We found him in the creek.
He was crouching low over the water just like we were, looking for crawdads. It was June, the hottest, longest day of the year, and he was just there, like he’d been there the whole time, only he hadn’t. Not five minutes ago. Not one minute ago. We were certain we hadn’t seen him, and all of us agreed. Just this little boy. Dusty blonde hair, lots of freckles, striped red shirt, white shorts. He wasn’t wearing any shoes. We weren’t, either, so that didn’t feel too weird, but the fact that none of us had seen him there earlier, we just couldn’t shake how strange that was.
He said his name was Thomas Leonard, and that he lived in the big house on Morrison Street. We told him the only big house on Morrison Street was torn down two years ago to build condos. He said his mom would be missing him, and he was already late for dinner, and he should get along home before Marcus Welby. We didn’t know who that was. We let him walk away. What else were we supposed to do?
We didn’t realize this kid was THE Thomas Leonard. Every kid in our town knows the name Thomas Leonard. He’s the biggest, saddest secret, the scariest bedtime story. Or, he was. Thomas Leonard disappeared fifty years ago.
It happened like this.
One day, Thomas Leonard tells his mom that he wants to go to the creek and try to catch crawdads with his friend. His imaginary friend. He hasn’t had an imaginary friend all that long, and his mom thinks it’s weird that he’d make one up at his age, but apparently he’s always been a lonely kid. She’d hear him in his room all the time, by himself, but not acting like he was by himself.
“You can’t be G.I. Joe ‘cause I’m G.I. Joe. You gotta be Mickey Mouse.”
And then silence.
“Fine. I’ll be Mickey Mouse this time, but next time, I’m G.I. Joe. You’re awful mean sometimes.”
Stuff like that. See? He was a weird, lonely kid.
Anyway, he asks his mom if he can go play in the creek, and she says fine, go, but be home before dinner, and please remember to wear your shoes back this time. He says okay, and leaves the house at about 3:00 in the afternoon. He never comes home.
They only ever found his shoes.
Everything changed after Thomas Leonard disappeared. The town installed street lights, for one. And they built this huge bridge over the creek, just in case Thomas drowned in three inches of water. And no parent ever let their kid go to the creek alone, not even fifty years later. People remember things forever in this town.
We all thought it was silly, how we had to follow rules just because some dumb kid probably got lost in the woods, like, almost 40 years before we were even born. It’s not like they found any evidence that Thomas was kidnapped or murdered or something. But every time we saw a missing kid on the news, some parent in some house would say, “It reminds me of Thomas Leonard.”
No one ever talked about him out in the open, but this was the town that Thomas Leonard made. The street lights, the bridge, the rules. We heard this rumor once that his mother paid for all of it, out of some family inheritance or something.
She goes up to the mayor one day, after Thomas disappears, and she looks terrible. She looks like she hasn’t slept in a year, which would probably be about right, actually, and she says, “As long as I live, this will never, ever happen again.”
And the mayor looks at her and says we’ll try our best, and about a month later the street lights go up.
Thomas Leonard’s mother lived in this town until the day she died. She sold her house and moved into a little apartment above the antique shop. She stopped going out in public. And about a month before the evening we found him in the creek, she died.
“So sad,” everyone said. “But at least she’s with Thomas now.”
We saw the procession for her funeral. It was only, like, three cars.
But everything she paid for must have made a difference, because there hadn’t been so much as a sprained ankle at the creek in fifty years.
The day we found Thomas Leonard, we’d decided to go out one last time, before we got too old. Kind of like trick-or-treating. No one went to the creek after they turned fourteen. It was considered childish, something you only did if you weren’t cool enough to do something else. We weren’t really sure what that something else was, because hanging out in the grocery store parking lot smoking cigarettes and listening to music from your car radio just didn’t seem all that cool.
So we walked down to the town square, and around the corner to the picnic pavilion, past the swings and down the hill, over the train tracks and across the bridge. We’d only been there for an hour or so when we saw him, and we talked to him for less than five minutes before he walked away. Sure, we thought it was strange, but it wasn’t until about fifteen minutes later that we made the connection.
We got ourselves together as fast as we could and went in the direction we’d last seem him walking. We made our way back up the hill and into town, and we didn’t see him anywhere. And nothing seemed wrong. Like, we asked everybody we saw, and nobody had seen him. A couple of people actually yelled at us for playing such a terrible joke. We started to wonder if we were crazy, because it was impossible. No one disappears for fifty years and comes back looking exactly the same. No one disappears for fifty years and comes back, period. But we knew we’d seen him. We didn’t make it up.
We started to wonder, though, if someone had played a prank on us. So when we got home, we Googled his name. And there was his picture, clear as day. The boy we saw was definitely Thomas Leonard. Without a doubt. Same hair, same freckles. We tried to tell people, but no one would listen. We went to bed thinking we’d seen a ghost, and that it was probably the weirdest thing that would ever happen to us, and that maybe we didn’t want to go to the creek ever again.
And then, the next morning when we woke up, we saw the news. We couldn’t believe it. Who would believe it?
See, on the same evening that we found Thomas Leonard, on the longest day of the year, at the creek down the hill from town, Rebecca Bishop disappeared. She’d ridden her bike down there alone right after we left. We’d just missed her.
It’s been about three months, and they’ve only ever found her shoes. She’s the new biggest, saddest, scariest bedtime story.
Maybe fifty years from now we’ll go back. We might be crazy, but maybe we’ll do it. Maybe we’ll all still be here, in fifty years. We’ll be old. It’s so long, and we make promises to each other all the time we know we won’t really keep. But maybe we’ll keep this one, and we’ll be there, at the creek, waiting for her.