Safe and Warm
Mi Jin Kim | Fiction
At a quarter to nine Paul put on a jacket and went over to Jay’s house across the street. “Charlotte isn’t home,” he said.
Jay let him inside. “Give me a minute, will you?”
In the den the television was on and Paul watched it while he waited for Jay. Nothing anybody said was very funny. The studio audience’s ugly laughter flew at him and dropped down into the carpet. Paul turned away from the yawning mouths, their teeth.
Jay came downstairs pulling a dark hoodie over his head. He had five years on Paul’s forty but he still dressed like the students they taught at the college. “Drive or walk?” he asked.
“It’s a good night for a walk,” Paul said.
Jay saluted and they went out of the house.
There was something about being out of doors in a quiet neighborhood in the late evening hours. The air went still and thick with the breath of animals; insects bathed in the yolk-yellow light from streetlamps; darkness muffled the sounds of people and their activities. It was almost December; the night was chilly, windless. Together they walked up Hill Street in silence. Paul checked his phone but Charlotte hadn’t returned his calls.
Neither man said anything to the other until they reached the empty bird fountain at the cul-de-sac where they’d found Paul’s wife the last time she’d disappeared.
Jay rubbed his hands together. “I hope Charlie hasn’t gone too far out in this weather.”
“She took a sweater,” Paul said. “The red one wasn’t on the hook.”
“Good. That’s good.”
Paul looked beyond the fountain at the unsold house that stood on the north end of Hill Street. Larry Bright, who’d once taught in the department with Paul, had moved away in 2019 and the house had remained empty ever since.
“She might have broken inside again,” said Paul.
Jay, who’d crouched by the fountain to pick up a pebble, stood up now and thumbed through something on his phone. “I’m going to text her.”
Paul gestured with his hands: Be my guest. He walked up the driveway and looked in through the windows of Larry Bright’s old house. The rooms were dark and empty.
Jay came up and stood beside Paul. “Charlie? You in there?” Jay called out, cupping his hands around his face against the living room window. No one had ever called her Charlie, Charlotte had once told Paul, until Jay Chun had come along.
“One of these days,” Paul said, “I’m going to put a stop to this.”
They went around to the side of the house. “But Charlie will never stop looking for Leo,” Jay said.
Paul ran a hand over his face. “It happens every week at the therapist’s. Charlotte sits there talking about Leo as if he’s still alive. I’m the bad guy because I talk about him in the past tense.”
They let themselves into the back through an unlatched fence door. The yard looked as it’d looked last week, full of holes. Jay went over to kick at a pile of dirt while Paul stood around, staring at his cell phone. Charlotte hadn’t called him back.
When Larry Bright had lived here the yard had been lined with birds of paradise and wild aloe but now nothing grew except a scant ponytail of weeds in one sorry corner.
Jay took a pinch of dirt and dusted his hands with it. “Where to now, boss?”
“Fancy a walk down Colorado?”
Jay made a gesture: Lead on.
Paul pocketed his cell phone. Jay kept his out, with the screen left on the message he’d sent to Charlotte. There was no reply when they reached the bottom of Hill Street that opened onto Joaquin Drive and still there was no reply when they reached Colorado Avenue.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Jay said. Paul didn’t know to which issue Jay was referring—Paul’s missing wife? his missing son? the general state of contemporary American life?—and didn’t ask.
Here on the main artery that ran through the neighborhood a good crowd of people were about. On the sidewalk cheerful, well-dressed men and attractive women doused in flowery, cloying perfumes strolled past bustling shops and restaurants, the movements of their limbs full of a sort of tension Paul felt distinctly missing from his own waterlogged steps.
The men stopped at a crosswalk, where a family of four were waiting for the light to change. They were at a large intersection and the signal took a hell of a long time letting everybody else cruise through. Paul looked away from the couple’s children but his thoughts drifted, and he remembered: Leo’s Dodgers baseball cap, which the boy had treasured; Leo’s stuffed elephant, which remained nameless because the boy had never given it a name; Leo with a fever; Leo carefully nibbling on a pepperoni, which had been too spicy for him without frequent sips of warm water; Leo horsing around on his bed and Leo in the bath, sneezing. When Paul remembered his son he could feel and smell everything Leo must’ve felt and smelled: the itchy haziness of fevers; the sensuous warmth of the water during his special oatmeal baths; the smells of his rash cream and his special laundry soap. And in moments like these when everyone else was alive and enjoying the world Paul could feel death, too, or what he expected must be death and what it must be like for Leo: nothingness and darkness and silence and cold. Paul could do this because when Leo had disappeared he’d gone inside Paul. Leo hadn’t gone inside Charlotte, which was why she kept thinking she’d find him if she just looked hard enough, asked the right questions, canvassed a certain city block, harassed enough strangers.
“Let’s get some coffees,” Jay said when they neared Summit Café, which had been one of Charlotte’s favorite places before Leo had disappeared. Inside the air was warm and thick with the smells of raisin bagels and scorched milk. There were too many people about; Jay and Paul stood elbow to elbow with a few dozen others in line. It was also quite dark inside; the walls weren’t walls but panels emitting a faint grayish light. There was an indoor balcony one reached by way of a glass stairwell; patrons on the second floor sat on couches and hung their arms over the railing. It was darker up there than it was down in the main café and Paul couldn’t really make out of any of their faces. The coffee drinkers up on the balcony peered down at him but he couldn’t find their eyes.
While Jay remained standing in line Paul went over to look at the bulletin board, which was partially hidden behind a tall man in a black jacket. What Paul could see were the usual suspects for the Summit bulletin board: lecture postings from the college, flyers for shows, tear-aways for mysterious job openings. It was now, of course, bare of the flyers he and Charlotte had once posted, here at the café and around town and all around the county. Flyers with Leo’s somber little face, Leo sitting up wearing a plastic bib, Leo in a dark hoodie like the one Jay had on tonight. The flyers had asked strangers to call Paul and Charlotte’s private numbers with tips. For a while they’d included information about a Ford truck Charlotte had said she’d remembered seeing idling near the house that morning. Later they’d taken that bit out, after she became convinced that she must have been mistaken. She was adamant that she’d seen a truck pass by the house, but that’d been weeks after the boy had disappeared from their front yard. Later she said there had probably been no truck at all.
The tall man in the black jacket blocking the bulletin board was met by a young woman with a billowing cloud of carroty hair, and he moved away. Alone now and unobstructed, Paul ran his fingers over all the flyers and coupons and postings on the bulletin board and rubbed the cork underneath. He wondered if he should, after teaching his morning section tomorrow, walk over to Lauren White’s office in the Arts and Media building and ask her to make up a new flyer for him. This time he’d do it without discussing it with Charlotte first. And he’d post the flyers himself, early in the mornings since Charlotte never got up past noon anymore.
Jay came over with two white bakery bags bearing oil spots and a drink carrier. “There’s a table in the corner.” He pointed it out and they walked over to it. While Paul took off his jacket Jay wiped down his chair, which had been soiled with something like spilled jam or syrup. “Place is going to the dogs,” Jay said.
They were beset by young people in black sweatshirts and black jeans and dyed black hair and there was one girl with a tattoo of blackbirds ringing her greenish throat. Paul stared at her a second too long, for the girl grimaced at him and moved away. He was feeling too high-strung for caffeine, but for something to do, he peeled open the lid off one of the coffees. Steam rose off its frothy black surface like mist off a dark lake.
“Two are Kenyans and one’s a half-caf. Don’t ask which one’s which.” Jay bit into something that looked like a wizened face, glossy with sweat. Paul eyed the other bakery bag but didn’t touch it. The light-up panel in the wall beside them was on the fritz and flickered every now and then. Paul put out a hand and pressed the tips of his fingers against it, wondering if it’d be hot to the touch. Instead it was cool, and he pulled away fingers coated with fine pinkish dust.
“Max Takeuchi came over to my office the other day with a theory he’s been working on about Leo,” Jay said.
“What’d Max say?”
“He thinks Leo might’ve wandered down the hill. Across the way is Peck Park, the Montessori school, and the library, which you can reach if you cut through the school. Max has got this cache of photos from some production people he’s friendly with. They were scouting for locations and apparently they’ve got loads of pictures that were taken in the area—he calls it Leo’s triangle.”
Paul was surprised—but, he noted, his reaction felt subdued, even to himself—by Max Takeuchi’s interest in his son’s case, after all this time. “How’s it a triangle?”
Jay took out a pen from behind his ear and began drawing on a napkin. “Here’s the school, the library, and the park. Max Takeuchi’s friends have thousands of photos of just this area, interiors too. I’ve already started looking through a good portion of them. There aren’t too many people in the shots but they’re not what Max or his people are interested in; it’s how everything used to look then and how they look now.”
Paul frowned. “You’ve lost me.”
Jay gestured with his hands: Here’s a box. “For instance: The city library has a new garden.”
“But in those photos, dating all the way up to a month before Leo went missing, there’s not even a hint of construction around the place. There’s just a couple bushes and a lawn.”
At what must’ve been the expression hardening on Paul’s face, Jay stopped talking.
“Maybe now’s not the time.”
“Think we should head out?” Paul said.
They took their coffees and the oily bakery bag—Jay crumpled up the other into a small white asteroid—and went back out into the night.
“Go on,” Paul said. “I’m interested.”
Jay picked up their conversation without missing a beat. “There’s also an empty lot a block from the Montessori school.”
“Is that significant?”
Jay nodded. “Remember that old insurance building?”
Paul shook his head.
“No, you wouldn’t. Pretty bland bit of business. Thing is, it stays up in the month leading up to Leo’s disappearance—but two weeks later, it gets bought by some mystery developer, four months later it’s razed. Makes sense—the school and shops need more parking. Real estate around here is always premium. But the property got flattened and there don’t seem to be any plans to make it into anything. There’s more. Those film people went down to San Dimas to scout something else, then came back and continued taking photographs.”
“How many of these have you seen? I mean, you yourself?”
“Only a couple dozen.”
“What does any of this have to do with Leo?”
“Nothing. We just think it’ll be helpful, to build a clearer picture of the town as it was when Leo disappeared. Either someone took him and—put him somewhere on private property, which we’ll never discover in a million years—or he was taken somewhere public, which is always likelier you know, statistically, and someone, somewhere, saw something. Probably they don’t know what exactly it is they saw. We have to know what to ask, and who, and where.” Jay went on talking, after pausing to check his phone—he reported, “No reply from Charlie”—about property schematics, the number of registered sex offenders in the area, his and Max Takeuchi’s interest in missing persons cases.
“Anyone might have him,” Jay went on. “Anyone at all might’ve done it. Maybe a neighbor, an established town resident. People are capable of extraordinary things—that’s what amazes me about what’s happened to Leo. It’s impossible to feel really safe anywhere, so long as you’re living among strangers. You can only turn a blind eye to it, tell yourself: What are the odds? The odds are good that nothing will happen to me. What are the odds of…” Jay stopped. “You’re not offended, are you? If I’m out of line—”
“I’d have cut you off well before now if you were.”
“It’s hard to explain. Max doesn’t even have a theory, really. More of a hunch about the general quality of questions we should be asking.”
Paul tried to picture his colleagues in the department annex, discussing conspiracy theories about his son. It was a ludicrous scene; he couldn’t quite make himself believe it. Max Takeuchi was so sedate, so careful. And Jay Chun was a good egg. He was struck by the clearness of Jay’s bright eyes, the pure dark irises, the way the man’s pale hands flew up to his shirt collar when he was excited. Paul could feel Jay vibrating with the idea that Paul’s son might be buried in a wall somewhere, just a couple blocks from home. He did not begrudge Jay his interest in the case, his passion. They were old friends; he knew how Jay’s mind worked. He knew the boy had become a question in the man’s mind, one without answers—the only kind men like Jay Chun liked working out.
For Paul, the idea that his son had been taken, murdered, and hastily disposed of was the first thing he’d thought of, and the only real possibility he’d come—pretty quickly—to accept. At first it’d seemed unreal to him, the possibility that anything so lurid could happen to him. He’d always felt he’d been touched not by fortune or misfortune, but by ordinariness. Nothing more devastating than divorce and diabetes had ever plagued his family; he supposed he’d always been a little unhappy, he’d been wired to be, but beyond that he’d never experienced anything even approximating ghastliness. He’d never even been mugged.
They passed a Trader Joe’s. Paul looked at the men moving in and out of the store and realized they were workers loading crates of wine in through the front door, rather than through the loading dock. Several of the men noticed Paul watching them and stopped to stare back at him. The store and parking lot lights had been turned off and it was hard to see their faces.
“You know I’m going to ask to see those photos,” Paul said.
“Of course, you can see them. You must. I mean, if you want to. If it’s okay.”
“Why wouldn’t it be okay?”
“I mean, to talk about Leo without proof.”
Paul said nothing.
“For me, it’s something to puzzle over in my spare time. For you, it’s…”
“I think you’re being unfair. To yourself, I mean.”
“I wonder. But I loved Leo, too,” Jay said, his head turned.
Paul relaxed when they moved away from the Trader’s Joe and neared a bar. Loitering out front were four young people in bright colors and clothes too thin for the chill in the night air. Nothing about the look of the place was particularly enticing but Paul found himself lingering.
“Forget the coffees,” Paul said. “I need a drink.”
“Charlie’s waiting for us at the park.”
Paul frowned. “You know, I don’t think she is. Waiting for you and me, that is.” He gave Jay a long look. “Maybe she wants to be alone. Maybe she doesn’t need me chasing after her every time she needs to get away from the house.”
Jay shook his head. “You’re wrong. It’s a cry for help, is what it is.”
Paul sniffed. Nights in autumn had a smell about them, rich and smoky. When he was a kid, autumn nights used to make him shiver; he used to feel things so intensely, he thought. He’d been a weird kid, inward and dreamy, far weirder than Leo would’ve grown up to be. “I don’t know about you, but I definitely need a drink.”
In the bar, Paul had a double whiskey and Jay sat beside him, sipping one of his coffees. When Jay got up to use the restroom, Paul waved over the bartender. A thought touched him briefly: He wanted to be home, tucked into bed. He never wanted to be nine or ten again, snively and runty and powerless, but he felt little had changed for him, really; the landscape inside him hadn’t altered.
“How’s business?” Paul said.
The bartender pointed at his ear.
Paul repeated what he’d said.
The bartender’s eyes slid over the crowd. He shrugged.
Paul ordered a beer. “I don’t usually have one of these on a weeknight. The hard stuff, I mean.”
The bartender pointed at his ear again.
Paul ignored this and took his beer to the popcorn machine, which looked as though it hadn’t been functional in years. He scanned the crowd. It was older than he’d first assumed, stranger and wilder, too. He supposed he’d been expecting college kids inside. A group of sour-looking women sat in grim silence in one of the back booths, sucking on straws; a single man with an odd, partially deformed face stood alone at one of the high tops, a plastic hospital discharge bag sagging beside him; a large man in his late sixties, trapezoidal from the neck down and wearing a brown stain from throat to groin, was sitting alone at one of the round tables, an empty pitcher and glass beside him.
When Jay got back, Paul gestured him over to the popcorn machine. “There’s a couple horror movies that start out in a dive like this.”
Jay was looking for napkins, he said; there weren’t any in the men’s room.
“Maybe you’re right,” Paul said.
“Charlotte. Leo, too, maybe.”
“I haven’t really said anything about Leo. Not yet.”
“I think maybe the beer was overkill,” Paul said, grimacing. “Let’s get out of here.”
They were moving across another crosswalk a few blocks from the park entrance when it happened. Paul happened to glance back just as a man in jogging clothes came at him at a run, torpedoing right into him, knocking him off balance; for a single moment, there was only the disorienting sensation of his body flying forward and his head whipping back. The man who’d run into him hadn’t been knocked off course, and whipped past without a word; Jay shouted, “Hey!” then, after eyeing Paul—perhaps ascertaining that the injuries weren’t fatal—he took off after the hit-and-run night jogger. Paul landed on his knees—he instinctively shot out his hands—with only the curb there to break his fall. For a moment he was afraid of having injured himself in some irreversible way—he panicked, and felt dreadfully sorry for himself—but that thought, so overwhelming and urgent, vanished as quickly as it’d come. He discovered almost immediately, to his chagrin, that he was fine. The palms of his hands were coated in dirt and gravel, and he was still a little stunned, in a daze; but he was fine. He felt no worse than if he’d fallen off his bike.
A woman knelt beside him. The corners of her lips were lifting, it seemed, involuntarily, as she looked him over. “What on earth was that?” She grinned at him. “That’s an ugly scratch.”
Paul felt his brow and pulled away wet fingers; there wasn’t too much blood. “Oh, this,” he said.
“Should I call 911?” a bystander said, sounding disappointed when Paul got to his feet.
Paul rotated his shoulder. “Don’t bother,” he said, but his voice was drowned out by the small crowd that had gathered around him. Where was Jay? The strangers who’d circled him, seemingly to help, or maybe gawk, stared at Paul in a way that bothered him; he disliked the way their eyes scanned him as he dusted himself off. “What happened?” a woman said. The others eagerly answered, speaking over themselves: A man had come out of nowhere; a man had pushed Paul into the curb; the man had taken off running. But where had Jay gone?
Paul thought he heard approaching sirens; but as he jogged down the street in search of Jay, the sirens moved off into the distance. He left the crowd behind, murmuring to themselves. Paul turned to wave them off, in case they came after him, but they were watching him from their station on the curb, their eyes in shadow. Something about the way they looked in the glow of the streetlamp, the way they stood tightly together—together, though they just happened to be standing near one another—made Paul dab at his wet brow with the sleeve of his jacket and move faster down the street. When he turned the group was still watching him; he ducked under an awning, in front of a darkened furniture store. A dusty sign on the door read: Thank you for allowing us to serve you for 17 years! On impulse he pulled the brass handle. He wasn’t surprised when it opened; odds were good that doors opened when there wasn’t anyone around to check the locks.
The door shut behind him with a tinkling of bells. Inside there was a faint light from somewhere that made the walls glow with soft gray light. The showroom was long, impossibly long; it seemed to go on as far as the eye could see.
He remembered something that one of Charlotte’s friends had said once, shortly after Leo’s disappearance. She’d been drunk; he had been, too. She’d said that people went missing all the time in a country as big and wild as the United States. The average American couldn’t possibly know who exactly his neighbors were, had no idea of just how thin the ice really was. If you thought too much about it, she’d said, you’d go crazy. You’d never leave the house. You and I, she’d warned him hotly, sticking her finger between his ribs, we’re not like them. If he’d really understood that he would never have let Leo out of his sight. Some people took what they wanted and viewed other people not as people and not exactly as objects, but as symbols of the ideas they carried inside their heads. How could you? she’d said. How could you have let him wander into the abyss?
Paul dug in his pocket for his cell phone. The fall had done more damage than he’d thought; the screen had cracked, but only in one corner. When he rubbed the damaged spot with his thumb it bled into a rainbow. He turned on the flashlight function and shined it all around the store. There were several doors along the showroom, and a back exit. The place wasn’t as mysterious and endless as it’d appeared in the semi-darkness.
When he heard Jay call out his name Paul thought about walking over and opening the front door but it seemed right to him that Jay should stand out there in the night with the strangers in the glow of the streetlamp, and that Paul should stay here, alone, in the dark. He ignored Jay’s increasingly worried shouting and called Charlotte, who picked up after the third ring.
“I’ve been thinking it over, Paul,” she said. “It couldn’t have happened the way I’m remembering it. I should’ve gone to Larry Bright’s house tonight. But I’ve been reading something online—it’s the craziest thing—and I had to see it for myself. You know what I mean?”
Paul sat down on the floor. “What is it?” He pressed his phone closer to his ear. The flashlight function was still on. When he moved this way then that it was as though a great white moon were rising and setting, rising and setting in the dark.
“Did you know Leo has online detectives on his case? They post on these forums—remember those?”
“People still go on forums?”
“Yeah, and there’s one about missing kids. Leo’s not as popular as those other kids, though, the big names.”
“Sure,” Paul said. “He wouldn’t be. He’s just our Leo.”
“Yeah,” Charlotte said softly.
After what seemed too long a pause she said, “‘A triangulation,’ is what they call the mile around our house. Maybe I’m confused. It’s something about our street, how Hill Street opens out into three parks—or maybe it’s the other way around.”
“Are you okay?”
Another pause. “Yeah.”
Paul wanted to go out of this place and be with Charlotte. He wasn’t ever angry with her, of course. He couldn’t be. She saw things so much more clearly than he did, although she tried to convince herself otherwise. “We’re heading over to you now, Jay and I.”
“Okay,” Charlotte said. She’d pulled away from her phone. “I was only inside the house for a minute,” she said faintly. “Maybe two. A couple minutes, at most. You believe me, don’t you, Paul?”
“I believe you.”
“They seem so sure about it. About how it might have happened. But I don’t know—I can’t see it. I never saw it happen. I didn’t see anything.”
“I’m coming now, me and Jay. Okay? Don’t hang up.” He got to his feet and walked out of the store.
Jay had moved down the block, near where the crowd had been gathered on the curb; he turned when Paul called out his name. Except for the cars passing by on the road, they were alone. The people on the sidewalk had disappeared.
“I’ve got Charlotte on the phone,” Paul called out.
Jay nodded as he jogged over. “You okay?”
“Sure, but what happened to you?”
Jay shrugged. “Instincts took over, I guess. But I couldn’t catch the guy. Man, he flew. You sure you’re all right?”
They walked toward Meadowlark Park. Paul kept his phone out because Charlotte hadn’t hung up. He put her on speakerphone and they listened to the sounds of her breath and throat and her voice when she stopped a late-night jogger or maybe it was a stranger roaming in the dark. She said to someone: “Excuse me, will you give me a minute, please? It’s very important. Have you been in the neighborhood long? I’m the mother of Leo Bronson.” She was interrupted by the high-pitched honk of a passing car, rustling noises; when next she came through again it sounded as though she’d stashed her phone into her pocket without hanging up. Her voice was faint and odd now, like she was in another room, on another star: “I do, I do have a photo for you. He had bright blond hair and blue eyes and a dimple in his left cheek, a half-inch moon-shaped scar on his left wrist, and he liked big dogs with shaggy hair so I think he must’ve followed somebody with a dog. We live right over in—” When there was another pause Paul imagined that she was pointing behind her, toward what would’ve been Hill Street, their street.
Jay shook his head. “Oh, Charlie,” he said.
Paul took her off speakerphone and listened as she went on:
“He was playing out on the lawn and I went into the house for a minute—only for a minute. He vanished. That’s the word the police uses but a boy doesn’t just vanish, does he? Someone takes him. Yes, exactly. See, I knew before I stopped you that you’d understand. It’s terribly important that I speak to you, especially since you must’ve been here the day he disappeared. No, I know you must not have been here, not exactly—”
Paul ended the call and stuffed his hands in his pockets. Beside him Jay walked in silence, occasionally clearing his throat. On their way to the park they passed: a brightly-lit dance studio, where women in black leotards were curling their bodies into punctuation marks; a fast-food place smelling of grilled sausage and onions, with a terrace bustling with loud, rowdy diners; and, bathed in the yolk-yellow glow of streetlamps, young couples on the sidewalk, baiting each other with sly looks. Paul was not touched by any of it. He turned away, troubled by the people’s faces. None of them knew, he thought. Like him, they wouldn’t see it coming.
Mi Jin Kim’s work has appeared in A Public Space, Quarter After Eight, and elsewhere. She lives in South Korea.