There was a loud but muffled scream, and when I looked up, the kid was gone.
It wasn't that scary for me; I did know where he was, more or less. But this was what I was leaving my wife with, on the other end of the phone:
Fuck! Shit. Uh, I gotta call you back-
[Screaming continues in background.]
I was standing by the elevator bank, all by myself. The screaming was coming from the other side of a closed elevator door.
We had been riding the elevators for amusement ever since Halloween. The kid hated wearing his costume, a velcro-fastened dragon-or-dinosaur jacket with spines on the sleeves and a little tail. He wouldn't wear the hood at all, and people guessed at first that he was a turtle. There were a fair number of young couples on the trick-or-treat apartment list, visibly proud to be answering the door together in their shared dwelling, rather than staggering around alone in the night among people dressed as Slutty Runaway Balloon Hoaxes or whatever was funny this year.
He was indifferent to the candy, but he was thrilled about riding up to the top floor, the 17th, and working his way down. That was what he had wanted as soon as he woke up on All Saints' Day-not the Laffy Taffy, but an elevator ride back to 17. So I obliged. Later that day, after a morning on the elevators, he flopped down with a miserable respiratory infection. It tested negative for swine flu, but it could have been swine flu anyway. The test wasn't very good, the pediatrician said.
Now we had made it to Saturday, at the tail end of Sick Week. Whatever the disease had been, it was contagious and it lingered. Day care was impossible. We stayed home, through all the low points: the day he made it till dinnertime consuming nothing but Motrin, Tamiflu, and M&Ms; the day I was sicker than he was; the day he happily ate two bowls of oatmeal and then threw it all up on the living-room carpet.
The elevator, when we could manage it, had been our main diversion. Up to 17, to look down at the empty swimming pool and out westward, over the darkening orange-gold treetops, toward the distant lump of downtown Bethesda. Down to 16, for an imperceptibly lower angle on the same thing. Then 15, then 14. Every floor after the top one had the same carpet, the same dark-wood console table, glass-topped, below a round mirror. Our building omits the 13th floor. Mature trees here, in my native mid-Atlantic landscape, top out around 10 or 11 stories. We live down on 3, on the other side of the building, facing a FedEx Office, a Rite-Aid, the metro platform, and the freight tracks. Around 8 or 9 the kid would at last get bored and ask to go to 2, where he would punch buttons on the candy machine to make letters and numbers come up. The big finish.
We were on our way for another ride, then maybe out to do some errands, when my phone rang. I stopped to dig it out of my pocket. It was my wife, calling to say she was coming home. Somewhere in there, while I wasn't looking, the elevator must have arrived. And the kid, focused on his new hobby, charged aboard. He didn't realize something was wrong till the doors closed without Daddy. I didn't realize it till he realized it and started yelling.
When the kid wanders out of view in the produce department or something, you get a quick pang of gut-clenching alarm: the child is unaccounted for. This was something else. He wasn't lost, exactly, nor in any immediate danger. But the problem was getting worse every second-I could hear the elevator going into motion now, and the screams getting fainter. Fainter upwards or fainter downwards? There were four elevators and 17 (no, 16) floors, and the complications were multiplying like some terrible logic puzzle.
I hit both buttons, up and down, hoping to pull his elevator back to the third floor. There are a lot of units in the building, and the elevators seem to be programmed for efficiency-there's always another one coming; you never have to wait. At the moment, this was the opposite of what I wanted. One elevator arrived. Not his. I leaned in, smacked the button for the lobby, and sent it on its way. Another came, also the wrong one, going up. Then another. I couldn't hear the yelling anymore, and I couldn't hit the call button till these two were gone. A man was getting off on 3, and a woman was getting on-she was trying to hold the door for me. No, please, I tried to explain, sending her on without me. My son is-and I need to-and-
Oh, said the man who had just arrived. That's your kid? He's down on the first floor. He looked relieved, a troubling mystery solved.
I got on a down elevator. The only damage, it seemed, would be emotional. We had taken a perfectly fun activity-yes, we, he was old enough to take a kids'-menu share of the blame here, charging off unaccompanied like that, even if Daddy was being wantonly careless-and we had turned it into something terrifying for him. Who knows, this young, what lessons they take away? Maybe he would swear off elevators for the next ten years. One can't even guess.
I found him in the inner lobby, in the arms of the female half of a youngish couple. I did a bad job of registering what they looked like. He was done screaming, but there were visible tear tracks down his face. I wrapped him up in my arms and told him I was sorry, and we sat down on a lobby couch while I called his poor mother back. She had been picturing carnage-a bookcase pulled over on him, or a boiling kettle. He was fine, I told her, we were fine, we'd just gotten him lost on the elevator. She took it well. We would go back upstairs and wait for her to get home. I rang off. Let's go upstairs, I told the kid. He looked at me, his dark eyes still glistening.
"Seventeen!" he said.
Previously: No H1N1 Vaccine for You, Kiddo