"Swim fun water."
The monotone, robotic voice had become as familiar to her as her husband's.
"I told you, sweetie, it's too cold outside to swim today," she replied, trying to keep her patience. It was the seventh time he had asked since dinner.
"It's wintertime," she said. "It snows in the winter. What season do we swim in the pool?"
Mason tapped at his Assistive Communication Device. He was becoming quicker and more creative with his sentences.
"Summertime," the gizmo answered.
"That's right, Summertime! Good using your words!" she said. "I'll tell you what: Mommy just has to finish putting away this load of laundry. Then we'll play hide and seek, okay?"
"It," the gizmo answered.
She laughed. "Yes I'll be 'It.'"
She kissed him on the forehead then lumbered upstairs, carrying two days of laundry that overfilled the basket.
Mason was turning seven in a few months. Their decision to homeschool was a leap of faith; she had no teaching experience, but, it was working out well, and his behaviors had calmed down since they took him out of that abysmal public school.
From their master bedroom, she could hear the Backyardigans blaring on the television. Tommy would be home soon to give her some relief. She hated that he had to work such long hours at the firm, but when they decided that she would stay home full time with Mason, they knew their marriage would have to survive on one income.
The nighttime ritual was Tommy's job. Both he and Mason loved it. Starting at 6:30 P.M. sharp, it would begin with a bath that never failed to #ood the bathroom, followed by an intense tickle fight. They would share a snack of peanut butter and bananas and a Doctor Seuss bedtime story. They were a fantastic pair. She felt blessed to have both of them in her life, even if her life these days was a whirlwind of boredom, monotonous routines, and 2:30 A.M. wake-up calls.
She crammed the last pair of socks into Tommy's drawer. She headed back down the stairs, unconsciously humming along to a catchy cartoon rock song being sung by a moose. She walked past the living room couch and tossed the laundry basket onto the #oor by the mudroom. Mason wasn't there. She muted the television and walked to the tiny first-floor bedroom they had converted to a home office.
Mason would often sneak in there to watch videos on Tommy's computer. Her son wasn't there either.
"Eight, nine, ten—ready or not, here I come!" she yelled, signaling their game of hide-and-seek had begun. This was usually the time Mason started giggling, giving away his hiding place.
She made a spectacle of opening the closets and searching behind the couches.
"Where is Mason? I'm gonna tickle him!"
Within a few minutes, she had exhausted all of his usual hiding places and hadn't heard a single peep or giggle.
"Mason?" she called.
She walked quickly back upstairs, two at a time, as her pulse began to quicken. She told herself there was no reason to panic. Mason was probably in his bedroom. He liked to crawl into bed and pile all of his pillows, blankets, and sheets on top of himself. The therapist told her the deep pressure was calming. His bed was empty.
"Mason?" she called louder.
Her peripheral vision began to blur, and she hurried downstairs, skipping a few steps as she descended. She scanned the living room and again checked the couch as if she could possibly have missed him sitting there the first time. Still, it was empty.
"Mason!" she called again, and the tears began. Her hands began to tremble, and she could barely catch her breath. She ran into the garage and checked the backseat of their SUV. It was empty. She started randomly opening closets and kitchen cabinets, even those that were clearly too small for a child to hide. Mason was not in the house.
Her son was gone.
Three miles away, Sergeant Greg Jackson blew warm breath into his hands. It was still early in the winter, and the first snow had not yet fallen, but the air was crisp.
He had just refueled his patrol car and cleaned out a shift's worth of empty fast food bags, coffee cups, and dog hair. He was giving his K9 partner, Doc, one final run before they went home.
They had a decent shift: two K9 demonstrations for local scout troops and a substantial heroin arrest. He still couldn't believe those knuckleheads thought they could mask the odor by hiding their dope in an Altoids tin.
He was more eager than usual to close out his shift because it was his tenth wedding anniversary. His parents volunteered to watch Sarah, their eight-year-old daughter.
His wife, Jenna, had planned an early dinner at their favorite Italian restaurant to celebrate, the place of their first date. She had ordered Chicken Francaise and he awkwardly poked at Chicken Parmesan and dropped marinara sauce on the new shirt he bought for the occasion.
They kissed that night during a stroll around the reservoir.
She had him forever.
Greg stood shivering on the pitcher's mound of the base" ball diamond and watched his hairy partner stalk, chase, and pounce on his prized tennis ball. He returned it to Greg, covered in slobber, with his head held high and tail perched like a rooster's plume.
"Out," Greg commanded.
Doc dropped it at Greg's feet and waited in anticipation for his next command like a fanatic soldier.
Doc dropped to the ground almost before the command left Greg's lips. Greg picked up the slimy ball and gave two fake throws to make sure Doc didn't cheat. Then he heaved it in a low arc about two hundred feet into the outfield. Doc stayed riveted to the ground. His eyes darted from the bouncing yellow ball back to Greg's.
Greg's portable radio blared, "Headquarters to 220."
"Damn," he muttered.
Doc flinched, on edge awaiting Greg's command to "fetch."
Greg keyed his shoulder mic and responded to his dispatcher.
The dispatcher delivered the news. He would be missing his anniversary Chicken Parm. Jenna, eight months pregnant with their second child, was going to be pissed.
"Respond to 1647 Dill Avenue for a report of a missing child," his dispatcher ordered with no condolences for ruining Greg's evening.
God damn it, what is it with these parents who can't keep track of their kids? Greg thought. He prided himself on raising his daughter and future son with discipline and attentiveness. His years of exposure on the job to careless, inept parents and disrespectful kids wore thin his patience.
This job had earned him a virtual master's degree in how not to raise a child.
"Doc, in the truck," Greg commanded. Doc whined in protest then darted to the open rear door of their patrol car.
Two-hundred feet away, the tennis ball stopped bouncing.
The dispatcher continued, "220, it's difficult to gather the details. The mother is hysterical. Apparently, this is a six-year-old autistic child who wandered out his back door."
"10-4, Greg replied," pouting as he walked to his patrol car.
Sure, lady, I'll put my life on hold to clean up your inept parenting.
Doc stared at Greg intensely as he stood at the opening of the Durango.
"Go ahead, you big pansy, Fetch," Greg said.
Doc leaped from the car and honed in on his tennis ball. He scooped it in stride and pranced back to the patrol car, squeezing it flat in his powerful jaws the entire way.
Greg knew the odds of finding a viable track of the child were slim as he pulled onto Dill Avenue. Doc was trained to locate and track the freshest scent available leading from a scene. There were people milling around everywhere. It looked like a Fourth-of-July block party. Neighbors, cops, firemen, and volunteers were milling about the neighborhood like ants. Greg had to park seven houses down the street and make his way to 1647 on foot.
This is going to be a long night, he thought.
Officer Ray Dempsey, Greg's best friend, and best man met him on the front porch.
"At least we have plenty of help," said Dempsey, taking off his winter ski cap and running his hand through his thinning hair. "Jenna's going to be pissed. Happy anniversary, by the way."
"When did you start going bald?" Greg asked with a smirk.
"Bite me," Ray said, leading Greg into the living room and putting his hat back on.
"Mrs. Romine," Dempsey said to a beautiful but exhausted-looking woman in her early forties. "This is Officer Jackson. He is our K9 handler. He's not much to look at, but he's one of the best K9 Handlers in the country."
Mrs. Romine stared blankly ahead as Ray's awkward attempt at flirtation fell flat.
Greg extended his hand and shook hers gently. "Ma'am, do you know from which door your son exited the house?"
"His name is Mason if anybody cares!" she snapped.
Greg glanced at Ray and rolled his eyes. It was going to be one of those nights.
"We are all here to help find him, Mrs. Romine," Greg said.
"I'm sorry," she said. "Everyone just seems so cold and matter-of-fact. My son is gone!"
Because you dropped the ball and didn't keep your eyes on him, Greg thought.
"I know, ma'am," Greg said. "I promise you, my dog is the best there is. We will find him. Can you show me the door from which you think he wandered?"
"My son doesn't 'wander,'" she snapped. "He is not a zombie! He disappeared!"
Why don't I just leave and let you try to !nd him your" self, lady? Greg thought.
"Okay, Mrs. Romine," Greg said. "I need you to calm down and keep it together. From what door did he leave?"
"Don't tell me to calm down! Does anybody ever calm down after they are told to 'calm down'?" she cried. "The back door, I suppose. The front door is still chained.”
"Okay, can you tell me Mason's mental capacity?" Greg asked awkwardly.
Her eyes pierced him through her tears. "'Mental capacity?'" she said. "He's autistic. He's bright and intelligent and funny. He's not brain-damaged."
Lady, you are grinding on my last nerve with these bull" shit semantics, Greg thought.
Ray Dempsey saw the frustration flare in Greg's eyes and intervened on his behalf.
"We are just trying to get an idea of his cognitive abilities, Mrs. Romine," Ray said. "Is he able to understand the dangers of being out in the cold? Will he seek shelter? Can he talk? Will he answer if his name is called? Is he afraid of the police for any reason?"
She sighed deeply. "Mason is non-verbal. He communicates with an Assistive Communication Device. He loves police officers. I have no idea if he understands hypothermia."
Greg had no idea what an 'Assistive Communication Device' was. Still, he got the impression that if he asked one more awkward question, Mrs. Romine was going to attack him with the fireplace poker.
"Okay. Thank you," Greg said.
He left hastily to retrieve Doc and get outside where it was warmer.
Greg geared-up his partner and led him around the house to the backyard. The yard was enclosed with a four-foot chain-link fence with a gate that secured with a latch. It was a large yard that backed up to an expansive county park. There was a wooden jungle gym in the corner and an in-ground pool, which was winterized and covered with a sun-faded green tarp. In the opposite corner of the yard was a six-foot by eight-foot wooden shed. The entire yard was covered in crusty leaves and riddled with various toys, bikes, and wagons. It was clear Mason spent a lot of time playing back here.
Two uniformed cops approached Greg and assured him they had thoroughly searched the entire backyard with no luck. Greg thanked them politely, but silently cursed them for contaminating his scene and destroying Doc's chances to track Mason. The backyard was now useless and had been contaminated, so he led Doc to the perimeter of the yard where he figured little Mason had climbed the chain-link fence and wandered into the park. Greg knew they would have been too lazy to spend a lot of time searching the area on the other side of the fence. There, Doc would be most likely able to find Mason's scent, track it, and get Greg to the restaurant before Jenna filed the divorce papers.
On their way to the yard's perimeter, Doc was distracted by one of Mason's toys sitting on the concrete walkway near the edge of the pool cover. He yanked Greg, causing him to bang his knee against the patio table.
Already annoyed, hungry, and tired, Greg tugged Doc away from the toy, which reminded Greg of the old Speak 'N Spell gizmo he used to love playing with as a kid. He admonished his dopey partner for goofing off, and then pulled Doc toward the fence. He commanded Doc to jump the fence and told him to "track." As Doc began to inspect the ground in search of a scent, he kept pulling Greg toward the Speak 'N Spell and received another sharp correction for goofing off.
Greg radioed responding personnel to begin checking all lakes, streams, and rivers within a two-mile radius of the house. He had learned early in K9 training that autistic individuals were drawn to water, and 90% of fatalities in missing autistic cases involved drowning. That about exhausted his knowledge of the disability, but it sounded impressive over the radio. Greg circled the entire perimeter of the yard with Doc, who gave no indications of the presence of any human scent leading away from the house into the park. Greg was cold, frustrated, and hungry. He was missing his Chicken Parm.
"Where in the hell could this kid have gone?" Greg asked Doc.
Doc jumped back over the chain-link fence into the backyard, probably in a rush to get back to the warmth of their patrol car.
Greg pulled at him again and commanded him to jump back over and stop being a pain in the ass.
"This one is for real, Doc," he chastised. "I don't know how long this kid can last out here at these temperatures. Suck it up.”
Greg led Doc deeper into the park and away from the house. They both were simply looking around at this point and hoping to stumble upon little Mason playing in the leaves or whatever little autistic kids did for entertainment. It had been forty-five minutes since he disappeared. Greg's mind turned to hypothermia. It was getting darker and colder.
"You got anything, Greg?" Ray Dempsey asked over the radio.
Greg felt a building pressure to communicate self-confidence and control to the growing army of officers and volunteers massing in the area. He had a reputation to protect.
"Yeah, I have some traces. I'm in the park about a half-mile east of the house. I think I'm close," Greg said.
He was fibbing, of course, but there was no other logical place the little kid could be hiding.
Greg radioed his dispatcher to request that the State Police respond with their helicopter and infrared cameras to assist in searching the wooded county park that was hiding little Mason. He began the process of ordering all responding o$cers and volunteers to converge around the park when he heard screaming—primal, gut-wrenching, maternal screaming. It was coming from the direction of the Romine's backyard.
Greg felt the blood drain from his body as he pulled Doc into a trot toward the backyard of 1647 Dill Avenue.
Then Ray Dempsey transmitted over the radio that Mason had been found. His tone was not celebratory.
Greg reached the backyard in the dying afternoon light. He saw a crowd of officers and volunteers huddled together on the patio just outside the back door. Some of them were hugging each other. Three of them were soaking wet. Mrs. Romine was on her knees, wailing and cursing God and all His creation. The pool cover had been ripped away from the pool.
"Why would he crawl under the cover in the dead of winter?" Someone asked in the darkness.
A female EMT, Greg did not recognize, was holding the gizmo that reminded him of a Speak 'N Spell. She was speaking softly to a colleague. The only words he could make out were "Assistive Communication Device."