What Lucy Said
My wife, Claire, is standing barefoot in the sandbox.
“Come here,” she says, and I step in. “Take your shoes off?” she asks. The sand is cool underneath my socks. “Just stay here a sec,” she says. She’s holding the same slip of yellow paper I received after work.
A policeman had passed them out to all the teachers and students as we exited the double doors of Fern Ridge Elementary School.
“Mr. McNoland, what does this say?” my third grader, Samuel, asked me. His fingers had smudged the writing with something sticky, and his nose was dripping, red around the nostrils.
I told him, “It’s just an announcement, Sam. Ask your mom when you get home, okay?” He stared down at the paper, squinting.
“Sa — and,” he said. “Mr. McNoland, is it about the sandboxes?”
“Keep sounding out your words,” I replied, heading to my car. “Good work.”
A Blue Jay jeers from the maple tree beside our sandbox. Claire burrows her feet deeper into the sand. “Read it to me,” she says, closing her eyes.
SANDBOX BAN! ANYONE FOUND USING OR OTHERWISE RECREATING IN A SANDBOX WILL BE BROUGHT IN FOR FURTHER QUESTIONING.
“Malcolm, do you feel that?” Claire asks. I move my hand to where it normally goes, where it’s gone for the past eight months. Her belly, like she’s swallowed a full moon. “No,” she says, “not that. Feel — that?”
She shifts from side to side, sand between her toes. She pushes sand across my feet, covering my black socks. “There,” she says. “Feel it now, in the sand? A kind of tugging?”
“Yes,” I lie.
Three months ago, the first child disappeared — a toddler named Maggie. Our neighbourhood was still in that sleepy, springtime lullaby after a dull winter. We were picking tulips and daffodils. Cleaning out the swimming pools. Riding our lawn mowers. Then Maggie’s face was plastered onto all the telephone poles, her grinning cheeks and ribboned pigtails a blur as we speed-walked past, looking down at the pavement, getting our daily aerobics in before work.
Next, little Johnathon went missing. “He was just out there in the backyard,” his mother cried, wiping tears and snot with her shirt sleeves. “He was just out there, playing.”
This was very unusual for Fern Ridge. Unheard of. The last time a child went missing, she was found two days later in a culvert, sitting cross-legged with a runaway kitten sleeping in her lap. Surely these two other children would be found soon, too — rescued animals in tow.
Town hall meetings with law enforcement and anxious residents were held. We sketched maps of the neighborhood, played and replayed the recordings of home security cameras. Traced all the possible steps made by little feet.
“Does your child have a habit of wandering?”
“No, she loves our big backyard.”
“Any strangers at the door?”
“Didn’t see anyone.”
“Any unusual behaviours?”
“I keep telling you!”
The parents of the two missing children became exhausted, exasperated, barely able to see out of their swollen, waterlogged eyes. Their hands rattled cups of tea as they told their stories, over and over.
“Maggie was out there in her sandbox, singing and patting her shovel in the sand, like this — la, la, la, pat, pat, pat.”
“Johnny was pushing his train around the edges of his sandbox, which honestly I’d told him not to do, several times, because the sand clogs up the gears and then the wheels don’t turn, but of course I didn’t say that, I mean, not in an angry way. Oh, god!”
“Did you both say — sandboxes?”
It was the third child, Lucy, who finally instigated the sandbox ban. And too soon it will be summer. Vodka sodas and sprinklers on the lawn. Airplanes droning overhead, the buzz of weed whackers. But no sandboxes, not for this town.
Lucy said, “I gots taken, but I got away.”
On the news, her eyes were glassy and she spoke with a lisp. We stared at her mouth, that small dark space with no front teeth. We clung to our glasses of orange juice.
Lucy said, “It was kinda like s’thwimming, or like dwounding. Maggie and Johnny was down there, too. But they said, ‘Gonna stay down here. Like it down here.’”
The next day at school, little Samuel isn’t at his desk. A community work crew spends the morning covering our large school sandbox with a blue tarp. They pound nails around the edges, post a DO NOT ENTER sign on all sides.
When I get home in the afternoon, Claire is in our sandbox again. But now, she’s lying on her back, covered with sand. Her legs and feet are completely buried. Sand has been patted down across her neck, her shoulders, one full arm and the mess of her brown hair. Sand falls down the sides of her big pregnant belly like a hurried, mounded sandcastle.
“Honey?” I ask, looking around the lawn, scanning our fence line for any neighbors’ peeking eyes. “Baby?”
Finally my wife looks up at me, squinting into the brightness of the sky.
“If they’re down there,” she says, “I want to go, too.”
“Baby,” I say, “Lucy’s just a kid. She’s lying. She doesn’t know anything.”
Claire shakes her head, no. Grains of sand shift across her forehead, fall down her cheeks.
“I can feel it,” she tells me. “I’m going to let it take me.”
“Whatever it is.”
I rip off my shoes, my socks, glancing quickly behind me. I step into the sandbox. The cold sand sends shivers up my spine, my neck.
“Feel it now?” Claire asks. “Here it comes. It’s tugging me all over!”
She takes a deep breath, holds it in. Holds for a long, long time. Keeps holding.
I don’t feel anything, just sand beneath my feet.
“Yeah,” I say, “I feel that.”
And soon I’ll have to, won’t I?