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Through the Shadows

By @Jennifer_Gitler

Chapter One

November 2nd, 2016

“Now, Zachary, why don’t you tell me exactly what happened, from the beginning,” the police officer said after sitting down across from me at the table. We were in a lounge in the police station, not an interrogation room. My dad and a police psychologist were sitting on a couch behind me, staying close for support and also to make sure the officer didn’t start hounding me. I had been assured multiple time that this was just an information gathering session in order to open a missing persons case, not a criminal investigation.

“Nathan and I had just gotten out of school,” I explained. I picked at the label on the plastic bottle of orange juice I’d been given. “He wanted to race home like we sometimes do. I said no at first but he was bugging me so I gave in. We waited until we’d crossed the street and then took off. Everything was fine at first but then he wasn’t looking where he was going and he tripped and fell.”

I could still see the scene clearly in my head. The sun had been at our backs which made our shadows stretch out in front of us so it almost looked like there were four people running instead of two. We had raced through the winding rural roads with Nathan and I going back and forth on who was in the lead. I had been trying to decide if I was going to make sure I won because I was the oldest child or if I would purposely slow down and let him win because that was the nice thing to do as a big brother. Nathan had turned around at one point to tease me and call me a slowpoke and that’s why things went wrong. If he had been looking ahead the whole time he probably would have noticed the tree root early enough to move. By the time he’d turned back around, however, there wasn’t time for him to react and he tripped.

“Was anyone around when this happened?” the officer asked. “Someone who could have grabbed him quickly when you weren’t looking?”

I shook my head and felt tears start to well up in my eyes. “No one was around. At least not that I saw.”

“Do you remember what street you were on?”

“Chandler Street. Between 1402 and 1404.” The police officer scribbled down some quick notes on the yellow legal pad in front of him.

“Did you call anyone for help or knock on anyone’s door?”

“I ran up and knocked on Mrs. Jefferson’s door but she didn’t answer. I don’t know anyone else on the block and Dad says not to talk to strangers.”

“Alright. So then what happened after Nathan hit the ground? Did you see him at first or was he already gone?”

“He didn’t.”

“Excuse me?”

For the first time I looked up and met the officer’s gaze. “He didn’t hit the ground,” I explained. “He fell through the ground.”

* * *

“He’s clearly traumatized,” I heard the police psychologist tell my dad and the police officer. The three of them had left me in the lounge and gone out in the hall to discuss my story. “His brother disappeared suddenly and without a trace. Without a more logical explanation, his 14 year old brain is filling in the only details it can come up with.”

“Well we have enough information to open a case,” the officer said. “I’ll send some people out tomorrow to start knocking on doors and find out if anyone saw anything.”

“And what am I supposed to do?” my dad asked, clearly distraught. “Just sit around twiddling my thumbs while my son is missing and wait to see if your investigation comes up with anything useful?”

“That’s exactly what you need to do,” the officer responded, his voice tense. “Focus on your family and let us do our job.”

“Yeah and how high of a priority is finding my son? You all seem much too calm about this whole thing.”

“With all due respect, Mr. Thompson, we will do everything we can to find Nathan, but it is necessary to stay level headed during a time like this. A case on a missing child is always looked at as particularly important but it isn’t the only open case we have.”

“Come on, Mark,” the police psychologist cut in. “Let’s leave Officer Wilson to get to work. You and Zachary should go home. It’s been a stressful and emotional day for both of you. I’d like to set up some appointments with him to help work through this but I’ll call you about that in a few days.”

“Fine.” Even if I couldn’t see what was happening I knew my dad’s shoulders had just fallen. That was his defeated tone of voice, something I didn’t hear very often. A minute later the door opened again and my dad came back inside. He walked over and crouched down next to my chair. “Come on, Zach. Time to go home.” He quickly wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “We can pick up some pizza at Tony’s on the way, yeah? I know you love their garlic bread.” I shrugged but dropped out of my chair and followed behind him as we left the police station.

Later that night, after my dad forced me to eat some pizza, take a shower, and brush my teeth, I lay in bed, and stared across the room at the neatly made bed with blue and green dinosaur sheets. Nathan’s bed had never been empty before. For the first night since he had been born, I was alone.

September 15th, 2017

“Zachary, dinner’s almost ready,” I heard my dad call from downstairs.

“Okay, I’ll be there in a minute.” I closed my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird and stood up from my desk. As I walked to the bathroom in the hall to wash up I ran my hands through my short, dirty blonde hair and scratched my scalp a little. It had been a long and tiring week but thankfully it was Thursday so I’d be able to have a break soon. I went to the bathroom and washed my hands and then headed downstairs to eat.

I stood in the doorway of the combined kitchen and dining area. We had a larger dining room we would use if a lot of people were coming over but when it was just us we ate at the dark wood table that had room for four. I had memories of being a little kid wearing socks and sliding around the maplewood floor in this room pretending I was an Olympic speed skater. I would spin around the kitchen island like it was the small track the athletes circle around. Most of those memories were happy but there were also a few times I remembered moving too fast and tripping over my own feet.

“Hey, Dad,” I said, announcing my presence as I walked into the room.

“Hey, Sport,” my dad responded. He turned around from where he was standing at the stove and gave me a quick side hug. “You alright?” he asked after seeing my face.

“Yeah,” I replied. “Just got a lot on my mind.”

“Well you’ve got a therapy appointment tomorrow after school so that would be a perfect time to talk about everything.”

I groaned. “Why do I still have to go to those? Nathan disappeared a year ago. I’m fine!” Right after the accident happened I was seeing the therapist weekly to try to prevent later trauma or whatever. As I showed some improvement sessions had been cut back to every other week. It was better but I still hated the sessions and found them to be a waste of my time.

“Because you still insist that he magically disappeared through the sidewalk,” my dad said firmly. “We could understand the trauma originally but it’s time to accept the more rational possibilities.”

“Maybe it’s time for you to all accept that I’m not the one who’s being irrational,” I hissed. I knew it would be easier to just go along with what I was being told but I also knew what I saw, and it wasn’t someone speeding by with a minivan and kidnapping my baby brother.

“Are we really going to have this fight again?” My dad and I had been through a lot together. When I was three my mom died giving birth to my brother so I had to step up and help him care for a new baby while mourning and planning a funeral. Nathan’s disappearance was the second tragedy we’d dealt with and for the most part it had brought my dad and I closer together. In some ways though, it drove a wedge between us.

“Apparently,” I said, trying not to scream but not being able to stop my voice from raising.

“For the last time…” My dad gripped the spatula he was using. I thought he was about to shout at me but then I saw him pause and take a slow, deep breath. “Just grab the plates and silverware and go sit down,” he bit out, not leaving any room for argument. I scowled but did as I was told, walking to the white, wooden cabinets to get everything we needed before moving over to the table and taking my usual seat. The first half of dinner was tense but my dad and I both cooled down some as we ate and managed to exchange some light conversation by the end of the meal. When we had both finished eating we worked together to move the dishes off the table and over to the sink and then my dad washed the things that couldn’t go into the dishwasher and I helped out by drying them.

“Are you working at the bar tonight?” I asked while we worked. Dad was mainly a mechanic but sometimes he worked at a local bar on nights and weekends for extra money.

“Yeah, sorry, Buddy,” he answered with an apologetic look. “I don’t start until seven though so I can still hang out with you a little after we finish this.”

I nodded, drying a pan my dad had just put down. After everything was cleaned up we sat down on the couch and watched a basketball game that was on. Neither of us were massive sports fanatics but we liked to keep up to date on general standings or catch parts of games when we could. Before the game was even over though my dad had to get changed into the black jeans, black button down shirt, and grey vest of his bartender uniform and head to work, leaving me alone in the house. That happened a lot though so I was used to it.

I tried to continue watching television but felt too restless after my mini-fight with my dad earlier so I decided to go out for a walk. Since I was fifteen I was allowed to walk or bike around the neighborhood on my own as long as the sun was still up. The sun would likely be setting soon but I still had between thirty minutes and an hour to get some fresh air. I put on my shoes and grabbed my cell phone and set of house keys before heading outside and locking the door behind me. Our house was fairly average in size but was located in a rather large neighborhood. I always appreciated the space because it let Nathan and I to chase each other around the streets and play silly games without having to worry about major roads or super fast cars coming by. I had memories of playing with mom too but Nathan never got that chance because she died giving birth to him.

I whistled a random tune as I walked down the streets and my thoughts quickly drifted back to Nathan, as they did fairly regularly. I remembered running home to call my dad and telling him, through tears, what happened. I remembered everything that happened at the police station that night. I remembered the day dad moved Nathan’s stuff out of my room because my therapist told him it would be beneficial to my “healing process” but it didn’t actually make me miss him any less. I remembered how much pity I got from the teachers and other students at school when they heard what happened and how I resisted going to school for days because of it. I also remembered when, around the seven month mark after Nathan’s disappearance, being a family of two had started to feel like our new normal. The loss hurt, every single day, but we moved past it. Dad continued working his two jobs and I continued going to school and did my best to live a normal, safe life. Dad didn’t need to lose anyone else.

I was lost in thought so much that I wasn’t paying attention to my feet. I tripped on an uneven square of sidewalk and watched as I got closer and closer to the ground. My hands instinctively shot out to break my fall. Except I didn’t fall, or, more accurately, I didn’t land. I touched my shadow and the ground briefly and then fell through.

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