It was the sort of meeting he hated. Detective Keith Miller was driving to the home of Donald and Sheila Foster to tell them that after six months of searching, the trail had gone dead. Back in June their son disappeared, and now that the department had its hands full with more high profile crimes, it was unlikely any more headway would be made. For the foreseeable future, the Fosters would not have a reunion with their boy. It was one of the most distressing parts of the job; he would never get used to it because that required a distance and feeling of routine he was never able to invest in his work. Keith Miller was a man who felt, and he was not ashamed to show it.
Miller pulled up to the address written on the first page of the case file, which was the missing poster for Jeffrey Foster, age twelve. He had seen the home often enough on the evening news to distinguish it from the others on the block, although it strongly resembled the adjacent houses. Miller parked in the driveway. He hesitated, wondering whether or not he should bring the case file with him. He decided against it, thinking that just seeing the file would make the Fosters think the case was being officially closed. Miller did not want to lead the parents on or to give them false hope, but they needed to know the case was still being investigated, and Keith Miller needed to be the man to tell them.
This situation could have been handled with a phone call, but the impersonality was distasteful to Miller; he found it unfeeling. He knocked three times—three somber, yet businesslike, knocks. Miller looked down at his shoes, silently readying himself to face poor Mrs. Foster when she came to the door. After thirty interminable seconds, it was Mr. Foster that greeted opened the front door to greet Miller.
"Good evening," he said, "can I help you with something?"
"Yes, sir. I'm Detective Miller. I'm one of the officers who worked—is working—your son's case. Do you mind if I come in so we can talk?"
"Not at all."
Miller was led into the home, past the kitchen and toward the living room. These poor people, he thought. There were signs of grief all over: the kitchen was in complete disarray, with pots and pans thrown about; used tissues were scattered, some on the floor but many on the furniture, including a handful on two of the blades of the living room ceiling fan; bottles of liquor either partially empty or drained were almost as numerous as the tissues. In addition, there were deep gouges in the walls, as if some beast had raged through the small home.
In the living room, Donald Foster asked:
"Won't you have a seat? Please, take the chair over there—I know there's a lot of stuff on it, but it's the only one that's not broken. Stay here please, and I'll go get my wife."
Donald Foster left the room, stepping over the collected detritus with the fluidity and grace of someone accustomed to living among large piles of trash.
Miller knew these two people, who had been dealt a cruel blow by an unfeeling god, would be completely inconsolable when he gave them the news. He just hoped when the time came, he would be able to calm them both down before they further destroyed their home in the fury and madness of grief.
A short time passed, after which Donald Foster returned with someone else. It was hard to tell the identity, let alone the gender of the newcomer because he or she wore a white painter's suit and mask, as well as yellow industrial-strength work gloves.
um—what was your name again? I'm sorry—I forgot."
"Detective Miller, this is my wife, Sheila. We've been cleaning the house."
Taking off her mask, Sheila Foster said:
"I've been cleaning the house. Mr. Man over her has been watching TV all day."
"I helped pick up."
"Ooh, and you did such a good job! There's hardly anything on the floor. You ought to rent out your services as a live-in maid, honey—you'd make a killing."
"I love you," Donald said as he embraced his wife around the waist with one arm and, pulling her close to him, kissed her on the cheek.
"Love you, too. So, detective, what can we do for you?"
Keith Miller did not know how to respond and had no idea how to proceed.
"I wanted to, well—I should say—perhaps the two of you would like to sit down?"
"I don't think so," Sheila said, "because the couch and love seat are broken. In fact, the only thing that's not broken is that chair you're sitting on."
Instinctively, Miller rose and offered the chair. He was refused, and the Fosters insisted that he sit down and try to be comfortable. Sitting while they stood made him nervous.
"The reason I'm here—"
"Don't keep us in suspense any longer," Donald interrupted.
"You're so silly," Sheila said as she kissed her husband on the corner of his mouth.
"—is to tell you that, after six months and…well, and this is due to a number of reasons, but…. The department has decided to suspend the search for Jeffrey."
Miller had rehearsed what he was going to say to these people. He would tell the Fosters that a suspension did not mean the search would not be resumed at a later time, but Donald and Sheila—in unison—spoke before Miller could finish.
They must not have heard what he said, the poor couple. God could be so cruel sometimes, and for no reason. Why was man made to suffer and die while it fell to those left behind to beat their breast in anguish and tear the hair from their scalps?
"Seriously," Donald said, "thank God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit." He turned to face Sheila, saying "See! I told you prayer would work, but you wouldn't believe me. You'll have to forgive her, detective, but she's been so condescending ever since she took the Blasphemy Challenge last year."
"With all that was going on," Sheila said, "I was positive there could not be a god."
"You should have waited. I told you to wait."
"Oh, it's probably just happenstance, anyway."
"Are you kidding? They're not going to keep looking for him and you think it's a coincidence? You really just cannot reason with an atheist, am I right Detective Müeller?"
"It's Miller, actually, and I'm sorry," he said, but his inflection, and his raised eyebrows, gave his statement the sound of a question.
"You'll have to forgive us, detective. It's just that Donald and I have been waiting for six months for this. Well, close to six. I mean, we got a little overanxious recently and started cleaning, more out of wishful thinking than out of any assurance he wasn't coming back. I didn't even really want to do that much. I'm a bit superstitious, actually."
"I don't think you know what I'm saying. I'm talking about your son, Jeffrey."
"You mean The Beast?" Donald began. "That kid was an unholy little monster. I have never in my life seen something as ill-behaved as him. The reason we have nowhere to sit in this house, Detective, except for that one chair you're sitting on is because Jeffrey would jump on the furniture until it looked like it had started to bleed springs. All these tissues all over the place? Oh, yeah, every single one of them filled with boogers and snot and not a one of them in the trash can. All of them were Jeffrey's. Not all of them just contain snot, either. He got kicked out of Sunday School for touching himself while the other kids sang 'Father Abraham.' Weird things seemed to excite him that way. We have Victoria's Secret catalogues, but Jeffrey wanted no part of that. No, no, no. Our son liked old episodes of Hollywood Squares. We had to cancel the Game Show Network from our cable package. You see all these bottles? For the longest time, we were able to keep the fact that we had a stocked bar hidden from Jeffrey, but in March he got into the habit of breaking the locks on every door with a pry bar he got from God knows where, and that was the end of that. He was a mean drunk, too. You can tell that by all these gouges in my walls."
"Would you like some coffee, or maybe something stronger? We found a bottle of brandy that still had some of its original contents left in it. It's mixed with something, but if you ignore the taste it does the trick just fine."
Miller struggled to grasp the situation as Donald and Sheila busied themselves with getting drinks. When they came back, the Fosters handed Miller a cup, chipped on one side and with a crack down the center that had been patched with some type of putty. Donald and Sheila each poured a dose of the brandy mixture into their coffee cups, both of them cracked like Miller's.
"Are you two feeling well?"
"What a silly question," Sheila said.
"We've never been better."
Perplexed, Miller struggled to reconcile his experiences with grieving parents with the Fosters' reactions. He was unable to think of anything to say, and so he sat in front of the couple, inert, with his mouth slightly agape.
"I know," Sheila began, "this is not the sort of thing you're used to, but that kid was a monster, the worst little thing that has ever walked or crawled upon the earth."
Stupidly, all Miller could think to say was, "What about Hitler?"
"What does Hitler have to do with this? My wife was exaggerating. There have been worse people. Of course there have. But what's key to this whole thing is that wedid not live with those people."
"Children," Miller choked out, his voice haggard and dumb. "Children are a gift from God."
"Some fucking gift!" Sheila responded. "He used to eat cakes of soap. Have you ever even heard of such a thing? A gift, huh? If that's what the Lord is giving out in way of gifts, than I'd rather do without."
"You see," Donald said, "Sheila and I wanted more than anything to have children. My entire adult life was spent in preparation for becoming a daddy. We tried and tried for years."
"But we just couldn't," Sheila said, finishing her husband's thought.
"And then, twelve years ago, a miracle, or so we thought: Sheila became pregnant with Jeffrey. Those nine months were great. And then he came out. He was born with a full set of teeth. He bit everything."
"Christ, I mean everything," Sheila said.
"What are you telling me here?" Miller interrupted. "Did you have something to do with Jeffrey's disappearance?"
"No!" Sheila said. "We loved our little boy. We even loved him long after no one would have blamed us if we didn't. We did everything we could and should have done as parents: we clothed and cared for him, we nurtured him and taught him to read and write, and through it all, he never cared for us. Jeffrey was willfully disobedient, and most of the time he was violent."
Donald brought his right hand to Miller's eye level and extended his thumb, or what should have been his thumb.
"See this? Gone at the knuckle because I told Jeffrey to pick up his room or there would be no SpongeBob. You know, even when he did things like that—and he did them all the time—we never hit him. Neither of us ever struck Jeffrey, not when he left soiled tissues all over the house, not when he drank all of our liquor, not when he put huge holes in our walls exposing the studs, we never hit him, except when this happened. You see, he was latched onto my thumb, and he wasn't letting go."
"I had to hit him," Sheila said, "I hit him with a plate, the only one in the house not broken. Afterward, I felt terrible. I went to confession, and not only am I not Catholic, I'm an atheist."
"We suffered with that child," Donald said, "and we did it in silence. Just ask the neighbors. The only screams anyone ever heard from our house came from Jeffrey. We paid our dues."
"You know, it doesn't sound good when you say to a police officer that the screams coming from your home came from a missing person. Do you understand that? If I were to check with your neighbors and they were to tell me that they heard screaming—your boy's screaming—how, exactly, do you think that would help either your case or to ease my suspicion?
"Detective, what I meant was that you could ask anyone, if you were so inclined, and you would discover that we never raised our voices with Jeffrey. I think you know that."
"No, as a matter of fact, I don't know that. What I know is that your son is lost, and neither of you seem to care."
"Please," added Sheila, "if he's lost, let him stay that way."
"But," Miller stammered, "what if he's been murdered? What if some sick pedophile has him? Don't you care? How can you not?"
"Caring has nothing to do with it. We love our child, but we paid our dues, detective. We don't wish him any harm, but we don't want him back."
"But he's your son!"
"Yes, we know that."
"You have an obligation to him."
"And you're a policeman with an obligation to find him, but you came here to tell us you're no longer looking."
"Why is it? We don't want him back, and you're not going to look for him. Everyone wins. It's the best thing that could happen for everybody involved. You know, Jeffrey always talked about how much he hated us and wanted to run away. Maybe he did. That's what I choose to believe, anyway. I think he ran away, and you know what? Now he can be happy. He doesn't have to deal with us anymore. He can drink and jerk and claw and gouge and bite and scream all he wants to now. A house is no place for Jeffrey—he's far too wild. It would be irresponsible of us to continue to try to inhibit his nature by keeping him locked up. He's free at last, Detective Miller, and so are we. The Fosters have finally found deliverance, and it feels wonderful."
Disgusted, Miller put his mug down and walked hurriedly out the door and headed toward his car, falling on his face in his hurry to be clear of the house. Miller hit his nose hard enough to bring blood. He got up and staggered to the car, wiping his bloody nose with his left hand as he unlocked the door. Jeffrey's case file was lying open on the passenger seat. Miller's blood dripped down onto the photo, transforming the boyish smile on the missing photo into a snarling cannibal's grin, as if Jeffrey just finished devouring a helpless victim. Miller closed the file and threw it into the back seat before starting his car and driving away.
BIO: Zach Davis is a writer living and working in West Virginia. His work has appeared in print (Sans Merci, Anthology of Appalachian Wirters Vol VI, and Shepherdstown Chronicle) and online (Martinsburg Journal). He has been in love with writing since a first grade assignment in which he was to write a three-page narrative about any topic of his choosing; the teacher hated the story, probably because she wasn't expecting the main character to get an arrow through his head, but his classmates loved it.