The Missing

Billiard’s Pick
Dianne Rees


Marsh in the woods
Photo Credit: Jeff Myers

Tom had been missing for three weeks. His mother and father had not called the police because Tom had a habit of dropping out of sight and then slouching back as if no time had passed at all. Appearing in the kitchen or hallway like a revenant, his eyes would narrow angrily and his shoulders would hunch in a pugilistic stance if one threw a questioning look his way. Disliking confrontation, his parents soon stopped asking where he went. His boss at the electronics store, also used to Tom’s erratic behavior, was grateful for this final unexplained absence which now gave him an excuse to terminate Tom’s employment. Tom had no girlfriend who could be reached to discover his whereabouts, though there were two dark-haired, flint-featured young men that he hung out with. His mother Jane supposed they were her son’s friends. They never came inside the house, but Jane had seen them lurking about the fence posts—much like her own son who also lurked as if not wanting to lay claim to the house he’d grown up in.

One of the young men, Deke, or Sam, rasped into the phone one day that first week, “Tom in?” and Jane, who’d picked up, confessed that he wasn’t. She thought for a moment of asking if the caller had any ideas about where Tom might be, if only to learn the possible repertoire of habitats he frequented these days, but she hesitated and the moment was lost. When Deke or Sam hung up, she didn’t feel regretful. What would she have done with the information after all, but file it away as another part of the puzzle that was Tom? She’d decided years ago, it was a puzzle she might regret piecing together.

The days of missing Tom soon settled into habit and Jane sometimes caught her breath at her imaginings that he’d finally pulled up stakes and got his own place as he’d always threatened to do. True, Tom was only 23, but his presence in their home was a constant ache, sometimes dull and sometimes sharp, and made worse now that Nick was retired. Nick, who could never back down from a fight or turn away from some vicious thing the boy said, as if it was still in his power, after all these years, to change his son’s behavior.

Jane knew it was wrong but she felt a prickling of exultation when Tom disappeared. The atmosphere in the house was like an exhaled breath and she was finally able to step off the eggshells she’d felt herself poised over whenever her son was around. Nick too, was more relaxed. The flustered, harried look on his face slipped away as the days of Tom’s absence turned to weeks. He settled into his recliner with books that Tom would have denounced as trite, watched television shows that amused rather than educated him. The tightly strung bow of Tom’s sensibilities no longer set off its corresponding resonance in her husband and this stilled Jane’s own inner vibrations.

In the weeks when he was gone, Jane found herself revisiting the earliest moments of her life with Tom, always comparing her experiences to those with her older children. Mark and Sarah had been born twelve and eight years before Tom. They’d certainly gotten into scrapes. But they’d healed and they didn’t wound other people, or leave deep, abiding sorrow in their wakes. If either of them had gone missing, Jane would have felt a boundless chasm in her life. What kind of mother was she to relish the peace that Tom’s absence had brought?

She was a terrible mother, she thought again at the funeral, watching the priest clasp his hands together in prayer. His face obscured by sunlight, Father Francis spoke of a stranger, some shadow Tom she’d never known. “Who can divine God’s plan?” the priest intoned. Jane’s gaze snagged Nick’s, both of them weighing their culpability if not their sorrow. Beside Nick, Sarah stared straight ahead, her head slightly canted as she chewed on an errant strand of her hair. Beside her, Mark fiddled surreptitiously with his Blackberry.

Jane was not unmoved by the fact of Tom’s death, his body found the way it was, torn apart by dogs in the marshy part of the state park. There was hardly anything left to look at, but she’d forced herself to look, just as she’d forced herself to look at the small pile of bones and feathers that had been neatly piled in the corner of the woodshed ten-year-old Tom had claimed for his clubhouse. Just as she’d forced herself to look into Tom’s eyes, narrowed with the incandescent rage at her invasion of his privacy. She’d looked and looked. She’d tried to summon from some deep maternal well her love for him to say the right thing to save him. “Wash your hands, Tom, when you come in the house” was what she’d said instead, stepping away finally. She’d been stepping away from him ever since.

Nick, listening to the priest saying various silly things about the kind of young man his son wasn’t, glanced at Jane, whose eyes were reddened but not watering. He inclined his head to take in his remaining children. Sarah looked confused, as if she was trying to replay the story of her brother’s life and found the film snipped apart and randomly spliced together. As for Mark, he seemed resolutely annoyed to be pulled into Tom’s final drama. He looked again at Jane, catching her eye this time, knowing that she was tied to him by the guilty relief they shared. Their youngest boy, the hopeful experiment of their more settled years, such a resounding failure.

He’d been a querulous, grasping child from birth, easily startled as if the lights were always too bright, the texture of his Onesies too rasping, the sounds around him too discordant. He’d arrived and remained with his own peculiar sounds—piercing shrieks he let loose when things displeased him. And his features—he didn’t resemble either side of the family. His head, lumpy and round on his angular body, made him look like a pumpkin boy, some Halloween fright. His eyes were too close, his mouth too large, and those teeth… In the early days of Tom, Nick had thought, well, all babies are ugly, wizened creatures, aren’t they? But though Tom’s body had grown, his face had remained both cunningly infantile and malevolently ancient, and when he’d tried to cling to Nick, grasped by some petty insecurity, well, God help him, Nick had had to push him away. There was just something about the boy that was too repulsive.

Then there was that incident at school with Tom’s injured classmate. Nothing had been proven, but there were claims made nonetheless and Tom was in the principal’s office denying everything, so angry at being falsely accused. He’d been so convincing that Nick, referencing his memories of his other nearly perfect children, had nearly believed him, until, just as he turned from shouting at the principal that he would not let his son be falsely accused, he caught a glimpse of Tom’s small, slipping away smile, revealing those gray, slightly pointy teeth. Catching the merriment in his son’s eyes, Nick recognized with a chill that his son’s conscience was only very loosely tied to him. Though he could not hide his disgust, he’d grasped his son’s hand and pulled him from that office nevertheless, as if they were the righteous ones.

Nick knew it was not a natural thing to feel that the mangled boy in the closed coffin, lanced by sunlight, had finally focused all his destructive tendencies on the right victim. It seemed almost profane to have him up there by that alter of mercy and redemption. He felt Jane take his hand and squeeze it. Her fingers were cold. He practiced saying the words to himself. “We are burying our boy.” Like a sneaky thief, other unspoken words followed, “We are putting an end to him.” Nick looked at Jane and knew she would not hate him for this thought. He squeezed her hand in return.

Mark glanced up from his last text message to see where the priest was in the service. His investment was going through the roof and he felt the predatory thrill of knowing that all the players had come together exactly as he’d seen they would. He shifted in the pew. He was hot and uncomfortable in his suit and tie and the air in the church was close. He felt put upon that he had to pretend to mourn his shit of a brother Tom. He was only here for his mother and father. He knew it was a terrible thing for them to be here in this church, even if it was to grieve for a psycho son.

His brother had fit all the stereotypes; he’d been a whiny, sneaky loner from the start. Mark hadn’t been able to shed him fast enough when he’d gone away to college, relieved of the burden of keeping Tom from being beat up by the neighborhood kids. He’d always seemed to bring it on himself. He had a way of speaking, of needling you, that made the red mist descend even on boys who were not otherwise inclined to violence.

Mark had tried to speak to him once. “Look you have to stop acting like this.”

“Like what?” his eight-year-old brother had asked, genuinely puzzled. But what could Mark say—like yourself, like someone who enjoys it when another kid trips or gets reamed by a teacher? Like someone who concentrates rage and hate and… otherness?

As the priest murmured, “We hardly knew this young man,” Mark snorted, then covered the sound with a sneeze. He knew his brother all right and though he begrudged this day which had been stolen from him, he would not linger upon it too long. He texted his girlfriend that he would be home soon and would pick up dinner.

Sarah flinched at the sound of her brother sneezing. Self-consciously, she plucked a strand of hair that had escaped from the braid she’d been chewing on. She was embarrassed as usual that she could not make herself right. She could not contain her hair neatly, could not refrain from ingesting it, could not manage to find the right clothing for a funeral, could not summon the right emotions with which to bury her brother. She tried to imagine what Tom’s last weeks had been like. Had he too needed to put all the pieces together and failing once again, finally put an end to things? The medical examiner had found drugs in his system but not enough, had found signs of a body abused by cold and the elements, but had not identified anything clearly fatal that might have reached Tom before the dogs did. Had her brother met someone—a dangerous boy or girl who had captured his heart and then cast it fatally away? Someone who had met her brother’s violent nature with a violence of his or her own? Sarah shook her head. She shouldn’t transfer her own proclivities to fill the emptiness that lived inside her Tom.

Tom had always perplexed her. He’d always seemed like a mirror of an awkwardness she’d flirted with and cast aside or at least had managed to disguise. She used to get so frustrated with him; he let himself be such a victim. But she never knew what to say to him and he was a boy and the strangeness of boys was different from the strangeness of girls. She’d always assumed that Mark would take him in hand and then when he hadn’t, well, by then it had seemed too late.

She supposed it was strange that she was weeping. She must look a fright. Everyone else had so much more control. She tried to picture Tom inside his coffin. She pictured herself in there with him, nudging herself beside him. Like the way she used to crawl into his bed when thunderstorms came, knowing he’d be too frightened to leave his room to crawl into her own bed. As the house rattled and the lights flared outside the windows, they would cling to each other. He’d been so terrified. Or had she been? She remembered the warm heat of him beside her, his muddy eyes acquiring unexpected depth when the room lit up and the tree branches snapped against the window like whips “Don’t be afraid,” one of them had said. “I’m here,” one of them had whispered. “Always,” one of them had lied.

pencil

Dianne Rees is a writer and instructional designer living in Irving, Texas. Her fiction has appeared in Vestal Review, Farmhouse Magazine, Spillway Review, Neon, Bartleby Snopes, Storyglossia, Offcourse Literary Magazine, and other journals. Email: diannerees[at]sbcglobal.net