We hung up and I went out onto the deck to pass along the good word, but the deck was empty. I went to the rail. Ben liked to play on the slope below my house and climb in the black walnut trees that grow further down the hill. More houses were nestled beyond the trees on the streets that web along the hillsides. The deepest cuts in the canyon were just beginning to purple, but the light was still good. I didn't see him.
He didn't answer.
"Hey, buddy! Mom called!"
He still didn't answer.
I checked the side of the house, then went back inside and called him again, thinking maybe he had gone to the guest room where he sleeps or the bathroom.
"Yo, Ben! Where are you?"
I looked in the guest room and the downstairs bathroom, then went out the front door into the street. I live on a narrow private road that winds along the top of the canyon. Cars rarely pass except when my neighbors go to and from work, so it's a safe street, and great for skateboarding.
I didn't see him. I went back inside the house. "Ben! That was Mom on the phone!"
I thought that might get an answer. The Mom Threat.
"If you're hiding, this is a problem. It's not funny."
I went upstairs to my loft, but didn't find him. I went downstairs again to the deck.
My nearest neighbor had two little boys, but Ben never went over without first telling me. He never went down the slope or out into the street or even into the carport without first letting me know, either. It wasn't his way. It also wasn't his way to pull a David Copperfield and disappear.
I went back inside and phoned next door. I could see Grace Gonzalez's house from my kitchen window.
"Grace? It's Elvis next door."
Like there might be another Elvis further up the block.
"Hey, bud. How's it going?"
Grace calls me bud. She used to be a stuntwoman until she married a stuntman she met falling off a twelve-story building and retired to have two boys.
"Is Ben over there?"
"Nope. Was he supposed to be?"
"He was here a few minutes ago, but now he's not. I thought he might have gone to see the boys."
Grace hesitated, and her voice lost its easygoing familiarity for something more concerned.
"Let me ask Andrew. They could have gone downstairs without me seeing."
Andrew was her oldest, who was eight. His younger brother, Clark, was six. Ben told me that Clark liked to eat his own snot.
I checked the time again. Lucy had called at four twenty-two; it was now four thirty-eight. I brought the phone out onto my deck, hoping to see Ben trudging up the hill, but the hill was empty.
Grace came back on the line.
"My guys haven't seen him. Let me look out front. Maybe he's in the street."
"Thanks, Grace." Her voice carried clearly across the bend in the canyon that separated our homes when she called him, and then she came back on the line.
"I can see pretty far both ways, but I don't see him. You want me to come over there and help you look?"
"You've got your hands full with Andrew and Clark. If he shows up, will you keep him there and call me?"
I turned off the phone, and stared down into the canyon. The slope was not steep, but he could have taken a tumble or fallen from a tree. I left the phone on the deck and worked my way down the slope. My feet sank into the loose soil, and footing was poor.
"Ben! Where in hell are you?"
Walnut trees twisted from the hillside like gnarled fingers, their trunks gray and rough. A lone yucca tree grew in a corkscrew among the walnuts with spiky leaves like green-black starbursts. The rusted remains of a chain-link fence were partially buried by years of soil movement. The largest walnut tree pushed out of the ground beyond the fence with five heavy trunks that spread like an opening hand. I had twice climbed in the tree with Ben, and we had talked about building a tree house between the spreading trunks.
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