One day when I was 26 I was visiting my wife’s grandmother at her new apartment. The apartment was part of a complex whose units were arranged like a little village, set against winding paths, a playground and well kept lawns. My wife’s grandmother’s unit was on the ground floor, with a glass door that opened onto a little stone patio. On this day, my father-in-law was also there to visit his mother. With him was his four year-old son Ben, the product of a second, quickly defunct, marriage. Somehow the care of Ben had briefly fallen to me, and somehow, because I was not yet used to looking after four year-olds, Ben had slipped out the sliding glass door and was gone.
I did not panic. He couldn’t have gone far. In fact, I was so certain that he was merely out of eyesight that I did not bother alerting the other adults. I stepped out onto the patio and called his name. Nothing. Perhaps he had wandered up the grassy slope to the path. I climbed up to the trail and looked left and right. No Ben. However, squatting on the sidewalk, outside the front steps of a nearby apartment, was a girl of no more than three drawing on the cement with chalk.
I approached the little girl and asked if a boy had passed this way. She looked up at me as if I were speaking French. I had just begun to understand the folly of asking a three year-old for help when the girl’s mother appeared on the front steps.
“Can I help you?” she asked in an odd tone of voice. People never used this tone with me. It was so foreign I didn’t recognize it at first.
“I’m looking for Ben—my father-in-law’s son. He’s four. I think he might have come this way.”
“No,” she said quickly, shaking her head. “We haven’t seen him.”
I understood. I was the strange man talking to her daughter whom she had left alone for a minute. It can happen just like that. I began explaining that I was visiting Betty Paros, and I pointed to her apartment, but the more I explained that I was the hero of this story, the guiltier I sounded, and the mother kept shaking her head and saying she couldn’t help me.
Ben had reappeared by the time I returned to the apartment. I wanted to drag him to that mother to prove I wasn’t the kidnapper she had mistaken me for. I was haunted for days afterwards by the memory of the look in that mother’s eye. Her eyes were a mirror of sorts, and in them I saw what evil looked like, and for that moment, it was me.
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