[Image: “A Forgotten Giant” by Ng Kok Leong]
Ben was too tired to get a divorce. His days at the firm were spent sifting through paperwork, squinting at small print, trying to make something out of nothing sentences. The last thing he wanted to do was bring paperwork home with their names printed on the pages, their artifacts categorized; identities boiled down to carbon paper copies. What if Freddy saw them? He could read extraordinarily well for an eight-year-old who barely talked. To save money he would get a guy at work to draft the legal separation forms and then maybe he’d bring them home, put them in a drawer. On the other hand, he thought, maybe they’d just do it by e- mail. Maybe they could sign their marriage away electronically, and he’d never actually touch paper. Nowadays authentication was more precise, even easier, but still it lacked the conviction of paper. That’s how he felt, too. Ben’s thoughts were razor sharp but his zest for life, for romance, was leached from him now. Outside of Freddy, nothing excited him.
He sat up reading the search results for “divorce and autistic children” on his laptop and sipped his third drink. He had been pouring himself a couple short whiskeys and passing out on the couch for several nights in a row, pretending like it was an accident. Nights were always a stalemate between him and Keri; him and the guest room; him and the daylight. He could always get a few hours on the couch, and maybe if he was tired enough—or if it was late enough—he’d drag himself up to the guest room and fall asleep quickly. The guest bed was bought new when they were decorating the house. They had left the department store with it, the whole room: the bedding and pillows that were on the display set up in the store and all the furniture. It still looked like it was for display only, and it smelled like dust.
The sound of the back door caught his attention. The heavy blinds that covered the window on the top half slammed against the door when it shut, even louder in the middle of the night, despite the TV’s noise. The back door was through the kitchen, but he couldn’t quite see it from the couch. He shot up so fast he had to hold onto his head for a few seconds before moving, the blanket from the couch slinking off his body. In the kitchen, the clock on the microwave said 1:27; the stove said 1:25. Freddy’s small tennis shoes were missing from the plastic mat on the floor where they kept all his shoes lined up. He’d left again.
Bracing himself against the wall, Ben pulled open the door almost falling out of it. He couldn’t see anything past the radius of the floodlights which only lit the cars in the driveway. He jogged past it and out to the front walk, whispering Freddy’s name again and again. Nothing moved until his stomach wretched and he doubled over, dry-heaving into the patchy lawn by the mailbox. He looked around again for Freddy, but his socks were starting to soak through. He hobbled back into the house and shut the door behind him, the blinds slamming once again, and called for Keri in a voice that shocked him. For a moment, he felt embarrassed for calling out to her, not having said her name out loud in weeks.
On his way upstairs, he passed through the living room, the television still lighting the room sporadically. The ice in his drink had melted, leaving his whiskey looking a shade closer to pine than walnut, but he downed it anyway. He walked a confident path through the unlit house, only steadying himself against the wall when he tried to take the stairs two at a time.
When they’d built this house, they argued plenty about the colors of things; the cuts, dimensions, types of materials. The wall by the stairs was painted a blue color that was called “Ebb,” and it was Keri’s favorite color in the world. They both fought the contractor on this blue wall, neither of them even wanting it there, but instead wanting to see straight through the entire downstairs from the front door. They took turns making calls to the contractor, and they brought it up at the end of conversations about their budget or what kind of recessed lighting to install in the kitchen. But because of some wiring and structure issues, the wall had to stay. So, Keri made it blue.
One of their favorite things to do together in the first few years of their relationship was going up against anyone in an argument. Even if they lost, they usually could pick up a good rhythm with it, volleying their assertions back and forth between them like they were keeping a birdie in play, stacking the tension before striking. A lot of their social life was spent going to bat for or with each other, but after their relationship settled down, their ability to read and predict the other’s movements became more of reason to stay silent instead of a talent that brought them closer.
Keri was still laying on her side of the bed from what Ben could see in the dark. He spoke her name again before he could make out her outline and glossy eyes.
“Is it Freddy?”
Ben stammered a little at her eye contact.
Without speaking she whipped the covers off and disappeared into her closet while Ben stood watching.
“Are you ready?” she said, coming out with a sweater on over her t-shirt, her sweatpants tucked into rain galoshes.
“Oh,” he said, finally budging from his footprints in the carpet. He shuffled down the hallway to the guest room closet (which was smaller so they could have both a stand-up shower and a bathtub in the master) and grabbed his coat.
Ben trailed behind Keri down to the kitchen, single file. They marched like they had done this many times before, but it had only happened twice. They behaved like you do in the middle of the night when something important is happening: silent, controlled, almost giddy with purpose. The last time they had gone out to bring Freddy back, it was about two weeks prior and he had only made it about five houses down the sidewalk before stopping to sit on the curb and chew on all of his nails. And before that, the very first time about six weeks before, they found him sitting in a neighborhood gazebo at least a mile away. When Ben walked over to pick him up, he started to cry because his shoe was untied. That’s why he had to stop, even though he hadn’t wanted to stop, he said.
Freddy liked to run. Only eight, he ran miles at the park after school. Around and around the playground while the other kids climbed on the equipment and used their imaginations, pretending they were in a different world. Sometimes Ben would join Freddy running, but it got to the point where he was unable to keep up and would end up slowing his pace while his son lapped him, never boasting, always focused. One time after Ben complimented him on his speed, Freddy had said, “I just go.”
Ben and Keri signed Freddy up for a cross country club at his elementary school, hoping it would keep him from begging to run at all times of the day. Freddy didn’t really care much for being on a team or seem to notice, really, but it allowed him to run and to be around more kids outside his SPED class. That’s all that mattered.
Freddy had made a friend on his own before. In fact, he had a best friend the entire last year named Paolo, but Paolo’s family moved to Texas after his father died in a fall from a ladder. Ben and Keri hadn’t known how to address it with Freddy and once they finally did, Freddy couldn’t rationalize it. He couldn’t find the link between the two events. He asked if Paolo had died and when they said he hadn’t and that Freddy could write him a letter, he would only continue to ask why he wasn’t here. Now that it was summer, and Paolo was gone and Ben was sleeping on the couch, Freddy had gotten restless.
Keri didn’t bother locking the side door behind them as they stepped out, on the off chance that Freddy would wander home before they found him. It hadn’t happened yet, and Ben sometimes wondered if Freddy could actually get home on his own, but that maybe he was choosing to run the other direction. Ben and Keri fought normally when they were happy, enjoyed it even, but now there was a tension floating through the house since she first mentioned the separating that was filling and filling like a balloon stretched. In the evenings they could barely decide what to do for dinner or what to watch on TV because they couldn’t argue. Arguing required talking, and they hadn’t been able really talk since Keri cut her hair and quit her job to stay home with Freddy when he missed several weeks of school last year because of an outburst. She was the better parent then.
With Freddy there, they could essentially ignore each other by giving him all of their energy and attention. They followed his wants and needs to the tee until they put him to bed. Usually they left the television on whatever channel Freddy was watching, the remote sitting passively on the couch between them. Ben would ask, “Do you want to watch something else?” and Keri would say, “No, this is fine.”
It would continue like that: “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I don’t care, change it if you want.”
“No, I’m fine with this.”
That’s how they ended up watching infomercials for an hour, or a high school football game on a public access channel. It didn’t matter what it was. They were so set on not being the one to blame, not rocking the boat, that it made both of them grit their teeth.
As they walked the first stretch up the driveway Ben tried to catch up to Keri, but she was walking with such intention and fervor he could only follow. After a few minutes of walking only to the sound of their unmatched breath, she spoke up, interrupting their rhythm: “You were downstairs?” She looked back and slowed down, “You didn’t hear him?”
“The television was on,” Ben caught up to his wife and tried to make eye contact so she’d believe him. “I fell asleep.”
Keri kept her eyes forward and as they crested the first hill of the neighborhood. She slowed even more, and Ben adapted. At the top of the hill she looked around and breathed deeply, almost preparing to sigh with relief, but Freddy wasn’t in sight.
Ben no longer wondered if she had forgiven him for being such a prick these last few years. She hadn’t. They used to go to parties all the time, even back when she was much more shy and only came out sometimes. Keri couldn’t fake the small talk and schmoozing of lawyers and charity banquets, so Ben usually went alone and flirted with all the young women, fetching them drinks and leaning in just a little too close to their necks when they would gesture that they couldn’t hear him over the music. Sometimes he fantasized about disappearing into storage closets or handicap stalls with them, something fast, but he didn’t have it in him to go there. His behavior only got him in trouble once over the ten years they’d been together, but that was just gossip between the wives of his firm. Something flipped in Keri after that, just a few years ago, and she started to enjoy these events. The parties became something they experienced together, a game. They dared each other to charm strangers. She bought new dresses, sky high shoes, and chatted with other men. Ben was having even more fun than before watching Keri charm his boss and his colleagues, but still no storage closets. He didn’t know what he did wrong. He thought she liked going out.
The houses in their neighborhood were mostly built by their owners, their facades and floor plans chosen from the design books that contractors carried around, but not their house. It was the first and the only in this neighborhood for a couple years. When they first built here, the lots on every side of them were just tilled dirt and there were wild-looking electrical boxes on several corners as you drove in with neon cords coiled around their bases. As they walked, Ben remembered the sidewalks before there were evenly spaced streetlamps above them, and the gravel lot that was now a neighborhood duck pond. The area gradually became a more crowded place, but even at night there wasn’t anything ominous about it. It always looked like dusk.
“I think he should stay with me,” Keri said.
Ben replied as if he didn’t hear her: “Should we split up? We could each take one of his normal routes?”
Ben saying the words in this context made his anxiety feel like a hand around his neck. Delayed, Keri answered, “No, I think he’d like to see us both together when we find him,” and they continued walking down the sidewalk listening to the cars passing on the highway across the pasture land behind the neighborhood.
“That makes sense,” he said, trying to not let even his periphery settle on her. Ben couldn’t tell whether she was looking at him or not, but he felt her there anyway. His face always got warm the longer he avoided answering Keri’s questions, but in any other situation he would turn it to anger and rush away. He was caught.
In the last year or so, Keri grew up. He didn’t know adults could grow up, but now it seemed to him like he was living in her house, occupying her space like another child to look after. He was washing his dishes in the sink after she went to bed, drying and putting his cups away, even the silverware. He never had a roommate in college, but he felt like this was a courtesy he could extend; a gracious gesture for letting him stay in her house.
“We have to tell him soon,” he could hear it in her voice. Keri was looking at him now.
Ben matched her eyes finally, and mumbled the words “I know,” though no sound came out. He looked down at the sidewalk and continued to match her pace.
The only sound was the far-off cars on the highway, fewer now so the swooshes were farther apart like ocean waves.
“Did I tell you that Mr. Saperstein told me that when they raised the butterflies the last week of school, Freddy asked him if they had to sleep over at school to watch them?”
Ben panned his head from side to side as they came to a cross street, but didn’t see him yet. It wasn’t cold outside, but the air was wet like it might start sprinkling at any moment. Keri followed suit, turning her whole body to look down either direction of the street. She smiled in response to what Ben had said, but didn’t look at him.
A small white dog rushed toward them barking furiously. They flinched, but when the dog reached them it softened and took to smelling their ankles.
“Hachet!” It was a man’s voice. “Is that them, son?”
The voice came from an open garage on a hill up ahead. Two lawn chairs sat side by side right at the opening. Freddy was sitting in one of them nodding his head up and down in big motions, his feet dangling above the ground. Keri ran up the driveway to hug him, saying his name over and over like he liked. A big open-mouthed smile was on Freddy’s face at the sight of them and he kept moving his head up and down. He looked at both of them like he always had; like they were the two people in the world who looked the most like his parents.He knew how to look happy and when to show happy, but sometimes there was a bit of loss and confusion there, too. While Keri hugged and knelt down in front of Freddy, Ben looked at the man he was with. He was incredibly tan and wore a beige short sleeve button up that looked like it was supposed to be a Hawaiian shirt, but they forgot the flowers. The first few buttons were undone and some gray chest hairs poked out to complement the sharp stubble on his face.
“How long has he been here?” Ben asked, trying to sound casual even though he was annoyed. This man could have been trying to find them, too.
The man picked up his can of beer off the ground and swished the liquid around inside to help him gauge how much of it was left. With his other hand he felt the side of the can and measured the empty space. He closed one eye and then held out his hand like he was trying to get it perfectly right.
“About that long,” he said, and then he took another sip out of the can while still holding out the measurement.
“I see,” Ben said. There were a lot of boxes in the garage behind him and Freddy stuffed in there next to the car. “How long you guys lived here?”
“Just me and Hatchet. About a year, actually.” He stood up and walked over to Ben with his arm extended. “Wife kicked me out, but it’s all good. Name’s Greg.” He laughed a little, jostling his elbow as he said this and looked over at Keri, who was now holding Freddy’s hand.
“He told me his mommy and daddy were going to come get him soon,” he said, “and I told him he’s lucky to have a mommy and daddy that come and get you.”
“Well,” started Ben, “we ought to get him back.” He watched as Greg went back to the folding chair and took another swig from his beer can.
“We can’t thank you enough for keeping an eye on him,” Keri chimed in. She and Freddy started to walk down the driveway.
Greg met Ben’s eyes, nodded, and lifted his hand in a wave as they left.
Freddy insisted on walking between Keri and Ben, holding each of their hands, which didn’t really work for the width of the sidewalk, so they walked down the middle of the street instead. Freddy was a little too old to be walking one hand with each parent, but he squeezed Ben’s hand too tight to consider letting it go. All three walked in silence, but it was a Freddy filled silence, which meant something else.
When they got to the house, Keri bent down to pull off Freddy’s tennis shoes and placed them back on the mat by the door so he could always find them. Ben was lifting Freddy’s jacket at the same time, their routine with him practiced and precise. They worked as a team like this so effortlessly and in sync with Freddy that, in flashes, it felt like things were the same. He could almost pretend that it was a year ago—maybe two—and that things were good, and that they were looking forward to a vacation and dropping Freddy off at Paolo’s house on Saturday mornings. Ben went back into the living room to grab the throw from the floor to wrap around Freddy, and when he came back, Keri had Freddy in her arms, her face still flushed from being outside, or maybe it was her worry fading. His small hands rubbed her back like he was comforting her, and Ben knew that soon it would be hard to squint and pretend he was any younger or that less time had passed.
When they let go of each other, Keri held him at arm’s length for a minute before turning him towards Ben.
“Now go get him,” she said. Freddy’s laugh was the perfect sound even when he was tired. Ben caught him in the blanket, scooped him up, and started to carry him upstairs. Freddy felt like eight years in his arms.
As Ben walked off, Keri said, “Put him in our room,” with an extra stammer from almost correcting herself, but deciding not to. They both noticed her mistake but said nothing.
Freddy squirmed under the covers on Ben’s side of the bed, squeezing his eyes shut just as Keri came in. Ben leaned down to kiss him before meeting Keri’s eyes. She threw her coat in the closet and came over around the other side of the bed, keeping distance between them. She said thanks with a knowing look and moved her mouth into a smile that disappeared quickly before resuming when she bounced at Freddy.
“Are you an athlete now who can go running any time he wants, huh?” She tickled him repeating “Huh? Huh?” while Freddy lay paralyzed in a fit of laughter.
Ben watched the two of them together before backing up to leave the room. When they didn’t protest, he turned around, listening to the sounds of Keri calming Freddy down and re-tucking him in. She spoke to him in a hushed voice and Freddy whispered back, though loud enough for Ben to hear every word. He started down the hallway and ended up outside of Freddy’s room. Pushing the door open, he stepped over a new pile of Legos on his way to the bed, landing instead on some construction paper before finding carpet. He sat down on the twin bed, which was covered with Freddy’s clothes. The bed smelled like their family, like the laundry where all their clothes were spun around together, dried together, folded together, and put away. Ben buried his head down in the pillow, folded his legs up on the bed and slept.
Stephanie Lee Phillips is a writer and photographer from Tennessee. She received her MA in fiction from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi and works closely with local literary non-profit Sundress Academy for the Arts in Knoxville. She also serves as the art editor for the online literary journal, Stirring.