Maps in a mirror, p.20

Maps in a Mirror, page 20


Maps in a Mirror

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  You could almost feel the relief. Geoffrey and Emily went right back to normal; I actually got acquainted with Charlie Ben; Christmas was coming (I start playing Christmas music when the leaves turn) and all was right with the world. Except Scotty. Always except Scotty.

  It was then that I discovered a few things that I simply hadn’t known. Scotty never played any of the video games I’d brought home from Compute! I knew that because when I gave the games back, Geoff and Em complained bitterly—but Scotty didn’t even know what the missing games were. Most important, that game about kids in a pirate ship wasn’t there. Not in the games I took back, and not in the games that belonged to us. Yet Scotty was still playing it.

  He was playing one night before he went to bed. I’d been working on Ender’s Game all day, trying to finish it before Christmas. I came out of my office about the third time I heard Kristine say, “Scotty, go to bed now!”

  For some reason, without yelling at the kids or beating them or anything, I’ve always been able to get them to obey when Kristine couldn’t even get them to acknowledge her existence. Something about a fairly deep male voice—for instance, I could always sing insomniac Geoffrey to sleep as an infant when Kristine couldn’t. So when I stood in the doorway and said, “Scotty, I think your mother asked you to go to bed,” it was no surprise that he immediately reached up to turn off the computer.

  “I’ll turn it off,” I said. “Go!”

  He still reached for the switch.

  “Go!” I said, using my deepest voice-of-God tones.

  He got up and went, not looking at me.

  I walked to the computer to turn it off, and saw the animated children, just like the ones I’d seen before. Only they weren’t on a pirate ship, they were on an old steam locomotive that was speeding along a track. What a game, I thought. The single-sided Atari disks don’t even hold a 100K, and here they’ve got two complete scenarios and all this animation and—

  And there wasn’t a disk in the disk drive.

  That meant it was a game that you upload and then remove the disk, which meant it was completely RAM resident, which meant all this quality animation fit into a mere 48K. I knew enough about game programming to regard that as something of a miracle.

  I looked around for the disk. There wasn’t one. So Scotty had put it away, thought I. Only I looked and looked and couldn’t find any disk that I didn’t already know.

  I sat down to play the game—but now the children were gone. It was just a train. Just speeding along. And the elaborate background was gone. It was the plain blue screen behind the train. No tracks, either. And then no train. It just went blank, back to the ordinary blue. I touched the keyboard. The letters I typed appeared on the screen. It took a few carriage returns to realize what was happening—the Atari was in memo-pad mode. At first I thought it was a pretty terrific copy-protection scheme, to end the game by putting you into a mode where you couldn’t access memory, couldn’t do anything without turning off the machine, thus erasing the program code from RAM. But then I realized that a company that could produce a game so good, with such tight code, would surely have some kind of sign-off when the game ended. And why did it end? Scotty hadn’t touched the computer after I told him to stop. I didn’t touch it, either. Why did the children leave the screen? Why did the train disappear? There was no way the computer could “know” that Scotty was through playing, especially since the game had gone on for a while after he walked away.

  Still, I didn’t mention it to Kristine, not till after everything was over. She didn’t know anything about computers then except how to boot up and get WordStar on the Altos. It never occurred to her that there was anything weird about Scotty’s game.

  It was two weeks before Christmas when the insects came again. And they shouldn’t have—it was too cold outside for them to be alive. The only thing we could figure was that the crawl space under our house stayed warmer or something. Anyway, we had another exciting night of cricket-bagging. The old sheet was still wadded up in the crack in the closet—they were coming from under the bathroom cabinet this time. And the next day it was daddy longlegs spiders in the bathtub instead of June bugs in the kitchen window.

  “Just don’t tell the landlord,” I told Kristine. “I couldn’t stand another day of that pesticide.”

  “It’s probably the landlord’s father causing it,” Kristine told me. “Remember he was here painting when it happened the first time? And today he came and put up the Christmas lights.”

  We just lay there in bed chuckling over the absurdity of that notion. We had thought it was silly but kind of sweet to have the landlord’s father insist on putting up Christmas lights for us in the first place. Scotty went out and watched him the whole time. It was the first time he’d ever seen lights put up along the edge of the roof—I have enough of a case of acrophobia that you couldn’t get me on a ladder high enough to do the job, so our house always went undecorated except the tree lights you could see through the window. Still, Kristine and I are both suckers for Christmas kitsch. Heck, we even play the Carpenters’ Christmas album. So we thought it was great that the landlord’s father wanted to do that for us. “It was my house for so many years,” he said. “My wife and I always had them. I don’t think this house’d look right without lights.”

  He was such a nice old coot anyway. Slow, but still strong, a good steady worker. The lights were up in a couple of hours.

  Christmas shopping. Doing Christmas cards. All that stuff. We were busy.

  Then one morning, only about a week before Christmas, I guess, Kristine was reading the morning paper and she suddenly got all icy and calm—the way she does when something really bad is happening. “Scott, read this,” she said.

  “Just tell me,” I said.

  “This is an article about missing children in Greensboro.”

  I glanced at the headline: CHILDREN WHO WON’T BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS. “I don’t want to hear about it,” I said. I can’t read stories about child abuse or kidnappings. They make me crazy. I can’t sleep afterward. It’s always been that way.

  “You’ve got to,” she said. “Here are the names of the little boys who’ve been reported missing in the last three years. Russell DeVerge, Nicholas Tyler—”

  “What are you getting at?”

  “Nicky. Rusty. David. Roddy. Peter. Are these names ringing a bell with you?”

  I usually don’t remember names very well. “No.”

  “Steve, Howard, Van. The only one that doesn’t fit is the last one, Alexander Booth. He disappeared this summer.”

  For some reason the way Kristine was telling me this was making me very upset. She was so agitated about it, and she wouldn’t get to the point. “So what?” I demanded.

  “Scotty’s imaginary friends,” she said.

  “Come on,” I said. But she went over them with me—she had written down all the names of his imaginary friends in our journal, back when the therapist asked us to keep a record of his behavior. The names matched up, or seemed to.

  “Scotty must have read an earlier article,” I said. “It must have made an impression on him. He’s always been an empathetic kid. Maybe he started identifying with them because he felt—I don’t know, like maybe he’d been abducted from South Bend and carried off to Greensboro.” It sounded really plausible for a moment there—the same moment of plausibility that psychologists live on.

  Kristine wasn’t impressed. “This article says that it’s the first time anybody’s put all the names together in one place.”

  “Hype. Yellow journalism.”

  “Scott, he got all the names right.”

  “Except one.”

  “I’m so relieved.”

  But I wasn’t. Because right then I remembered how I’d heard him talking during the pirate video game. Come on Sandy. I told Kristine. Alexander, Sandy. It was as good a fit as Russell and Rusty. He hadn’t matched a mere eight out of nine. He’d matched them all.

  You can’t put a nam
e to all the fears a parent feels, but I can tell you that I’ve never felt any terror for myself that compares to the feeling you have when you watch your two-year-old run toward the street, or see your baby go into a seizure, or realize that somehow there’s a connection between kidnappings and your child. I’ve never been on a plane seized by terrorists or had a gun pointed to my head or fallen off a cliff, so maybe there are worse fears. But then, I’ve been in a spin on a snowy freeway, and I’ve clung to the handles of my airplane seat while the plane bounced up and down in mid-air, and still those weren’t like what I felt then, reading the whole article. Kids who just disappeared. Nobody saw anybody pick up the kids. Nobody saw anybody lurking around their houses. The kids just didn’t come home from school, or played outside and never came in when they were called. Gone. And Scotty knew all their names. Scotty had played with them in his imagination. How did he know who they were? Why did he fixate on these lost boys?

  We watched him, that last week before Christmas. We saw how distant he was. How he shied away, never let us touch him, never stayed with a conversation. He was aware of Christmas, but he never asked for anything, didn’t seem excited, didn’t want to go shopping. He didn’t even seem to sleep. I’d come in when I was heading for bed—at one or two in the morning, long after he’d climbed up into his bunk—and he’d be lying there, all his covers off, his eyes wide open. His insomnia was even worse than Geoffrey’s. And during the day, all Scotty wanted to do was play with the computer or hang around outside in the cold. Kristine and I didn’t know what to do. Had we already lost him somehow?

  We tried to involve him with the family. He wouldn’t go Christmas shopping with us. We’d tell him to stay inside while we were gone, and then we’d find him outside anyway. I even unplugged the computer and hid all the disks and cartridges, but it was only Geoffrey and Emily who suffered—I still came into the room and found Scotty playing his impossible game.

  He didn’t ask for anything until Christmas Eve.

  Kristine came into my office, where I was writing the scene where Ender finds his way out of the Giant’s Drink problem. Maybe I was so fascinated with computer games for children in that book because of what Scotty was going through—maybe I was just trying to pretend that computer games made sense. Anyway, I still know the very sentence that was interrupted when she spoke to me from the door. So very calm. So very frightened.

  “Scotty wants us to invite some of his friends in for Christmas Eve,” she said.

  “Do we have to set extra places for imaginary friends?” I asked.

  “They’re aren’t imaginary,” she said. “They’re in the backyard, waiting.”

  “You’re kidding,” I said. “It’s cold out there. What kind of parents would let their kids go outside on Christmas Eve?”

  She didn’t say anything. I got up and we went to the back door together. I opened the door.

  There were nine of them. Ranging in age, it looked like, from six to maybe ten. All boys. Some in shirt sleeves, some in coats, one in a swimsuit. I’ve got no memory for faces, but Kristine does. “They’re the ones,” she said softly, calmly, behind me. “That one’s Van. I remembered him.”

  “Van?” I said.

  He looked up at me. He took a timid step toward me.

  I heard Scotty’s voice behind me. “Can they come in, Dad? I told them you’d let them have Christmas Eve with us. That’s what they miss the most.”

  I turned to him. “Scotty, these boys are all reported missing. Where have they been?”

  “Under the house,” he said.

  I thought of the crawl space. I thought of how many times Scotty had come in covered with dirt last summer.

  “How did they get there?” I asked.

  “The old guy put them there,” he said. “They said I shouldn’t tell anybody or the old guy would get mad and they never wanted him to be mad at them again. Only I said it was OK, I could tell you.”

  “That’s right,” I said.

  “The landlord’s father,” whispered Kristine.

  I nodded.

  “Only how could he keep them under there all this time? When does he feed them? When—”

  She already knew that the old guy didn’t feed them. I don’t want you to think Kristine didn’t guess that immediately. But it’s the sort of thing you deny as long as you can, and even longer.

  “They can come in,” I told Scotty. I looked at Kristine. She nodded. I knew she would. You don’t turn away lost children on Christmas Eve. Not even when they’re dead.

  Scotty smiled. What that meant to us—Scotty smiling. It had been so long. I don’t think I really saw a smile like that since we moved to Greensboro. Then he called out to the boys. “It’s OK! You can come in!”

  Kristine held the door open, and I backed out of the way. They filed in, some of them smiling, some of them too shy to smile. “Go on into the living room,” I said. Scotty led the way. Ushering them in, for all the world like a proud host in a magnificent new mansion. They sat around on the floor. There weren’t many presents, just the ones from the kids; we don’t put out the presents from the parents till the kids are asleep. But the tree was there, lighted, with all our homemade decorations on it—even the old needlepoint decorations that Kristine made while lying in bed with desperate morning sickness when she was pregnant with Scotty, even the little puff-ball animals we glued together for that first Christmas tree in Scotty’s life. Decorations older than he was. And not just the tree—the whole room was decorated with red and green tassels and little wooden villages and a stuffed Santa hippo beside a wicker sleigh and a large chimney-sweep nutcracker and anything else we hadn’t been able to resist buying or making over the years.

  We called in Geoffrey and Emily, and Kristine brought in Charlie Ben and held him on her lap while I told the stories of the birth of Christ—the shepherds and the wise men, and the one from the Book of Mormon about a day and a night and a day without darkness. And then I went on and told what Jesus lived for. About forgiveness for all the bad things we do.

  “Everything?” asked one of the boys.

  It was Scotty who answered. “No!” he said. “Not killing.”

  Kristine started to cry.

  “That’s right,” I said. “In our church we believe that God doesn’t forgive people who kill on purpose. And in the New Testament Jesus said that if anybody ever hurt a child, it would be better for him to tie a huge rock around his neck and jump into the sea and drown.”

  “Well, it did hurt, Daddy,” said Scotty. “They never told me about that.”

  “It was a secret,” said one of the boys. Nicky, Kristine says, because she remembers names and faces.

  “You should have told me,” said Scotty. “I wouldn’t have let him touch me.”

  That was when we knew, really knew, that it was too late to save him, that Scotty, too, was already dead.

  “I’m sorry, Mommy,” said Scotty. “You told me not to play with them anymore, but they were my friends, and I wanted to be with them.” He looked down at his lap. “I can’t even cry anymore. I used it all up.”

  It was more than he’d said to us since we moved to Greensboro in March. Amid all the turmoil of emotions I was feeling, there was this bitterness: All this year, all our worries, all our efforts to reach him, and yet nothing brought him to speak to us except death.

  But I realized now it wasn’t death. It was the fact that when he knocked, we opened the door; that when he asked, we let him and his friends come into our house that night. He had trusted us, despite all the distance between us during that year, and we didn’t disappoint him. It was trust that brought us one last Christmas Eve with our boy.

  But we didn’t try to make sense of things that night. They were children, and needed what children long for on a night like that. Kristine and I told them Christmas stories and we told about Christmas traditions we’d heard of in other countries and other times, and gradually they warmed up until every one of the boys told all about his
own family’s Christmases. They were good memories. They laughed, they jabbered, they joked. Even though it was the most terrible of Christmases, it was also the best Christmas of our lives, the one in which every scrap of memory is still precious to us, the perfect Christmas in which being together was the only gift that mattered. Even though Kristine and I don’t talk about it directly now, we both remember it. And Geoffrey and Emily remember it, too. They call it “the Christmas when Scotty brought his friends.” I don’t think they ever really understood, and I’ll be content if they never do.

  Finally, though, Geoffrey and Emily were both asleep. I carried each of them to bed as Kristine talked to the boys, asking them to help us. To wait in our living room until the police came, so they could help us stop the old guy who stole them away from their families and their futures. They did. Long enough for the investigating officers to get there and see them, long enough for them to hear the story Scotty told.

  Long enough for them to notify the parents. They came at once, frightened because the police had dared not tell them more over the phone than this: that they were needed in a matter concerning their lost boy. They came: with eager, frightened eyes they stood on our doorstep, while a policeman tried to help them understand. Investigators were bringing ruined bodies out from under our house—there was no hope. And yet if they came inside, they would see that cruel Providence was also kind, and this time there would be what so many other parents had longed for but never had: a chance to say good-bye. I will tell you nothing of the scenes of joy and heartbreak inside our home that night—those belong to other families, not to us.

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