It was Deirdre Emerson’s boy who was first affected. He went off to school at six and a half years old, ready for a day of alphabets and animals, and crept home a man of five feet ten, dressed like a fool in teenaged things from the lost property.
Deirdre said she very nearly closed the door in his face.
‘Ma, it’s me,’ he said. ‘Andy.’
She scrutinised his embarrassment. He was beginning to lose his hair.
‘No, it’s not,’ she said. Her son reached out his arm, tugged up the too-short sleeve of a stranger’s hoodie, and showed her the birthmark shaped like a whale on his right wrist. His skin was sweet and pale, she remembers, not quite as changed as the rest of him would indicate.
‘What happened?’ she asked.
But he would not talk about it, not then. He went into his room and stood there for a minute, looking at the teddy bears and the wooden trucks lined up along the sill, and then he began to pack them all away. Deirdre rang Jane Sweeney, the mother of a little girl named Elsa, a bright girl with a good ear for music with whom Andy had been accustomed to socialising. Jane was another single mother, a straight-talking woman and a great help whenever she felt she might go mad. She lived just down the road.
‘Jane, Andy’s come home all grown,’ said Deirdre.
‘It happens fast,’ said Jane.
‘Not this fast,’ said Deirdre. ‘He’s about my age now.’ She was only 33. It had felt young the day before. Jane went quiet for a minute, then said she’d come right over. Deirdre stayed by the hall phone, listening out for movement upstairs.
‘Elsa’s home alone,’ said Jane when Deirdre opened the door to her.
‘It won’t take long,’ said Deirdre. ‘You have to look at him.’
They found Andy sitting on the floor in the middle of his Lego and weeping silently. They watched him together.
‘Shite,’ said Jane. ‘Are you sure it’s him?’
‘Hello Mrs Sweeney,’ said Andy, looking up at last. ‘Where’s Elsa?’
The two children had been in love in the pure way of the under sevens. Their mothers often made jokes about the wedding.
‘She’s safe at home,’ said Jane Sweeney, beginning to doubt it. ‘Are you all right? What happened?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Andy. ‘I can’t remember.’ His forehead gathered itself into a pained and grave expression that Deirdre Emerson knew well. She knelt on the floor, took his head into her arms and held it against her chest. Her breasts still hummed for this, but it was all wrong. She kissed the odd-smelling crown of his head. She hadn’t even asked if he was okay.
‘What are we to do,’ she said, not expecting an answer. She stroked her son’s hair, laying it flat behind his ear. There was a little grey coming through in places.
‘I suppose you could try the doctor,’ said Jane. ‘I’m sorry. I’ve got to get back.’
The doctor gave Andy a thorough examination and pronounced him a perfectly healthy 35-year-old male with exceptionally low blood cholesterol. Andy breathed into a contraption and was told his lungs were functioning at 110 per cent.
‘There’s nothing wrong with him at all,’ marvelled the doctor. ‘Quite the opposite.’ Over the years the doctor had developed the kind of face that could be both stern and deeply humorous. She looked at Mrs Emerson until Mrs Emerson accepted the look and left the room. There was a rule about minors but the doctor felt it didn’t apply.
The doctor rolled her chair over to sit beside Andy, close but not too close. ‘Is there anything you want to tell me, Andrew? Anything at all you might feel ready to talk about? It can be just between us if you like.’
Andy shook his head. His long nose pointed at the floor between them as if it were too heavy for his face.
‘What happened, Andy? How did it happen?’ asked the doctor. There were clear regulations about making suggestions.
Andy looked up. Her eyes were too bright with the wonder of living. He shook his head. ‘I honestly don’t know,’ he said. ‘I don’t remember anything before I got home.’
The rumours in the town ranged from time travel to alien abduction, but most reasonable people settled on a medical explanation. The doctor sent him to the hospital in the city for tests and observations, including at Deirdre’s request a DNA comparison with his birth data, which the hospitals then kept on record. Since he was still technically six years old, Deirdre had no problem confirming that her son was indeed his own unique self without informing Andy she had enquired, but she felt awful about it and told him as soon as she got the results.
‘It’s okay, Ma,’ he said. ‘You can’t be too careful. I would have done the same.’
Who was this grown man with a formed and empathetic character? He was washing the dishes without being asked. She’d been cheated of creating him, and yet there was so much to be proud of. He had a fine posture, a calm voice, he wasn’t panicking. Apart from the crying jag among the Lego just that once, she hadn’t seen him suffering from his situation.
‘They asked if they could study you,’ she said. She put a hand to his shoulder. The new T-shirt she’d bought him was a dull grey-green that seemed to suit his subdued personality. Her boy had always been a little sensitive. He thought for a while before he turned.
‘I just want to get on with things, Ma,’ he said. ‘Put it behind me.’
He was qualified for nothing but neither was he lacking in intelligence; wherever he had been, he seemed to have been educated well (and, Deirdre could not help but notice, very cheaply). Once he was cleared of known contagions, Howard found him a position in the council office, where he registered dogs and photocopied planning applications. It was entry level but there was room for advancement and Andy spent most of his time behind the scenes so did not have to see the people craning for a look at him through the inky glass. There was nothing much for them to crane at. He was handsome enough for his mother and orderly about his work and made no trouble in the council or the town. If anything he was a little boring, a man of few words and fewer stories.
For a while things returned to normal. Andy became a regular citizen. The legal centre helped him to apply to have his birth certificate backdated so that he could vote and drive, which he did well enough; so whenever Officer McKinley pulled him over he knew it was just to get a closer look at him. He was good to his mother, helped around the house and did the shopping, volunteered once a fortnight for the Meals on Wheels, and seemed to be ageing now at a regular pace. There was nothing much else you could say about it apart from that it was strange.
About seven months after Andy had surprised her, Deirdre Emerson opened the door to another apparent stranger. This one was a younger man, perhaps in his late twenties, and she put her hand to her chest as in a mild panic of nerves he introduced himself as Harry Sifton. The paper boy. Just that morning she had waved to his retreating 11-year-old figure as he rode off down the street, straw hair sticking unruly from beneath his baseball cap.
‘Can I talk to Andy?’ he asked. He held the baseball cap in one hand and ran the other through his hair, which he still wore long, although it had browned a bit. His hands were large and his voice had developed a lovely baritone.
‘Of course.’ She let him in and called Andy into the kitchen. The two men declined her offer of tea, and soon retreated into Andy’s room where they talked for over an hour. She peeled the potatoes very quietly, but the one time Deirdre heard their voices raised it was in laughter.
After Harry Sifton had refused dinner three times, shaken her hand, embraced Andy and gone home to tell his parents, they sat down over a simple meal of lamb chops, broccoli and mashed potato.
‘Well?’ she asked Andy.
‘He doesn’t remember anything either,’ said Andy. She watched him eating, slow and focused, but his skin, flushed from the excitement, emphasised the boy’s features hidden beneath the man’s. She wondered if she’d ever stop seeing them.
‘You used to hate broccoli,’ she said.
He squinted at her for a second. ‘I remember,’ he said. ‘You told me it was tiny trees they’d cut down on a miniature planet. Gone to all that trouble just for me.’ He used his knife and fork in the emphatic way his father used to have. He was four years older now than Jeff had been when she’d last seen him.
‘I stole the idea from The Little Prince,’ she said. Her fingers made the shape of the tiny chainsaw but she didn’t make the sound. ‘You always fell asleep before the chapter was over.’ There was a heaviness in her throat. She had learned to think of it as gaining a brother, but the appearance of Harry Sifton, and then the effort of imagining Mary Sifton’s face, reminded her of what had been taken away. All that time they might have spent together, all that growing. And yet it was hard, with his healthful figure across the table, to justify bad feelings.
‘Could it have been, perhaps,’ she asked, ‘another planet?’
In the distance she could hear Elsa practising on the piano Jane had bought her. The girl had a wonderful ability, and time to build upon it.
‘It could be anything, Ma,’ said Andy. ‘I really don’t remember. I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t you apologise to me,’ she said, ‘you’ve done nothing wrong.’ Surprised by the anger in her voice, she swallowed down a whole glass of water. He laid his knife and fork neatly on the empty plate and waited for her to finish her meal before he cleared the table.
Andy had been treated as an anomaly, but after word got around about Harry Sifton, some families with young children began to leave the town. The wealthier ones went first, their principles about the public school unravelling behind them like a cotton thread caught on a nail. Deirdre and Jane sat together in the park, friends again after a brief but necessary conflict. They were watching Andy pushing Elsa on the swings, his long arms strong in the sunlight. Deirdre herself felt indescribably heavy in comparison.
‘I suppose you could send her to her father’s,’ said Deirdre.
‘Not on your life,’ said Jane. ‘And anyway, there’s the piano now.’
Andy glanced at his watch between pushes. Andy and Harry Sifton had started going round together, and it was wonderful for Deirdre to see Andy with a friend again, even if it meant he was off drinking. Most of his old playmates were still in Yvonne Yang’s first-grade class and he would sometimes watch them wistfully from outside the fence as they ran across the playground at lunchtime. Only Elsa had not faltered in her friendship. If anything, her adoration of Andy had intensified. It was almost concerning, though it didn’t seem to concern Jane.
‘You know I lost one before,’ said Deirdre. ‘Years ago.’ Her voice was very quiet.
‘You never told me that,’ said Jane.
‘She was 12 weeks premature. Hardly took a breath.’ Deirdre took a deep one now.
Jane sat back and put her hands against her sides. ‘I’m so sorry, Deirdre,’ she said.
Deirdre waved at her face, dismissing its shown feelings as a weakness. ‘Years ago,’ she said.
‘Higher, higher,’ squealed Elsa. The muscles under Andy’s birthmark flexed.
‘Whichever way you look at it, they’re miracles,’ said Jane.
‘He always felt that way,’ said Deirdre.
The Hartley girl was gone for 24 hours. Never turned up at the school, didn’t come home, a search out all night, police, everything. They were lining up the bus drivers for interviews when she showed up at her house for breakfast, apparently unharmed, and nicely fitted out in a tweed skirt, cream cotton blouse and sensible shoes. Nobody knew where she had got these items. The shoes were well worn in.
‘Don’t worry,’ she told her parents. ‘I feel absolutely fine.’
She found work in the library. When anyone asked her about it, her smile was a little watered down perhaps, but it was still there, bright enough. It was Phoebe Hartley who began to use the word ‘taken’ to describe her situation, to excuse her absence from history and her lack of paperwork. The others picked it up from her. Deirdre didn’t like it. But Phoebe Hartley was such a positive girl, it would have been cruel to test her optimistic nature with too many questions, just as it was hard to stop thinking of her as a girl, even now that she was nearly 40.
After the Hartley girl, there was little Suzie from the Chinese restaurant who was only three before she was 19 overnight. Suzie made a pretty waitress, and was so calm and at peace with her transformation that half the town developed unexpected cravings for gong bao chicken and the little pancakes Mrs Chu served sliced into segments and hot enough to burn your mouth. Harry, who had kept his paper route, soon started carrying flowers on his bicycle, courting her, and her parents somehow accepted this, even grew quickly fond of him, because the two of them seemed to fit together so easily; it was as though they already shared a history. He learned to say hello and ask after the health of Suzie’s grandmother in terribly accented Cantonese. Suzie’s parents had been slow to start a family, and each of them had sometimes privately regretted their delay. The business had needed a great deal of their attention. But now the prospect of early grandchildren seemed like justice.
All the children who were affected had the same calm, the same ability to reassure. And after half a dozen had been returned, their blood tests and examinations revealing an unblemished wellbeing, a clean slip through time, everybody became used to them. They were well-adjusted, happy people, kind to us all, ready to make a contribution. It was very doubtful that our own hands would have moulded them into better people. Surely they could be no more readied for the world of responsibilities into which they were suddenly thrust? Indeed the results were so impressive that some new families began to move into the district, particularly those with multiple school-aged children. They didn’t announce why they’d come but if you took them aside they would often admit that a third pair of hands at home, a third income, could really make a difference.
‘If only you’d be taken,’ exhausted parents would tell their screaming two-year-olds, only half in jest. Deirdre overheard them in the park and found it upsetting, but she would never be the one to make a fuss.
It was her father in America who gave Elsa the bracelet for her birthday, but Andy who was there to buckle it to her wrist. It was pink and it had a little chip in it that Jane could follow along on her phone. Elsa loved it so much that Andy considered selling them out of the garage on Saturday mornings, to make a little extra money. He was putting aside a deposit for a place of his own.
‘I want to be grown up,’ Elsa told him, her face too close and fresh-smelling, ‘so I can come and live with you at your house.’
Jane rolled her eyes. To Deirdre it seemed abominable to tag and track her like some animal, but she would have done the same if it had been available for Andy, if she had known. The bracelets were new inventions, still a prototype, apparently. Everyone marvelled over it at the party.
‘Now we’ll know where you are, even if you’re taken,’ said Andy. Deirdre still flinched at the term.
‘You all say you don’t remember anything,’ she said. ‘So how—’
‘We don’t,’ said Phoebe, the ripple in her smile like a sail catching a sweet breeze.
Deirdre opened her mouth to speak, but Andy’s hand was raised.
‘I can’t have this conversation again,’ Andy said. When he was cross with her he looked just like his father.
‘The important thing is that you’re alive,’ she said, remembering to list her miracles.
He was picking up his car keys. ‘I’m going to get a drink, if anyone’s interested.’ Harry sprung up, the two of them closing ranks. An arm against a shoulder on the way out the door, the solidity of men.
Go on and leave me, Deirdre thought, but watched his car back out in silence. She felt 60 years old.
She and Jane started packing up the princess toys and sheet music and adult outfits Elsa had been given in case she suddenly grew into them. Elsa herself was asleep. The party had been exhausting, now that there were all these strangers to get used to. Some of them played with the children and some of them drank out on the terrace with the parents and some of them stood around like people do at parties, afraid of mistaking their place, but in a good-natured and patient way. None of them remembered anything, and people kept repeating—even Deirdre said it—the important thing was that they were alive and well, the important thing was surviving. She picked up the cardboard box the wristwatch had come in, and wondered if it would make any difference.
‘Have you thought about having another one,’ Jane whispered.
‘I couldn’t take it,’ said Deirdre, crushing the small box flat.
Jane would sometimes run across to their place on a sunny afternoon if there was a program on the television Deirdre or Andy might be interested in watching, or if she had made too many honeyjoys, so Deirdre didn’t worry until she saw her friend was waving her phone in the air. Elsa had been napping but was now not in her room. The three of them gathered around the screen to watch as a little green dot moved slowly across it, pulsing slightly, before stopping in the park.
It was five blocks, but they got in Andy’s car and he drove them there, Jane white as a sheet in the back, Deirdre out of words. Andy leapt out first and ran. Elsa was sitting in the grass looking at the sky. She acted as though she couldn’t see them. She was still just seven years old.
‘I think I sleepwalked,’ said Elsa, in a muffled voice.
‘You’re all right, you’re all right,’ said Jane, releasing her.
‘Come on,’ said Andy. ‘Let’s get her home.’
Deirdre found that she was shaking.
This situation repeated itself several times over the following weeks, with Elsa found in different locations: a roundabout, the playground, once beneath the birdbath in a neighbour’s back yard. Andy blamed the stress.
One day the three of them got out of the car on the corner where the dot had stopped, expecting Elsa, and found instead a pink bracelet hanging from a stumpy branch of a pine tree, rocking slightly in the wind.
Well, she always had that wonderful ear for music. And really, it was a gift, that kind of memory. It would have been, in other circumstances, something magical. But you know her mother taught her to be forward, and they say the character is formed very early in life, that even the best teachers can’t do much with them after a certain age. In her fifties, she has just the same insistent confidence she’s always had. Life, we tried to tell her, was never meant to be fair.
We can’t blame Jane, but we can’t help thinking it would have been better if Elsa had learned to keep things to herself. If the children had gone on saying they were taken, if they had never been reminded of the things that were done to them, their hands would have stayed steady, their work conscientious, their voices kind and calm and reassuring. Oh, maybe there were always consequences lurking in them, unseen injuries that rippled slowly outwards and would eventually spill into the world, but maybe there were not. Maybe we could have stayed just proud, and not have had to hate ourselves for what we had allowed to happen. It was after Elsa that it all came apart, and for that we can’t forgive her.