I met the kid at the park, after all there was no need to dazzle someone who likely couldn’t pay me what my time was going for these days. I saved the frosted glass door with my name inscribed upon the outside for the grieving spouses who’d lost someone close or those looking for trouble. It seemed everyone was looking for something. Guess it had to be someone’s job to be the one to find it.
He was waiting when I got there, dressed in an old pair of jeans and a tee shirt that made him indistinguishable from any other young adult in the world. Perhaps the only thing that set him apart were his eyes. They were still full of life, something I no longer noticed whenever I looked in the mirror. It made me pause, wondering why someone so unsullied by life could find their way to my doorstep.
“I don’t come cheap, kid,” I said.
I sat next to him, an old tactic I sometimes used to build trust. It told them I was on their level, just a buddy sitting next to each other staring out across the park, instead of across from him like an enemy. Negotiations were done across from each other. Deals were made side by side. Maybe it still worked. If it didn’t, I never noticed.
“I can afford it,” He said. His eyes told me he wasn’t lying.
“Then tell me your troubles,” I said. “What brought you to me…Jack was it?”
“It’s my mother,” He nodded. “She went missing a long time ago…”
“Whoa, Jack,” I stopped him mid-sentence. “I don’t do cold cases. That’s more a problem for the local detectives than me. Now, you got a girl cheating on you? That I can do. You want me to find someone who went missing a month ago? I can do that too, but your momma walking out when you were just a pup would probably cost more than you can afford. Besides, some people just don’t want to be found.”
“But they said you were the best. They said you could find anyone,” Jack said.
They were right. In fact, I’d made a career out of it like a moth in a cocoon, sheltering out the entire world and sniffing out trouble wherever it lay. I could find a cheating spouse half a continent away. I could sniff out the most cautious embezzler. I could’ve probably even found Jack’s mother given enough time. I could find anyone. Everyone but her.
I’d first seen her in the woods while I was out pursuing the foolishness of youth. She was sitting next to the lake staring at it like she expected to capture every motion of the surface as it was agitated by the wind. There was something about her that made me stop in my tracks, as if she were a creature I’d never seen before and my slightest motion would startle her away from me. I watched her feeling like I’d been holding my breath.
She had brown hair, or perhaps it was chestnut, and a face that looked like it could’ve been chiseled from marble. Still, there was something fragile about her that belied her nature and I found myself wanting to help her. She looked lost. A child in the woods, but this was no child and her smile warmed me when I sat down next to her. But what does one say to someone like that?
“I can’t help you, Jack,” I said.
I could see the desperation returning to his eyes and his tongue struggling for the right combination of words that could make me stay. He’d never understand that his mother wasn’t coming home. I told myself I was only saving him heartache down the road, that some people just didn’t want to be found, but he still had a flicker of hope burning within himself. Truth was, I didn’t want to be the one to snuff out that fire. Maybe I was going soft after all these years or maybe I just saw something of myself within the kid. Something I didn’t want to see. Hope made you weak.
“Can’t or won’t?” He called after me.
The office was empty when I returned. With only my wounds to entertain, I flipped the sign to close and took the rest of the day off, hoping the silence would help cleanse me. Sometimes it did. Sometimes it felt like only the smooth embrace of liquid forget-me-not could ease the burden of her passing. On days like these, my fingers itched for the bottle.She was strongest when I wasn’t expecting, sweeping into my head like a bitter old friend. If the kid was smart, he’d keep his money and stop looking, but I knew his type. He’d keep on searching like I did. You never did stop looking. One day, if he was truly unfortunate, he’d find his mother in a hotel off the beaten path, strung out on whatever it was that drove her away that night long ago. If he was lucky, he’d never find her.
“Keep looking, kid,” I said out loud to an empty room. “She’s just gone Elsewhere.”
Elsewhere. That’s where she first said she was from. Not from here, but Elsewhere. The name had stuck and I didn’t question it. It was like seeing life for the first time through her eyes. Everything was new. That’s why she’d been staring at the lake when I came across her for the first time. She explained she’d never seen water that color before.
“What other color would it be?” I asked, playing into the game. I always made it a point to kiss the sides of her neck while we talked until she was a squealing mess begging me to stop.
“Oh, many different colors!” She’d laugh. “Just never blue. You have a peculiar world here with your water the same color as your sky.”
“And I suppose things are different Elsewhere?” I asked. Another flurry of kisses forced her to her feet and she began to run. I pursued.
I’d gotten lost in this memory before. In reality, we’d chased each other, her never running too far ahead while I never gave up too much ground. Then we collapsed in a heap in the sweet summer grasses, our bodies mingling not for the first time. Back then I’d been a different person, a stranger compared to the man I found in the mirror. Now whenever I thought about it, there was only a hard knot in the pit of my stomach. It turns out hindsight was nothing more than a bitter old woman whispering sweet little lies. I couldn’t get too lost in the fantasy because I knew how it ended.
She’d come to me one day telling me she had to leave. No explanations, though perhaps simply telling me was a small enough grace. Then she just left. Back to Elsewhere or wherever she laid her head. I never believed she was truly gone until I started looking. I pursued, but this time I couldn’t catch up to her no matter how good I became. Truth be told, I was still looking.
“You never gave me a chance to explain,” Jack said from the open door. I gritted my teeth, wishing I’d remembered to lock it. I guess I was going to be the one to snuff the hope from his eyes after all.
“You don’t know what you’re asking,” I said.
“I’m not looking for my mother,” Jack said, taking a seat opposite to me. “I’m looking for my father.”
“I said she went missing, but she came back. She met my father around the same time,” Jack said.
Hope flared to life within my chest. Was it possible? I knew there was something familiar about his eyes, but perhaps I’m wrong?
“Jack, uh…where’s your mother now?” I asked. I stayed facing away from him, instinctively knowing his answer, hoping he wouldn’t see the trembling in my fingers if I was wrong.
“Elsewhere,” Jack answered.