I remember every bit of that morning. It was still spring and the air had that coolness to it that happens when the temperature is still dipping down overnight. It was not too early, but early enough. Tim and I had been champing on the bit to be let outside and return to our game of the previous afternoon.
Tim was my neighbour and we were the same age, one month and one day apart. We had lived beside each other our entire lives, all six years of them.
The game we were so eager to return to was one of make-believe, those were the games we liked best. Later, when I was older, I would become attached to organized sports, but at six, such was not the case.
This particular make-believe revolved around a cops and robbers scenario. It is etched into my memory quite indelibly. Of course, it only being Tim and I, it was actually a cop and robber game. As always, I was the cop. I was the more rule-bound of the two of us and it suited me. Tim was the robber. In our six year old minds, we could think of nothing worse than that Tim had stolen a toy from a needy child. A needy child, those were the exact words we used. One of our mothers, I suppose, must have said that in our hearing once and it stuck. Needy.
As early as we could, we were out in the yard. It was a newer suburban development, where we lived. Our houses had been among the first to be built, but, even more than six years on, there was still construction and our yards were not yet enclosed. Only little bits of fence jutted out between the houses, providing only the slightest amount of privacy.
The rule that we had been given was that we could go as far as our mothers, looking out the back windows, could see. There was a small clump of trees which, at that age, at that size, seemed like a veritable forest.
We made for the trees.
Cops and robbers (and, indeed, many of the games we played) were more games of themed hide and seek than anything else. We had little in the way of narrative or motivation. Rather, I would close my eyes and count and Tim would run off for me to find him.
And so it began that morning. The clear, cool air. The bright spring sun. The distant sound of the construction vehicles building the new parts of the subdivision.
“1, 2, 3,” I began as I always did, standing still, hands over my eyes, facing back towards our houses. I heard Tim scamper away.
“4, 5, 6,” I continued.
I went up to 50, as was agreed upon.
“The police officer is coming to get you!” I called out, in a small nod to the theme of our game. “You can’t hide from me!”
And I walked into the trees, looking for any clues as to where Tim had gone.
Generally, when we played these games, it did not take me overlong to find Tim. He was not actually very good at hiding and he hated climbing trees, so his options were limited.
But that morning, it seemed as if he had reached a new level of skill. I wondered amongst the trees, looking left and right, going slowly and carefully and looking for any flash of unnatural colour.
There was nothing, I feel I need to explain, to indicate that anything was different than any other day.
Indeed, it was not until I had gone quite thoroughly through the clump of trees without seeing Tim that I began to feel a prick of doubt. I called his name, once, twice, but there was no response.
I made another circuit, starting by walking around the outer edge of the trees and working my way towards the middle.
“This isn’t funny anymore,” I know I called at one point, annoyance beginning to build.
“This isn’t fun,” I said later. How much later? It felt like hours, but it could not have been more than ten minutes.
I was scared by then, I have to admit. When I called to Tim, I listened very carefully. I was sure, at first, that he was hurt. Lying somewhere, leg twisted or broken.
I pushed through the undergrowth, back and forth, somewhat at random now.
“Tim!” I yelled again, my breath coming in bursts, my chest heaving.
Finally, although not so long after, I ran home, suddenly worried that somehow this would be all my fault. But I had nothing to be concerned of in that regard. The back door opened as I reached it. I suppose my mother must have seen me coming across the clear space from the trees.
She looked only quizzical at first and it took her several long-to-me minutes before she understood that I had looked and looked and looked and could find Tim nowhere.
And then she took off towards the copse, leaving me standing awkwardly.
That is where the clarity of my memory stops. The rest of that day is a blur. My mother came back and called the actual police. And Tim’s mother was there, looking unnaturally pale, her hands moving in a way I had never seen.
I was so afraid. So absolutely worried in a six year old way. Over time, the fear and the worry faded, but we never saw Tim again and the feeling of growing panic returns some days in full force.