Derrick Ryan

"Are you ready champ?" Keith said watching his son try to pull on clothes for the first day of school. "Need some help?"

"I got it," Joey said pulling his head into the arm sleeve of a t-shirt.

Keith straightened the shirt and looked at his son; rumpled hair, mismatched clothes, and socks that were completely the opposite color. He smiled. Joey glared at him.

"Come on champ, we don't want to be late on your first day right?" Keith said.

"Oh yeah," Joey said. "Can I bring my GI-Joe?"

"Not to school, but you can bring your GI-Joe bag."

"No that's okay," Joey said and walked out of the room. Keith laughed and grabbed the black and green camouflage bag.

As the approached the school, Joey clamored for the backseat and crouched. "I don't wanna go now," he said. Keith stopped the car at the curb and turned around.

"It's only till 1:30 for Kindergarteners," Keith said. "I'll be right at your class when it's over. Come, I'll even walk you in." Keith got out and went around to the back door and opened it. Joey was slouched against the opposite door.

"I'm going to count to three and you better be out," Keith said. "One . . . two . . . three!" He grabbed Joey's arm and dragged him out of the car, Joey's fingernails scratching the seat. As his feet plopped on the sidewalk, Keith slipped the bag onto Joey's back and they started walking. Joey slipped his hand into Keith's and gripped tight. They neared a crowded hallway stuffed with small kids and their parents. A small woman with short hair met them at the end of the hall. She introduced herself as Mrs. Gulham.

"Are you Jonathan Miles?" she asked looking down at Joey who hid behind Keith, but Keith pulled him out front to face the woman. "The last of my students."

"Joey," Joey said in a small voice not looking at Mrs. Gulham.

"Excuse me," she said. "Well, there are plenty of kids in there who would love to meet you."

Joey looked up at Keith expecting him to say "that's alright, let's just go back home." But he didn't. Instead Keith knelt down and gave Joey a reassuring hug. "I'll be right here when you get out ok?" Keith said. "No tears boy." He wiped away a tear that was beginning to make its way steadily down Joey's cheek.

"I love you dad," Joey said. "Be here, promise."

"I promise," Keith said.

Joey followed Mrs. Gulham into the classroom with a backward glance out the door. He smiled and waved. At least he was smiling, thought Keith. He didn't think he could go through the whole day thinking about Joey and whether he was happy or okay. He didn't know why, but as Keith was settled in the car and ready to head home, a longing for his son tugged at him. He missed him already and he had said goodbye not five minutes ago. Joey was all Keith had. Joey's mother had run out on them after 6 years of marriage. She had cheated on Keith countless times, yet Keith tried to make it work out for Joey's sake. He wanted his son to grow up with a mother, yet she ran away. He still remembered that day. It was early in the morning, before any light had crept over the horizon. Leila had stealthily made her through the kitchen without a sound. As she approached the screen door, Keith had startled her. He merely stood arms folded next to the kitchen table looking at her.

"You'd leave a boy without his mother," was all he said.

'I . . ." she started. "I love him, and someday I'll come back for him." With that she opened the screen door and out into the night. He hadn't seen her since and never took her promise that she would come back seriously. Keith had loved Joey more than Leila had or ever will.

At home, Keith began his work. He was a writer for the local magazine. His story was due by 9:00 that night. His plan was to write until he was to pick up Joey. He couldn't wait to hear all about it. Around noon, his cell phone rang; he was expecting his editor to call. Instead when he answered, the only thing he heard was breathing. Keith listened for about 20 seconds before he said anything, he had a hunch he knew who this was.

"Are you gonna speak?" Keith said.

Still nothing.

"Please say something to me, anything," he said. The phone clicked.

Dammit, I wish you would just speak, Keith thought.

At 1:30, just as Keith promised, he was there waiting outside Joey's classroom. The bell had rung and children began spilling out the classroom, each running to their parents who were also waiting near Keith. Child after child came out and Keith kept an eye out for Joey, who could have gotten mixed in with the crowd. But he wasn't there. Keith peeked into the classroom and saw no one but Mrs. Gulham cleaning around the room. She saw Keith from under a desk.

"Can I help you?" she asked.

"I'm here to pick up Joey," Keith said. He figured that should have been obvious.

"Oh, he already left. Someone came around noon to pick him up. I thought you'd have known."

"How would I have known?" Keith said. "No one called me or said anything."

"The woman said she was his mother. I assumed she would have said something to you if she was picking Joey up early."

Keith was stunned. He knew immediately who had done this and he also knew exactly who called him that afternoon. It was Leila. Had she really come back? He couldn't think. He was confused. But he needed to get out and find Joey. He didn't know where to begin. He ran back to the car and drove through the town, but no sign of Joey, or Leila. Would she actually kidnap her own son? Would she actually steal away Keith's heart and soul?

Keith drove straight into the police station. He ran out the car, no even making sure the key was completely out of the ignition. When he was inside the station, he looked for the first officer he saw. He grabbed him by the collar of his uniform.

"I need to issue and Amber alert," Keith said. "My son, my son, he was kidnapped, my wife . . ."

"Slow down sir. Let's talk in here." The officer motioned to an interrogation room off of the main room. It was small, lime green, with two metal chairs. The officer sat opposite him.

"Okay sir, what is your name?" the officer asked.

"Keith Miles," Keith said.

"Now what happened? I need everything in detail."

Keith told him about going to pick up Joey from school, and his hunch about Leila.

"I won't make any speculations yet. However, we will put out an Amber alert for the state." He looked Keith in the eyes. Keith's eyes were wet and filling with tears. The officer felt for him. "We'll find your son. I can tell he means a lot to you. I'll do everything I can." But Keith was staring distantly. He could hear the officer, but it was faded. He began to speak without realizing it.

"He's five. One of the cutest five year olds you can see. Makes you smile at the drop off a hat." Keith smiled thinking about him. "It was the first day of school. Everything led up to today. He was so scared though. I was kinda scared too come to think of it. He wanted it to be his first day being a 'big boy'." Keith paused. "He had the rumpled hair, mismatched clothes, and pink and green socks. But you couldn't talk him out of it. The glare does it. Blue eyes, pouty face . . . " Tears coursed down Keith's face, yet he kept talking. "He was my world. I don't know if you have kids officer, but of everything you plan for them and everything you imagine this isn't one you think about. I know I didn't. Maybe I should have. Maybe I should have done a lot of things differently, but I can tell you with deepest sincerity officer," Keith made eye contact for the first time with the man. "The hardest thing is losing a child." Keith lowered his head, and sobbed softly trying to fight the agony that was racking his body.