Scott’s phone rang, and sound began to intertwine with my dreams. When he answered it, Scott’s voice, talking to whoever was on the other line, wound itself into the narrative, and in my dream the caller became one of Scott’s former clients, a guy for whom the word “boundary” was foreign, and who, at least by phone, seemed to accompany us everywhere we went. My dreamself advised Scott to tell the guy not to call so early, or to just not take the call for heaven’s sake.
“You’re outside?” I heard Scott say.
And then I was annoyed enough with this client that I began to surface from my dream. Really? This guy was here? Outside? I looked at my clock. It was 5:30 in the morning.
Scott got out of bed. The light coming in through the cracks in the curtains was the soft gray of dawn.
He stood there for a moment and seemed unsure of what to do.
“What’s going on?” I asked, groggy and confused.
“Kai’s outside,” he replied.
I hesitated for a long second, trying to process what Scott had said through the haze of 5:30 in the morning.
And then I ran downstairs.
Three people stood at the front door, one of whom I recognized as my neighbor, one woman I’d never seen before, and Kai.
I opened the door and Kai walked in like he was just home from camp and plopped on the sofa.
The woman I didn’t know introduced herself as Shelby. She was wearing a nightgown.
“I live in the red house,” she said, pointing in the direction of her home.
I mentally scanned all of the houses west of ours. They were all red.
“I heard a noise,” she said, “and I asked my husband if he heard it too, and he said no, but then I heard it again and I looked out of the window and saw him,” she said.
Which house? I wondered. There were a couple of red brick apartment buildings in a row, and then a kind of gray brick house, and then a red house with a Blackhawks flag on the porch. That one?
When I didn’t speak, Shelby went on. “So I went downstairs and knocked on Sarah’s door and she tried to call you.”
Seriously, there are like six red houses.
“I tried to get him to come in and have a bowl of cereal,” Sarah said, “but he wouldn’t come in.”
We stood there for a long moment, three women in pajamas and rumpled hair.
And finally the weight of what happened hit me.
“Thank you,” I said, a sentiment wholly inadequate to compensate a strange woman for getting out of bed because she heard a child outside her window in the night. I don’t know what he was saying when she heard him. I never asked. I never asked how Sarah got involved, either, since Kai would have led Shelby to my house and not the neighbors’. In fact, I never said much of anything at all. My brain was a tumble of thoughts, wondering if I should explain about Kai, about how he doesn’t sleep, about how he wanders (though not usually outside in the night), that we’re not bad parents—at least not in the child services sense of the word “bad,” and, of course, all of the horrifying ways the outcome of this might have been different. He had, apparently, been out there a long time.
Sarah and Shelby and I continued to stand on the front porch, not knowing what to say, each of us perhaps lost in our own sense of shock, fear, and disbelief.
I lose Kai all of the time—at the Children’s Museum and at Target and at Rainforest Café. Twice I’ve lost him at parks including one time in which I almost called the police until he finally emerged from the women’s restroom (which I didn’t check because, you know, it was the women’s room) and he heard me screaming for him the whole time. Between his wandering and his nocturnal activities, I’ve always been afraid that one day he would walk out of the house, particularly in the winter. The door to the backyard locks behind you and Kai would have no way to wake us up, much like the way it happened the other night.
After Shelby and Sarah left, Scott and I sat down with Kai on the couch.
“What’s my job?” I asked Kai.
“Keep me safe,” Kai replied.
“That’s right. How can I keep you safe when I don’t know where you are?”
It’s a question I’ve asked him a million times. I used to mean for him to understand that if he wanders away, I can’t protect him. Now, however, I just mean it rhetorically. No amount of begging, threatening, cajoling or punishing has ever changed his behavior.
“You can’t leave the house in the middle of the night,” Scott said.
“But I wanted some fresh air,” Kai protested.
We stared at him.
“Just don’t leave the house,” Scott repeated.
Kai sighed. “Is the talk over now?” he asked.
It was. He put his head down on the couch and fell asleep and didn’t wake up until 11.
All day I couldn’t stop replaying the whole thing in my mind. I wondered if Shelby was doing the same. I figured she’d told all of her coworkers that she found some kid wandering the mean streets of Chicago all by himself. I wondered what their reaction was. I wondered if she had called the cops what would have happened.
Several times I thought about getting her a bottle of wine to say thank you for finding my boy and returning him to me, but I didn’t know which house was hers.
No joke, there are like six red houses, you guys.
Later that afternoon, on the way back from therapy appointments, I asked Kai if he’d been scared outside alone.
“No,” he said.
“I might have been scared,” I offered.
“Not I,” he said.
He was quiet for a little while.
“Next time I need fresh air I’ll just open a window,” he said.
I glanced at him in my rearview mirror. His head was bent over his iPad.
“That’s a good idea,” I said.