Gemma arrived home just as the red sky marked the end of another winter’s day. Juggling her purse, gym gear and phone in one hand, she stood at her doorstep and plunged her free hand in the gaping stomach of her backpack. After a moment of rummaging, her fingers grazed against the cold, pointed metal of her Eiffel tower key ring. It was something she’d picked up on her honeymoon in Paris eight years ago and even though Gemma had since lost the husband, she couldn’t quite bring herself to get rid of the little souvenir. Yanking on the tower, she pulled the keys free, slipped them into the lock and bumbled her way into the house.
As usual, the tired building greeted her with silence and shadows. With weary limbs, Gemma set her things down on the faded carpet with a sigh. She kicked her aching feet out of their worn high heels and shrugged her way out of her shabby coat. The old floorboards squeaked a familiar tune under her bare feet as she made her way towards the kitchen; her mind already on the open bottle of wine in the fridge.
It wasn’t until she was halfway down the hall that Gemma noticed the open door. As soon as she spotted it, she froze. An icy fear snaked up her limbs. It had been two years since that door had been slammed shut and sealed under lock and key. Now, it stood open, casually ajar.
The light from the low evening sun hit the door at an angle, casting a long shadow across the floorboards. Its wooden panels shone amber brown in the soft sunlight and a warm glow seemed to beckon Gemma forward. Forcing herself to move, she took a tentative step in the direction of the door. After another footfall, her heart started to beat wildly in her chest and a cold sweat erupted down her back. Goosebumps prickled along her skin, making her shiver. Who had opened the door?
Straining her ears against the pressing silence of the house, Gemma concentrated on any audible clues that would confirm she wasn’t alone. She stood motionless like a prey animal in an open field, waiting, listening.
Thump… thump… thump… the only sound was the hammering of her own heart beating hard against her rib cage. Then, a floorboard creaked and the soft murmur of a child’s voice floated out from inside the unlocked room.
At the sound of the voice, a sharp memory pierced through Gemma. A dizzying wave of guilt washed over her as a certain hazy summer’s day flashed in her mind: Her son Eric playing on the front lawn, his unsteady feet teetering as he waved his toy truck about in the air. Spit bubbles formed on his soft pink lips as he made loud vroom vroom sounds. Then, the shrill ring of the phone in the kitchen and Gemma dashing inside to answer it.
Another babbling chuckle echoed toward Gemma and hit her with a startling force. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to stop the memory from flooding into her but it was no use. She’d only ducked away for a couple of minutes but that was all it took. In those few distracted moments on the phone, a pair of rough unfamiliar hands had grabbed her little boy and smuggled him off in an unmarked van. When Gemma had returned, the front lawn was empty. Eric was gone. The only proof he’d been there at all was the toy truck, knocked over on the grass, one wheel still slowly spinning.
More noises sounded from the unlocked room, pulling Gemma back from the past. The agonising memory suddenly replaced with a single loud thought, Eric is here! The idea of seeing her little boy again sent warmth coursing through Gemma’s body. She grasped at the newfound hope with a desperate strength and steadied her shaking limbs. Taking a deep breath, she set her gaze on the open door and started to move toward it.
Thump…thump…thump… her footfalls sounded as she walked. The hallway stretched and yawned away in front of her, twisting into a long dark passage. Keeping her eyes fixed, she took heavy step after step until she was standing just an inch from the door. Her next move would take her over the threshold and into the room but Gemma stopped, suddenly uncertain. All she had to do was reach out, push the wooden door aside and simply walk in. She was a heartbeat away from being reunited with her son and yet she hesitated. What if he didn’t want to see her? What if he hated her? After all, it was her fault he’d been taken. She was supposed to be the one he could count on – his protector – and she’d failed him. She’d let those strangers take him right out from under her nose.
Guilty tears welled in Gemma’s eyes and her cheeks burned hot with shame. A sob escaped from her chest as she stood hesitating in the darkening hallway. After a moment, the compulsion to apologise overpowered her guilt. Wiping blotchy tears from her face, Gemma sniffed and took the final step into the room.
It was like entering a faded polaroid: the room a still snapshot of the day Eric disappeared. The rainbow coloured caterpillar smiled happily down at Gemma from the painted eggshell blue wall. Its bubbly body displayed the numbers one to ten in bright colours. To the left, nursery rhymes and classic fairy tales filled a tall wooden bookcase while a bright red toy chest was filled to the brim with an assortment of blocks, balls, trucks and soft animals. This overflow of child-friendly exuberance spilled onto the floor, covering the striped rug in potential make-believe.
Turning towards the bed in the corner, Gemma’s breath caught in her throat. A man was seated on the floor, his back slouched against the wooden bed frame, knees drawn up to his chest. Tears ran uninterrupted down his ashen face and the strong smell of whiskey hung stale in the air. Gemma stepped forward and the man raised his head. His bloodshot eyes blinked at her with a clouded recognition. It was Jason: Eric’s dad.
When Eric had first been taken, Jason had thrown himself into the search effort with every iota of his being. Fit and able, he was the first person lining up in the morning at the volunteer hut and the last person to resign at night. He became the face of news reports, a distraught father pleading to an unknown villain; asking please bring my little boy home. But over time, dark circles had appeared under his usually bright brown eyes and his tall physique took on a haggard stoop, as if carrying the very weight of his missing son on his back.
Gemma, for her part, had completely withdrawn. Plates of reheated food remained untouched and she’d refused to go outside. Day after day she spent behind drawn curtains, under dark covers, steadily refilling her sleeping pill prescription.
Although Jason had never said it out loud, Gemma knew he blamed her for what had happened. Instead of comforting her, he became a cold, indifferent stranger. He would walk sullen and silent throughout the house – always leaving the room just as she entered as if he could no longer occupy the same space he’d once shared so closely with his wife. When he did speak to her, his eyes looked past her, focusing on some unknown point just over her left shoulder. His tone lost its tenderness, instead taking on that certain politeness he reserved for chance encounters with acquaintances. On some unspoken level, they knew their son’s disappearance had driven an unexpected stake through the heart of their marriage, leaving behind a hole that couldn’t be refilled. Eventually Jason left. Gemma didn’t stop him. It felt like a natural progression of events. In fact, she’d even locked the front door behind him.
A child’s giggle sounded again in the room, making Gemma jump and look around. After a moment, her eyes landed on the flashing mobile phone clutched in Jason’s hand. A video of Eric played on its bright screen. In it, the little boy tottered towards the camera with arms outstretched, his wide toothy grin taking up more and more of the five inches of glass as he got closer to the phone. Jason had taken the video two days before the abduction – who knows how many times he’d replayed it. Gemma’s shoulders slumped and her heart fell through her stomach. The flashing phone confirmed Eric was still gone, he hadn’t miraculously returned.
Sliding down to the floor, Gemma crawled towards her drunken husband. Without a word, she pushed the empty whiskey bottle aside and crouched next to the crying man. Placing her arm around his shaking shoulders, Gemma pulled his head into her chest and started to trace her fingers soothingly through his greasy hair. His wet tears seeped into her shirt and he mumbled incoherently into her breast. Gently, Gemma pulled the phone from his fingers and used her thumb to pause her son’s smiling face.
As the sun finally set and the room descended into darkness, the two of them stayed there on the hard floor. Jason’s whimpers slowed while Gemma held him tightly with an aching heart. They rocked slowly, back and forth, back and forth until Jason, like a child, fell into sleep. Gemma felt his chest rise and fall with even breaths. She exhaled, leaned her head back against the softness of the bed and silently wished Jason hadn’t reopened the locked door.
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