They say they can’t find your son when you wake up.
Edward, you try to say. Edward David Solomon when he’s running away from bathtime in his Spiderman undies, Eddie for short when he burns the toast trying to make you breakfast, and Honey Bunches when he gives you macaroni art for Mother’s Day.
How could they know that he’s gone if they don’t even know his name?
The officer says that 74% of children who go missing are dead three hours after their disappearance.
He says it has been three days.
The cops begin to walk you through the possibilities, what’s happened before in all the other cases where kids disappeared in the wintertime. You start to think about your baby, you force yourself to stop, you tell yourself there’s no point in being so silly.
You and Eddie are bound at the hip, joined at the soul. If he was gone, wouldn’t you know?
You don’t allow yourself to cry, you don’t poke at the cracks spidering up the insides of your throat, you don’t let that ugly depraved part of yourself whisper that he’s already gone. Your husband puts his head in his hands but it’s okay, that’s okay, you can forgive his weakness.
You will be strong for him too.
You search for him with the others, and you smile through it all because you don’t know what else to do. Smiling is good. Smiling means you know he’ll be back. Smiling means it wasn’t your fault. The older volunteers pinch your cheeks, nevermind your age, and they call you so strong.
You do your best to feel it. You don’t think about hypotheticals or wild animals, you don’t think about frostbite or hypothermia, and you don’t wonder how his lips would look if they were robin blue.
You don’t think about the way Mother Nature isn’t very motherly at all.
You’ve taken to sleeping on the floor in Eddie’s room with your husband, under the glow-in-the dark galaxy decals you nearly committed war crimes to get on Facebook Marketplace. You sew yourselves shut in his Peter Rabbit blanket, the one that always smells like mac-and-cheese because Eddie throws a fit every time you try to wash it, and you listen to that vintage radio your father-in-law thought was an appropriate gift for a seven-year-old.
Eddie likes 99.7 the most. They only play Taylor Swift songs.
Your husband says there’s no need to imagine what could’ve happened. Nothing good can come from torturing yourself.
It is too easy for him to say these things. You try to pretend his words are enough.
When he falls asleep, you switch the radio to static, its aluminum heart rattling in terror with each turn of the dial. “Cosmic noise,” Wikipedia calls it— the siren song of a dying star. Eddie says that when he becomes a space pirate you can use it to talk to him, so you won’t worry about how many layers he’s wearing when he lands on Mars.
The station finder quivers, and something more than a soundwave comes out.
“Mmm ch ch h . MMmMMm.”
You want it to be something other than the regular course of white noise. You want it to be something it’s not.
You ask if he’s walked across the hearts of many stars, if he could pinpoint your home on the Pale Blue Dot, and if space was everything he thought it would be. You tell him to be careful doing tricks in zero-gravity, that things might be more fun in space but Earth was getting a little too lonely spinning on without him. You say sorry for making him eat brussel sprouts when he didn’t want to, you only did it because you care and if he comes home he can eat ice cream every night and never touch a vegetable again.
You fall asleep whispering into the static, into the plastic ears of DC figurines and Marvel heroes who couldn’t protect him.
Your husband has taken to sleeping in your old room, where your torment and your pain and your grief and your whispers cannot spill over into his dreams. He avoids your eyes when you speak.
You don’t think you can be strong enough for him anymore.
Grief is all the love we have to give, with no place left to go. Your therapist puts more weight in these words than a prayer, an endless string of SSRI’s her rosary and the DSM-V her Bible. She is gentle with you, in ways which others do not know how to be. She tells you nothing good can come from gritting and bearing it, nor can anything good come from what-ifs. You are given two tasks:
1) Deal with your co-pay.
2) Look for the best of him, in the good around you.
You’ll find Eddie’s sweetness in the forgiveness you give your husband, in the warmth you can scrounge from his gaze. You’ll feel his trust in the phantom curl of fingertips around your wrist, near every crosswalk and open street. You’ll see the best of him, the rest of him, in the shades of static the radio spits out and the thrumming of fluorescent lights that follows you everywhere. But there is so much you can’t explain, and so much you’re too scared to confess. You don’t think about the way you hate yourself more with every second your husband doesn’t blame you. You don’t think about how it was just a second that you went inside, when that’s all it took for him to be gone. You are honest with yourself when you are alone, where his voice is so vivid you swear you can touch it. In your mind he is alive, screaming for you to find him, his cries so loud they deafen you. You’ve begun sleepwalking in the snow.
There is a pull in your heart that you can’t shake, something that promises your mother’s instinct that he is still alive. You wonder if you’re just trying to save yourself by believing it.
The police stop looking at the two month mark.
Your doorstep begins to overflow with libations— meatloaf, pies, casseroles of every kind from every friend of a friend of a friend of a friend.
You tear up all the “Sorry for Your Loss” cards.
You search by yourself, on nights when moonbeams shine like spotlights and menace drips from winter’s bones. You don’t think about what percentage of missing children are found dead a month after their disappearance, you think about whether you could forgive yourself if you left him all alone.
Phantom voices lead you through the mountain, to dead ends and deader animals. They are booming cries of I’m here! Behind you! Under the rock silly! that echo past the snowdrifts and leave a ringing in your ears.
Please stop, you think. Please be quiet.
The wind clangs his cries against weathered cliff-faces, consonants ringing loud in their scar-dotted cheeks. You try not to think about the way it sounds like laughter.
You leave your thinking, your fearing, your loving, and your feeling for the night, when radio silence is all that stands between you and the most precious half of your soul. You’ve established a routine for yourself. When you miss Eddie so much you start to hate him for it, you speak to your baby through the cosmic noise, you speak until he speaks back. You tell him the NASA base off 85 is opening to the public for the first time in twenty years, and you made sure to buy tickets so he can go. You tell him they played “Shake It Off” on the radio five times today, and dance parties aren’t the same when you’re all alone. You ask if Venus has apple sauce and if Jabba the Hutt can make better pancakes than you do, you wonder about parsecs and asteroid weather and space pirates so far away from you.
You don’t say it out loud, but you think to yourself: Would you mind terribly if I came too?
Quiet suspends itself in the snap crackle pop! of radio static and you slip slowly, into that sweet sort of numbness that preludes a bad dream.
“Mmmch khch k. Mmmom. Mom.”
You pretend your heart doesn’t stop itself in its tracks.
Cosmic noise fills the blanks of your silence, rich and full. You can’t sleep for the rest of the night.
The DES-II, commonly known as the Dissociative Experiences Scale, reports the eponymous on a scale of one to a hundred. You’ve taken it so many times, you even have a favorite question. “Some people find that they hear voices in their head. On a scale of 1-10, how often does this happen to you?” You force yourself to be honest, nevermind how insane you might seem. You say that you know something is happening to you but you don’t know what, that you are scared and you don’t really know if you want it to stop. You say that you keep trying to tell yourself that it isn’t real, but there is only so much evidence you can deny. You tell your therapist that you think you can hear his voice, and the low tones in which she talks to your husband offer no benediction. She is concerned where she was understanding, wary where she was once embraceful. She holds your hands in hers and tells you that this pain too shall pass, but only if you let it.
Only if you give your love some place else to go.
Doesn’t she know that’s exactly what you’re most afraid of?
So you force yourself to think of him, in all his worst forms. You think about how you would give anything to come home again to Teletubby drawings all over your nice white walls, the silly way his eyebrows scrunched up whenever he got mad. You wonder if bruises look like flowers on his skin, if the snow felt warm in the end. You think of how terrifying it is for your soul to live outside your body, wide-eyed with an adventurous streak and a mind too trusting for his own good. In between the “How was your day’s” and the “I love you’s,” you tell Eddie that you are afraid one day you will think of him and the pain will no longer bite. That the pieces of him will no longer sit in your mouth like freshly broken glass, vicious and raw and a reminder that your son has to be alive if the mere thought of him can make your heart bleed.
The bruise on your foot from the legos Eddie left on the floor throbs to nothing, a pain sleep won’t let you jam your fingers into. The darkness makes you honest and before your mind can stop itself, that ugly depraved part of yourself whispers, Is loving him worth this?
You are too afraid of your answer to think. You hate yourself for it.
The crackling hurts your ears. You finally weep.. You weep until you wash your eyes out and you think, you know, that this is real, that these are his words, that this is his voice. That he sees you, he knows you, you exist. That would be enough.
But it never is.
The syllables falter, and the radio falls to static. You wonder if this is how you will have to live :With nothing but pieces of him.
Your husband has become addicted to the art of recovery. Facebook support groups, yoga, candlelight vigils, and then some. You wish you could be like him, but you spend more time sleeping than not, nowadays. You dream of spaceships high in the sky, of life-or-death situations and diplomacy with Martians. Sometimes you dream of blank voids, where Eddie’s voice drifts across an endless plain, begging for you to find him.
Part of your husband’s recovery is getting closure. He holds a joke of a funeral—some pathetic gathering where there isn’t even a body in the casket. Your eyes are drier than whatever is fucking dry, throughout the entire thing. Everyone who had so mysteriously vanished when you were begging for volunteers or donations or what-have-you suddenly shows up, and all of them have a tale to sing. Handshakes for some odd reason he would give to his classmates when they were crying. His propensity for hiding bugs in his lunchbox the entire day. His truly deep and ingrained love for his iPad.
But they do not know Eddie like you do. You are his mother. You have lived with your nervous systems intertwined, bound at the hip and joined at the soul. They will never know about the Amazon box he pretended was a rocketship to space, the static on the radio he insisted was aliens saying “I love you.” They will never know that one of his pinkies is shorter than the other and he said they were husband and wife and made them kiss. They will never know that when he played pretend, he always made you captain of his spaceship. They will never know he gave handshakes because his hugs were just for you.
You and your husband leave in separate cars. You go to the drive-in theater where you and Eddie watched the infinite iteration of the Lego movie and you scream, you scream until your voice flinches at the sound. You scream and you pound your hands on the steering wheel and think, wouldn’t it be so easy just to end it all, wouldn’t it be so easy to drive into the stand where they validate your parking and take out a few underpaid employees so anyone but you has to feel your pain?
It’s May now. You drive home, and this time, really, you don’t think about him. You don’t sleep anymore. You have started to despise that radio. You lie awake, clutching at his baby blanket and you decide that you are tired of your son needing you. You are tired of hearing his voice when no one is around, you are tired of talking about it, you are tired of being treated like an illness to cure. You have developed an addiction to this feeling of nothing, the relief thrumming through your bloodstream when you realize that you don’t know what you’re upset about. If only it was enough. If only it would stay.
Your husband starts smiling again. You wish you could make him love you.
You are drifting, more aimless than not. There’s nothing to keep you here really, not when you’ve lost everything. You’ll live, until you don’t. You pray to Jesus that your ambivalence may overpower your grief, you pray with all the faith you’ve lost since your son disappeared, but you don’t think even God can make a river swallow the ocean. You have tried everything, and yet you always come back here. Back to him. Back to begging Eddie to come back, so you can love him in the ways you know how.
You wonder if a ghost can die, or if forever is how you will haunt your son’s bedroom. Your head swims, it drowns, and you can’t gather a thought to save your life. You think you’re going mad. You think you can hear him all around you.
The radio switches on by itself.
“Mom. Come Ffin ffffind mMm. mee. Come find me.”
What type of mother are you to ignore him?
You crawl into Eddie’s bed, drunk on some disgusting concoction of whiskey and Tylenol no one should ever try. You stare at the paper-mache solar system you spent ages hanging from the ceiling and you hope for a new future, a better one. Where you’re somewhere in space, your hand in his.
You look out the window, and you are glad you decided to die on a night like this, where the moon is full and the stars so sharp you could tear your hair on their edges. One last thing of beauty before you go. The radio yawns, mahogany ribs shaking with the effort.
“SsssSleeeepp. GgGo to sleep.”
You don’t know if you will see your son when you wake up. But it’s better than the alternative, a lifetime spent hearing his voice in waking and dreaming. Waiting for the pain to pass, the infinite time around.
You close your eyes. You are getting tired. Feeling fades in your fingertips and the pitter patter of teardrops on your cheeks are just white noise. You wonder if Eddie was scared before he went, or if he took after you. If he was relieved.
You fall asleep, whispering.
ELLIE CHENG is a first-generation Chinese-American writer currently attending Barnard College. They are additionally published in The Gravity of the Thing and have been nominated for the PEN Award for Emerging Writers.