The time is 8:45 PM. In a small neighborhood on the edge of Shawnee, Kansas, the lights are flickering out as families retire to their bedrooms and bid each other goodnight. The last of the children playing outside come in, carrying their balls and toys. It’s a warm night, a still night. The only sounds come from the chirp of crickets and the soft hush of wind brushing the trees. It is absolutely quiet. That is, until:
“I said git!”
In the furthest house on the street, the lights snap on. There’s shouting, muffled by the walls until the commotion makes its way outside. A tall man with a wide-brimmed hat shoves a little boy out the door, pointing an accusatory finger.
“What do you think ‘yer doing, boy?” he snaps, gripping onto a glass beer bottle. The man is clearly drunk, and the boy is very, very frightened.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” the child shrieks, curling into himself. He’s about eight years old and sporting a nasty bruise on one cheek. “Please, stop!” Tears spill out of his eyes and onto the ground.
“‘Sorry’ don’t fix the damn television!” the older man slurs. When the boy only whimpers, he throws the bottle. It hits the pavement with a SMASH that sends glass skittering in all directions. The boy screams and scoots back, scraping his elbows when he slips. He is able to get to his feet and make a break for the woods.
“That’s right, sissy!” the man hollers as he watches the boy run. “Don’t you come back!”
The boy sprints through the woods until he’s tired, then slides down the trunk of the nearest tree, sobbing. He snivels and runs his knuckles under his nose, feeling utterly miserable.
In the distance, he hears a car. The boy covers his face in his hands, listening to the engine sputter to a stop in front of him. A motherly-looking woman leans out the window of her dark minivan. “Hey, are you alright?”
“Yeah,” the boy mumbles without looking up. He shuffles his feet in the dirt.
“I saw what happened,” the woman murmurs sympathetically. “Do you need a ride home?”
“I don't wanna go home,” the boy sniffs.
“Aw, that’s fair. Say, why don’t you come home with me? I’ll clean you up, get you some cocoa?”
“I’m okay, ma’am.”
“Really, there’s no trouble. I have a son just your age; I’d want to know he was being taken care of.”
The boy thinks for a moment, and then looks up. The woman has short, dark hair tied messily into a bun. She looks old, but not too old--more like his mom’s age. There are visible wrinkles by her mouth, which curls into a welcoming smile. She looks nice.
“Well, sure, I guess,” the boy says slowly, standing up and dusting off his pants. The woman smiles bigger, then leans over to open the passenger car door.
“Hop on in, then.”
The car veers back onto the street, passing the boy’s house, where inside, the drunk old man has lumbered onto the couch. He lounges there, half-asleep, until the door opens and a woman creeps through the doors. She scans the room, spots the man on her couch, and walks over, touching his shoulder. “Hey, Joseph.”
“How was he?”
Joseph tilts his head back to look at her. “Rotten.”
The woman clicks her tongue in exasperation. “Were you mean to him again?”
When Joseph gives no response, she puts her hand on her hip. “Joseph! He’s your nephew.”
“He’s a shit.”
The woman tsks, then exits the room. She walks up the stairs, and looks into the bedrooms. There’s no sign of her son. “Matthew?” she calls quietly.
She looks in the bathroom. No Matthew. A sweep downstairs reveals he isn’t there, either.
The woman starts to panic. She sprints back into the kitchen, where Joseph has fallen asleep. She shakes him awake. “Where’s Matthew?”
“What? What , Liz?”
“ Where’s Matthew ?” Liz is frantic now.
“Dunno,” Joseph slurs, turning over. “Last I saw him, he was dicking around in his room.”
“Well, he’s not there.”
“Then I’ve got no clue. I’m damn drunk, pretty sure I’ve been on this couch all night.”
Liz gives up and paces, biting her nails and running a hand through her hair. Did he run off? Did he sleep in a neighbor’s house?
It’s then that she notices the open door.
Glass glitters on the sidewalk under the porchlight. It crunches under Liz’s shoes as she runs--to the neighbors’ house, to the backyard, to the street. She’s gasping for breath by the time she makes it back home, and tears are falling down her face. Joseph is silhouetted in the doorway.
“Dammit, Liz, you’re wakin’ everyone!” he shouts.
Liz doesn’t care. Maybe if she wakes everyone up, someone will help find her son. “I can’t find him!”
“Prolly at someone’s house.”
“No. No, he’d call me,” Liz whimpers, even though Joseph has already stumbled drunkenly back inside. Out of options, Liz pulls out her phone and dials 911.
The time is 10:15 PM. Surprisingly, no one has awoken to the racket. The lights in the houses are still off. The crickets have quieted. The only sounds in town are the frantic voice of a scared mother and the distant rumble of a dark minivan that long since drove away.