Note: I don’t really classify this story as a “true” horror because of its ending, but what happens inside the story is still, to me, very frightening. I’m sure any parent would agree. This is my attempt to touch on a broader range of emotion.
“Aw, Dad, can’t we do it just one more time? One more launch. Please? Please?”
Stephen looked down at his young son, marveling at this creature that was his own creation. Tommy was a little replica of Stephen himself, with cheery brown eyes, and a big, happy grin that he shared as easily as his father shared his own.
“I don’t know, son. Your mom and your sister are going to be wondering where we are, don’t you think?”
“Naw, she’s busy with Jessica. They’re getting their nails done. Yuck!” He stuck his tongue out in disgust and Stephen laughed.
“Alright,” he said to his six-year old son. “How about a little snack first? Some hot dogs and soda? Think your mom’d be upset?”
Tommy opened his eyes wide with excitement. “Oh no, Daddy. She’s always saying she doesn’t want me go hungry. That’s why she’s always saying I have to eat everything on my plate.”
Stephen chuckled. “Yeah, you’ve got your mom’s number, alright,” he murmured, amused. He loved his son’s simple honesty—if somewhat misconstrued and self-serving—and the innocence with which it was always expressed. He found it completely endearing.
“Alright, kiddo, let’s go.”
They walked together, father and son, through the thick grass. The park was full of people: families sitting on bright colored blankets, having a picnic and sharing stories; couples and their dogs tossing a Frisbee. Beyond the center fountain, teenagers were playing a spirited game of volleyball, a boom box blasting music providing a soundtrack for their fun. The day was sunny and bright, the sky dotted with clouds. A perfect day to be out with my boy, Stephen thought contentedly.
They reached the refreshment stand, where the line snaked several feet beyond the concession stand. They took their place in line and chatted together. Stephen listened patiently and with amusement as his son rambled excitedly.
“How high do you think we can make it go, Dad?”
“I don’t know, Tommy. What do you think?”
“I’ll bet we can make it touch the sky!”
Stephen encouraged him with a smile and an affectionate pat on the head.
Suddenly, Tommy steered the conversation from their impending activity and turned to more pressing, more immediate matters. “I have to go to the restroom.”
“Can you hold it?” The line was still long and moving slowly and Stephen was loathe to leave the line now that their place was well-established.
“Nope.” As if to prove his dire emergency, he immediately crossed his legs and began jumping up and down.
Stephen scanned the area for a restroom and discovered the sign behind the refreshment stand. “You sure you can’t—“
“I can go all by myself, Daddy. I’m a big boy.”
“Are you sure, son?”
“I’ve got this, Dad.” And before Stephen could protest further, his son took off in the direction of the restroom. Just as he was considering going after him, a customer leaving the refreshment stand laden with drinks, ketchup and mustard dressed hot dogs, and cheesy nachos crashed right into him, spilling food everywhere.
“Oh my god, excuse me!”
“No, no, it was an accident, it’s alright.”
It was well after the ensuing commotion had died down that Stephen realized that Tommy had never returned from the restroom. He went to the restroom, where it was quiet and impossibly deserted.
“Tommy?” he called out. “Tommy, are you here, son?” He waited but there was nothing, no sound, no response. He must be outside, he thought. He has to be outside. He refused to panic.
But Tommy was not outside. He was nowhere to be—
And then Stephen found him. His back was to Stephen, but he recognized him by his striped shirt and his kinky hair and his new white sneakers. He squatted by the fountain, bent over the side, his small hand carelessly swishing and swirling water.
A well of relief that washed over him and his chest suddenly loosened, relaxing a knot of tension that he hadn’t known was there.
He moved to his son, and as relief turned to annoyance tinged with anger, Stephen reached out, putting his hands on his shoulders, and spun him around.
“My god, Tommy, why did you leave—” he yelled, but then he suddenly stopped short.
“Hey!” the boy in front of him shouted in surprise.
“Hey, get your hands off my son!” someone else started. It was a woman, and she immediately went to Stephen, yanking the boy back from his grasp. He was the same height as Tommy, but now Stephen saw that the striped shirt he wore had colors of green and white instead of white and blue, and the new sneakers he wore were not so much a shiny white but more of a silver gray.
Stephen released the boy, stunned. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled, stumbling backward. “I’m sorry, I’m looking for my son. I thought he was my son.” The words came out in a rush, and he turned away from the mother and her son before anyone could say anything else.
Fingers of fear reached for him then, trying to take him into their grasp, but still he refused to panic. Tommy was here, in this park, at this moment, and of this, he had no doubt.
But even when police, firefighters, and volunteers got involved, there was still no sign of him. They spent hours searching for Tommy, and every possible hiding place and attraction was searched and searched again. But he was gone, vanished, like a whisper on the wind: here one moment and gone the next.
Stephen, though shocked and horrified by the disappearance of his son, was determined to stay strong. When he spoke with authorities, his voice never wavered, and his eyes were cold steel. They would find his son. Through sheer force of will he would deem it so.
But it was later into the night, when Officer Johnson came to him, that Stephen finally broke down.
“I’m sorry Mr. Wells, but so far, all we’ve found is this.”
Suddenly, it was all too much. Taking the object into his hands, Stephen finally broke down and began to cry.
A year had passed since Tommy had disappeared. There had been starts and stops, a few small leads, but all that had been produced was false hope. Immediately after his disappearance, there had been interviews, hundreds of them: with police and detectives, with journalists and politicians, with citizens groups and talk show hosts. In his mind, Stephen remembered them only as one long blur, with flashes of microphones, tears, and pleas for the safe return of his son. The ringing of phones had been constant, a harsh cacophony of sound that could have heralded good news, but only brought more angst, more misery, more disappointment.
A month after his disappearance, a shoe and a torn piece of shirt had been discovered, but there had been no prints, nothing for the police to work with. Six months later, the interviews became less and less frequent until they eventually stopped altogether. Little was heard from the phones that had once been ringing without cessation. The case eventually went cold and was filed away under Missing Persons. Stephen wondered vaguely if they would ever pick up his file again.
He walked slowly through the park where he had last seen his son. In his hands, he held the object that they had first found the day he had disappeared: his model space shuttle. As he walked to the spot where he and Tommy would have launched their ship for the last time that day, he regarded the other park patrons. How easy it is for them, he thought bitterly. How blissfully ignorant they are. He wanted to scream, to yell: Don’t you know my son was taken? That my son is gone? How can you not know or care?
He felt his anger rising, his grief surging, and fought to control his emotions. He was only here for one thing, and it was not to judge or assign blame or make accusations. He didn’t want to be angry today or succumb to bitterness or even grieve. There would be time for that again tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. But today was special. He was here for a sole purpose and he intended to be strong. For Tommy.
A year ago, Stephen had promised his son they could take his space shuttle up one more time before they left. But of course, that had never happened. That promise had never been kept. Until now.
In the clearing where they had spent a happy afternoon before something had gone terribly, horribly wrong, Stephen set up his son’s rocket-powered shuttle. Once everything was set, he took out the remote and stepped back. He looked up, and noticed that the day, much as it had been a year ago, was beautiful: the sun cast its golden light with abandon, and the sky was again a soft and lovely shade of blue. A breeze blew through the trees, whispering gently. Stephen thought he heard someone call to him: Daddy?
He turned quickly, looking left and right, but there was no one, nothing. Brushing away tears, Stephen spoke quietly. “Tommy, we’re going to take it up one last time, okay? Just like I promised. This is the last space shuttle launch, son.”
He pressed the button and watched his son’s rocket fly up, up, up.
And for a moment, he let his son go.