by Annie Percik
Jeremy wakes to find his father standing over him, holding out his warmest coat.
“Come on, son. We’ve got to go out for a while.”
He doesn’t let the boy get dressed, just bundles him into the coat and some shoes, and hustles him out of the house without any explanation. When Jeremy asks where they are going, his father tells him to be quiet and not make a fuss. Only the fact that Jeremy always keeps Teddy within reach enables him to bring the bear.
He holds Teddy close now, staying quiet. Teddy’s fur is rough and matted from much love but he provides comfort through familiarity. Jeremy wants to know what’s going on, but not enough to risk asking again. They have been walking for what feels like hours and he is tired. He wants to curl back up in bed with Teddy and dream of a time when his life made sense. It hasn’t been that way for a long time. Jeremy peers into the darkness, trying to see where they are going, hoping his surroundings will tell him what his father won’t. Up ahead, a light shines through the trees and a small cottage comes into view, like from a storybook, with smoke coming out of the chimney and plants growing up around the door.
His father stops and Jeremy, caught unawares, runs into the back of his leg. His father turns abruptly and kneels down in the dirt of the forest path, bringing his face to a level with Jeremy’s. He takes hold of the boy’s upper arms and grips them so hard it hurts. Jeremy bites his lip but doesn’t complain.
“Now, listen carefully,” his father says. “There’s a very bad man in that house. I need to talk to him. You need to be as still and quiet as you can while we talk because I don’t want him to know that you’re here. When we get up to the house, you find somewhere close by to hide. I know how good you are at hiding. Don’t come out until I call for you when I come back out. Do you understand?”
Jeremy doesn’t understand at all, but he nods. He doesn’t want his father to leave him all alone out here in the dark, but he says nothing. He and Teddy will need to be brave. They’ve done that before. Jeremy follows his father again as he starts to move further along the path. A few steps later, his father lays a hand on his shoulder and pushes Jeremy roughly to one side, off the path. Without looking back, he continues up to the door and knocks on it loudly.
Jeremy scuttles around the side of the building and looks for a place to hide. His father is right; he’s good at hiding. He played hide and seek with the other children at nursery school and nearly always won. He misses going to nursery school and seeing his friends. Normally, he would enjoy the game, but the cold and darkness, along with his father’s seriousness, have sucked all the fun out of it. Now, Jeremy spots a gap between the bottom of the cottage’s wooden wall and the ground. Tucking Teddy securely inside his coat, Jeremy crouches down and squirms through the gap and under the house. There’s enough space for him to crawl in until he is completely hidden from view from the outside. Above his head, footsteps sound, their weight dislodging dirt and dust from the floorboards, coating Jeremy’s hair.
He hears the creaking of a door, and then a surprised and angry voice.
“Seth? What the hell are you doing here? You shouldn’t be here, let alone in the middle of the night.”
His father’s voice answers. “You said nobody would get hurt.”
There are shuffling sounds and the footsteps retreat back over Jeremy’s head.
“These things are difficult to predict. You know that.”
“But Ellie was there, with my boy.”
Jeremy is trying very hard to be quiet, but he can’t help taking a sharp indrawn breath when he hears this. Ellie is his mother’s name. He hasn’t seen her for a long time. Maybe the bad man in the house knows where she is, and his father has come here to find her and bring her home.
Jeremy remembers very clearly the last time he saw his mother. It was his birthday and she gave him Teddy as a present. They went to the park and she let him play on the slide and the swings. Then there was a loud bang, and everybody was screaming. Eventually, a man in a white uniform found Jeremy hiding under the slide and took him to a big, shiny building where people poked and prodded at him, and asked him lots of questions. After a while, his father came and took him home. He didn’t see his mother again. He has stopped asking his father where his mother is, and when she’s coming back, because his father gets upset and shouts at him.
In the small, dark space underneath the house, Jeremy hugs Teddy tightly and thinks about happier times, when he and his parents were together and he wasn’t frightened all of the time.
The bad man is speaking again.
“You knew the risks when you signed up.”
“Not to my family!” Jeremy’s father says.
“Unlucky, I agree,” the man says, “but I can’t be held accountable for random chance.”
“You said there wouldn’t be anyone there when the bomb went off. It was supposed to happen after dark, not in the middle of the afternoon.”
“Something must have gone wrong with the timer,” the man says, “And that was your responsibility, not mine. Seems like you’ve nobody to blame but yourself.”
“There was nothing wrong with the timer. It must have been tampered with and the only person who had access to it, other than me, was you. And now my wife is dead.”
Jeremy doesn’t really understand what that word means, but he knows it’s bad. People always get upset when they say the word “dead.” Jeremy crawls further under the house, nearer to the sound of his father’s voice. It smells bad under there, like when the toilet went wrong at home, but he wants to be as close to his father as he can get.
“Well, what do you think you’re going to do about it?,” the man asks. “Bodies on the news are always worth more than an empty lab blowing up in the middle of the night.”
There is a yell and a crash, and the floorboards above Jeremy’s head tremble. More crashes and scary sounds like someone in pain. Jeremy bites down on Teddy’s ear to stop himself from crying out. Then there’s a loud bang that makes him think of the day his mother went away, and he can’t help it.
“Mummy!” he cries out, just wanting it all to stop and go back to the way it was before.
There is a pause in the sounds from above, and then the bad man says, “What the — ?”
There are more scuffling sounds, another loud bang, and silence falls. Jeremy starts to cry.
Then there’s a creaking noise, and a shaft of light pierces the darkness from above. The boy looks up fearfully and sees his father standing above him, holding the edge of a hatch he has opened up in the floor of the cottage. They look at each other for a long moment, then his father bends down and lifts Jeremy up through the hole. He crouches down on the floor and holds the boy to his chest, crushing him close. Jeremy feels his father’s fingers in his hair and his strong arms around his small body. Teddy is squashed between them, and Jeremy wonders if the bear can still breathe.
“Jeremy,” his father says breathlessly. “You saved me. Your shouting distracted him so I could get hold of the gun. It’s all over now. The bad man’s gone.”
“Yes, like mummy.” Jeremy’s father is crying too, now. “I’m so sorry about mummy, and about tonight. But it’s all over now. We’ll go somewhere far away and start again. It’ll be better again, I promise.”
Jeremy’s father stands up, pulling Jeremy up with him, so that now he is being carried. They head back out into the woods, leaving the cottage and everything inside it far behind.