The Long Way

[Trigger Warning: References child abduction.]

By Susan Sink -

 

The swimming lesson came to an abrupt halt when someone pooped in the pool. Miss Shannon made everyone get out and told them it was not funny, although of course it was funny. It was very funny. But it was also gross.

All the Guppies, the seven-to-nine-year-old group, rushed over to the bleachers where the moms were sitting. Jack’s mom had told him when she dropped him off that she needed to run a few errands in town. He scanned the bleachers for her but she wasn’t there yet.

Jack’s mom had all his stuff. All he had were the swim trunks he was wearing and his towel, neatly folded on the bottom bleacher where he’d put it. He looked around as he dried himself off, but none of the other moms noticed him. There weren’t a lot of other eight year olds in the class, and most of them were girls. Also, there was a lot of chaos over the extraordinary incident in the pool. They had heard of such a thing, but didn’t think it actually happened. Pee, yes, of course. But poop?


Everyone cleared out quickly. The moms wanted to get the kids to the cars and most of all stop them from repeating the word “poop.” The lesson was at the local college and they didn’t have access to the building with the locker rooms, just came and went from the pool. The moms didn’t even bother with snacks, just picked up their tote bags and coolers and headed to the minivans.


Miss Shannon was standing by the pool with her arms crossed, talking to a man in shorts and a polo shirt wearing a baseball cap. If Miss Shannon saw Jack, he would be another problem for her. Jack didn’t want her to feel bad or get in trouble, so he walked behind the bleachers and looked out at the parking lot.


The lesson wasn’t scheduled to end for another half hour. Jack’s mom had said she’d be back by then, but if she was a few minutes late he should just wait on the bleachers. He could wait, but a half hour was a long time. Jack was sure he could walk home by then. He looked out in the direction of his house. Yes, he was sure he could walk it. He couldn’t even get lost, because all he had to do was walk toward the helicopters.


For the last three days, there had been helicopters, sometimes two, sometimes as many as four, hovering out over Otto Schroeder’s farm. They were there because of the missing boy—not looking for him, because he had been missing for ten years already. They were there because maybe there had been a break in the case. Jack’s older brother Shawn had said that, “a break in the case.”


Jack knew his way off campus, past the fishpond and through the stone gate. He turned right and walked on the sidewalk, which was very hot. He moved to the grass, and ran across the occasional driveway. He was headed for the field road, a dirt track along the electric line that would take him to the Hofstedter farm. It was all shortcuts—field road, Hofstedter farm, which wasn’t really a farm anymore, and then through the cornfield to 135th Street and home.


The field road was dry and Jack had to watch closely not to step on anything sharp. It was August, and his feet were toughened up from going barefoot all summer. Still, some of the clumps of grass hid sharp rocks. He wrapped his towel around his shoulders—it was still damp and cool. There were bike tracks in the road, and he stayed in those. He wished he had his bike.


He could hear the helicopters now, and see them. There were four today, which might mean something had happened. His parents wouldn’t say quite what was going on. Shawn told him, though, that it meant the body might be buried on Otto Schroeder’s farm. Shawn said the boy, Tommy Littlefield, was definitely dead and buried somewhere nearby. He said that even though the boy disappeared a long time ago, someone knew something and someday they would find the body.


His mother didn’t say the boy disappeared. She said he was taken. Someone took him. He had been riding his bike back from Dairy Freeze with his best friend, along the road that Jack and his brothers and all the kids took into town on their bikes. It was after dinner, near dark, and a man with a gun made them get off their bikes. Then he let the best friend go, but he took Tommy Littlefield. That was two years before Jack was born. Shawn had only been four. But Shawn said he remembered it, the helicopters back then, and how they had to stay inside, couldn’t leave the yard, how scared everyone was.


Jack didn’t really believe his brother remembered. Shawn just wanted to be part of the story. But his brother did know a lot, and he seemed happy to share what he knew with Jack. Jack, at eight, was old enough to handle it, but Ben was only six. Ben kept asking: “Why would someone take a boy?” He didn’t just ask Jack and Shawn, he also asked their mother. Their mother tried not to answer him. First she said that she didn’t know, but Ben kept asking. Then she said that some people were bad, and that it was important not to talk to strangers. She said it was a long time ago and only happened one time. It wouldn’t happen to Ben so he shouldn’t worry.


Shawn said the person who took Tommy Littlefield was a pedophile and a murderer. Jack didn’t know what a pedophile was, but he knew what a murderer was. Finally, Shawn got tired of hearing Ben ask the question. He said, “He took him to kill him, Ben.” Jack knew it could happen to Ben. There was nothing special about Tommy Littlefield. He was just a kid like Ben and Jack. His house was only two blocks from theirs, and Tommy’s parents still lived there. They believed he was only missing, not dead, and might come back. There was nothing special about their house, and they looked like all the other parents, just a little older and a bit sad and tired. It could happen to anyone.


The field road was much longer on foot than on a bike. Jack thought that if a man came down this field road, with a gun or without one, he would have nowhere to hide. Once he got to the Hofstedter farm he knew lots of hiding places, and then he could run into the corn field and hide there. But looking at the bike tracks in the dirt and hearing the helicopters made him a little dizzy.


He was starting to reconsider his decision to walk home. He looked back and knew he didn’t want to walk all that way on the dirt again. He could see the grove of pine trees at the Hofstedters’, but it didn’t seem to be getting closer. Jack was sweating now, the towel no help, the sun seeming to super-heat his hair. He draped the towel over his head. He was thirsty. He wished he had his shoes.


There were houses along one side of the field road. Jack thought about going to one of them and asking for a drink of water. But he didn’t know anyone in that neighborhood. They were strangers.


Maybe, he thought, he could go to one of the houses with a swing set in the yard. In fact, one of the houses had a baby pool outside. He knew he would feel better if he could just put his feet in that baby pool for a little while. But there was a ditch separating the field road from the backyards. And also, it was true that the baby pool and the swing set didn’t mean those people weren’t strangers.


Jack just had to get to the Hofstedters’. The Hofstedters weren’t strangers; they were friends. Sometimes in winter when the ice came before the snow, the boys skated on their pond. Once they’d each been allowed to drive Mr. Hofstedter’s four-wheeler. Shawn didn’t follow the rules and drove it too close to the pond, where it tipped over on its side. That would have been funny if it hadn’t meant an end to the rides before Jack even got a turn. Mr. Hofstedter wasn’t mad, though. He told their father that he liked having boys on the farm, and that farm life was good for boys. Boys needed a farm to direct their energies. The summer before, Mr. Hofstedter showed them how to build a dock. It took Jack about twenty blows to get a nail in, and most of them were crooked and bent over. Mr. Hofstedter could pound a nail flat in two swings of the hammer. Even Jack’s father only took three or four, and almost never bent them.


Jack thought about going up to the house to ask for a drink. Mrs. Hofstedter could even call his mother on her cell phone. Jack only knew their home number, but Mrs. Hofstedter would have his mother’s cell. He walked faster, until he reached the grove. The ground beneath the white pines was cool and covered with soft needles. The light breeze made a soothing, hushing sound through the trees.


Jack looked at the house. The door was closed, but maybe the Hofstedters were running their air conditioner. The garage door was closed and when Jack went up on the porch and looked through the window, the living and dining rooms were dark. They must not be home, Jack thought, and anyway, his mother would feel funny if he told them he was on his own. He realized his mother was going to feel bad for leaving him at the swimming lesson. Jack would be sure to let her know it was okay. He was old enough to get home by himself.


But before he went on, he sat down in the shade of the pine trees, just to rest. It was cooler there. The sound of the helicopters was even louder. “If someone tried to take me,” he thought, “I’d stay on my bike and ride into a grove like this.” There wasn’t a grove on the road where Tommy Littlefield was taken. There wasn’t anything, just a rise and Otto Schroeder’s fields on each side of the road. But maybe there had been corn growing. A man, a murderer, couldn’t find you, maybe, if you rode your bike into the corn.


Jack sat thinking, and he lost track of time. He was so thirsty. He could go find a hose or a spigot at the Hofstedters’ house and get a drink. Sure enough, a hose was rolled up nicely, hanging on the side of the house. He uncoiled a length and turned it on. At first the water was hot but then it ran cold and clear. It came out fast and he tried to just put his mouth on the stream, letting it arc and pound the patio pavement. It tasted like metal, but it was good. The water felt cool on his face, and he put his head under the stream. He let the cold water bathe his neck, sputtering as his eyes, nose and mouth all filled with water. The cold water hurt his head as much as the sun did, but he didn’t mind. Then Jack washed off his feet and legs and turned off the hose. He couldn’t get it coiled back on the holder and left it slumped by the side of the house.


That was where Jack forgot his towel. He used it to dry off, but in his effort to wind the hose back up, he forgot and left it on the Hofstedters’ steps. He didn’t think about it until he’d walked gingerly down their crushed gravel drive, across the ditch and into a row of corn that was over his head.


The towel would have helped protect him in the corn. Even though corn stalks look soft and silky, there is not much space between the rows, and the leaves are sharper than they look. The row seemed to close in front of Jack, but he just walked forward. It was stifling hot in there. It smelled, too, not like corn, but like something burnt. Somehow he had thought it would be like the grove, shaded and cool, but the earth was hot and dry beneath his feet. The whole place could burst into flames, he thought. Maybe it was already on fire, smoke and flames moving through the rows where he couldn’t see it coming.


The thought of the fire made him walk faster. There were stones and hard clumps of dirt and he tripped and scraped one knee. It stung and he felt his panic rising. He stood up and looked around.


Jack was surprised to discover that he had never been inside a cornfield before, although he’d been to the corn maze at the Dassel apple orchard near Halloween. But that corn was all shriveled and dead and the rows were much wider. The corn here had wiry roots at the bottom that held the earth. Jack stopped and calmed himself. There wasn’t any fire. It was just an ordinary cornfield. He just needed to take it slow.


If I get lost in here, Jack thought, at least I’ll have corn to eat.

Jack pulled off an ear of corn. He peeled back the husk and saw that the kernels were big and yellow. But when he bit into the ear, it tasted like chalk—not at all like the corn they got at the farmers’ market. It was hard even to get his teeth into it. He spit out the kernels, but couldn’t quite get all the taste out of his mouth. He dropped the ear to the ground and used his fingers to clear out his mouth. There was something wrong with this corn. Jack wondered if maybe it was because of chemicals. Shawn said the farmers around here all used too many chemicals and were poisoning the earth. Shawn said they were all going to die of cancer, even the children would get leukemia and die, if the farmers weren’t stopped. His mother told Shawn to stop scaring his brothers, no one was going to get cancer. But Cody Gramke’s mother died of cancer. When Jack asked Shawn if he thought their mother could get cancer he said no, because they got their food from the farmer’s market where the good farmers who didn’t use chemicals were. Now Jack wondered if he had poisoned himself by eating the corn. He spit out as much saliva as he could. He started to cry. Shawn would call him a baby if he saw, but Jack didn’t care.


He was very close to the helicopters now, although for the first time he couldn’t see them. What if they were looking for him? Jack looked straight up through the corn into the blue sky. If the pilots were looking down, maybe the cornfield would seem like a giant maze. Could they see him in the rows, a boy in swim trunks, his pink shoulders, his pink face framed by close-shorn brown hair, looking up? He tried waving his arms overhead. “I’m here! I’m here! I’m right here!” he shouted. But his voice got swallowed up by the corn and the monotonous whir of the helicopters. And he couldn’t even see them—the helicopters were just beyond this field, hovering.


His mother would be worried. He never should have left the pool. She would think a murderer took him. Thinking of her crying made him cry harder. But maybe she would call the helicopters and have them look for him. Maybe she already had. Maybe right now there was an Amber Alert on the highway with his name and description, asking people to look for him. It occurred to him then. He was missing.


Jack’s heart started beating faster. He ran down the row with the leaves slapping his face. His knee stung. This was the longest row of corn in the world.


Aware of his knee, seeing a small trickle of blood down to his foot, and no towel or t-shirt to wipe it off—would the blood attract coyotes? Hobbling now, he noticed the row was curving. This was the end. He wasn’t sure if he was close to the road or not, but the corn was closed and wouldn’t let him out. He made the turn and kept following the corn stalks. There were more rows beyond this one, also turning, and he knew he was parallel to the way he came into the field. Chemicals from the corn might be getting into his wounded knee. Coyotes might be coming for him.


Jack wondered if he would ever get out of the cornfield. What if he fainted? Who would think to look for him there? How could they hear him calling for help over the sound of the helicopters?


He knew he had to break through the rows of corn, and so he took a deep breath and did just that. He pushed through with his arms and his body, one row at a time, until he got to the end. He emerged from the cornfield into the bright sun, onto a strip of grass. He had to climb through a barbed wire fence, and though he tried to be careful, a barb scratched his back. He howled and fell down on the other side of the fence. If only he had his towel, or a t-shirt. If only his mother was there.


Jack was much farther down the row than he thought. There were trees, a scrappy, overgrown woods. They ended about a quarter mile behind him, and he knew that was where 135th Street dead-ended. He’d have to walk back along the cornfield.


His whole body was stinging, streaked with scratches from the corn and the barbed wire, and his knee throbbed. He imagined bleeding from all the scratches and cuts. By the time he got home, Jack thought, he’d be covered with blood. He might even bleed to death. Coyotes could smell blood. Once when they’d camped in the backyard, they’d heard coyotes and Jack had cried. Shawn called him a baby. Then Shawn said Jack was sweaty and had a strong smell. The coyotes, Shawn said, could definitely smell Jack and that’s probably why they were howling. They were coming for him. Jack had been too paralyzed with fear to leave the tent and run to the house. Even after the coyotes were quiet, even after Shawn fell asleep, Jack lay awake, terrified by the strong scent of his own body.


The helicopters weren’t looking for him. They were still hovering over the same spot, where backhoes were working, digging, where thy might find the body of Tommy Littlefield. Jack walked along the grassy strip toward the helicopters, toward the dead end road that meant home. He wiped his cheeks with both hands and wiped his nose against the back of his arm.


The helicopters, all four, whipped the air into a frenzy with their blades. They seemed to be scolding him: “Hurry up! Hurry up! Hurry up!”


“Shut up!!” Jack yelled at them, but they just kept up their percussive taunt.


“I’m not Tommy Littlefield!” Jack yelled at the sky. “I’m Jack Traut!”


Once he got to the paved end of 135th Street, he could see Shawn on his bike. Shawn was riding in slow circles, in tune with the helicopters, dipping and weaving. He was making his bike hop, as if his only purpose in life was to practice tricks. Jack knew Shawn was trying to find a way to ride by “the scene,” although 16th Avenue was blocked off and they’d been forbidden to get even this close. Shawn wanted to see the body, was obsessed with the case of Tommy Littlefield. There were two other older boys with him, Greg Blonigan and Matt Peichel. On their black road bikes, they mirrored the helicopters, though they weren’t hovering, rather, riding in looping circles like the turkey vultures that also lived in the woods.


Jack didn’t want to see them, or for them to see him. They weren’t nice. But he was exhausted. Shawn would make fun of him and call him a baby, but he couldn’t help it. He just wanted to get home.


As Jack approached, Shawn spotted him. He flipped his brown hair out of his eyes and leaned back. When he saw Jack he was already mid-circle, but his head twisted and he kept his eyes on his brother. Jack couldn’t tell what he was going to do, and hoped he didn’t draw the attention of Greg and Matt. Shawn dragged one foot on the pavement to turn more abruptly, then came pumping up alongside Jack and jumped off his bike, casting it aside where it fell, wheels spinning in the air.


“Jack!” he said. “What happened?” Shawn’s face was white. He stood in front of Jack and put his hands on Jack’s shoulders.


“Are you okay? Are you okay?” He shook Jack lightly, but Jack couldn’t speak. Tears were running down his face, and when he opened his mouth, a little sob came out.


“Jack, you’re bleeding,” his brother said. Jack looked down at his knee, caked with dirt and blood. As he leaned over, Shawn said, “Your back! What happened, Jack?”


Shawn picked Jack up by his armpits and he wrapped his legs around his brother’s back and held onto his neck.


Shawn was only twelve, but he was strong. Even at eight, Jack was small enough, still, to be carried. Jack didn’t even care if the other kids saw, or if they called him a baby. It felt so good to hold onto Shawn’s shoulders, to put his head into Shawn’s neck. Shawn left his bike there, in the weeds on the side of the road, and carried Jack, moving purposely toward home.


“It’s going to be okay, Jack. You’re going to be fine,” he said. The helicopters churned overhead, and now he saw it, the white Suburban with his mother at the wheel, approaching them on 135th. He saw his mother’s startled face through the windshield. The giant vehicle almost swallowed her, the engine roared as she approached.


“I’ve got you now,” Shawn said, as they stood and waited for their mother to get to them. The Suburban cranked into park, the engine revving, and the door opened. His mother was getting out, crying, coming toward them. “We’ve got you,” Shawn said. “Nothing bad will happen now.”


And Jack knew it was so.

 

Susan Sink is a poet and writer living on 80 acres in Minnesota. She has an MFA and Stegner Fellowship in Poetry, and her fiction has appeared in Santa Monica Review. You can find more of her work at susansink.medium.com.

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