NOT YET NOON and Iris McKenna thinks she’s found her cousin three times this morning. He was a green garbage bag and red T-shirt, tangled in roots, tugged by the current, half in and half out of the water. Even when she understood, nobody here, she scrambled down to the river’s edge to tear the shirt free and watch the bag float away from her.
Kai could be anywhere, wet on the shore or under the surface. He’d leaped on ice to save the dog—now both were gone, four hours missing. Iris wanted to run, but was too cold and hungry, face numb, lungs aching. She stumbled between trees. If God is God, why can’t I find him?
A small mule deer watched from the woods. He smelled human skin, the girl so close he could taste her breath in the air between them. One leap shot him twenty feet away from her. Branches snapped. Why not you? The animal blurred, flying out of himself. He bounded up the ridge, then stopped to look down on her. Snow fell from limbs he’d touched. It might have been. It’s still possible.
The third time her cousin was a long-legged boy, loose in his stride, following the river, a child searching for himself, his own angel. He looked thin in the brittle light, as if the morning’s struggle had already wasted him.
The quick boy was not easy to catch, and so fragile Iris was afraid the sound of his name might hurt him. He wore a black hooded sweatshirt beneath a cloth coat, a tattered camouflage of leaves stained dark by blood or oil. The child’s naked hands looked raw, cracked by the cold, too big for his body.
When her shadow touched his back, the boy pulled down his hood and turned to face her. He was six inches shorter and thirty pounds lighter than Kai Dionne, his hair white-blond and even finer than hers was. He had the face of a little fox, small and beautiful, delicate as a starved girl’s, skin stretched tight, bruised green above the right eyebrow.
Iris remembered him as Peter Fleury. Now he’s No, the name his friends use to tease and love him. No is his favorite word. He speaks no more words than necessary. He loves dirt and feathers. He sleeps in hollow trees, or digs a shallow grave and dies there. Snow is warm in its way, and quiet. He can’t sleep in unlocked cars. No, they smell like people.
For luck, he wears his mother’s sapphire ring on a cold chain around his neck, under his brother’s too-tight T-shirt. He carries five baby teeth in a red silk pouch. Where did I go? Where are the others? He’ll pawn the ring if he ever gets that old or desperate.
No, never. Fifteen, he thinks, just last month, twelve days after Christmas—no bed, no walls three years now. He’s lost eleven pounds and grown four inches. His bones speak. Keep walking. They pulse at night, spine to fibula, cells gone mad, multiplying and dissolving. He knows God this way. The one who makes and unmakes me. No’s mother walked past him last week on North Pine and didn’t stop because she didn’t know him. Nadine Fleury came so close he smelled smoke and almost loved her. He could have snatched her purse. He could have killed her.
Two days later, he broke the basement window and slipped into her house to take the ring and his little brother’s yellow T-shirt. He found his teeth rolled in a sock, tucked in a drawer, safe where he’d left them. He lay down in his mother’s bed and pressed his face into her pillow. Would she know him if he died here? No. Thorns and rags, skull of a fox, brittle bones strung with sinew—just one more filthy thing to toss, a lost boy’s broken puppet.
He left the seal of his hand on her mirror, fingers long and strange, palms lined with dirt and narrow. In another life, he’d pressed his little hand into white plaster, painted the imprint red and the smooth disk purple. She loved that hand, her favorite gift, Peter Fleury’s seventh Christmas. Mother hung it on the kitchen wall, and there it stayed till No was nine and bad and broke it. Is it true? Did he leap and grab? Did he throw it at her? Did he bite the hand that tried to stop him? That’s what she said. But No still believes he saw Mother rip it from the wall, and Peter Fleury try to save it.
He remembers plaster smashed on kitchen tiles, the white inside exposed, the red and purple shattered. Little brother Nick stood in the kitchen doorway, clutching his sock monkey. The creature grinned his terrible orange grin. He loved grief—yes, just what he expected.
No remembers himself on his knees, trying to make the pieces fit, trying to push them back together. His face buzzed. How many times did she hit? How hard did she do it?
Mother was somewhere else now, suddenly gone, then Nick and the monkey vanished too, and Peter was alone in the light on the floor, so maybe he made it up, or maybe he dreamed it. Maybe he cut his fingers on the broken hand. Maybe he bit them.
He bites them now. Iris pulls off her gloves and holds them toward him. No, he won’t—she’s colder than he is. Snow whirls up from the ground between them. They never speak. What would they say here? Beautiful, the snow is. He spins and leaps. The disappeared can’t wait. Ice cracks along the river.
He’s not trying to lose her. She can follow if she wants. She won’t hurt him. Heart, skin, breath, believer. She could make him whole today. They might find the missing boy, and bring him home alive together.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.