by Kim Neville
Tory reappeared as suddenly as he had vanished, seven days after he followed our dog Boomer into the woods out back of our summer cabin. We were all there, watching from the wide wooden porch. Mom and Dad were at the picnic table, playing cribbage and sipping Caesars. I was sitting on the steps coloring a picture of the deer we’d seen earlier that day munching grass at the side of the road. No one was worried about Tory―us kids played in the woods all the time. There was a little stream back there that me and Tory would crouch in, trying to catch frogs. And we never went any farther than the barbed wire that separated our property from Mr. Walker’s.
But after a few minutes Tory and Boomer hadn’t come back. Mom sat up straight and started calling them, but we couldn’t hear a thing, not even the sound of twigs snapping underfoot. Then Dad put on his shoes, swearing, and stomped through the ferns, shouting for my brother to get his butt back to the house. It seemed like he was gone for a long time. When he came back out he was holding Tory’s blue baseball cap in one hand. His face was pale and tight, and my tummy started to hurt the way it does when Mom and Dad fight.
The police came to the cabin, and Mr. Walker from next door, and the Ballards from down the road. Soon everyone was stomping through the ferns looking for Tory and Boomer. It got dark, and still there was no sign of them. More neighbors came over. Some of their faces I knew. Some of them I’d never seen before. They brought flashlights and casseroles. They patted my head and talked in low whispers. No one could believe that a seven-year-old boy and a dog could go missing on such a small island.
Every morning in the summer Tory would wake me up early. We shared a small room at the cabin, beige and musty-smelling with beds side by side. Tory was always the first up. He’d climb out of his bed and into mine. Sometimes I’d feel him breathing on the back of my neck. Other times I’d open my eyes and he’d be staring at me, his nose inches from mine.
“Wanna play?” he’d whisper.
Then Boomer would stretch at my feet and shake his head, his dog tags tinkling. We’d tiptoe into the kitchen, still in our pajamas, slide open the back door as quietly as possible, and step out onto the back porch. That was the best time, when the whole day stretched in front of us, when Mom and Dad were still sleeping and the air outside was cool. We’d sit on the steps and eat cereal out of those little boxes, and watch the sunlight slowly creep over our toes and up our legs.
The morning after Tory disappeared, I woke up alone. I tiptoed into the kitchen and Mom and Dad were sitting at the table. Mom’s head was in her hands, and Dad was stroking her hair. I turned around and tiptoed back into the bedroom. I crawled into Tory’s bed and pulled the sheets up over me.
By the end of the day, there were pictures of Tory in every store window, on every telephone pole, even on the TV. The search team combed every inch of the island. On the third day the police began searching in the water around the island. That was a bad day because we all knew then that they weren’t looking for Tory anymore. They were looking for his body. But they didn’t find anything. Everyone kept saying it was like Tory and Boomer had just vanished into thin air.
On the sixth day, we started packing up our stuff. We were going home to the city the next afternoon, without Tory and Boomer. I could hardly breathe that night; the air in that cabin was so heavy. It was windy, and I lay awake for a long time listening to the wind chimes on the porch clang.
The clanging followed me into my dreams, so when I woke up the next morning, it took a while for me to recognize the faint tinkling outside my window. When I did, I bolted out of bed and into the kitchen. There was Boomer, scratching at the sliding glass door. He started barking and jumping up when he saw me, his white curls bouncing. I could see Tory sitting on the steps, looking out at the woods. Mom and Dad came running when they heard Boomer. Then there was a lot of confusion. Everyone was crying and hugging all at once. Even Dad was crying, big hard sobs. I didn’t know that Dads could cry, and it scared me so I cried even more.
Then Tory reached out and wrapped a piece of my hair around his finger. He smiled at me and I saw that his eyes were lit up bright. His whole face was lit up like someone had stuck a big candle in his head.
“It’s okay, Juji,” he said. “I was with the little people but I missed you so Boomer showed me the way back.”
And he really was okay. In fact, he looked better than the rest of us. He didn’t look hungry or tired, and he didn’t have a scratch on him.
“What did you say?” Mom cried, holding Tory’s face.
“I was living with the little people, but I missed you so I ran away.”
Dad got up and paced around us. His forehead was all wrinkled up, the way it had been ever since Tory had left. He looked so sad with those big wrinkles, and now Tory was back but the wrinkles were still there. Dad squatted down in front of Tory.
“Did they hurt you, son?”
“No,” said Tory, “they sang to me. I slept in the trees.”
“I don’t understand,” said Mom. “What little people?”
“There was a little man in the forest. He wanted to show me something, so I followed him.”
We all went down to the police station. Mom and I got to watch while the police artist sketched the man who took Tory. The drawing showed a man with huge round eyes and a little nose, and curvy lips like a doll’s. Tory kept telling the artist to make the ears pointier, but the artist couldn’t seem to get it right. While he was shading in the hair, he asked Tory how tall the man was.
“He was little,” said Tory.
“Shorter than your mother?”
“Taller than Juliana?”
“Juji,” said Tory. I giggled.
“Everyone calls her Juji.”
The artist looked up from the drawing and smiled at me.
“All right. Was the man taller than Juji?”
“No, he was littler than me.”
The artist’s pencil stopped moving. He pressed his lips together and studied Tory’s face.
Are you sure?”
Tory nodded. “And he had wings.”
“Torrance,” Mom said in her warning voice, “this is very serious. You mustn’t lie to the police.”
“I’m not lying,” Tory insisted. And I knew he was telling the truth, because Tory was a terrible liar. Like the time he cut the hair off of my Barbie doll. He tried to tell me he didn’t do it, but I knew. When Tory told a lie, he would never look you in the eye, and he would always wipe his mouth after, like he was trying to get a bad taste out.
This time Tory looked right up at Mom.
“I’m not lying, Mommy” he said. “They all had wings.”
Mom’s face turned red, and I thought she might start yelling at Tory. I knew Tory was thinking the same thing, because his eyes were wide and full of big fat tears.
“Mom,” I said, “I think he’s telling the truth.”
The artist stood up and took Mom by the arm.
“Kids, wait here a moment. I’m going to talk to your Mom outside.”
So Tory and I waited in the room alone while Mom and the police artist went outside to talk. Then Tory had to talk to a counselor. The counselor said that sometimes when kids are scared they make up stuff so they feel less scared. Then the made-up stuff becomes so real that they think it’s true. The counselor said that’s what happened to Tory.
“But if Tory made up all that stuff,” I asked Mom, “what really happened?”
Mom closed her eyes, and then she leaned over and kissed my forehead.
“We might never know, honey. Some things,” she said into my hair, “are just too big for kids to understand.”
* * * *
For a while, there was so much going on it was hard to tell that things were different. For a week after we got back, news vans lined the block outside our house, and people with cameras, lights and microphones stood on the sidewalk or leaned against our cars in the driveway. The phone rang and rang, and the kitchen filled up with trays of cookies and tarts. The house was always full of friends and neighbors. Everyone commented on how healthy and happy Tory looked, and how big he had grown over the summer. No one talked about the abduction.
But soon the news people got tired of us, and the visitors trickled away. Then we were left alone to try and be a normal family again. Except nothing was quite the same. Once I tried on Mom’s reading glasses, and the world got smaller and sharper, but warped, like things were collapsing into themselves. That’s what happened with our world. We did all the same things we had always done, having dinner together and going to the park with Boomer, but it wasn’t the same.
Tory had changed, for one. He had always been quiet. Most of the time I spoke for both of us. I was used to knowing what he was thinking without him having to tell me. But after we came home from the cabin, I stopped knowing. It was as if there was an invisible curtain between Tory and the rest of the world, like he was living in a bubble. Even when he was sitting next to me he felt far away.
I’d catch him talking to himself a lot. Sometimes when I passed his bedroom I could hear him chattering away in his babyish lisp, sitting all alone in there. Sometimes when I woke up in the morning I would find him sitting in the backyard, talking to a caterpillar or a bumblebee or a robin. But when he heard me coming up behind him, he would stop.
Mom and Dad were changed too. They stayed all creased and worn, their shoulders hunched over and their smiles smaller than before. They told me that Tory was very lucky to come back to us unharmed. Still, they acted careful with him, like he was made of glass, and had to be handled gently.
Before Tory went missing, we would never have gotten away with believing in fairy tales. Dad only believed in science and facts―stuff that could be proven. We didn’t go to church on Sundays, and I knew there was no Santa Claus by the time I was four. Dad always said that kids shouldn’t be encouraged to believe in nonsense. But after the abduction, Dad said we should let Tory believe in his fairies. The counselor told us that Tory needed the fantasy, at least for a little while, to help him deal with what had happened to him.
So even Dad played along with the fairy thing, sort of. He’d nod and smile at Tory, but his teeth would clench and his eyes would roll up in his head when he thought no one was looking. Tory must have noticed it too, because after a few weeks he stopped talking about the fairies.
One morning I looked out my window. There was Tory, kneeling under the apple tree that nestled in the back corner of the yard. He was whispering to something in the palm of his hand. I decided I had to know what it was about, all his secret conversations with bugs and things. Still in my nightgown, I tiptoed to the back door. I pulled on my rubber boots, and opened the door as quietly as I could. Then I snuck up behind Tory.
Over his shoulder I could see a little bird. Its feathers were dark with blood and the first thing I thought was that Tory had hurt it. I must have gasped because Tory started and turned to look at me. He put a finger to his lips.
“Shhh...” he whispered. “I’m helping her.”
I sat down cross-legged beside him. The bird was lying on her side. Her wing was bent at a funny angle. Tory put his other hand on top of the bird so she was enclosed in his palms. Inside his hands a light grew. It made his skin glow red, like when you put your hand over a flashlight. I could feel the warmth of it against my bare knee.
Then the light and the warmth faded and the bird began to flutter. Tory opened his hands and the bird burst into the air. I watched her fly higher and higher until she disappeared. I turned to Tory to demand he tell me how he had fixed her. But he was lying back on the grass with his arms flung wide and his eyes closed.
I poked at his hand. It was soft and a little sweaty, just a normal hand. Tory stirred, and opened his eyes. He bit his lip and smiled at me.
“The little people showed me how,” he said, and then frowned. “Don’t tell Mom and Dad, ’kay?”
I nodded, and lay back beside Tory, flinging my own arms up over my head. I understood that our parents would be afraid of this change, more than any other change in Tory since the abduction. I thought about how Dad’s forehead wrinkles were fading every day, and how Mom’s lips weren’t as white. It would be easier for them, in the end, to believe what the counselor said. Sometimes grownups have to make up stuff so they feel less scared, too.
Some things are just too big for grownups to understand.
* * * *
Toad welcomes F/SF/H authors who wish to place excerpts, poems, short stories or editorial. Alternatively, she’s more than happy to throw a few questions your way and put up an interview. If you’re keen for some shameless self-promotion, send an email email@example.com and place “Toad’s Corner” in the subject line. Nerine will pass on your message to Toad, who’d prefer to sit at the bottom of Nerine’s garden eating worms. Darn hoomanz hav to b good for somefink.
If you wish to receive monthly updates from Toad, sign up at her FB group at: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=106836496003074#!/group.php?gid=106836496003074&ref=ts