The boy was the first to find his father. He hadn’t seen him in two days. Mother and father had been fighting again the last night he saw him. While they were fighting, the boy and his little brother had started jumping on the couch, trying to push each other off. His father appeared in the doorway and told them to put on their shoes and follow him outside. It sounded exciting, so they followed him out into the snow. They were wearing only their house clothes, which made it even more exciting.
“If you’ve got so damn much energy,” their father said, “run laps around the house to burn it off.”
“Are you going to run with us?” the boy asked.
“Yeah,” said his little brother. “Run with us!”
“Ah, Jesus,” his father said and shook his head. “I suppose. Why the hell not.”
And so they started running around the perimeter of the house, the boy in front, his little brother in the middle, and their father at the rear, sinking into the thick snow with each stride. It was an unusually warm night, so even though they weren’t wearing jackets, they weren’t cold. Everything looked blue in the moonlight. It felt to the boy like they were on another planet.
“Let’s run around the block,” the boy said.
“Yeah!” said his little brother.
“I suppose,” said their father.
And so they ran, like lunatics, around the neighborhood, in t-shirts and boots, in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter. When they got back to their house, they were all panting and smiling, including their father. He looked happier than the boy had seen him in weeks.
“Let’s do that every night,” the boy said.
“Yeah!” said his little brother.
“Maybe,” their father said, patting the tops of their heads. “It depends on the weather.”
That was the last time he saw his father before he found him. His parents had fought again that night, and his father shut himself up in the spare room.
“Don’t bother your father,” their mother said to them. “Go to bed.”
Their father stayed in the spare room the whole next day. The boy asked his mother if he should get father for dinner. “No,” she said, “if he wants to be stubborn, let him be stubborn.”
The following morning, while his mother was still asleep, the boy knocked on the door to the spare room. There was no response, so he went inside. His father lay fully clothed on the day bed, his glasses on the edge of the desk beside it, next to his pill bottle and a cup with water still in it.
“Dad,” the boy said, “do you want to make pancakes?”
His father didn’t answer. His eyes were open a little, and his mouth was open as if he were taking a deep breath, but no sound came out.
“Dad,” the boy repeated, and touched his father’s shoulder. It was hard and cold. “Dad?”
Then his mother was beside him, saying “Oh my God” over and over. She pulled him from the room and shut the door and called someone, and the house filled with people in uniforms, and they took the boys to one big, strange room after another, and people gave speeches, and people cried, and everyone was very kind to them and gave them cookies, and days later, when they were back home, the boy’s little brother approached their mother where she lay on the couch and asked when Dad was coming back, and she said “never” and rolled over, turning her back to them.
“That’s bull-shit,” the boy said.
Their mother mumbled something that sounded like “watch your mouth.”
The boys went to the spare room. Everything was stripped bare. The room seemed empty, though the furniture was still there. They went to their parents’ room. Their father’s clothing still hung in the closet. His books were still on his bedside stand. Everything was there except for him. They went to the kitchen, where their father often cooked for them. Everything was there, too, except for him.
“Maybe he’s at work,” the boy said, though he didn’t believe it. It was night, and his father was always home by nightfall.
“Maybe he’s outside,” his little brother said. “Maybe he’s running.”
They went outside. Everything was blue again, like that other night, but it was cold.
“If we run, we’ll stay warm,” the boy said.
And so they took off, around the house. It hadn’t snowed since that other night, so they were able to step in their old footprints, full of black shadows now. The boy began shivering.
“Run faster,” he shouted back to his little brother, who kept pace just a few steps behind.
“Let’s run around the block!”
They left the yard, onto the sidewalk they had followed that other night.
A man who was getting out of his car across the street called out to them. “Are you kids alright? You need help?”
“No,” the boy called back, “we’re just burning off energy,” and on they ran.
“I’m freezing,” said his little brother.
At the end of the block, they left the sidewalk and started a new path through the snow, up the hill toward the reservoir. The boy’s face and arms were burning in the wind now. In his ears, his brother’s voice.
“I think I hear Dad!”
“Don’t look back!” the boy shouted. He didn’t want his father to not be there. “Don’t look back! Keep running!”
Up they went, breaking new trail, through the black brush that bristled through the snow, into the moaning wind. He could hear it now, too. The sound of footfalls and breathing behind them in the winter night, wherever they went now, for the rest of their lives.