I have an Extra Kid today—a friend of the Short Kid who lives in the neighborhood who was running amok and stopped in to play some PS3. When I asked if he needed to call home and update his family on his whereabouts, he said “nope” and went back to playing.
I struggle with this so much. I know nine-year-olds run amok in the neighborhood. I see them all the time. But it bothers me. The Short Kid runs slightly amok—around the house and across the street to the neighbors’ house—but not knowing where he is isn’t something I can handle yet.
In mid-November of 1987, when I was fifteen and in a small town about the size of where I live now, the nine-year-old son of our high school nurse—and classmate of my sister—didn’t make it home from school. It was already cold enough so we wore gloves and our winter boots while searching for him in the dark. Shuffling through piles of autumn leaves and lifting the lids of neighborhood trash cans looking for a child isn’t something you ever forget. You want to find him because you want him to be okay, but you don’t want to find him because you’re looking in leaves and in dumpsters, which means he’s not okay.
He was found by the police—not far from his home—murdered by a fourteen-year-old neighbor who was in my Social Sciences class. It’s hard for me not to write his name here, with a huge red font in all caps. When he was released, the little boy’s mother fought to have his name made public, but as he was a juvenile when the murder took place, they wouldn’t allow it. She didn’t want people to forget the name of the monster who killed her little boy. Twenty-three years later, I remember his name. I won’t ever forget.
A few days later, my very small cheerleading squad visited our school nurse’s home. We brought a fruit basket. Looking back, I don’t know why we felt that would help. We were fifteen, I guess, and just wanted her to know we cared.
I’ve never felt sorrow like I did standing in that house. His shoes were on the stairs. His artwork was on the fridge. All around us was the debris a child scatters throughout his home. We were standing in the middle of a little boy’s life, but the little boy was gone. Remembering the quiet, shellshocked grief of his fragile mother still hurts my heart.
Now, with a nine-year-old son of my own, I don’t lock my children in the house to keep them safe, but I also don’t have that subconscious voice that whispers it won’t happen here or it won’t happen to us. I can’t tell him to go run amok somewhere but be home for lunch, and not know where he is or who he’s with.
It’s a constant struggle, broadening my boys’ boundaries so they can grow and learn to make their own choices. Letting the Tall Kid start walking home from school several years back was an especially difficult challenge for me, but I stuck a cellphone in his pocket, smiled and went home to watch the minutes tick by on the clock. I know better than to let my fear run their lives.
But sometimes it’s very hard not to go to Extra’s house and shake his parents and yell at them that yes, bad things do happen and they happen to children like ours in towns like ours.