There are three of them. No, four.
They step off the Amtrak train into the snowy dusk, children first and adults after, and then they hesitate, clustered on the platform. Passengers behind them shove past, but the four—Blake, Gracie, Dad, Mama—just move a few more steps and stop again, look around. Their faces are an uneasy yellow in the overhead light from the station. Mama looks most anxious. She peers into the darkness under the awning where I stand, just twenty feet away, as if she knows instinctively that I am here, but no confirmation registers on her face. I am still invisible in the shadows.
Invisible, but cornered. Backed up against the station wall, next to a bench, the woman from Child Protective Services who I met this afternoon standing beside me. It’s too late to stop this now. Too late to go back, too late to run away. I press my back into the wall, feeling the tenderness of a recent bruise on my right shoulder blade. I wet my chapped lips and break into a cold sweat.
“Is that them?” the woman asks quietly.
“It’s them,” I say. And I’m sure. I feel panic welling up in my gut.
If I move, they’ll see me.
I take a deep breath, hold it, and force myself to step out from under the awning into the yellow light. Walk toward them. Mama sees me, and her mittened hand clutches her coat where it opens at her neck. As I approach, I can see her eyes shining above deep gray semicircles, and I can tell she’s not sure—I’m not seven anymore. Her lips part and I imagine she gasps a bit. Then Dad, Blake, and finally Gracie, the replacement child, stare with doubting eyes, taking me in.
I open my mouth to say something, but I don’t know what to say. It’s almost like the cold sweat in the small of my back, in my armpits, freezes me in place.
Mama takes Dad’s arm and they stumble over to me while the two children hang back. And then they’re right in front of me, and I’m looking into Mama’s eyes.
“Ethan?” she says within a visible exhaled breath that envelopes me, then dissipates. She touches my hair, my cheek. Her breath smells like spearmint, and her eyes fill up with tears. Her skin is darker, and she’s rounder, shorter than I expected. A lot shorter than me. I stand almost even with my dad, which feels right. Like I belong with this group of people.
I’m surprised to find tears welling in my own eyes. I haven’t cried in a while, but it feels good to be with them. All at once, I feel wanted.
“It’s really you,” she says, wonder in her voice. She throws herself at me, sobs into my neck, and I close my eyes and hold her and let out a breath.
“Mama,” I whisper into her soft hair. I am at once sixteen, my actual age, and seven, the age they remember me. We are long-lost souls, a mother reuniting with her semi-prodigal son. It is the end of one story and the beginning of the next.
Being near her makes my teeth stop chattering.
Dad comes in for a group hug, and we are suddenly stepping on each other’s feet, not sure where to put our heads in the crowded space. I turn my face outward and see Blake watching. We hold each other’s gaze for several seconds, until my eyes cross from staring, and I think, for a moment, that he looks a little bit like this yellow dog I used to see hanging around the group home. He really does. I close my eyes.
The woman from CPS gently interrupts, lays a hand on my coat sleeve. I pull away from my parents. “Ethan,” she says, “I’m sorry to intrude. It seems obvious, but I need to ask a few questions.” We nod, and she looks at me. “Are these your parents?”
I’m choked up, but I say in a weird voice, “Yes, ma’am.”
She asks my parents for identification and they fumble in an attempt to show it as quickly as possible. Asks them officially, “Is this your son?”
Mama breaks down. “Yes,” she says, sobbing. “Finally. I can’t believe it. Thank you. Thank you so much.”
“Please don’t be offended by the next question—I’m required to ask. Would you like a DNA test?”
They look at each other and then at me. “Absolutely not,” Mama says. “I’m positive.”
“There’s no need for that,” Dad says.
There are a few more questions and papers for them to sign, so we step out of the snow, into the building. At a closed ticket window we spread things out on the ledge, and that’s all there is. I already talked to the cops this afternoon. There are no more formalities. It’s almost like I got lost in the fishing tackle aisle of Wal-Mart for ten minutes. This your mom? This your kid? Good. Stay close now, keep a better eye out.
The woman from CPS squeezes my arm, searches my eyes, and apparently sees what she wants in them—enough to satisfy her that I am okay with all of this. She puts her hand to her chest and says, “Congratulations to all of you.” Her voice fills out, like she’s choking up. “It’s really such an amazing, joyful event when one of the lost ones makes it home again.” She smiles brightly, but her eyes glisten. I figure it must feel good to her, like they actually finished a job. To me, it just feels like nausea.
Then the woman turns businesslike. “Mr. and Mrs. De Wilde, we’ve arranged for our counselor, Dr. Cook, to talk with you all and explain what we know. The train station manager was kind enough to let us use the break room to do this. Ethan, would you like me to stay?” She ushers us to the room and opens the door.
I shake my head. “No, that’s okay.” It only gets worse the longer she stays. I can’t even remember her name, I’m so anxious. Dr. Cook is sitting inside at a round table. I talked to her this afternoon. She has six pencils stuck in the ball of hair at the back of her head—four yellows, two reds.