“An Indian with feathers came to our school today.” That’s the last thing Carol Ann remembers her nephew saying as she hurried him out the door to the Christmas pageant. Now, as she stands in the middle of the frosted-over playground at St. Peter’s Elementary she feels panic in her chest because her nephew—her sister’s little boy—is missing. Twenty minutes earlier he was part of a Bethlehem tableau and now he is gone. She’s yelled and yelled his name until the noise was just a bloody throat-call that didn’t sound anything like “Jeremy.” She tries to remember what he looks like, so when the officer asks her, she won’t feel like such a fuck-up to have lost her nephew at his own school on Christmas Eve. Was he a shepherd or a wise man? She thinks the bathrobe he was in was blue, but it might have been green. Carol Ann digs her nails into her palms, making pink half-moons in her flesh.
She thinks about her sister still at work, and how she will have to tell her that her son went missing. Carol Ann is scared to say the word “lost” to a mother.
When Marcy Reeves, the school nurse, steps into the pool of light cast by the lamppost on the basketball court, carrying Jeremy still in his bathrobe, turban askew, Carol Ann can only ask dumbly, “Where were you?”
“He was at the edge of the woods,” Marcy says. “Said he was going to build a teepee.”
“The Indian has one,” Jeremy says like an apology, and Carol Ann notices for the first time the freckle on his earlobe.
“I don’t know why they brought a Native American to school now. People always complain about Christmas ads at Thanksgiving. Guess the school’s timing is off.”
Carol Ann tries to laugh but can barely stand on her own legs. She takes Jeremy and pulls the sides of the bathrobe closer to his neck. He buries his face in her collar and she can feel his soft breath. Thanking Marcy, she carries Jeremy across the basketball court, his legs swinging loose and puppet-jointed. He is just old enough to be too big to be carried comfortably, but he makes no move to walk on his own. Her Honda is parked in the back lot, and when she puts Jeremy in, she is sorry he has to sit in the back where she can only see him in the rearview.
Marcy Reeves gets in her own car and turns the radio off. She drives in silence to the small market that she likes on the corner of Henderson and Ames. After the night’s frantic hunt, she wants chocolate and cheese. In the dairy aisle, she thinks about not waiting to get home before eating the cheese, biting off large hunks as she drives with one hand. Her nerves feel poised like a spring.
She doesn’t have kids of her own. She spent years with a man who wanted a big, happy brood of children, but it ended when he grew weary every time she said, “But what if they grow up to be brats?” or “What if we turn into boring people who can’t fly to Honduras just because?” And he finally gave up on Marcy asking the questions she really wanted answers to.
Each time she presses a cotton ball soaked with cool alcohol onto a scraped knee, the sudden wince on a child’s face makes her feel like a monster when she can’t summon the right words to steady a trembling lip. Marcy’s job is to heal pain, but she can’t help thinking she isn’t very good at her job. She was not able to explain any of this to the man she loved, and so it is over and he is married to a city planner now. They have a baby boy, and Marcy thinks this could have been her, but knows there are so many things fear will not allow, and so she stands in the dairy aisle, in the steady blue-white hum of the fluorescent lights wishing for relief.
Nora Kenney, the mother of a quiet third grader at the school, is putting a bag of shredded cheese in her basket. Marcy says hello quietly and can’t stop herself from launching into the story of finding Jeremy Browne barefoot in the woods, collecting sticks for a teepee. Once the story has poured out, she feels a little foolish and tries to give Nora a brisk happy nod, wishing her a merry Christmas before going off into the night to eat cheese by the hunk.
Nora is left in the dairy aisle with the story of a missing child now found. She feels a pinch of failure because she knows exactly where her own son is, but she’s not there too. She’s been making up stories about errands, leaving him with her husband. Lately, she feels adrift when her son looks up at her with eyes that seem to doubt her. All of her feels emptied and spent. But she buys her few groceries in a hurry and rushes home now because she wants to do better. She can answer a child’s questions. She can. She is a mother, and this is what mothers do. She keeps her mittened hands on the steering wheel and points her car home.
There, she begins cooking, trying to fill the kitchen with the warm brown smells of food. In the other room, her husband is wrapping a science kit, a present he picked out for Fletcher. She takes a moment to watch her son by the window, staring out past his own reflection on the black glass, his hair glowing a golden pink in the lights from the Christmas tree.
“It smells like tacos,” Fletcher says. His forehead is pressed against the cool glass, leaving a tiny halo of fog over his head.
“Because I’m making tacos,” Nora says.
“It’s Christmas Eve.” Fletcher lifts his head from the glass and looks at her suddenly.
She pauses and catches his eyes, unsure of what he means.
“There’s no such thing as tacos on Christmas Eve,” he says and turns away from her. He is standing at the window, looking with a scrunched brow at a snow-globe. He turns it over once, slowly, and watches as the bits of white and glitter flutter down on a plastic scene. He looks out the window at the spitting of real flakes, then up at his mother who has stopped stirring what is cooking in the pan, and is standing too still. He is willing her to do something he can’t name. He wants to ask her so much, but loses his words and grows scared when he believes that the truth is, she won’t have answers. In Fletcher’s mind, the world is immense with its own possibilities, but he is also filled with dread that there is nowhere but here.
Fletcher remembers a time when he was smaller, and it seems like a dream because his life is not very long. He was standing on a sidewalk, hot with sun. His mother had been there, but by some trick of the afternoon light, she was no longer by his side. He had crouched on the sidewalk because he could hear the hum and echo of something under his feet. He lay both hands on the rusted metal grate and spread his fingers wide. It was the sound of the water rushing below him and it was gigantic, and he was listening and being transported. He felt the rush of water through him sweeping him out into the ocean. When his mother appeared back out of the dappled light, she was crying, and shaking, and afraid, and it scared him too to be scooped into her trembling arms and carried away.
Molly McGillicuddy currently lives in Sterling, MA. She teaches college writing and yoga. You can find more of her writing in Prick of the Spindle, Limestone Literary Magazine, The Ear Hustler, Black Heart Magazine, among other publications. She does not have a website because she still has a flip-phone.