Why you should care

Because bad things happen to good people with much greater frequency than we care to admit.

When my son, Zachary, was in third grade, he didn’t have many friends. Zero, to be exact. Part of the reason was that he’s shy and a bit of a loner, but a larger part of it was the fact that the world has changed. Children don’t really go out and play anymore. We keep them inside lest the pervert next door snatches them up or a rogue Rottweiler attacks them, or any other number of the bad things that have befallen children since the dawn of time.

Zachary was free to go out and explore, but there were no children outside to explore with. They were all inside texting each other and chatting on Xbox Live headsets.

A new family moved into our neighborhood one fall. They just sort of appeared overnight, and the next morning there was a boy waiting at the corner bus stop where my son usually stood alone. We can see the bus stop from our living room. Like viewing a stage from the balcony. But the new family, about three houses up from us, couldn’t see the bus stop from their house. So I was a bit surprised they would let their third-grader wait there by himself on his first day of school. Then I saw a car idling at the end of the cul-de-sac and realized that must be the boy’s mother or father. Watching. Parents do that now — drive their children to the bus stop.

The boy, Joseph, was quite handsome. Dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin. A good-looking boy, dressed nicely. He was well taken care of. You could tell.

Well, one thing led to another and Zachary and Joseph struck up a tentative friendship. I saw some horseplay at the bus stop, some side-by-side walking in the afternoons. Then one day Joseph came into our house after school. Which, honestly, made me uneasy. This fucking world we live in. I felt uncomfortable having a child not-my-own in our house. Somebody might get the wrong idea. Suspect something. I’m telling you, it’s fucked up to feel that way. But I did.

The next day, Joseph wasn’t at the bus stop. Or the next. Or the next.

So I walked Joseph home and introduced myself to his parents. He got his dark features from his mother. She was a beautiful woman, all the more beautiful for being what looked to be about eight or nine months pregnant. Ready to pop. The father was nice enough, a muscular blond. Aryan. A marine. I got the feeling they were grateful to meet me, and it was understood that Joseph was welcome in our home, and Zachary was welcome in theirs.

The two boys became solid buds. Traded video game discs and Pokémon cards and Bakugan Battle Brawlers. Spent afternoons together. A good, sound friendship.

One night later that year — after Christmas, well into winter — I woke up in the middle of the night. About 3 in the morning. Not entirely unusual for me. I lay in bed hoping to fall back asleep, but gradually became aware of a pulsing quality to the dim light in the bedroom. Red and blue strobes. I got up and peeked through the curtains. Emergency response vehicles. Right up the street from us.

I moved to the living room so I could see better. All the world’s a stage. There was an ambulance, a fire truck and two police cars. At Joseph’s house.

I watched. But there was very little to see. My sense was that I was watching the tail end of whatever drama had unfolded. The strobing lights filled the street and bounced off houses, but no sirens were raised. Two officers left Joseph’s residence, got in their patrol cars and quietly exited the neighborhood. Same with the ambulance and the fire truck. I paid close attention to the ambulance, because it pulled away without its siren or emergency lights. I’d always heard they don’t use lights or sirens when transporting a dead body.

I’d seen police and EMTs at the boy’s home in the dead of night.

I hadn’t spent enough time in Joseph’s house to know if he lived with extended family — if there was a grandfather or grandmother living with them. A grandfather or grandmother: That was how my mind wanted to fill this vexing blank.

The next day, Joseph wasn’t at the bus stop. Or the next. Or the next.

Oh, please, God, don’t fill the blank in with that. I’d told my wife about what happened, but not Zachary. I didn’t want him to know where my mind had gone. I didn’t want him to worry.

The week played out, and there was no sign of Joseph. And then another week elapsed. Still no Joseph.

I’d seen police and EMTs at the boy’s home in the dead of night. And then he was gone. Disappeared. I grew more and more certain the child was dead. How would I tell my son that his only friend had befallen something unspeakable?

Then the damnedest thing happened. On the morning of the third week, there was Joseph, waiting at the bus stop, looking bright and smartly dressed. As though nothing had happened. As though maybe he had been away on a two-week vacation.

When Zachary got home from school that day, Joseph didn’t come over. I asked Zach if he knew where Joseph had been.

Oh, yes, Zach knew. Joseph had told everybody on the bus what had happened. It was Joseph’s new baby brother. Barely two months old. Remember the mom had been pregnant. Ready to pop. Joseph’s dad had fallen asleep on the couch holding the baby. Cradling him in those muscular arms. Fell asleep. And when he woke up, he discovered that the baby had somehow gotten down behind the seat cushions. The baby was crushed. Dead.

I was devastated. I sat down with Zach and talked through that difficult subject and how he might support his friend through this tragedy.

But Joseph never came over to our house again. I wanted to reach out to his parents, to offer my awkward condolences. I’m deeply ashamed to say that I never did. I just couldn’t. I’m sorry.

A week later, the family was gone. As suddenly as they’d arrived, they were gone. I never even saw a moving truck.

That’s the story of how my son lost his only friend.

What haunts me — beyond the tragic death of a child — is the fact that the father will have to live with this for the rest of his life. He’ll look into his wife’s eyes and that knowledge will pass between them every time. That’s the part that rolls around in my brain, bumping uncomfortably into my everyday thoughts. To live with that kind of pain. The guilt he must suffer. I pray he found a way to forgive himself. For his own sake and his family’s.

OZYTrue Story

Good stories from around the globe. Essays and immersion, into the harrowing, the sweet, the surprising — the human.