By Chef LostWallet-Reward
The flyers appeared on three lampposts in my street two weeks ago.
They had a lady talking to me now and she had a different approach to all the others. She showed me her badge, her gun, photos of her family; all the things I would want to see to befriend me so I would tell the truth. All I’ve done is tell the truth but here I am again telling the same story I told my parents, Tim’s parents, the chief of police and the town doctor. I wondered if she already knew this given her job. Being a teenager, I couldn’t help but think she was too pretty to be doing the job she was doing. Her smile drew me in which I think was all apart of her plan. She never wrote anything down, just listened and went along with me.
Take me through it, she said. In your own words. No one else is around so feel free to recount everything as if you won’t get into trouble. You know that right? You’re not going to get into any trouble. This isn’t your fault.
I know that. Where was I?
Right. The flyers. White paper, no photos, no name, three typed words and a phone number all held up on the lampposts by four staples.
Lost wallet – Reward (425) 555 7231
Two weeks ago, on our walk home from the bus stop, we saw them. The bus stop is about three blocks from our street and as Tim spotted one as soon as we passed the first lamppost. Nothing ever changes in this town and the funny thing is no one is annoyed about that. Disturbances are known in advance and are practically measured against a calendar. Any time something is “up”, the town is most probably already there and participating in the commotion.
The whole town supports the football team or attends rallies whenever they’re scheduled. Because they offer excitement, they draw a crowd. Hell, the police only attend because they know someone in the team and are demonstrating their support, not their authority. The house fire that started in Mrs. Jackson’s kitchen last winter drew people out of their houses. Not to gawk mind you, to help.
There were people hosing the house down or throwing buckets of water way before the fire brigade showed. The fire was practically out when they turned up and the final act of extinguishment was largely ceremonial. That didn’t stop the crowd cheering them on like they saved the day. You could see it in the eyes of some of the firefighters as they looked on at the crowd applauding that they viewed it as some sort of participation ribbon you give a child at a school athletics carnival.
Everyone played their part and those who didn’t like it, moved. Most people were happy with this routine and the routine was happy shaping its people. People rarely moved here, we were all born here. We operate as a collective and it works. No changes, no surprises – no problems.
The walk home was like every other I could recall.
The same barking dogs.
The same neighbors watching and waving out their window.
The same best friend walking by my side.
Tim and I have been friends and next door neighbors since grade school. We did everything together and our walk home from school was no different. We played in the same junior football team, took all the same classes and laughed at the same crappy jokes. When I think back, everyone said we looked alike and inferred from our behaviour that we acted more like brothers than friends. It’s a stereotype we embraced and took pleasure in.
We were two blocks from home and I knew exactly what Tim was going to ask before he asked it.
‘Did you finish the geometry homework in study period?’
He knew the answer and my response yet I gave them anyway. I waited two seconds so barking dog number one could start his protection detail which would continue for the next 30 yards.
‘Maybe,’ I replied.
‘You know you did. I’m gonna need to get that off you,’ he said.
‘Depends, did you finish the English homework?’ I asked.
I knew the answer but I never said I didn’t like playing my part. Dog one quietened down having completed its duty and we picked up where we left off.
‘Look, we have twenty minutes to get homework out of the way. I’ll copy yours, you’ll copy mine and the teachers will be happy. Then, we can go down to the river. I told the guys we’re going down and they’re all coming to try the swing.’
‘Even after what happened?’ I asked.
‘We just won’t pull back as far. It’ll be safe, I promise,’ Tim replied.
Dog two, Holly, took up her position leaning over the fence for a pat. Tim called her a “cuddle slut”. He said if a burglar ever tried to rob Mr. Kalley’s house the only danger he’d be in was being licked to death. I tried to tell him the dog was friendly and just wanted to play. According to Tim, dogs are meant to protect their property, not welcome people into it.
As you can see, it didn’t stop me from reaching over and giving Holly a scratch behind the ears. She knows me and when we’ll be passing by. I kinda think she looks forward to it just as much as I do to be honest. Tim relented and gave her a pat after I did.
Just like he always did.
I was worried about the swing you know. I was worried it wasn’t safe. We didn’t, well, we didn’t put it there. The lady just watched me but didn’t say anything so I continued. Holly followed along the borderline hoping for a second pat but I didn’t want to change up the routine.
In ten more yards, Mrs. Patterson is going to wave and I’m going to wave back. She’s sixty-five and she’s been waving to me ever since I can remember.
Tell me about the swing.
Oh, right. The swing. There are two main trees at our swimming hole. One laying across the river and another standing next to it. My father told me that a storm had pushed one of them over but the roots held it in the ground creating the perfect “natural bridge” for diving. The other, which wasn’t affected by the storm, grew straight towards the sky. You have to understand, both of these trees were huge. My father thinks they sprouted at the same time over fifty years ago.
The fallen tree almost touched the other side of the bank and people would walk out and dive into the deep pools below. The tall tree was just there. It was too wide to climb but kids dreamed of tying a rope to the branches and making a swing.
Two weeks ago, it looked how I described it.
Two weeks ago, when Tim and I went for a swim, the lowest branch had a rope tied to it.
The rope was tied off to a stick buried in the ground and we wasted no time in digging it up and testing it out. Sure we wondered who had got it up there but right then, we didn’t care. We swung out further and further before I got the bright idea to alter the launch pad. Being the geometry whiz, I worked out if we pulled the rope back around the tall tree and climbed one of the shorter trees, we could swing down which would launch us higher as we released the rope. Of course we had to grip the rope higher and it took two of us to get it to the new launch point but damn, the adrenaline we got from it was too good.
We. Got. So. High.
I mean high. Tim was able to land a double backflip at one point and land feet first into the water. Being boys, we had to outdo each other. I stepped up branch to a higher branch and launched myself.
Dog three didn’t bark, didn’t want pats or attention. It watched us like we were intruders. The thing knew us but it always tracked us along as we walked past its property. No sound but we knew it was there because of the shadows. Luckily it was the last dog but I always wished Holly was the last dog we saw on our walk home.
We had a block until we reached our street.
Two weeks ago, we were twenty-five minutes from finishing our homework and changing into swimming gear. Twenty-five, measly minutes.
Where was I?
You launched yourself, really high.
So I launched myself and as soon as my feet left the branch I knew I was in trouble. The angles were all wrong. I should have held onto the rope and swung back but I panicked and thought I’d crash into the bank and break something so I released my grip at the apex of the incline hoping for the best. No fancy flips or dives. I was only concerned with a boring pencil drop. I looked down briefly and pointed my toes downwards. My hands pointed down the side of my body and at the last possible second, I looked up at the sky braced myself.
Tim said he could see it as well but he didn’t work it out until I let go of the rope. He held his breath and went rigid as I came down. I didn’t see how close I came but Tim said I was less than a bee’s dick away from landing on the fallen tree. I felt the bark barely make contact with my skin as my feet hit the water. I was under before I could process the feeling and I reached up and felt my chin hoping it was still there. I surfaced and gasped for air.
Tim had raced along the fallen tree and helped pull me out of the water.
‘That was fucking close you idiot,’ he said. ‘You could have died.’
I looked down my body for signs of where the tree had struck me. That extra branch pushed me too far. I looked back to the rope which was swinging by itself, waiting for us to have another go.
‘Let’s not go from that branch again,’ I said laughing.
‘Yeah, well we have to keep testing to find the perfect spot.’
‘But we could land on the fallen tree and break our necks,’ I replied.
‘Not if we’re careful,’ Tim said.
I knew better.
That’s the first question you’ve asked.
It wasn’t a question.
It kinda was.
No, it was an observation.
Anyway, yes. Geometry class. We’d found our maximum launching distance but knowing Tim, he’d want to test the boundaries some more. He was always a risk taker like that.
Let’s get back to the bus stop and the flyer.
Right. So Tim and I had just hit our street when he pointed out the first flyer. This was out of the ordinary and we stopped to read it.
‘Whose wallet do you think it is?’ he asked.
‘How should I know, there’s no name on the flyer,’ I replied.
We kept walking. As you know, our street is pretty long and we had a while to walk until we got to our houses. I was the first to see the second flyer. It wasn’t facing us like the first one and I caught it because, if I’m being totally honest, I was looking out for it.
It wasn’t part of the routine. This is a small town, if someone we knew lost a wallet we would have heard about it at school. Everyone knows everyone and everyone talks about everyone. It’s that simple. And, that was a question.
I guess it was. Please continue.
Right. So I noticed the second flyer but I didn’t say anything. We just kept walking talking about the river and meeting up with the boys in just over twenty minutes. That’s when we came up to Mr. Jenkins’s place. He hates it when people walk on his lawn. I mean hates it. I’ve seen him cuss out old ladies for stepping on a blade of his couch. He’s had a go at us before and unless we’re in the mood for a laugh, we drop to the bitumen for sanity’s sake.
Tim moved first. I could see Mr. Jenkins watching from his window probably hoping we’d hop the curb and dance a jig on his manicured grass just so he could lose his shit. He was weird like that. My mother said Mr. Jenkins liked attention which is why he fixated himself on his nature strip. There was honestly nothing special about it, hell, he didn’t even mow it. If he really cared, wouldn’t he mow it himself?
Your mother is smart lady.
What happened next? Take me through it.
Another question. I’m on a role!
You’ve piqued my interest.
You’re the first one to ask me questions this way.
I work differently.
Right. So we passed Mr. Jenkins’s place like I said and were about to move back onto the nature strip when for some reason, I looked in the storm drain. As you can see, it’s just on the edge of Mr. Jenkins’s place. I really don’t know why, but I looked down the drain and there it was.
Yep, the wallet, just like in the picture. I stopped and stared at it. Thinking about it stopped me in my tracks. The memory flooded back.
‘Holy shit,’ I said.
‘What?’ Tim asked stopping to see why I stopped.
‘That’s the wallet,’ I pointed.
He looked down into the drain and saw it too.
‘Reckon that’s why the guy posted the flyers on our street? He lost it here?’ I asked.
‘Musta,’ Tim replied. ‘Let’s get it and collect that reward.’
Before I could stop him, Tim was lying on the road with his arm down the grate trying to reach the wallet.
‘How much is the reward?’ he asked stretching his arm.
‘The flyer didn’t say. It just said “reward”,’ I told him.
‘I can’t reach it,’ he said standing up.
Why couldn’t he reach it?
She just stared at me waiting for me to continue but I wasn’t interested. The drain scared me and I think she knew it.
Why are we doing this?
It was down too far. Just out of arms reach. Only by less than an inch but it may as well have been a mile. ‘Help me lift the grate,’ Tim said.
He bent over and started pulling at the iron storm drain. Years of muck and filth had practically cemented the thing in place. It took both of us straining with all out might to lift it. Did you know those grates are on hinges?
I didn’t. If I knew that we wouldn’t have pulled it the way we did. We wasted so much energy trying to pull the hinged side when we could have been pulling from the other end. But, we got it open. The wallet was now within reach. Apart from the wallet, the drain was clear. Some of the crap from the edges around the grate dropped in but apart from that, the drain was pristine. Almost like someone kept it clean.
Perhaps it was water?
The purpose of the drain is to regulate water flow. That would have kept it clean.
You’re the only one who’s kept the questions to a minimum.
Only one what?
The only investigator.
I told you, I work differently.
Well, you’re probably right. The water kept it clean. Where was I?
Tim laid down again to get the wallet. I have another question.
Why are you afraid?
What gives you that impression?
Tim laid down and reached into the drain. We both thought by removing the obstacle, he’d be able to easily reach the wallet but it wasn’t so.
‘It’s just out of reach,’ he said standing up. ‘I’m jumping in to get it.’
Tim brushed road debris off his shirt then dropped into the open drain. I stood at the edge watching him bend down and pick up the wallet. His head ducked beneath the road for I think, less than two seconds before it popped back up.
‘Got it. I wonder who it belongs to and how much the rewa– ‘
The lady waited for me to continue. I was fixed to the spot staring into the distance. One minute he was there, the next, Tim was gone. I was right there. Right, fucking there. It was like the floor dropped out beneath him and he was gone. I swear. I swear to you, I saw an arm. I saw an arm grab his ankle and drag him down and back into the drain. I screamed.
I screamed like a cartoon lady being robbed. Tim vanished before my eyes, wallet and all. One minute, he was holding up his prize as if he was expecting his reward and the next, gone.
What did it look like?
What did what look like?
It looked like an arm.
Let me put it another way. Did it look, human?
I was standing still, still. The lady kept her patience and looked past me, over my shoulder.
How did you know?
Call it a hunch.
No, it didn’t look human. It looked like an arm, yes. But human, no. It was the wrong colour.
What happened next?
I screamed some more. Just like the fire at Jackson’s, neighbors raced out of their house at the sound of something out of the ordinary. I was screaming Tim’s name and point at the storm drain. People raced up to me trying to work out what was happening. I was screaming, one monotonous tone.
I never stopped pointing at the drain. No one knew what was going on until Mrs. Patterson arrived and asked the people where Tim was. I kept pointing at the drain.
‘Something, something, something grabbed him,’ I said. ‘He was there, and then…’
It wasn’t long until the police arrived, then the fire department, then the paramedics.
I was still screaming. Nothing made sense. The first police officer jumped into the drain and shone his torch down the drain hole.
‘There’s nothing down here,’ he said. ‘It’s not the biggest hole, are you sure?’
It wasn’t long before my mother was by my side telling me she’d called my father to come home from work.
And that’s when all the questions started?
Yes. For two days I answered questions about that day. For two days I’ve answered questions about the river, our plans, our homework and that wallet.
You said there were three flyers.
Yes, there were three.
Where was the third one?
That way. I saw it when my mother walked me home to drop my backpack off. It was outside my house.
Can we move forward now?
I want to talk about the drain some more.
Why do you think?
Because of what I saw.
The police had forensic units search the drain. Cameras, teams of people scoured the sewer system for him and nothing. He was gone. Nothing. Not a trace.
Can we move forward?
Why are you not moving?
Why do you want me to?
Why don’t you want to move?
Why can’t you find him? Don’t the sewers all lead to the same place?
Yes, they do.
Well, I saw it. I saw an arm reach out and grab Tim’s ankle. It yanked him down into the drain and through the hole. I saw it and no one believes me. I saw something grab my friend and drag him away.
We faced off waiting for the other to bridge the silence. I still wasn’t moving and she stared at me, waiting for me to break.
You didn’t want to speak to me before?
What good would it do? You’re just another person in a long list.
You’re another person to listen and not believe me.
But I do believe you. I’m here right? I’m here beside you. You’re not alone. What changed?
You ask a lot of questions now.
Then perhaps you should answer them?
Fair enough. What changed is no one could find the wallet. The police, the firemen, the paramedics, the neighbors, even my father looked and no one could find the wallet.
But what changed.
I had time off from school. Other flyers appeared on street lamps with information about Tim. The police took down one of the flyers for analysis and it was replaced by a cropped shot of Tim. If you look at it, you can see my arm draped over his shoulder. His parents went on the news appealing for his safe return but you already know all that. It’s the reason you’re here.
Someone, I don’t know who, said it would be best if I returned to school. So I did. I sat in geometry class and phoned it in. The only people who asked me questions were students. It was like I was invisible to the teachers. No one wanted my opinion or answers. My routine practically went back out the door. I was marked present on the roll but for all intent and purposes, I was absent.
Wake up, breakfast, bus to school, lessons, bus home, dinner then sleep. Repeat. That was until yesterday.
When you called me.
When I called you. Yesterday I was walking home as usual. Nothing ever changes in this town and the funny thing is no one is annoyed about that. A boy goes missing but things remain the same. Only his parents and me seem to notice or care.
You were walking home.
Yes, I was walking home and the routine was the same. Dogs barking, dogs needing pats, dogs watching me, neighbors waving – it was a replica of that day and the days before it. The flyers were still up
And then… And then I came to Mr. Jenkins’s place. As usual I walked off the curb and onto the street. Fuck his grass and fuck his tirades. I just didn’t need shit like that in my life. I could see him watching me from his window. Even with everything going on, that old coot was more interested in who was stepping on his grass than the boy who went missing just off his property. Anyway, I looked at the grate and for some reason, I looked down. I had avoided it since I was forced back to school but yesterday, something inside made me look.
And what did you see?
We started walking again. Having her near didn’t make me scared anymore. Having her here made me feel safe. I walked up to the drain and pointed inside. That. That’s what I saw. I saw it and called you so we could talk. She took a few steps and peered through the grate.
Holy shit is right. That’s the fucking wallet. Right there. Right where Tim jumped in and picked it up. Right where umpteen hundred people searched for it and never found it. Right where no one believed me it was. Right where I said it was. So I called you. Only you so you could see it for yourself. Now, you tell me how something no one else even believes is real, is right there in front of your eyes. Tell me how something which shouldn’t be there because, as you mentioned, water washed everything away – is on proud display. What happened two days ago?
There was a storm.
That’s right. And can you tell me, what kind of storm was it?
A big one. It lasted for three hours. Thunder, lightning, pouring rain and high winds. The works.
Right. So if there was a storm, and we can agree water fell from the sky, pooled and drained away through here… Can you explain to me how this wallet is sitting here, pristine and dry in exactly the same place as I saw it two weeks ago?! Can you explain to me how this wallet, the one on the flyers is sitting in the same spot where my friend picked it up and held it up to show me. Can you explain to me how this wallet is in, the. Same. Fucking. Spot?
She just stared at the wallet, not daring to move. I watched her watch the wallet. I watched her look back to me, back to the wallet then back to me.
Help me open the grate.
No fucken’ way.
It’s okay, I’m armed and nothing’s going to happen. This is the first piece of evidence we can use to find Tim. Help me open the grate. The owner of the wallet can potentially assist our investigation.
I stood my ground. I was not helping her, FBI or not. If she wanted the wallet, she was on her own.
I’m not doing that.
Stand back then.
She bent over and opened the grate a lot easier than Tim and I did. One movement and it was open. I realized she wasn’t kidding when she said she understood the mechanics of a storm drain grate.
I’m going to get the wallet.
I stood back a step. It was enough for me to be safely out of arm’s reach but just enough to see inside.
It’s alright. Look.
She lay down flat on the road and reached down to retrieve it. Her arm stretched as far as it would go but nothing. Like Tim, she grabbed air. Like Tim, she stood up and brushed off the dirt and debris from the gutter.
I’m getting in.
I wouldn’t do that.
Ignoring me, she un-flicked the leather strap over her gun then lowered herself inside the drain. She was practically the same height as Tim and stood half in, half out of the drain. She bent down and picked up the wallet showing it to me. She opened it and looked inside.
Please get out now.
I have another question.
Get out of there.
One thing I don’t understand.
Please, get out of there.
She turned and looked at the drain pipe. The wallet was still being held up in her hand as she bent over to inspect the cavity.
This is a small pipe. How did Tim sit down here?
Get out of there now and I’ll tell you.
Alright, I’m getting out.
She put her hands on the edge of the drain and went to pull herself up when I saw it again. An arm, not a human arm, reached out from the drain hole and grabbed her ankle. Her eyes went wide like Tim’s. She dropped suddenly like Tim and then she was gone – dragged into the pipe.
She was gone, like Tim.
I heard her gun go off but then it stopped.
That’s when I screamed again.
You see, nothing ever changes in this town.