Illustration by Vlad Alvarez
Carrie Morgan’s kidnapped son came back while she was at church.
Later, when she told a few fellow Episcopalians in Bronwyn, Pennsylvania, about this miracle—and she would, eventually, be brave enough to tell the whole story to a few new friends—they would point to this salient fact, gently, insisting it was the lynchpin.
The cause, the effect. As if her faith had conjured a delicate simulacrum of her baby, truly ephemeral, wafer-thin. She was taken aback by their steadfast view, the quietest version of fervor she’d ever witnessed.
Most of the WASPs she knew—her mother, her in-laws—seemed able to take or leave their religion, abandoning it in favor of science, suspending church attendance for golf season. Or, as her Gran used to say, as income rises, faith falls.
Indeed, when she pressed her own husband, John, asking him with tears in her eyes how he could have been an acolyte, how he could have been vice president of his youth group and not believed in what they both had seen with their own eyes, he had blinked at her and said: Religion was sort of something we did, not something we believed. An activity, a sport. A club.
Yet even after the whole week was finished, and her deepest fears and faith confirmed, she would still shake her head and insist, firmly, that no, being at church when it had all been set in motion was merely a coincidence. She would try to convince everyone it was actually ironic.
Because she wasn’t there at St. David’s, the soaring stone cathedral set high on a hill—as if lording its wisdom over all the Philadelphia suburbs—kneeling, weeping, praying for her son’s safe return; she’d stopped doing that months ago. No, she was mindlessly assembling brown boxes in the basement for their annual clothing drive, and keeping track of her donated hours in the back of her mind so she could log it in her little notebook, as if she could hand over the evidence someday at the pearly gates.
It was early October, the part of the month still clinging to the grassy excess of summer, still warm enough that people were donating sweaters instead of coats, cottons instead of wools. The boxes they packed were light. There were three other women: Anna, Joan, Libby. Carrie was stronger than the others, and much younger. They were grateful to have her, happy to have someone sturdy and yet fragile. Someone who could be useful, but who was still in great spiritual need herself. She looked so pretty and neat, her clothes always pulled together and her tortoise-shell hair perpetually shining in the stained glass light; but she still made mistakes, took risks, like a child. Defiant, in her own way, headstrong as a toddler—they could tell by the set of her jaw. So much to learn! How often does a perfect volunteer like that come along?
It took a while, but Carrie had finally thrown herself back into volunteering. At first, she showed up whenever someone asked for volunteers—at church, pre-school, even bake sales at the nearby tennis club—trying not just to take her mind off her missing son, but to create a new engine of purpose for her day. She hadn’t just lost a child, she’d told her husband; she was a full-time mother — she’d lost her job. His face had twisted at that choice of words, and she’d been furious right back at him, in his face. Oh, so I can’t say that anymore? That raising a child is work? It wasn’t all tickling and tossing the ball around, John!
But more than the anger, and the emptiness, there was the crushing sadness, sadness that was held back with some kind of societal seawall until it gathered fury and sloshed over everything. After a few breakdowns at school in front of women who managed to comfort her while also raising their eyebrows at the intensity of her sobs, she’d settled in at the church, where no one seemed to judge her. The fact that she could go from competent to sniveling in a matter of seconds had no place at a school. That, and she still looked so pretty when she cried. No reddening of the face, no smearing of mascara. That’s not real crying, everyone whispered.
The children at school were always bubbling with questions, especially about adults who acted strangely. And the school was full of boys. Boys who didn’t want to be stared at by a woman they didn’t know, who occasionally tried to touch their hair. The day she was asked to leave, the volunteer coordinator sat with Carrie in an empty science classroom, squeezed into the taut plastic chairs, and stared at the periodic table of elements while Carrie sobbed, as if there was some chemical shorthand for what was happening to them all.
No, the church was further from the living, closer to the dead and the unforgivable. The church was where she belonged. The women here weren’t like the young teachers and young mothers at school. They didn’t believe anymore in perfect outfits, perfect homes, even perfect afternoons. They’d chipped their china; they’d buried their parents. They knew.
Some days, like this one, the hard work and convivial camaraderie did too good a job; Carrie almost forgot for whole blocks of time—hours, sometimes—that Ben had been stolen from her car while she struggled with a parking meter outside Starbucks. Ripped from his car seat, leaving only a damp pacifier and one pale blue sneaker. It haunted her for so long, wondering where the other shoe was, and then, suddenly, she could stop thinking about it. A miracle.
For weeks the car smelled like Ben. John would come outside in the evenings and find her sitting in the back seat, breathing in the lost perfume of motherhood. The swallowed milk and damp hair, the aroma that lingered at his neck, around his ears. Even cranky, even tired, even with mud streaked on his face, Ben was never truly dirty.
He smelled like milk and biscuits, wet paper straws and terry cloth bibs and fruity jelly. The finest combination of sour and sweet.
Months later, when John had her car cleaned and detailed, Carrie flew into a rage, pounding her fists against his chest, as if he’d been the meter maid, as if he’d worn the uniform that made her scrabble through her purse for more money. As if he was the silver meter flashing a red flag demanding another quarter—starting the fight over twenty five measly cents that had cost her everything. John held her, soothed her, made her dinner. Then, he brought it up again: We should move. A few towns to the east, closer to his parents. So they could help them, so Carrie would have a change of scenery. And she shook her head so vigorously the tears flew off her cheek. We can’t leave! What if Ben comes back? And then, just like that, Ben did.
She floated between the boxes. Ben had been missing more than a year; it had almost been fifteen months, and only in the last few weeks had Carrie finally experienced the ability to separate from herself, suspended from her awful history, and forget. Forget that she hadn’t left her house or yard for weeks, that she’d been almost catatonic. Forget she once heard John telling his mother on the phone: It’s as if she was taken the same day he was.
She forgot how she sat in the dark rewinding Ben’s crib mobile over and over again, the path of the stuffed stars and quilted moon circling for hours above her head, the lullaby always in her ears. John had finally taken it down, and told her the mechanism had burned, the battery sparking. She’d found it, days later, in the basement, tucked inside a pail full of rags. Hiding the evidence. Proof that John couldn’t take it, he just couldn’t take it anymore. But she could. She could take it forever. She’d come upstairs with the mobile, wagging it in his face, telling him to hang it back up, dammit! Now!
“Sometimes I think you want to stay sad,” John had said as he grabbed it out of her hand. “Like you deserve it or something.”
And she’d gone in the bathroom and whispered to the mirror, “Maybe I do.”
But now, after so much time, the tasks she’d assigned herself sometimes took over, as they were supposed to, distracting her, and then—realizing they’d done so—threw her into guilt. Distraction, guilt, distraction. But sometimes, for a few hours, that distraction brought a level of comfort. Not happiness, exactly, but something close.
She moved lightly, fluidly, as empty people tend to do. A ghost in a coral cotton sweater and gray Lululemon tennis skirt, moving through the dusty corridors, someone with nothing, carrying other people’s castoff things. If there had been baby clothes in a bag in that narrow basement, she would have thought of Ben, surely. If driving there she had passed the tidy new groomed playground, all curved edges and bright colors and wood chips, and seen a ball being kicked across the short mowed grass, she would have ached inside. His first words: “Ball” and “bat,” and not, as she loved to joke, what she kept training him to say: “Thank you, Mommy.”
But instead of dwelling on her boy, she worked swiftly while discussing innocuous subjects like golf. Whether Libby should start playing with her husband during his impending retirement. Anna sharing her belief that several ladies in the congregation cheated on their scores regularly.
“I’m so glad you’re feeling better,” Libby said as they walked out to the parking lot together.
She squeezed Carrie’s hand tightly, then held it as an older sister might, as they stood next to Libby’s dusty and dog-hair-filled Subaru wagon. Libby had always been Carrie’s favorite person at the church. She came from one of the wealthiest Philadelphia families—it was embedded in her monogram forever, ‘K’ for Kelly. A letter that stood wider than all the others, strong enough to withstand gossip, to live on reputation alone—but she lived her life like she had no money or pedigree at all. The oldest car in the church parking lot. Straight blunt hair that belied her soft heart. Mothballs the only perfume she ever wore.
Libby had a soft spot for Carrie and her husband John too. It was as if, by knowing them, she caught a glimpse of how her own daughter’s life might have turned out, if she hadn’t been killed in a car accident at sixteen. Pious, hard working, organized. Mary, her daughter, had been blonder, shorter, more slight, but she was just as strong and openhearted. Yes, her Mary would have been a lot like Carrie, she was sure.
Libby had renovated Mary’s old bedroom, finally, a few years ago, and had given one of Mary’s needlepoint belts to Carrie. Carrie had run her fingers over the tiny knots and x’s with wonder, like she was reading Braille, parsing the meaning of the design, the small whales and gulls and anchors. Libby loved seeing it now, peeking out beneath the bottom of Carrie’s coral sweater, threaded through the belt loops of her tennis skirt.
“How can you tell I’m feeling better?” Carrie asked.
“Oh, it’s plain as day.”
“Because you haven’t found me curled up in the basement bathroom with Kleenex stuffed up my nose in a while?”
“Well, yes,” Libby laughed.
“They really should invent a product for frequent criers whose noses run. Like a nose tampon. There’s probably a huge market for it.”
“See, that’s what I mean—making a joke again. There’s a … lightness to you lately.”
Carrie returned Libby’s smile. Libby always laughed at Carrie’s quips. In high school, the girls her own age never seemed to understand her sense of humor. She’d make a comment or observation in class, and the teacher would smile but the students looked at her as if she were speaking a foreign language.
Libby got in her car and pretended to fiddle with something in her purse. She sneaked glances toward Carrie as Carrie walked to her car, closed the door, turned on her engine. She drove past Libby, waving again.
Slivers of sun still shone stubbornly on the speckled alders dotting both sides of the creek in the distance. But slate bottomed clouds hung heavy above the green oaks and lindens circling the parking lot, shading Libby’s car.
Libby watched Carrie a long time, till she was out of sight, then did something she only felt a bit guilty about: She sent a two-word text—En route. She thought it was sweet that Carrie’s husband worried about her. Libby was a slow texter, with large calloused thumbs from gardening, and as she pecked out the message with her head bent down, another car sprang to life in the parking lot. It pulled out of a far corner, headed in the same exact direction as Carrie’s.
Carrie took the shorter way home, on Route 30. She glanced at the rear view mirror a dozen times but it was only to smile at the bobbing blue sneaker, Ben’s only sneaker, that hung there now. Like Dr. Kenney had suggested, she took it out of the drawer where she’d been keeping it, and tried to consider it a good luck charm.
But the swaying shoe mesmerized like a hypnotist’s watch, and she never saw the car lurking a half-block behind her, turning when she turned, veering when she veered. Even if she had noticed, it never would have occurred to her that something was amiss. Everyone on the edge of the Main Line drove the same predictable routes. She didn’t worry.
It had been a week since Detective Nolan came over to ask her “one more thing” that sounded innocuous but probably wasn’t. Days since she’d fumed to her mother that no one ever asked John more questions, only her. He’d been in Ardmore that day, too, hadn’t he? Said he went out for a run after lunch, but had anyone tracked down his route, asked for the DNA on his sweaty clothes? What would they say if they’d known how jealous he’d been in college, how he followed Carrie when she went alone to fund-raisers or parties and watched as she went inside?
But she didn’t think about this. And it had been hours, two at least, since she had thought about her son. Because she was getting better. She was coming back to life. She was.
Then she took the last winding curves of Sugarland Road, passing the moss-dappled houses in the distance, the endless driveways up green swaying hills, everything weathered and nothing glittery, no agate twinkling between the low fieldstone walls. She turned onto her street, a dark macadam slash flanked by piles of faux stone. She pulled into the abbreviated driveway and opened her hollow red door and she heard it then, that babbling half-language only babies and toddlers know. The sounds you wish you had recorded more of, remembered better, once they’re gone.
She put her hand up to her mouth and walked slowly up the stairs. She sniffed the air for traces of him—powder, shampoo—but smelled something that reminded her of a soiled diaper. The sounds grew louder, unmistakable and she couldn’t decide if she was thrilled, or merely, deeply, afraid.
The mothers of the older children at the YMCA had noticed a man hanging around the previous summer, watching the kids burst through the doors after swim class. Sometimes he followed them the few blocks over to Starbucks afterwards, eyeing the children’s seal-slick hair, their tiny bottoms popping out of their bright squeaking suits.
Ben was a baby still then, not quite two, so Carrie was always in the pool or locker room with him, but she mostly let him be. Only occasionally concerned with changing his swim diaper and keeping his shower shoes on so he didn’t slip. She didn’t hover, no; sometimes she was making a shopping list or chatting on Facebook with her few college friends—the only time they seemed to communicate anymore. Maybe if she had looked up from her phone or her son she would have fixed on that man more clearly. She would have been alert! Wouldn’t she have? And been suspicious of someone who seemed to be watching the children and sometimes maybe the moms—yet who also looked like he may have been taking photos of the building, the paint job, almost like an inspector might, for a perfectly logical reason, on his phone?
It had been a particularly hot and wet summer, and each time Carrie and Ben returned for a lesson, the shrubs and plants flanking the entrance appeared to have doubled in size; tendrils had turned into tentacles, brushing against their legs, casting longer and wider shadows with every passing day. If Carrie had had to guess—and she did guess, wildly, under the microscope of police questioning—she would say that man might have been a landscape architect, there to trim, to uproot and replant, to right nature’s summer wrongs. Hadn’t she had that very conversation with another mother afterwards? That she’d assumed the same thing?
Oh, the mothers of the YMCA. The pool moms, the swim team moms. A little older, a little wiser than Carrie. They knew how to keep a child’s hair from turning green. They always had zip lock bags for wet Speedos. She’d noticed their competency as much as they’d noticed her rookie mistakes—forgetting a towel, bringing a large shampoo bottle instead of a small one. They didn’t know her at all, but they were nicer, so much nicer, than the mothers at pre-school. Was it distance that allowed them to feel something? Was it the idea of Ben, the not knowing him, that opened their hearts? Or just the lack of competition, since none of them had toddlers anymore?
Carrie knew what it was like to feel judged—she’d spent all of high school feeling that way. She didn’t have the money, that wide green safety net the other kids had, but she’d always felt she didn’t have something else, some indiscernible heft, a knowledgeable weight left out of her DNA. Her grandmother had always said Carrie was an old soul. And it did seem that people her own age never understood her. In college, Chelsea and Sarah were always defending her to other people on their floor, who said she looked “ironed” and was “too quiet” and “not any fun.”
You just have to get to know her, they’d say. She’s quick-witted. She loves to talk, once you know her.
The moms at the Y never got to know Carrie, but they never blamed her either—they blamed themselves. They were so upset they hadn’t written down that suspicious man’s license plate number! Came up to her at the candlelight vigil on the grounds of the Y and told her so. Squeezed her hand with tears in their eyes as if they’d been buddies because they’d shared a bench at the locker room once, when Dolphins were leaving and Tadpoles were coming in.
Some of them brought casseroles and flowers and balloons and stood in a semi-circle around Carrie and John as if they’d been family or neighbors. Afterwards, John’s mother said she was so glad that Carrie had the support of so many friends. Did you see all those candles, lighting up the night? And Carrie hadn’t corrected her. Sometimes people who don’t know you still know exactly what you need. The same group of women attended the second candlelight ceremony when Ben had been gone a year.
Carrie had become more vigilant since then, more observant—maybe every swim mom had, owing to their guilt. No one could say whether this man’s car was an old Honda or a Toyota or a Ford; if under the road dust it was dark blue or green or black. If his long, almost girlish, hair was brown or blond. If he went into Starbucks or merely sat outside, watching as they left their children in their cars, unlocked, while they dug in their purses to pay the meter.
As Ben grew and got heavier, Carrie moved him from the center to the slot behind her. Other boys unlatched themselves, got out of their seats. Not Ben. He was active, yes; but still cuddly, still obedient. Still loved to be carried. Easier, faster, for him to be near her own door. Except when there was a meter to be fed. The dark shadow of the meter maid at the end of the block, the brass buckles of her uniform flashing in the sun, as if that was the person Carrie should be worried about. More money, surely, at the bottom of her purse.
When the police asked her, over and over, to think back to that moment, and whether there wasn’t something she saw, a blur, a color, a hint of the man’s hair or clothes—all she could conjure, contorting her face, begging her brain for more, was the dark leather cave of her purse. So big, you could get lost in it. There was more at the edges of the frame, lost to time’s edit. There was more she couldn’t bear to tell them. But Carrie’s mind froze in the darkness, the silty suede bottom, of that bag.
She was more observant now. She stood outside her son’s room, the door open six inches. Wide open was too sad. Closed tight, even sadder. So she left it slightly ajar, always, like an invitation. John had learned, finally, not to touch anything, not to change anything else, lest it alter his wife irreparably.
No more babbling. Had she imagined it? No view of the crib through the opening. The Where the Wild Things Are poster on the wall. The pale-green rocking chair. The pastel wool alphabet rug that cost so much and never mattered to Ben, who never grew old enough to learn the ABCs, to spell, to put together sentences. Just handfuls of words, juxtaposed. Light me, he’d say when it got dark in his room. Light me.
Those words could have become a touchstone for her and John, a catchphrase to illuminate their path back to each other. But when she held them out to John once, in the dark of their bedroom, he hadn’t said them back to her, and hadn’t turned on the light. He had simply hugged her a little harder, almost grimly. And that wasn’t enough. No, not nearly enough. She was more observant now, but John was less.
“Ben,” she whispered into the room from the safety of the hallway. Did she dare open the door wider?
No response. She felt silly; her cheeks flushed. Probably heard a child out back, on the walking path to the pond below her house. The sound carried sometimes, depending on the wind. She turned to go back downstairs, and then she heard it.
Squeaking. The sound of a small mattress when little feet bounce up and down.
“Ben,” she cried, as she opened the door.
She would never forget the sight of him, the width of his smile, the sparkle of his green eyes, as he stood in his crib. The same delight whether she had presents in her hands, or food, or nothing. A smile for a smile, always. The equation that children bring, that adults forget. She didn’t need a snapshot to capture the way his golden hair stuck to his forehead on one side from being asleep. His cheeks flushed because he was too hot in his clothes. She would never forget because he looked precisely as she remembered him.
The same smile.
The same clothes.
The same pair of orange socks.
Not one centimeter taller. Not one ounce heavier.
Fifteen months later.
Rosemont’s Kelly Simmons is a former journalist and advertising creative director. Her first novel, Standing Still, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2008. Visit www.kellysimmonsbooks.com.