WE DON’T THING Benny thinks of it as stealing. We’re not sure what he thinks. Benny’s only four, and when his father tells him he must return Justin’s favorite truck, Benny looks at Grant and me with unblinking eyes. The next morning Benny and I march together down the snowy sidewalks, and he hands over the truck to a tearful Justin. Clearly Justin’s mother has registered that it is the third item we have returned. When Donna suggests that perhaps their playdates should be put on hold, Benny’s eyes tear up, Justin’s too, and she relents.
Next, Donna’s car keys attached to a silver whistle go missing. When I arrive to bring Benny home, she suggests indelicately that perhaps they made their way to our house. Her car, dusted with snow, sits idle in the driveway. “Actually,” she says, “two sets of keys are missing—the first from a few weeks ago.” She describes how the whistles are sirens for dangerous situations. She says, “I think we’ll skip the playdates for a while.” The boys are making snowballs when I call to Benny that we’re going home. Benny hugs Justin goodbye more forcefully than usual. Their entwined puffer parkas look like candies that have melted together.
That night, after Benny is tucked into bed, his face innocent in sleep, I tell Grant about Donna’s keys. “Donna’s keys,” he says as if accepting their fate. I enumerate the stolen items: Justin’s fuzzy ball, his action figure with the missing arm. Grant surprises me with “and the truck.” We are finishing a bottle of wine in the living room. I look around as if the keys might be in plain sight—on the coffee table, or beside the TV. I realize that a search has never seemed necessary before, that I never searched for my missing friendship ring. Grant shrugs, but we begin. After a short time, I find the keys with the silver whistle in the cat’s bed, but not the second set. “This is serious,” I say to Grant. “This is stealing.”
“He’s just a kid,” Grant says. He blows the whistle, and a siren sound builds and peaks. “These keys with their whistle are pretty enticing,” he says.
The next morning, Benny whines that he wants a whistle just like the silver one attached to the car keys I hold in my hand. I tell him the keys do not belong to us. We put on our winter gear.
“Really,” Donna says as I hand over the keys through the doorway. She has propped the door open with her hip, letting the cold air in but not us. Benny waves to Justin, who is standing behind Donna. He doesn’t wave back, and we are not invited in to play or visit over coffee.
That afternoon, I decide to talk to Benny about stealing. I sit across from him in a small chair at his child’s table and look for something that he loves. I choose an action figure in glossy brown armor whose actions I suspect I would find revolting. Dramatically, I scoop it up and tuck it in my pocket. Benny reaches for it, but I stand and shake my head. Benny’s eyes tear up. “This is called stealing,” I say, patting my pocket. “I have taken something that is yours, just like you took Jason’s truck.” I don’t include the keys. “You are stealing?” he asks. I harden my heart and don’t give the action figure back until that evening when Benny wails to Grant that I “stealed” his man. Grant handles the tenses and use of “steal” and “stole” and “stolen.” Magnanimously I give it back.
Benny misses Justin. I miss my coffee chats with Donna. Kindergarten begins. Two weeks later, a note asks if it is possible that Benny might have brought home the small, oblong clay label for the hamster’s house. Possible is too probable. I do a search in the obvious places. An earring I thought I’d lost is in the cat’s bed, and a missing monkey napkin ring underneath Benny’s mattress, but no clay label. Benny likes to play in Grant’s study. As I stand in the doorway and look around, an unexpected foreboding washes over me. I don’t find the clay label in any obvious places—behind books, under a cushion, in a dish of paperclips. I turn, uneasily surveying the room. What made me look in a place surely Benny could not reach, under something Benny could not lift?
There, high on a shelf, under a bronze globe, inside a fake book titled Exit from Home I find my missing friendship ring from a high school friend who died in college, my father’s prize military medal, a tiny gold locket my mother lamented losing—the only likeness of her mother, my grandmother. And Donna’s second set of keys with the silver whistle. Donna had demonstrated how the whistle sounded like a siren—a call for help. Desperate, I put the whistle to my lips and blow a rising anguished note. I must decide whether or not to put it back.
Pamela Painter is the award-winning author of five story collections, most recently Fabrications: New and Selected (Johns Hopkins). Her stories have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, on the YouTube channel Cronogeo, and have been staged in Los Angeles, London, and New York.