottom, the side, under the tongue.
“Seven,” she said, surprised she hadn’t thought to check before. My son was not a seven. Is not a seven.
The woman started picking through a pile of leaves and sticks nearby. Alda found her busyness and purpose comforting – the way she crouched and attended to every article, every leaf and wrapper, occasionally writing something in a notebook she kept in her back pocket.
“Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m looking for,” said Alda. “His hat or favorite gum. A sign from God.”
“God is not with you here,” the woman said without looking up from her sorting.
“The police can’t find him either, your boy?” Alda asked.
The woman said nothing. She was unfolding and flattening an empty chip bag, laying it neatly atop other bags she had already sorted.
“How long has he been missing?”
The woman pulled another chip bag – this one family-sized – from her pile. It crinkled as she spread it across her thighs, untucked and pinched the corners, before folding the bag into quarters so that it would match the dimensions of the stack she was building.
Alda continued, “I just figured, from the news, and that you’re here. I thought maybe you -”
“Too fucking long. But a day is too fucking long, isn’t it? He was supposed to be at the movies.”
They observed, then, a moment of silence for boys missing, boys who were not where they were supposed to be.
Niko was thirteen: old enough to hide his phone when Alda interrupted his texting but young enough to lay his head on her lap when he wanted a head scratch. Thirteen was also old enough that the police were not alarmed when he didn’t make it home one Thursday two months past. They suggested he stayed out late with friends or ran away, suggested as if they knew Niko or the friends who might be keeping him out late.
Alda, in the weeks after his missing, persisted. She visited the police before and after work, called while on breaks from her shift at a restaurant – one of those chains meant for families. Alda became familiar to the officers there. They knew her mostly as that boy’s mom. But there was one, the woman who texted about the well, who called her Alda and shared any progress, lack of progress, brought her coffee.
In the first few weeks it became easy for Alda, as she sat in the tiled waiting area without an appointment or hope, to identify the others. Other mothers waiting. Sometimes five of them at a time, seated together against a seafoam wall with eyes tired that though they slept, they did not rest. Their nails, bit to the quick, tapped nervously on notebooks that held thoughts that came in the night, theories, and lists. One mother had placed a masking tape label along the spine of her notebook. It read: Drew.
But eventually these mothers, with the exception of Alda, stopped waiting. These mothers were replaced by other mothers whose pain was more recent and therefore more visible than hers. They, too, were replaced.
And so it appeared only Alda and this other mother, picking through trash at the well behind a gas station, had lasted. They endured their sons’ disappearances with hope and dread, urgency and persistence.
Alda and Gaby, the other mother, compared the places they had checked, things they had found, questions asked.
“The disappearances have to be connected,” Gaby insisted. “How else can you explain this? Or why would the police look here when my son disappeared and then tell you to come here, too?”
“The police think it’s a gang. Or drugs,” Alda said.
Gaby huffed. “Was your son taking drugs?”
“No,” Alda said.
“But you don’t believe that anymore.”
The two mothers worked in silence for several minutes before returning to the conversation. Their sons were three years apart at the same school. They went missing on normal days, hadn’t shown any trouble or shifts in attitude in the days before. After the authorities’ questions, Alda and Gaby doubted their memories, their mothering. Can you name all of your son’s friends? Where did he go that night? Did he make any stops? How do you know he didn’t drink? Not even a little? Can you prove it?
Leaf by leaf, chip bag by chip bag, the mothers were seeking proof. They sought proof that their sons were alive. They sought proof that their versions of these boys existed. Instead they found doubt. In the cigarette butts that mixed with her other well findings, Alda imagined her son smoking. Not once had she smelled it on him – or his clothes that she laundered by hand. And yet she could picture him holding a cigarette between his thumb and index finger, bringing it to his lips.
“What if I was wrong?” Alda asked. “About him, wrong then. What if I missed something. Not here at this well or at the other places I’ve checked. Not after Niko had gone missing but before?”
The worry sickened her like a stone heavy in the stomach. Niko, the boy who would line up his Peanut MM’s by color before eating them, was being replaced by someone she couldn’t recognize, some other Niko. He was an intruder in her mind and memories.