Changing Moms on the New Jersey Turnpike
"Anything Could Disappear" by Danielle Evans, recommended by Kelly Link
INTRODUCTION BY KELLY LINK
The title of Danielle Evans’s debut, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, was an admonition, annoyed but fond, where the title of her second, long-awaited collection, The Office of Historical Corrections has a decidedly more institutional ring to it. It suggests the kind of work that will be familiar to any writer who has engaged in revision—work which is necessary, painstaking, quixotic, and without apparent end. Let us write down what we know to be true rather than what would be flattering, or indulgent, or reflexive. Where Evans’ first collection felt like a warning sign posted in front of a scenic cliff with no guardrail, the stories in The Office of Historical Corrections are more in the territory of aftermath, occupying spaces between unbearable losses that must nevertheless be not only carried but also anticipated and, afterwards, recorded in careful and accurate detail.
Take this story from the collection, “Anything Could Disappear,” for example: in a short span, a young woman acquires a small boy, an apartment in a new city, a new job, a new boyfriend. The small boy, William, is a good and easy child. The new apartment is adequate, the somewhat shady job is well paid, and Vera’s boyfriend is kind, generous, unobjectionable. There is a storybook quality to Vera’s situation, as if some fairy godmother has bestowed each of these frictionless gifts upon her and yet in the title of the story, there is the official caution stamp that is one of the trademarks of Evans’ work. Loss must follow joys which follow loss. When I reread “Anything Can Disappear,” what I notice most keenly is what we don’t know about Vera’s life before the period recorded in the story. For two years previous Vera has had a job in a record store in Chicago; she is a college dropout; in her twenty-one years she has become a careful but somewhat detached observer of her environment and the people around her, and learned to travel lightly. What we don’t know is what losses Vera carries, or what weight those losses represent. We see only that she has the eye of a tightrope walker, only moving forward, continuously evaluating her balance and her forward course.
Although many of the stories in this collection, like “Anything Could Disappear,” happen in the shadow or aftermath of catastrophic loss, the stories themselves and the people in them are not submerged in or extinguished by loss. They are, in fact, so urgent, so bright, so compelling that they linger long after I close the book. Danielle Evans has a gimlet eye for the kind of contradictory detail that makes a character come into vivid and immediate focus, like a more benevolent yet still terrifying Eye of Sauron. And then, as with the end of “Anything Could Disappear,” she makes them vanish again. I can’t tell you how many years I waited for a second Evans collection: the minute I finished The Office of Historical Corrections I began the process of reconciling myself to the wait once more.
– Kelly Link
Author of Get in Trouble
Changing Moms on the New Jersey Turnpike
“Anything Could Disappear” by Danielle Evans
Vera was moving to New York on a Greyhound bus, carrying only a duffel bag. The morning she left Missouri, there was a heat advisory and an orange‑level terrorism alert. An hour outside of Chicago, there had been an older woman, crying and demanding that the bus pull over to let her off. From Chicago to Cleveland, she had sat next to a perfectly cordial man who had just finished a ten‑year prison sentence and was on his way home from Texas with nothing but his bus ticket and twenty dollars in his pocket. Between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, there had been a man who kept trying to get her to share a blanket with him, citing their proximity to the air‑conditioning vent, and between Pittsburgh and Philly, a teenage runaway had sat beside her and talked her ear off. And now there was this: a small, wobbly child whose mother had deposited him in the seat beside her with a simple “Keep an eye on him, will ya, hon?”
Vera tried to catch the eye of another passenger, maybe the woman two seats ahead of her on the other side of the aisle—she looked like the sort of person who would turn around and say, Keep an eye on him your damn self, lady; he’s yours, ain’t he?—but nobody looked up. The boy was around two years old, brown‑skinned with a head of curls that someone had taken the time to properly comb. He was dressed in a clean, bright red T‑shirt, baby jeans, and sneakers nicer than Vera’s. The mother was a thin, nervous white woman, with wispy hair in three shades of blond. She smelled strongly of cigarette smoke and chocolate milk. She had gotten on the bus with the boy and a girl, about seven, who looked like her in miniature. The little girl was chewing purple bubble gum with the kind of enthusiasm that would have prompted Vera’s own mother to ask, “Are you a young lady or a cow?” The mother had a cell phone pressed to her ear and was having a terse conversation with someone on the other end. She kept the phone cradled between her ear and shoulder, even as she leaned over the baby to kiss him on the forehead before walking farther toward the back of the bus.
“I feed him, don’t I?” she said into the cell phone. “When was the last time you did?”
The little boy made Vera nervous. He was a quiet, happy baby. He would occasionally clap his hands together, applauding something only he could appreciate. Still, he was so small. Vera was overcome by the unreasonable belief that he might break if she looked away from him. As she watched him, he seemed to be watching her back. In the window on the other side of the boy, Vera could see her own hazy reflection, nothing to write home about one way or the other. She had been on buses, at that point, for sixteen of the last twenty‑one hours. She was wearing jeans and an old T‑shirt from the college she’d dropped out of two years earlier. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail that was starting to frizz. Vera was a few months past her twenty‑first birthday, which had happened without any of the fanfare and excess people tended to associate with turning twenty‑one. Josh and her coworkers at the record store had ordered her a pizza at work and opened a few beers to toast her. That was it.
Somewhere on the Jersey Turnpike, the bus pulled into one of those rest stops that appeared up and down 95 like punctuation marks. Vera went into the travel plaza to get a cup of coffee. In the women’s restroom, she stretched her arms above her head in the mirror and rolled up on the balls of her feet, then down again. She splashed water on her face, then pulled a small bottle of mouthwash from the duffel bag she’d carried in with her and swirled a capful around in her mouth before spitting into the sink.
When she got back on the bus, the little boy was still sitting in the seat beside her. Vera felt more charitably toward him now that she had seen how easy it was to walk away. She made faces at him that made him giggle. She tried to engage him in a game of patty‑cake, but he seemed more interested in the clapping than the repetition.
When the bus finally pulled into Port Authority, Vera squeezed past the boy’s seat to retrieve her duffel bag from the overhead bin. As she scrunched her face at the weight of the bag, the boy began to giggle again. She smiled back at him, then looked over her shoulder for his mother and sister. The people in the back of the bus were walking off one by one, but there was no sign of the blond woman or her daughter. Thinking maybe they’d somehow passed her already, Vera picked up the little boy, balancing him on her hip, and rushed off the bus, into the parking lot. No mother. She put the boy down and watched the rest of the passengers exit the bus, until it sat there, empty. Still no mother. “Excuse me,” Vera said to a heavyset older woman. “Did you see a blond woman and a little girl? They were just on the bus with us.”
“Woman on the cell phone?”
“Yeah,” said Vera.
“Think they got off in Jersey. Sounded like someone was supposed to meet her there.” The woman grabbed her suitcase from beside the bus and walked off.
Vera looked around at the rapidly dispersing passengers, wondering what the hell was wrong with them that none of them had noticed a child being abandoned. But as she unintentionally tightened her grip on his hand, Vera realized that to the crowd it looked like he’d been her little boy all along. In the lazy American vernacular of appearances, Vera, with her color and hair that matched his, looked more like his mother or sister than his own mother and sister did. Had that been why the mother had chosen her? Maybe she’d intended to leave him all along. Or maybe something terrible had happened to her at the rest stop, she’d been dragged off by a stranger and was hoping someone would notice she was missing before it was too late. Or maybe she’d just gotten distracted, smoking a cigarette for too long, and was now frantic because the bus had left without her.
In any case, the obvious thing was to go to the police, to let them straighten the whole thing out. But there was this little boy, who was holding on to Vera with his left hand while he sucked the thumb on his right. And there was this duffel bag, where, between two layers of clothing, wrapped in a layer of plastic, and then a layer of gift wrap, Vera had carefully placed a package containing twenty thousand dollars’ worth of cocaine. It was the last favor she was ever doing for Josh, and new as she was to this, she knew better than to walk into a police station with it.
“What’s your name, sweetie?” Vera asked the little boy.
He shook his head. She scanned him for signs of a name tag, finally finding one on the inner lining of his T‑shirt—someone had scrawled WILLIAM, in black Sharpie, on the tag inside.
“Come on, William,” Vera said. “Let’s get something to eat.”
Vera took him to a McDonald’s and watched him nibble at his French fries and chicken nuggets. She considered dropping him off on the steps of a police station and just walking away, but that felt fraught with unsavory possibilities. He might follow her and get more lost than he already was. Someone might see her leaving him and try to stop her. There’d be more questions asked than she had answers for. She had one thousand dollars in cash tucked into the lining of her handbag, and when she went to drop this package off tomorrow she’d have ten thousand dollars more, and her whole life in front of her.
The year before she’d dropped out, she’d fulfilled her university’s mandatory community service requirement by working with a literacy program at a women’s prison. There were women not much older than she was doing ten years for holding, selling, transporting—mostly their boyfriends’ drugs. A classmate said once that they’d bargained their lives for a few thousand dollars, which just emphasized for Vera how much the classmate had missed the point—most of these women weren’t getting money in the first place. They’d done it for love.
Fuck love. This was not a love story. Josh was in his late thirties, already balding and prone to wearing button‑down Hawaiian print shirts. He’d half‑heartedly hit on Vera once, but even he couldn’t take the flirtation seriously enough to be offended by her rejection. He owned the record store, which had been a hardware store until his father died. For at least the last decade he’d been making more money selling pot and small‑time quantities of pills out of the back room than he had selling records out of the front room; not because he’d started selling more drugs but because people had stopped buying music. Until now, Vera had strictly worked the front‑room business, maintaining plausible deniability of whatever else her employer was doing. She kept a blank face while ringing up music of questionable taste, pornographic album covers, actual pornography, and cigarettes that twenty-something men purchased for the fourteen‑year‑old girls lingering outside. Vera got good at pretending not to notice people who didn’t want to be seen.
The revival downtown had been promising her for years sputtered and stopped when the recession hit. Even after she’d dropped out of school, it had seemed better to stay put than to go an hour backward and end up at home again. Her father had suggested she get her cosmetology degree and work at the nail salon that had opened in town, and Vera said, You want me to get a job literally watching paint dry? When she called her parents back to apologize for her tone, she made it sound like Josh’s store was really something and she had big plans, when in fact every day she felt like she had less energy to even imagine what better version of herself she might become.
Beneath the renovated downtown lofts that nobody had moved into were boarded‑up windows that were supposed to be art galleries. The stoners who hung around the record shop were positively comforting in comparison to the kids who hung out in the downtown parking lots tweaking, flashing her the singed remainders of their teeth. Josh had refinanced the shop and then blew the money on a bad investment and had trouble paying the mortgage. Vera worked there for two years and made minimum wage the whole time. She had no savings and Josh knew it; he had more than once spotted her a twenty for lunch and dinner when it was close to payday and he saw she wasn’t eating anything. Through someone he knew he’d gotten ahold of this drug, which was not meth, which was not heroin, which was a flittery thing, a onetime thing. He wasn’t going to chance selling it in his own backyard—the cops had let him slide on the weed, but they were getting antsy. He knew a guy in New York though, and all she had to do was get it there and she could take a fee. Josh would get out of hot water with the lender, and she could get the hell out of Missouri and not look back.
When William had finished eating, Vera took his hand again and went outside to a pay phone. She called the phone number she had seen on the side of a city bus, and made an anonymous tip that a woman and a little girl may have been hurt near exit 9 of the Jersey Turnpike. No, she didn’t know their names. No, she didn’t know where they were coming from or where they were going. No, she couldn’t say why she thought they might be in danger. No, she couldn’t stay on the line. She caught a cab, checked into a hotel, put the baby to bed, and called her mother to tell her everything was fine.
In the morning, she took the train to the address Josh had given her. She took William with her because she wasn’t sure what else to do with him. The building was unspectacular from the outside, a grim brownstone. She rang the buzzer twice. On the second buzz, a female voice answered and asked who it was.
“I’m Vera,” she said. “Josh sent me.”
The door buzzed open. Vera walked up the narrow stairwell and opened the door in front of her. She thought at first she must have written the number down wrong. She was in an office—polished hardwood floors, bright accent colors on the walls, sunlight coming in through the loft windows, a sleek red couch, and a waiting area near a front desk. A woman with a blond‑streaked ponytail sat behind it. A sign on the wall behind her read BROOKLYN DELIVERS.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“I need to talk to Derek. My name’s Vera.”
The woman hit a button on the phone. A few seconds later, a man with short dreads and a T‑shirt featuring a band she’d never heard of came out to greet her, a perplexed look on his face.
“I’m Vera,” she said again.
Derek stared at William, who Vera had propped up on her hip.
“You brought a baby?” he asked.
“He’s two,” Vera said, as if this were an adequate explanation.
“Hold on.” Derek disappeared into the back room, but before the door shut behind him, Vera could hear him say, “Who the fuck are we dealing with? He sent a girl with a kid.”
A second man, this one with scruffy blond hair and thick black‑framed glasses, came out of the room.
“I’m Adam,” he said. “Josh sent you?”
“Yes,” said Vera. She gestured toward William. “I’m sorry about him. I didn’t know where else to leave him. I just got here yesterday.”
“It’s cool. You want to leave him out here for a minute? Liz can keep an eye on him.”
Vera eyed the woman behind the desk. She hadn’t looked up from the computer screen. Vera deposited William on the floor and followed Adam to the back room, which looked like a more posh version of the front room— hardwood floors, plush couches, walls of file cabinets.
“This is not what I was expecting,” she said to Adam.
“We’re a courier service,” said Adam. “We deliver things. Mostly documents and packages for small businesses. Sometimes not.”
“Oh,” said Vera.
“You’re not what we were expecting either,” said Derek.
“Sorry,” said Vera.
“I didn’t say it was a bad thing. Just, Adam met Josh a while back on a road trip. From what he described, you don’t really seem like the kind of girl he’d be hanging around with. That his kid?”
“No,” said Vera.
“A woman of few words,” said Adam. “It’s a good instinct.”
They finished their transaction quickly, without any of the sinister fanfare Vera had anticipated. Josh’s money was wired. She put her cash in the bag where the drugs had been. She walked out to find William safely where she’d left him, and exited the building feeling an anticlimactic sense of relief.
Vera opened a bank account and deposited two thousand dollars. She sat in a coffee shop with William, calling through the rentals section on Craigslist. A few hours later, a Russian woman in Red Hook rented her an attic apartment. Vera had a list of friends willing to serve as fake landlord references, but the woman asked few questions once it became clear to her that Vera planned to pay both the first month’s rent and the security deposit in cash. The first night in the apartment, they slept on the floor. She watched the rise and fall of William’s chest, the delicate flaring of his tiny nostrils. He’ll need a bed, she thought, and as soon as she thought it, she realized that the idea of giving him back had gone out the window. He would be hers unless and until someone took him away.
For the time being, William seemed like less trouble than anything else she’d gotten herself into. He was quiet, he was happy, and he imposed a certain order on her life. Meals had to be eaten at set times. There was bedtime, and time for waking up. Vera rented a U‑Haul and picked up furniture around the city. When she went to buy a baby bed from a woman in Park Slope, the woman cooed over William and threw in a stroller for fifty bucks. By the end of the week, the apartment was in order and the money was half gone.
Vera had intended all along to look for a job once she got here, but now there was the problem of having William. She couldn’t very well take him along for interviews, or even to drop off résumés, because what if they wanted to talk to her then and there? Formal day care seemed likely to involve more paperwork than she currently possessed, which meant she’d need a babysitter, which meant she’d need to spend some time figuring out whom to trust with him. She felt a pang of guilt at her nervousness about leaving him with a stranger. After all, what was she? She googled “William,” “missing child,” and “New Jersey,” setting the dates within the past month, and found no evidence that anyone was looking for him.
On Sunday, Vera took William for a walk in Prospect Park. She bought him an ice pop from one of the street vendors. While she sat in the grass with him, feeding him ice and singing, to the best of her abilities, “Little Bunny Foo Foo,” she heard a voice call her name. She turned around to see the man with the short dreads approaching her.
“Vera, right?” he asked.
“Yeah,” said Vera. “Derek?”
He nodded. “So you’re sticking around?”
“Hopefully for good. I was just doing a favor on my way out here.”
“So what’s your son’s name?”
“William,” Vera answered without hesitation, though she had not yet used the word son in reference to him. Derek sat down and began to play peekaboo with him.
“His dad around?”
“You see anyone but me around?”
“OK then,” said Derek. William uncovered his face and looked disappointed that Derek had stopped playing with him. Derek reached out and tickled William’s belly until he laughed his high‑pitched baby giggle.
“You know anyone who’s good with kids?” Vera asked.
“I’m not good enough?” Derek laughed. “I thought little man and I were getting along fine.”
“I need someone to watch him,” said Vera. “I need to find a job.”
“What do you do?”
“I used to be a cashier.”
“Just a cashier, or you kept records?”
“I kept records.”
“You ever answer phones?”
“When they ring.”
“Look,” said Derek. “Our receptionist just quit. She’s moving to LA. You interested? You answer phones, you file papers, you schedule pickups and deliveries, and ninety-five percent of what we do is legal.”
“And the other five percent?”
“Is why you’d be making twenty dollars an hour instead of eleven. We try not to get in the middle of the messy stuff. We get everything in small quantities here and there and then we overcharge for it because there’s a market of kids who want their drugs but are too lazy or scared to find their own dealer. We’re middlemen, basically. Not even middlemen, because we don’t even do that much buying straight from the source. We mostly stay under the radar.”
“What about William?”
“As long as he doesn’t fuss, you can bring him until you find someone to watch him.”
William grinned, and then covered his mouth with his grape ice–stained fingers, as if to show how unfussy he could be.
So just like that, Vera’s life fell into place, or out of it. She worked seven to four at the office, answering phones, filing papers, keeping two sets of books. She learned the last receptionist’s filing system—the bike messengers without a C next to their names were only to carry documents and other innocuous packages for businesses that needed to get something from one part of the city to another before the end of the business day. The ones with a C could make both regular deliveries and irregular deliveries. She liked the messengers—they came in and out of the office to pick up assignments, packages, schedules, checks. They consulted with each other about the fastest routes and the best bike locks. They called her, sometimes, sheepish and lost in a city that some of them knew in their blood and others were perpetually perplexed by, even as they pretended that no address daunted them. They were her age, or even younger, and they all had something urgent to be doing with their lives, only it hadn’t happened yet.
They competed against one another and their own personal bests to set records for transit time. They were paid by the number of deliveries they made. She could identify some of them by their scars—the accident scrapes and scratches or, in one case, the thin jagged line left by a bike thief ’s knife. Most of the messengers were oblivious to William’s presence, but a few gave him candy if they had it or sat down on the floor and played with him while they waited for Vera to finish doing what they needed done. Since no one seemed fazed by William’s presence in the office, least of all William, the idea of finding him a babysitter gradually faded away. One day she came into the office and found a playpen behind the desk, with a note on it from Adam and Derek, and the matter seemed settled.
Adam and Derek had grown on her. They were only a few years older than Vera was, but they seemed younger sometimes, both prone to fits of silliness and then mercurial sulking. They’d been friends since high school, somewhere in the Jersey suburbs, and sometimes they spoke their own language, comprised entirely of shared memories. They claimed to live untethered lives, apparently oblivious to how helpless they would each be without the other. Adam always left a coffee on Vera’s desk in the morning. Derek made her playlists or left her notes with her name drawn in fanciful script. A few years ago, Derek had been trying to start a graphic design business, about five years too late. Adam had been a bike messenger, who figured that if he were the person running things instead of the person delivering things, he could make more money without damn near killing himself in city traffic. Adam convinced Derek that he could turn his design business into a courier business if Adam went in for half, which, thanks to a loan from an uncle, he did. After a rough first year, they started splitting their business between legal and illegal goods, and three years later, here they were.
And now here was Vera, wiping her old life clean. She could have explained New York, probably even the job, maybe even the money, but there was no accounting for William. She deleted her Facebook page. She closed her old email account and opened a new one that only people who knew her now were aware of. She canceled her old cell phone service and bought a new phone. She called her mother once a week, using a phone card and a pay phone at the laundromat. I’m fine, she said, over and over again. I love you. I don’t know when I’m coming home to visit.
William began to talk more, and Vera took a certain pride in hearing him say her name. He called her Ve‑ra and not Ma‑ma, which seemed only fair, and which she explained by telling people she’d felt too young to be anybody’s mama when she had him. She read him bedtime stories at night and taught him his colors and letters. She had no one to ask how to do this right. At the first threat of snow, Derek bought him a winter hat, which Vera interpreted as part friendly gesture, part admonishment.
That night she gave William a bath with lilac baby soap. She washed his curly hair and his chubby body. He splashed in the bathtub.
“Are you happy?” Vera asked. “Am I taking good care of you?”
He flashed his baby teeth at her. Vera scooped him into a towel, dried, lotioned, and powdered him, and put him in his fleece pajamas. He fell asleep with his head nestled into the crook of her neck. Even as kids, some girls were about babies the way other girls were about bands or horses or witchcraft, but Vera had never been like that. Babies were loud and sticky, and part of why she’d started college in the first place was sex ed made it seem like it was one or the other—either you got a degree or an infant would be assigned to you. On the same block as Josh’s record store there’d been a coffee shop where one of the girls who worked there brought her toddler sometimes. The owner told her not to, and whenever she saw his car go past to pull into the parking lot, she’d run out the front door of her shop and into the front door of Josh’s and leave her son to sit until her boss left. Josh didn’t care because the girl was pretty, and anyway he didn’t do shit but plop the little boy in a corner. It was Vera who’d have to play games with him and turn safety hazards into toys, and even though she tried, he always just started screaming, and wouldn’t stop until his mother got back. He wouldn’t even smile for her. That William was so calm with her seemed like its own argument, like the universe telling her he belonged with her.
One night in November the city was blanketed in unexpected snow. Business operations shut down early. The trains were running slow and cabs were near impossible to flag. Vera wasn’t looking forward to the icy walk from the office to the train, or from the train to her apartment. She accepted Derek and Adam’s invitation to stay the night. They lived on the upper floor of the loft that housed the office. They put William to bed on the couch, and made her toaster pizza and hot chocolate with shots of rum in it. Though she teased them about their bachelor dinner, it felt good going down. It had been months since she’d spent an evening with people her own age.
Somewhere after their third cup of cocoa, Derek kissed her, or she kissed him, or in any case she spent the night with him, and then the next, and the one after. Within a week she had a toothbrush and a few changes of clothes upstairs in the apartment, and William had a second bed. She saw less and less of the attic in Red Hook, and when she was there she could sometimes see the landlady in the window of the building next door, marking her comings and goings with suspicion.
In December, they threw a holiday party at the loft. Vera hung garlands and mistletoe and purchased and decorated a small plastic tree. Everyone got drunk on rum-soaked eggnog and, when that ran out, cheap beer. People took slightly pornographic pictures making out under the mistletoe. At a dollar store, Vera had found a box of ornaments that were meant to be written on with permanent marker. She gave one to each of the party guests, and before long the tree was covered in bulbs that said things like New York I love you but you’re bringing me down. William was passed around from person to person like a particularly lifelike doll, and Vera was feeling charitable enough to let him be a part of everyone’s fantasy of domesticity, instead of just hers. People had brought him toys and stuffed animals. Derek bought him a set of wooden blocks. When he presented a second box, Vera started to protest that he was spoiling William, but he indicated it was meant for her. Vera stared for a minute. She’d been counting William’s presents as her own and couldn’t remember when she’d stopped seeing herself as a separate entity. She opened the box Derek had given her, and then put on the glass-beaded necklace it contained. Derek kissed her.
“I love you,” he said.
“You love rum,” said Vera.
“I love you and rum,” said Derek. He kissed her again. Later, Vera went into the back room to call her parents.
It was an hour earlier on central time, but still past her mother’s bedtime.
“Why are you waking me up?” her mother asked. “Is everything OK? Why is it so loud?”
“I love you,” said Vera.
“Are you drunk?” said her mother. “What are you doing out there?”
“I’m happy,” said Vera. “I’m not going to call for a while. I just wanted you to know.”
Keeping William made the past firmly the past, the Vera who’d left home a Vera who couldn’t exist anymore. She committed to the present. She liked waking up with Derek, the feel of something solid beside her. She liked the way he looked at her and the way he was with William and the way he surprised her. She liked the pattern of her life now, the domestic monotony tempered with the rush of feeling always close to the edge of something, the sensation of having the thing she loved and valuing it all the more because she knew it could all go wrong at any minute.
And then everything did. Jacob, one of the couriers, swerved to miss a puddle and slid into an eighteen‑wheeler in Manhattan on a rainy day. Jacob was a nineteen‑year‑old with startlingly blue eyes, an orthodontically perfect smile, a part‑time bartending gig, and an unrealized aspiration to be an actor one day. He had been in Vera’s office the day before, picking up a check and giving William a lollipop. He had been at the holiday party a few weeks earlier, drinking flaming tequila shots and kissing a girl with pink highlights and a crescent moon tattooed on the inside of her wrist. There was a somber memorial service, attended by dozens of his friends and fellow couriers, some wearing black bike helmets in solidarity. Vera had bought a black dress and clutched William close to her chest at the service. He had been the only one not crying.
Jacob’s mother was a doctor in Connecticut. She hired a law firm. The complaint charged the city with failure to institute proper regulations to ensure the safety of bikers. It charged Brooklyn Delivers with being reckless by expecting unreasonable delivery times and overlooking the myriad ways in which their employees violated safety protocols. All of this was true and—in spite of the unenforceable liability waiver that the employees signed—probably actionable. In the somber aftermath of Jacob’s death, Adam and Derek under-reacted for the first few weeks. For the better part of a month, they were uncommunicative and high most of the time. Vera stopped spending the night.
At home in her attic apartment Vera stayed up some nights, thinking of Jacob’s face the day he’d bent down to give William the lollipop. She thought of his mother’s grief, filtered through legalese. One night she imagined the irrevocable loss of William. Even the flicker of pretending he was gone left her with a feeling so complete and unfamiliar that she was wrecked, lay there sobbing so loudly that William woke up and cried too. She couldn’t bring herself to get up and go to him.
At the office, she searched for the first time in months for evidence that whoever had lost him wanted to find him. She clicked half‑heartedly through pages of missing‑child announcements, neither wanting nor expecting to find William’s face. There was photo after photo. A gap‑toothed blond boy on his mother’s lap. A cocoa‑colored girl with beaded braids, grinning and clutching a teddy bear. A seven‑year‑old with a pink bike. Some of them, Vera knew from the news, had already been found dead. For the others, she imagined improbable scenarios, scenarios in which people like her had rescued them and taken them off to some other life.
On the third page of results, she found a bulletin board for parents of missing children, and under the headline MY SON WILLIAM—MISSING SINCE OCTOBER, Vera finally saw the picture she’d been terrified of seeing: William, the way he’d looked when she found him, his eyes unmistakable. She tried to reason that she’d had her William since August, and so this must be another child, but she read on anyway, sick to her stomach. At the top of the page was his date of birth. He’d be three in April. The man posting the picture said he was William’s father. There was a second picture, of him with William and William’s mother, the same wispy blond woman from what felt like so long ago. It didn’t explain why she wasn’t the one looking for him. It didn’t explain how William had gotten from Chicago, where his father lived, to a bus on the Jersey Turnpike. In the second picture, William was an infant. Both the man and the woman were smiling broadly, their eyes sparkling. At the bottom of the post, the man claiming to be William’s father had listed the numbers for the police tip line and his own cell phone.
Vera dialed the second number.
“Hello,” she said. “May I speak to William Charles Sr.?”
“Speaking,” said a steely voice on the other end.
“I’m a reporter,” said Vera. “I came across your post about your son. I wondered if I could talk to you about his case?”
“You in New York?” asked the voice. “Your number came up New York.”
“Yes. We’re a small paper, but we cover national news sometimes if it’s of interest. I’m doing a series on missing children.”
“I can barely get the Chicago cops to pay attention, let alone the papers,” said the man.
“I’m listening,” said Vera.
“He was supposed to be with his mother and next thing I know she stops letting me talk to him on the phone. She moved to Jersey, to be with some guy, and said she didn’t want me calling. Sometimes I’d call anyway, and get the little girl—not mine, but I’d been around since she was little—and when I’d ask her about William she’d start crying. Then the guy they were living with took off, and my ex turned up dead. Overdose. Poor kid found her mother like that. They gave her to her grandma, who never liked me any, and she either can’t or won’t say what happened to my boy. All she says is that he wasn’t in the house. But he’s two. How far could he go?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” said Vera.
“I just want my son.”
For the next week it was Vera who walked around in a fog. Derek and Adam had gone into panic mode. They’d been cooperating while stalling when they could, but Jacob’s mother wouldn’t accept a settlement offer until their financial records had been released in discovery. They were worried that a thorough audit would reveal too many irregularities. On Monday Derek asked Vera to stay late. When they locked up for the day, he led her into the back room.
“We’re taking off,” he said. “New IDs, enough money to lie low for a while. Eventually we’ll figure something out. There’s a guy with a grow op who thinks everything will be legal soon.”
“Where?” said Vera. “When?”
“Cali,” said Derek. “Two weeks. Adam knows a guy.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“You can come with us,” said Derek. “You should probably get out of town for a while anyway.”
The possibility dangled in front of her like a brass ring. She’d come this far. She could go farther. She could keep William. She could keep Derek. She pictured William all grown up, the chubbiness stretched out of his cheeks. “I grew up on a farm,” he’d say. “I’m pretty sure my parents did something shady for money, but man were they in love.” She tried to picture California but found she didn’t even have an image of it in her mind, only a vague fear of earthquakes.
“Get me the paperwork,” said Vera. “Let me think about it.”
She packed what would fit in her suitcase, and sold the rest. When William’s bed was gone she kept him with her, on a blanket on the floor, clinging to him. She gave notice to her landlady and came home from work the next day to find the apartment already being shown to a daunted would‑be subletter. At the end of the week, Derek left an envelope on her desk, with a California ID with her picture and the name Jessica. There was also a birth certificate for William, who’d been renamed Joshua. At the office, their days were measured in shredded paper, the whir of the shredding machines a threat and a promise. If everything could be erased, anything could disappear. If you could erase everything, you could start again.
She wanted to see the father before she made any decisions. She equivocated on making Derek any promises. She didn’t love him enough to make up for William’s potential absence, and so she didn’t see the point in pretending. She helped him pack. She kept his necklace around her neck. She buzzed Derek’s locks off with an electric razor. She dyed Adam’s blond hair black. Vera spent Derek and Adam’s last night in New York at the loft with them. She made margaritas. She curled up in Derek’s arms and imagined trying to explain to him how much bigger her guilt was than theirs. She got up before dawn and made them breakfast and kissed Derek goodbye. He offered to leave her with an address of a person he said would be able to tell her where to find them, and she said maybe it was better if he didn’t.
The next day, she and William got on a bus to Chicago. She bundled him in layers of winter clothing—a turtleneck, a sweater, a hooded jacket, and the hat Derek had bought him. He was uncharacteristically fussy, insisting that he was hot and itchy. One by one the outer layers were removed. From their stopover in Cleveland, Vera called Eileen, a friend in school in Chicago. She hadn’t seen Eileen in years, but they’d gone to high school together, and when she said she needed a place to stay for the night, Eileen offered to come get her at the bus station.
“My God, you have a kid!” she said when she saw them. “He’s so big.”
“He’s almost three,” said Vera.
“How was New York?” asked Eileen.
“Beautiful,” said Vera. “Exhausting.”
Eileen brought them back to her one‑bedroom apartment in Hyde Park. She pulled out the sofa and told Vera to make herself at home. Vera turned on a cartoon show and combed William’s hair. She kissed the top of his head and told him she loved him. She remembered being a child, seated between her mother’s legs watching TV while her mother parted and braided her hair, and felt, for the first time in years, homesick, sick for everything she could still lose.
She slept poorly. Over coffee, Vera asked if Eileen could keep an eye on William while she ran a quick errand. Vera took a cab to William’s father’s address. It was an old brick row house, beaten up a bit, but not neglected. The lawn was mowed, and the shutters had been recently painted. She walked around the block a few times and feigned interest in a house for sale across the street. BANK OWNED! read its sign. On her fifth circle around the block, she saw the door to the house open, and the man from the photograph come out, then turn behind him to help an older woman down the stairs. Both of them resembled William. He had a father. He had a grandmother. He had never been hers. They looked up. For a second, Vera thought William Sr. was pointing at her, and she was ready to confess. Then she realized he was pointing past her, at the foreclosed house, its overgrown lawn.
Back at Eileen’s, Vera found William circling the living room, clutching a teddy bear while Eileen typed a paper. Vera made grilled cheese for lunch. She told Eileen that she and William had another bus to catch, all the way to California, and would be gone that evening. In the afternoon, Eileen left for class, and told Vera to lock the door behind her on the way out. Vera hugged her goodbye. Eileen ruffled William’s hair.
“Lucky boy you are,” she said. “Such a big trip, for such a little person.”
The moment Eileen was out the door, Vera set fire to William’s forged birth certificate with a cigarette lighter, afraid she’d be unable to resist the temptation to keep him otherwise. She started a letter three times. On the first attempt, she emphasized that she hadn’t meant to take him, that it felt like he’d been given to her and she just hadn’t questioned it. A paragraph in, she realized this wasn’t her story anymore, that the point was not her own defense. In the second version, she focused on all of William’s milestones: her favorite things about him, his best days—she wanted to show he’d been happy and unharmed, but when she reread the letter it seemed cruel, to emphasize the time his father had missed and wouldn’t get back. In her third and final effort, she tried to account in a matter‑of‑fact way for the time she’d kept him, to assure his father that she’d done her best not to damage him, that he had not fallen into terrible hands, that he had suffered no irreparable trauma, that she was not a person who would ever harm him, though of course she understood now that she had. She held William in her arms until he fell asleep, then picked him up and tucked him into Eileen’s bed. She texted to confirm Eileen was on her way home. She left the note for William’s father and the note she’d written for Eileen, with William’s father’s name and address, sitting on the coffee table, next to Eileen’s apartment key. She walked three blocks and hailed a cab.
On the way to the bus station, the city went by in a blur of brick and beige and gray. Vera was startled and shaking. Adam and Derek were waiting until they could be found again, but Vera understood now that she would need to be lost forever, would need to let the whole of the murky country swallow her up. The cabdriver thought she was drunk and kept offering to pull over if she needed to throw up. The third time he offered, she said yes, but when she opened the door and leaned out, nothing came up. There was just the shock of the cold, and the dry empty heave of her belly.