Stories, poems and other musings from the mind of a writer who suffers from World Builder's Disease
1994 was the year when our lives changed. It all started in late April when Toby went missing.
We lived in our rural family home. When I say rural, I mean that my great grandparents were akin to ‘settlers’ and even back in the nineties our closest neighbor was three miles to the west. The nearest Wall-Mart was in Jeffries, an hour and a half drive. One way. Our property was a half-mile drive to the highway, down an either dusty or muddy road, depending on the season. Being raised by proud parents, I wasn’t about to leave, unlike my two sisters who couldn’t wait for some charming princes to carry them away. The isolation might have been a pain, but it was home, and nobody was going to tell me otherwise. Plus, I was the ‘heir.’ That’s what I kept thinking whenever someone told me to leave.
I met Phyllis in high school, and I’d volunteer to run errands into Jeffries any chance I got. Phyl worked at the soda counter inside the Woolworths. Yeah, they still had that lame old pseudo-diner all the way into the late eighties. In fact, it was the Wall-Mart that moved into the defunct Woolworths building, reviving the mini-mall. Say what you will about Wall-Mart, but back then, it saved the community.
I married Phyl in ’86. Or was it ’87. I know it was in November because I messed up and forgot our second (or third) anniversary. Never again. It was important to her. And I liked having sex with my wife if you catch my drift. That was the year Ellie was born, and I hadn’t gotten any for way too long, then I fucked up with the anniversary and we didn’t get our groove on till Valentines.
Toby came three years later. Where Ellie favored her mom, Toby was my spitting image, and he was as laid back as his old man from the day we brought him home from Jeffries Memorial. Dependable. Unexcitable. In other words, cool.
That was… until he went missing in ’94.
Ellie had taken him down to Cougar Creek. They liked to play down there, and it wasn’t deep enough to swim in, let alone drown. The daughter usually watched him when they played outside. That day, I was at work. Phyllis said she was cleaning the house, laundry and such, as well as baking a pie. Cherry pie. She makes the best pies. Tobes must have been five, which would have made Ells nine, or eight. She was old enough to watch him, had been for some time, but apparently that day, Toby had run off across the stream and into the thickets beyond. The creek was the border of our property, and the kids knew better than to wander past it. Of course, when I was ten or so, I did the same thing. Dad said I was lucky that the cougars didn’t get me. Never did see a cougar, not then nor since, but that story worked as a deterrent for all us kids after that. That and the hiding my ass got from dad’s belt.
Well, guess Toby was too young to know what a cougar was, even though we’d told him how scary they were, and how they’d eat a little boy like him for dinner. Like I said, Tobes wasn’t the kind to wander off.
When Phyllis called, through the hysteria she told me that Ellie came running back to the house yelling that Toby’d crossed the creek and went to where the cougars were. The wife grabbed our shotgun and told Ellie to wait in the house while she went and found Toby. I got the call that day just after lunch, and I swear I made it home in 45 minutes. Broke the speed limit, and maybe the sound barrier too. The whole time I remember thinking that I’d wished I had a DeLorean with one of those flux doohickeys so I could go back in time and stop him from wandering off.
Sheriff Jones had already arrived when I got home. He’d brought Homer, the station’s hound dog. Deputy Clive got there not long after I did, and the three of us and Homer went searching for Toby. We searched till night came, with no sign of my boy, and the whole while I kept thinking about cougars and how small my boy was and how scared he must be. And hoping he wasn’t some cougar family’s dinner.
The really odd thing was, Jones couldn’t get Homer to cross the creek. He even put the hound’s leash on him and tried to drag him to the other side, but that only resulted in a wet dog and a muddy-assed sheriff. That damn dog howled and howled, right at the edge of the creek and didn’t stop until we’d gotten back. I tell you, that dog was spooked something fierce.
So without Homer’s nose, we had to look for Toby’s footprints. As he was so small, we didn’t find any tracks whatsoever. That was the worst night of my life. I took Friday off, and we searched all through the weekend. I borrowed our neighbor’s dirt bike, but I only got past the tree line that started at the hills a quarter mile back and the damn thing quit on me. Plenty of gas… just quit. I walked it back to the house, and the darndest thing happened. Back in front of the house, the bike started back up just fine. But the stupid thing conked out again when I rode out. Same spot, right by the wood. Crazy, I know.
Sheriff Jones had called Blakesville–the big town three hours away–and they sent out a helicopter. They looked till they had to go back on account of limited fuel and didn’t see hide nor hair of my poor little boy. Phyllis was out of her mind. She blamed herself, of course. So did Ellie. If I hadn’t been so pig-headed about keeping the family home and not making the move to Jeffries, it never would have happened, and Toby wouldn’t have been in that situation.
Monday came, and the family and I were pacing on the porch, waiting for Jones and the Search and Rescue outfit from Blakesville when lo and behold, here comes Toby, walking up the slope from the creek. He was filthy but unharmed. We all took turns hugging him and chastising him. I wasn’t my dad, and I didn’t see how the belt really helped me when I was a kid, so I didn’t punish him. I figured four days of being lost, hungry and scared was enough punishment, and Phyllis agreed with me. The squad of six cars and SUVs had to turn right around and head back to the city, but I thanked them all and apologized for wasting their time, and Phyl gave them the pies she’d baked for them as a thank-you. Must have been a dozen pies. I didn’t even get a slice, she just gave them all over–whole, and still in the tins.
Jones told us that everything was fine, it was their job and they were all just grateful that Toby was safe. And we were grateful for their long journey and even more, that our son was back. But he was never really the same after that.
I figured his ordeal must have shaken him up bad because that calm, laid-back little man was gone. It was like someone had replaced him with a fidgety, whiny, cry baby. He became curious about every little thing, and we went through an exhausting period–Phyllis calls it “the why time.” Toby questioned everything. He’d pick up an object, be it a fork, or one of his favorite toys, and say “What’s this?” We’d tell him, and then he’d say, “Why?” Like, why is a fork called a fork, or why was the T-Rex from his Jurassic Park playset called a T-Rex? It was frustrating. And he wouldn’t settle for “because that is what it is called.” He’d whine and start to cry. The kid cried a lot that year. The therapist we took him to was kinda stumped. She said it was likely a form of PTSD, but I couldn’t wrap my head around how being stressed out about being lost had anything to do with him asking why things were called what they were called, or why the oven could bake, or even questions that we could answer, like ‘why are the leaves on trees green?’.
I’m pretty sure that was the reason Phyllis left. Not really because of Toby, but because I just couldn’t wrap my head around why he’d changed so much, and I guess deep down I wanted the old Toby back. I didn’t much care for the little pussy that he’d become. That’s what we argued about most, after that. Phyllis and me. She didn’t like how I treated our son, and I told her that if he wouldn’t act so fucking strange, that I’d treat him better. I started spending nights in town. At first, it was because driving that hour and a half was hard to do after spending the evening down at Pete’s Bar. I ran the F250 into a ditch too many times, and after Sheriff Jones stopped giving me warnings and actually arrested me, I decided I’d rather sleep in the truck. Then Tina came along, and she wouldn’t let me sleep in the Ford, so I got her couch. Then her bed. Then I stopped going home at all.
Tina’s apartment was a lot more pleasant.
I eventually moved back into the house after Phyllis left and took the kids to live with her mother. The divorce got prolonged, and Tina wouldn’t move in with me till after the divorce was official. Sure she’d sleep with me, but sex and living together were different, I guess. She said it was the commitment to move all the way out into the boondocks. I totaled the truck one night after a big fight with Tina. Wound up losing my job. Phyl had cleaned out the savings, so I started doing some computer shit from home. Didn’t pay like the machine shop, but it was enough to finally get a beat up ’60 VW bug, blue accented with rust. It was ugly as sin, but hell, it got me around.
I’m writing this because a month ago, who shows up at my door but Toby. Hadn’t seen the little bitch in almost 8 years. He was around sixteen now, though I didn’t ask. His loud knocking woke me up from one of my disturbing, graveyard dreams. Nobody ever came out this far, not even salesmen. Do those even exist anymore? I tugged on my Levis and opened the door, and there he was. He looked odd, not that I knew what his regular teenaged look would be. He was wearing nice pants and a green polo shirt. His hair was short, almost military short as opposed to the unruly tangle I’d only seen on him in the years before Phyllis left. He looked good. We stared at each other a good three minutes before either of us said anything. He broke the silence.
“Hi dad,” he says. “It’s been a long time.”
“Sure as shit,” said, wishing I hadn’t sworn. Or used that tone. I sounded like a bitter old drunk. Well, if the shoe fits… “Yeah,” I continued. “Guess you are mad at me for not calling. You mom never gave me your email.”
“Dad. It’s ok. There’s something I have to tell you.”
“What? Your mom die?” Again, too damn bitter. Guess I’d been living alone for too long. All my interactions were through email or Skype, though my video camera stopped working and I was at least a month away from affording a new one.
“I don’t know about that,” he said. He was kinda shaky, and dammit if those cry baby tear-works weren’t starting up. Except it wasn’t like before. He wasn’t all whiny. He looked like he was gonna tell me that Phyllis had died.
His hands were buried in his pockets, and his demeanor was steady, even if he did seem freaked out by something. I guess these days I might have that effect on people.
“Dad. I’m not the same Toby that you know. I’m the Toby from before.” The little shit wasn’t making any sense. Before I could interrupt, he said, “You’re not going to believe me, dad. But I have to tell you. And I’m hoping you’ll help me tell mom.”
“Tell me what?” No, he wasn’t crying, but he was certainly emotional about something. Still, he seemed calm. I liked the look. Maybe he finally started acting like a grown up.
“What do you mean you’re not the same Toby?”
“Please trust me, dad. I’m not crazy. And maybe what I have to say will make sense to you, explain some things. Why I… I mean why he… was so different.”
I’m not sure why I didn’t tell him to fuck off and slam the door in his face, but the look in his eyes called to me. They made me want to trust him. “Come on in,” I said and opened the door so he could pass. “It’s a mess, sorry.”
I cleared a place for him on the couch, then sat down in my chair. He hesitantly took a seat, but he cast around the place, amazed, I guess. It was awful, and shame started gnawing at my gut. Shame for lots of things, not just the travesty that was our family home.
He steepled his hands, his elbows resting on his knees. Damn, but he’d gotten so big, and handsome. It was like looking in a mirror, only the reflection was from when I was in high school. He interlaced his fingers and rested his chin on his hands before he started talking, like he needed to steady himself. Still, his expression was rock solid. I wondered who this kid was because he certainly wasn’t acting like the Toby I remembered.
“Dad. This is going to sound crazy. But you gotta believe me. That day, when I was five, I was…” He trailed off, hesitant. Whatever this was, it was heavy. I don’t know why, but I trusted him. It had to have been something about the look on his face, solemn, calm, even if he was afraid I wouldn’t buy what he had to sell.
“Go on, son. I’ll keep an open mind.”
“I was borrowed.” He spat it right out. Just like that. And I had no clue what he was talking about.
He quickly soldiered on. It was a prepared speech. He reminded me of me when I was his age. The only way I could get through something, like an oral report, was to memorize it and just plow right through it.
“That day, I didn’t want to run off. Ellie yelled after me to stop, but I couldn’t. Something, someone, called to me. I had to listen to it, was somehow forced to. And I had to follow the voice. Dad, the Toby that came back a few days later wasn’t me. It was a changeling. A faerie. Please don’t interrupt, I have to tell you, and you’ve gotta believe me. Please.”
I nodded and kept my trap shut.
“Think of it like a book exchange between libraries. One branch sends a book to another, in exchange for a book they don’t have, at the request of one librarian or the other. They borrow the book, learn from it, then return it later. That’s what happened with me. Only, in this case, it is like the books are learning things from the library, rather than the other way around. A family of faeries that live out there in the woods on the hill took me in exchange for their child. I went to them, and he was sent to you, in my place. To learn. It’s just a thing they do. A tradition.”
I was stunned. It took me what felt like hours to respond. So many thoughts ran through my brain. So many questions. It was like I’d turned into Toby during his “Why?” phase. The difference was, I never prattle like that. I figure out what I want to say before I say it.
Finally, I composed my thoughts. “Alright, say that what you just told me is true… The term of the “library” exchange is over now. You’ve come back home, and the other Toby is going back to this fairy family. How then, if you were… kept by fairies, do you even know about libraries? Inter-library exchanges are a little past the scope of a five-year old.”
He smiled, and my heart melted. I admit I wanted this to be true. It would explain so much. And… I had my son back. I never did like that whiny bundle of toxic energy that had returned after running off. And if this was the case, maybe Phyllis would understand, and take me back. A long shot, I knew.
“They have magic, dad. They have so many kinds of tricks and spells. They have a small basin of water they used to check in on the other Toby. They gave me a special bread to eat, they called it Kipfel, after some sort of German style bread. They bake it special, with their magic cooked in. When I ate it, my mind got flooded with knowledge. It was like going to school, but much quicker. And sometimes they would feed me information about you and mom and all the troubles going on here. They can bake knowledge from anywhere in the world. I have no idea how, because I’m not a a faerie. And Kipfel is only a small part of the miracles I saw the faeries perform.”
This was unbelievable. So fantastic that it had to be true. Hell, I couldn’t make up this stuff, and if he was indeed my Toby, neither could he. Maybe that other Toby, but not the young man sitting on my couch.
“Why didn’t you come home sooner? It would have changed a lot of things. Maybe I wouldn’t have been such a dick to your mom.”
He shook his head, frowning. “They wouldn’t let me. It was part of the charm, the exchange. Neither of us could leave our new home, unless something changed, like when mom moved away. That caused the faeries no end of troubles. They actually came here and did something that let mom take Toby Two away.”
I chuckled. “Toby Two, I like that.”
“And there is a whole lot of stuff I am not allowed to say to anyone, not even you or mom or Ellie. But I am back now, and I’m not exactly sure what to do, or where I am going to live. Any suggestions?”
“Tell you what… I’m going to hop into my office and grab my cell. It used to be your room. Then we can call your mom and ask her when would be a good time to drop by.”
I’d love to tell you that this story had a fairy tale ending, with a reunited family laughing over the fairies’ hijinks. Alas, that isn’t the case. Phyllis not only didn’t believe what Toby had to say, she accused me of putting him up to it, that it was yet another of his juvenile pranks. It seems that on the same day that Toby came to me at the house, Phyllis and Toby Two had a huge fight and she’d kicked him out again. The difference was that this time, he actually left. She didn’t believe me that day on the phone, when I said Toby was with me, because she’d seen him only an hour before, when he’d grabbed his backpack and stormed out, vowing that she’d regret her mistreatment. To top it all off, he told her that he was going to run off to the woods and live with fairies. She told me on the phone that I could have him, and maybe if I wasn’t such an asshole, that he might benefit from actually having a father in his life.
So we stopped by the Wall-Mart and grabbed some stuff Toby’d need once we got back home. Seems his adopted fairy parents had given him a nice sum of cash to help him strike out in the world. Nice… Incredible. We traded in the ugly Bug for a shiny blue Prius, stopped by the Apple Store at the mall for an iPhone and an iMac, then left for home. I swear we didn’t speed, but the time warped by like we’d hit 88 in a DeLorean. Of course, that film was before Toby’s time.