December 16th, 1978. I’ll never forget that day, the day my father went missing. My mother remembers it differently, she says one day our dad left and never came back, but I saw what happened.
I was twelve-years-old, my sisters and I were up late watching Saturday Night Live. My mom had already passed out drunk after an argument between her and my dad about money or something like that. They always fought, every day and every night it was yelling and crying until one of them either left or they would make up only to be arguing about something else the next day. I think my parents loved each other very much, so much that it drove them both crazy when they couldn’t agree on something. My mother was stubborn to a tee and my father was never wrong. A recipe for disaster. In the end, they always came back to each other and were always nice to me and my sisters. Except that night.
My father was in his shed, which is where he liked to cool off after one of their arguments, tinkering with a broken light fixture for the garage. He always tried to be handy but was never able to fix a damned thing. My younger sister, Sarah, had fallen asleep during a commercial break and my older sister, Annie, was blowing her bangs off her forehead trying to see how long she could keep them in the air.
“Doug, do you think mom and dad are going to get a divorce?” she asked, letting her wavy brown hair drop back onto her face. I had never thought about that before.
“No, that’s stupid,” I said, trying not to think about it.
“You’re stupid,” said Annie.
At that moment, our Dad burst through the screen door letting it slam against the wall. My mom and Sarah both jolted awake.
“Goddamnit, fucking thing,” muttered my dad.
“Herald! Quit slamming things around, what happened?” said my mother. She was ready to fight until she saw my father gripping his left hand, blood dripping from his palm onto the hardwood floor. She hurried over to him, grabbing her wine glass from the coffee table and putting it in the sink. She turned on the water and gently ran water over my howling father’s hand. He rolled up his sleeve with his free hand, I could see the little red stains around the cuff of his checkered blue oxford shirt.
“The damn bulb burst and the glass cut my hand clean open,” he said, “I think I might need stitches.”
“Oh quit being a baby, you’ll be fine. Wait here, I’ll go grab a bandage from the washroom,” she said before disappearing up the stairs. My father looked back towards the television and saw the three of us looking back at him with wide-eyes.
“What are you kids still doing up?” he said to us. We all stared back blankly. “Well go on, go to bed.”
One by one we ran up the stairs, knowing it was well past our bedtimes. My mother passed us on the stairs looking equally as surprised to see us still awake. We all pushed and shoved into our tiny bathroom fighting over the toothpaste. Finally, my sisters went to their room and I went to mine. I changed into my pajamas, struggling to remove my socks then flinging them across the room into the pile of clothes just outside the hamper. I turned off my light and jumped under the covers, tossing and turning to get comfortable. I soon realized my room was still too bright from the street lamps outside my window. I grudgingly slid out of bed to shut my curtains. When I reached the window I saw something I will never forget. Hundreds of people walking down the street, in almost complete silence, illuminated by the lampposts. I could see my school teacher and our next door neighbors walking with the crowd.
I could hear my parents arguing again downstairs, yelling at each other back and forth before hearing the sound of glass breaking and my mother shouting and crying. I heard the front door slam and out my window I saw my father step out onto the lawn adjusting his cap. He halted on our front lawn, curiously watching the masses of people pass by. He walked up to someone who looked like a car mechanic and asked what was going on, they put their arm around him and continued walking. My father looked back at our house before continuing on.
I don’t know what came over me that night. Maybe it was the strangeness of seeing so many people out in the street but I had a sudden urge to follow. Like somehow I knew that if I didn’t, I would never see my father again.
I slipped on my yellow rain boots without putting on any socks first and quietly tip-toed down the stairs into the entryway. I looked back and saw my mother in the kitchen sobbing while Annie comforted her. I locked eyes with Annie, she gave me a questioning look but turned her head back towards my mother. I turned the knob on the front door as slowly as I could, opening it just enough for me to squeeze through and kept the knob turned as I shut it behind me. I sprinted across the lawn, feeling the dead grass crunch beneath my boots.
I weaved my way into the crowd. Being only twelve-years-old and short for my age I had to hop up and down to see above the heads of the migrating crowd. It seemed like nobody took notice of me, their faces empty of all expression and their eyes locked forward. It was almost as if they were in a trance of some sorts. As we reached the top of the hill, I saw the street filled sidewalk to sidewalk with people stretching the entire length of the road. The whole town must have come out for what looked like a zombie marathon, minus all the rotting flesh and brain eating.
At the end of the road there was a corn field and hovering above the corn was a brilliant white light shining in a focused beam about the length of a university football stadium. Below the light was a large fire, billowing huge plumes of black smoke that dissolved into the air above it. I squinted my eyes and could see the horde of people disappearing into the corn. I frantically scanned the crowd, finally seeing my father in his signature red baseball cap standing on the sidewalk gazing at the light above the corn field. I sprinted toward him as fast as I could down the hill, my boots slapped against the pavement making my knees ache.
I ran into him at full speed, startling him, almost knocking him back. My father and I rarely hugged but at that moment I squeezed him as tight as I could around his stomach, my face pressed into his chest, he put one arm around me and looked down at me.
“What are you doing out of bed?” He said in a much gentler tone than I expected.
“I saw you leaving, I was scared you weren’t going to come back,” I admitted, “What’s going on out here?”
“Beats me, but you better get back home. If your mom finds out you were out this late she’ll whip us both.”
“Are you and mom going to get a divorce?” I asked, remembering what Annie had said earlier. He looked surprised at the question, but squatted down bouncing on his knees. He put his hands my shoulders, I noticed a bit of blood had seeped through the bandage turning his palm bright red.
“Look son, you’re mother and I were very young when we had your sister. And we are still growing up and learning just like you,” he said. “Sure we fight sometimes, but I love your mother like nobody else. And I love you too son. I’ll never leave you.”
I hugged him one more time, this time he put both his arms around me and squeezed me tight. Then he took off his red baseball cap and put it on my head, it was too big for me and the bill slid over my eyes. He turned toward the crowd and then back to me.
“Now go on home. I’ll be there in just a minute as soon as I find out what’s going on down there,” he said pointing at the illuminated, smoke covered corn field. I watched him walk away and ask a man in a police uniform where everyone was going and why they were out so late at night.
“We are here to witness the event,” said the police man without looking at him.
As he got further and further away from me I felt that feeling in the pit of my stomach. I knew that I if didn’t follow my father, I would never see him again. I joined the march toward the corn field at the end of the group. I looked back and saw nobody else behind me. This was it, I thought. As I approached the corn field the smoke quickly became overwhelming. I was struggling to breathe and felt my eyes watering until tears were streaming down my face. The mindless crowd moved toward the fire seemingly unharmed by its heat or lack of oxygen. The smoke burned every part of me until it was unbearable and I ran out of the field coughing and gasping for air. But where was my father? Surely, he must have went home when he realized it was impossible to breathe.
I reached the top of the hill again and looked back over the corn field. The mob of absent-minded townsfolk had gathered in a huge circle around the fire, their right arms crossed over their left, joining hands they matched the circumference of the hovering white light. They looked up towards the light and in an instant they were gone. A flash as bright as a dying sun lit up the night sky followed by a massive bang that shook the houses of my neighborhood, shattering their windows. I rubbed my eyes, not able to see anything but a blue orb clouding my vision. My ears rung loudly, I regained most of my vision and could see nothing but an enormous crater that replaced the corn field in the exact shape of the hovering white light that was there before.
I returned to my house just before dawn. My mother ran up to me and hugged me tight, I didn’t hug her back. My boots were covered with mud and my pajamas reeked of smoke.
“Where’s dad?” I asked. My mother shook her head. My father never came home.
The next day some men from the government came and told us we had to move. We started a new life, without my father, in Seattle, Washington. That was 40 years ago. I now have a wife and family of my own, and I still wear my father’s red baseball cap and tell my children I’ll never leave.