I can’t remember Jake. I mean I can, but I won’t. Because Em and I have two other children now. And we want them to have a normal life. They don’t even know they might have an older brother somewhere. But since you asked, I’ll tell you. I can’t talk at length about this, so I’m going to be very brief. Just the basic facts. We don’t know any more than those few “basic facts.” Probably we never will.
I told Em from very nearly the beginning there was something different about that daycare. Helping Hands Daycare. Well, you know it’s gone now. The building burnt to the ground. There’s a Goodwill store in that lot. You’d never guess there had been anything else there. There’s no trace of it left.
When we first encountered it? Well, sure, it looked fine if you took a quick glance. Fingerpaintings hung proudly on the walls. There was up-to-date and safe playground equipment and stringent supervision at boisterous playtime. A current license. Healthy food. A strict sick-child policy to protect everyone. The staff was friendly and, most importantly, they interacted beautifully with the kids. Perhaps too beautifully. I just felt something was off with “Miss Marsha.” It was her business. You know they never found her. That was some other woman’s body in the fire. They said there had been an attempt to make it appear that it was Miss Marsha’s body. Well, DNA testing put that to rest.
How it began? Jake began coming home with dirt under his fingernails. I would ask him to explain and he used to shrug me off. He’d get that nervous look. I told him it was okay, tried to turn it into a joke. So eventually he said that disturbing thing, he just came out and said, “We have to feed them.”
My wife thought it was nothing at first. She said it was typical fantasy, a story sprung up between Jake and his playmates at Helping Hands. When he told us that the things lived under the daycare, in a sort of tunnel, that Miss Marsha would take them down there and they would feed these creatures, she laughed. She just snorted and whinnied and told her friends. She thought it was hilarious. “The monsters that live under Helping Hands Daycare.” I heard her mother and her laughing on the phone about it. I distinctly remember that. They hooted.
Em actually liked to hear Jake tell the stories. She’d encourage him. Even at the dinner table. Then she would correct him, but oh so nicely. She would say that she liked to hear him tell stories, that it was good he had an imagination.That someday he could write books and tell others these stories and they would enjoy them as much as his mother did. She said imagination was something about which Jake should be proud. He would nod at her and finish combining his mashed potatoes and peas. But I saw in his eyes that he thought she was crazy.
It all happened very quickly after that. The fire at the daycare. Miss Marsha presumed dead. Everyone wondered at the time why she would have been at the daycare in the middle of the night anyway, which is when the fire broke out. They still haven’t identified that young woman whose body was found in the fire. Maybe they never will. They did determine she died by a gunshot to the head and not from the fire itself.
Obviously, no children perished in that middle of the night blaze. But four of the children, the oldest enrollees, did disappear shortly after that fire.
“Abducted” is what the media report. In a sense, that’s true. But in another sense it isn’t.
I began waking suddenly at night in the period immediately after the fire. I’d often find Jake awake and creeping around the house. At three or four in the morning. Often, I’d catch him at the windows peering out into the night. My wife thought he had become a sleepwalker because of the trauma from the fire. We didn’t enroll him in a new daycare. It was all too disturbing and we wanted to keep him close to us. Em’s sister would watch him in the daytime. In our house.
I’d always ask Jake what he was doing up and what he was looking for out the window. He told me he missed his “special friend.” I was terrified there might have been sexual abuse going on and that Jake was turning it all into some sort of surreal fantasy narrative. I really only thought this after the fire. That’s what made me think the conflagration was used as a cover-up for some serious shit at Helping Hands. But, thinking back, I remember the strange fur we would find on his clothes. We knew animals, even pets, were not allowed in the daycare. We’d drop him off there and pick him up. He didn’t go anywhere else. So where was he getting that? And what sort of animal was it? My God, when I think back at how I just shook off so many anomalies, I want to go back in time and shake the shit out of myself, and that “normalcy narrative” to which I kept clinging.
Anyway, you know the end of the story. Or what I told the police. There is no real end to the story. I say I don’t remember, but I do. In the middle of the night, when I’m lying in bed, I think of Jake. And I listen. I leave the windows open in spring, summer, even late into autumn. I listen for the sound of that…beast. If it came once, it might come again. Jake might ride it back here. The way I saw him riding it that night.
My only consolation is knowing this: that beast would not harm Jake. Even with its incredible size (where does a creature like that even hide on earth? under the earth, of course, they must be under the earth!) and even with its monstrous tusks and that barbed tail, I could see it was tame to him. I saw him run to it in the backyard. It had been patiently waiting for him. I saw the beast lay its head to the earth, in submission. I watched as Jake scrambled up its back and took its reins in hand. And then the thing let out a weird guttural cry and they were off. I chased it. I chased them in my bare feet, in my underwear. But they were swallowed up by the forest behind our house. I heard Jake calling out commands to the thing.
The police didn’t know what to make of the tracks. They said I had been hallucinating. Ambien is known to have that effect. And I had been taking that drug at the time. I won’t deny that. The wouldn’t even put that in the police report. About the tracks. The only way it got in later was when I accused the police of covering it up, of trying to make me look crazier and more like a suspect.
But then, in their hearts, the cops knew I hadn’t done anything to harm Jake. Because he was one fourth of the “Ravenswood Four,” the kids who disappeared that night. All Jake’s age. And all former enrollees of Helping Hands daycare.
Who knows who Miss Marsha really was. And who knows where those four kids are now. I think Jake still has his mount. And I think he’s still riding that beast even as he becomes a young man. If I tell you I think he’s down there, under our feet, you’ll think I’m crazy. Far, far under our feet. But I know it’s true.