I had just walked through my office door and sat down at my desk, hours later than I’d hoped, and was clearing away the weekend’s accumulation of hassling emails, when the phone rang, breaking my concentration. It was Karina, in a tizzy; the boys were missing. She’d been in the bathroom only a few minutes, and when she came out, the back door was ajar, Marcos and James nowhere to be found.
Understanding my role in situations such as this, and having lost and found children numerous times before, and worrying that I’d made the half-hour commute only a few minutes ago, and staring down at the pile of petty tasks I’d wanted to finish, and wishing for some quality writing time before an on-time departure, and realizing that on this Halloween night I’d get no work done at home, I spoke calmly, reassuring Karina that the boys were certainly nearby, maybe in the head-high weeds in the empty lot just across the backyard, maybe in the garage, maybe at the Andersons’—had she checked the playroom upstairs?
“Of course I checked the playroom!”
Ditto on the other places. She wanted me home right away. I wanted to avoid driving halfway there only to get the relieved phone call. I wanted peace and systematic thinking, a plan, but I also wanted to not get worked up, to solve the problem by paying it no heed. The statistics on such disappearances were overwhelmingly in our favor.
Most kids were found after a few minutes, innocently playing, unaware that they were causing their parents consternation. Marcos and James, barely three and not yet two, were overwhelmingly more likely to have wandered off than to have been taken, more likely to be safely ensconced than in any sort of danger. The fact that I was making up these statistics based on guesses and wishes did not dissuade me from believing them. I offered to call friends and neighbors to enlist their help, which I did, and then went back to work dispatching emails.
When Karina called again a few minutes later, I expected good news, but she was growing more distraught. I explained that the neighbors were already searching, which she knew, and suggested that she stay close to home so the boys would find her there when they returned. She had called the police, and she wanted me home now. So I quickly packed up and began the drive.
By then the boys had been missing for 30 minutes. I was not worried, I told myself as I waited at a stoplight. They’d show up, and we’d release our tension with a good laugh. I’d not even allow myself to get cross about all the undone work left waiting for me.
At each highway mile marker, my thigh felt a phantom buzz from my cell phone, but Karina never called. When I hit the exit for Pioneer Crossing, I called her, half-expecting that in her jubilation she’d forgotten to notify me. But there was still no sign of them. The police were there. The neighborhood was filled with neighbors. The elementary school had been alerted. It had now been 45 minutes.
I strained to guess where they might have gone, to get inside their heads or to hear the whisperings of the Spirit, to be guided to my sons. I took a right on 1100 West instead of 1700. I drove as slowly as I dared, scanning the tall grass and trees along the roadside. Nothing.
Knowing that these words will fail to convey even the remotest measure of the lived experience, I will cut the tension here to let you know the outcome. The boys were found. (I’ll tell you how in a minute.) I ask you not to sympathize or to enter the mind space I inhabited then but to think with me now, at a distance. For instance, let us take for a moment one sideways path that I have considered in the aftermath:
There was a time, only four years ago, when I thought four children were plenty. Karina and I had matched our parents’ output, had reached a reasonable return on our marital investment. Our car, a minivan, allowed us to travel together to Yellowstone or to the grocery store. Our house was comfortable, with the three girls sharing a large bedroom and with their older brother occupying his own room across the hall.
But the births of Marcos and James were the most irreversible of irreversible processes. Though they’ve existed for only a fraction of my life, they’ve so inserted themselves into my consciousness that they seem to have existed always; their lives are so entangled with my own that I feel as if without them I am not. Though I’d been content with a quartet, there was no going back to four children without destroying me.
After I’d been home for over an hour—comforting Karina; talking with police and friends and school aides; running and driving everywhere within a half-mile radius; checking and rechecking the drainage ditches, the donkey farm, the empty lot, the house under construction, the cars along the street, the elementary school hallways, the city ball fields, the Bushmans’ farm, the church parking lot, the entrance to the mink farm, the highway crossing the length of road as far as I could imagine they might have walked; praying frantically against the encroaching dread with each creeping minute with no news—I returned home broken. With my mind racing with a thousand scenarios, I trudged across the yard to the back deck, where Karina was weeping and two officers were explaining that they’d called police from nearby towns, and firemen were parading their trucks noisily through the streets in hopes of calling the boys’ attention. They were serious now, somber, willing to discuss the possibilities we’d dared not voice. They would set up a base at our home, resystematize their search, go door-to-door and enter the homes they could. The Amber alert was active. It was now nearing two o’clock. The boys had been missing for two hours.
Let us break away once more on another path, even as our story heads toward its already determined resolution:
I have traveled for conferences and for work, have visited family, have stayed home teaching while Karina took the kids to Uruguay for a month before I joined them there. I have spent weeks without seeing my children, days without speaking to them. I have learned, on the phone, of their injuries and emergency room visits, the discovery that the littlest has a peanut allergy. But in those lacunae I have always felt peace, have never suffered from the slightest suggestion that they were unsafe. Yet that day, across the protracted expanse of just two hours, I entered a place in my mind I had never visited or imagined was there. As I stepped up onto the deck, slumping my shoulders, breathing slowly, holding my gaze fixed on the middle distance between our house and the street behind, I was bereft. I had abandoned hope.
As I listened to the officers’ tentative plans, I no longer believed that Marcos and James were nearby just playing; I’d personally checked all the places they might have been hurt or worse, and so had a hundred other people. The only option left was that they had been taken. I asked, “Are there any traffic cameras close to here? At the light on Pioneer Crossing? At the school?”
My mind conjured a grainy black-and-white still image of a dark sedan. The camera angle was just low enough to allow a glimpse of a small boy (I thought) in the passenger seat under the hovering dark figure of an adult.
They weren’t sure, but they would find out. It was unlikely. Meanwhile, they were doing everything—
My lethargic stare narrowed and locked on the slightest blur of movement across our backyard, the Rosses’ backyard, the street, the Rasmussens’ driveway.
“Who is that kid!?” I yelled. My body sprang off the deck and began sprinting.
“Who is that kid!?” With each shout, I expelled all the air from my lungs; with each stride, the form came closer into focus. It was Marcos. When he saw me, his eyes went wide and he sat down on the driveway. Anita Burroughs, who’d been walking along the sidewalk, got there with me and scooped him up while I ran past, bounded up the front stairs, and barged into the Rasmussens’ house. James was standing surprised in the front entryway, his mouth ringed by a chocolate goatee. I sobbed as I gathered him up and ran back outside, where his mother and the officers and a small group of neighbors were smiling and sighing, perhaps crying as well.
The ensuing hours involved lots of research and explaining. Marcos and James, unable to comprehend our questions or communicate any answers, were no help. The police entered the home, found no one there, and determined that the boys had let themselves in and had plundered the bananas and Halloween candy. They’d been watching cartoons. They’d broken a vase. In all, their crimes were misdemeanors, easily remedied. We called our friends to call off the search, and the word spread quickly that everyone could go home and return to their usual level of vigilance. Several gathered instead in our yard, to offer what compassion they could. The threat was over, and our minds could settle on the real results, not the excruciating possibilities that had haunted us for the past pair of hours. Karina’s friends, especially, hugged her and shared their own lost-child stories, all agreeing that none had suffered as long or as dreadfully. I called my neighbor Lonnie, whom I barely knew, to tell him that my sons had ransacked his home. He laughed a little, told me not to sweat it. I promised to replace the vase and the candy. He said, “If you want, but get the vase from the dollar store.” Later, he pieced together that one of his kids had left for school by the front door, leaving it unlocked, while everyone else went out the garage. Later, Karina and I mused on the improbability that the boys had gone so far so quickly to a house they’d never visited on just the day that the front door was unlocked and the cupboards were stocked with enough candy to keep them occupied for a long while. Later, Trevor Smith explained that he’d been checking all the basement back doors on the street but hadn’t thought to do more than ring doorbells at the front.
Our friends in our front yard made what small talk you’d expect, verbal sighs of relief and offers to help in any way at all. Karina expressed her thanks that, given what we’d recently learned about James’ peanut allergy, the Rasmussens had no Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in their cupboards. People nodded. They commented on how God had watched over the boys.
But I, with my young sons returned, could still not quite leave the dark place my thoughts had settled, could not heave off the feeling of despair that had overcome me. Then and for the next several days, I was on edge, jittery. I had no appetite. My head ached. I thought, as I do too often, of the parents whose children weren’t protected, who really were lost forever. Even recently, even nearby: a toddler who was stolen and raped and killed by her neighbor; an adolescent refugee who was persuaded and raped and killed by her neighbor; a teenager who didn’t come home from school one afternoon, whose mother reported her missing to unbelieving police who refused to investigate, citing statistics that most young adults that age were not abductees but runaways. But she had been abducted, by a jealous rival and the boy they both liked, and then beaten with a baseball bat and left dead in the desert. Not thirty miles away, not a decade earlier, 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was taken from her home in the middle of the night and held captive for nine months by a mad preacher rapist until an “America’s Most Wanted” episode led to her recovery. Thus she was one of the “lucky few” who ever get home again. After the first 48 hours, the statistics say, the probability of finding a kidnapped child reduces to near zero.
That night, once the sun had set and the ghosts and goblins began their spooky actions, our trick-or-treating took twice as long as usual (or netted half the candy), because we paused at nearly every home to retell the story and to laugh nervously about how little Peter Pan and Captain Hook had already eaten their fill of the holiday booty. Everywhere we went, everybody knew. The feeling in the air was a big exhalation.
The next day, after classes, I showed up a few minutes late to a faculty seminar. David Allred was explaining to some of the others the principles of quantum entanglement, the double-slit experiment, and the indeterminacy of photons. I listened intently, fascinated, to his description of single quanta beamed through one or another slit and the resultant disappearance/omnipresence of the photon from/on both paths until it strikes a target in an interference pattern, having acted as a wave, interfering with itself. Until the energy resolves at the absorptive screen, it cannot be said to exist in either space definitively, or it “samples reality” along both paths, and not simply because our senses and instruments are too crude to find it. To put it another way, a particle exists in a range of possible locations until it is observed, and the observation fixes it in a particular place. Stranger yet, a photon or an electron can be split in two, with one part carried far away, and any observation or action on one half results in an immediate and predictable effect on the other. In this way, either information travels faster than the speed of light or the very notion of location in space loses meaning. The nature of the quantum universe is this very simultaneity and nonentity, untraceable and unknowable, affected by our observations and fundamentally beyond our ken, yes, but also fundamentally unknowable in moments of irresolution or inattention. With all we have learned, we have finally arrived at Sophocles: We confront our unbreachable ignorance.
This, I sensed vaguely—I still sense only vaguely—was a metaphor, a gift, an unsought connection sent to nudge me: everywhere and nowhere, indeterminacy, separation and reunion. Before my sons had appeared in one particular place, I had felt viscerally that they were both everywhere and nowhere. In a way, the time of their disappearance and the fact that I could not observe them produced in my mind a superposition of possible locations, until by observing them, I fixed them in only one place, one of the only acceptable places they might have been.
It was also a familiarity, in an off-center way, reminding me of the hours and days I’d spent studying such counterintuitives as a physics major in college. Lately I’d been thinking that when the philosophers noted that our senses are untrustworthy, they did not mean that we are so fully deceived as to think a coin is a duck but that the metaphors we build our understanding on are flawed, easily dismantled when scrutinized. The orbital model of the atom, for example, is an explanation for certain behaviors, not a photograph of an atom.
Thinking of light as a particle helps us understand reflection but not diffraction, for which we posit light as a wave. Experimenting to test our hypotheses, we learn that what we intuit about the way the world works is often wrong. We are born Aristotelians, certain that the heavy ball falls faster than the light ball. Though we observe falling objects all the time, only when we read of Galileo atop the Tower of Pisa do we rend the veil of our ignorance and pass through the rift into deeper understanding. We gather information on the scale of our senses; our imagination creates the stories that tie our observations together. Sometimes new knowledge can overpower our equivocal certainties, but not always. Exit exams of college students with one semester of physics reveal that we hew to our old notions long after they’re disproved. We retain what feels comfortable even beyond the arrival of contradictory evidence.
More and more I am coming to believe (and to be comfortable with) the notion that everything is probabilities, only probabilities. But this did not occur to me when I was in the thick of things, sitting in lectures and studying for exams. Nor did it comfort us when I could not locate our sons.
A couple of weeks later, I was shuffling down concourse C in the Salt Lake City airport, when I saw the stately blonde figure of Elizabeth Smart, now grown, recently returned from a mission to France. She was walking toward me, sharply dressed in pressed gray skirt and red blouse under a wool overcoat. Nobody bothered her, though a few heads, like mine, quickly turned in her direction as she glided past. I was leaving my family for a few days, about to catch a flight to Spokane, where I would give a reading and meet with students at Whitworth College. She was coming home.
Patrick Madden is an associate professor at Brigham Young University. His first collection of essays, Quotidiana (Nebraska, 2010), won awards from the Association of Mormon Letters and ForeWord Magazine and was a finalist for the 2011 PEN Center USA Literary Award. Excerpted from his second book, Sublime Physick, published by University of Nebraska Press (2016).