Ben did not feel well. If he thought about it, he realized he had not felt well for at least a week. Maybe more. He had a low-grade fever. That meant it wasn’t all in his throbbing head. He was really sick.
It was nearly nine in the morning. Time to leave his hotel room for the conference on the lower level. He wondered if he would be able to make it to the elevator, much less to the keynote address by a well-regarded linguistic historian from Harvard. Linguistics was not Ben’s field. He was a graduate student in Economics. But there was an overlap in his thesis topic between the two disciplines. His research investigated the ways a region’s language had shaped its economy.
If he were still married to Becca, she could have accompanied him, bringing him tea and Tylenol, laying her cool hand on his forehead, and insisting he stay in bed. She could have recorded the more important sessions for him. Or she could have curled her soft warm body next to his in the bed, lulling him to the blessedness of sleep. They had divorced after losing their six-year-old son, Adam, who died in a fall.
That had happened the year before. It was a shock to realize that Adam would be seven, if he had lived. Every time the earth completed another circuit of the sun, whenever another class of students graduated in May or enrolled in the university in August, every Rosh Hashanah, every time the last page of the wall calendar was ripped off and replaced by a new calendar with a different National Geographic wildlife photo on its cover, the world would be a year older, but Adam would still be six.
Six. An awful number. The days of labor before Shabbat, the day of rest. The number of years he had left in graduate school. The length of his failed marriage to Becca.
The terrible sadness that racked him for the first months after Adam’s funeral, repeated after filing for divorce, was now a duller, constant ache. He would no longer describe himself as mad with grief. Now he was mad with loneliness. Especially while attending a conference in a strange city where he knew no one.
The core of graduate students and professors he studied with and had beer with after classes on occasion were unlikely to be here. He didn’t recognize anyone. There was no one to walk him back to his room if his fever spiked or to get him medical attention. He was on his own. But weak and now nauseous as he was, he figured it was just some bug. Probably others unknown to him were stuck in their rooms, or fighting to stay upright at the conference sessions, with the same condition. By the lunch break, he knew he wouldn’t make it through the long afternoon and evening of presentations. He staggered to the elevator and returned to his room and its freshly made bed.
After several hours of deep sleep, he woke up refreshed. Apparently, he no longer had a fever and was actually hungry. He couldn’t afford to eat in the hotel’s pricey restaurant. Instead, he purchased several candy bars from a vending machine near the ice maker and made decaf in the coffee machine in his room. Rather than attending any of the evening sessions, he settled in for a night of Netflix. He should be healthy enough for the last day of the conference after another night’s sleep.
But the next morning, he was woozy again. He sat staring at his complimentary breakfast in the lobby cafe, wondering if he could keep down a piece of dry toast. A man carrying a tray approached his table. Ben recognized him from the Dealer’s Room. Was he an academic publisher?
‘Do you mind if I join you? Looks like this is the only table left.’
The stranger set his tray down. Ben observed his Nordic good looks and expensive-looking suit.
‘Larry Anderson. And your name, Professor?’ He took a seat.
‘I’m just a graduate student. Not yet a professor.’ The sight of curdled eggs, muddy gravy, and pale doughy biscuits on the stranger’s tray brought on a coughing fit.
‘You okay, Professor?’
Shaking his head, Ben stood to leave.
‘Wait. Take my card. Call me later. When you are feeling better.’ Anderson stuck a business card into Ben’s conference packet.
Still coughing and unable to speak, Ben grabbed the packet and stumbled back to the elevator. He pushed the button for—was he on the eleventh floor? As soon as the ascent began, he vomited onto the floor. When the doors next opened, permitting a group of conference attendees to pile in, he rushed out.
He found himself in an antechamber, in front of three closed elevator doors. A large mirror covered the opposite wall, partly obscured by an urn containing a spray of metallic flowers. His reflection did not resemble him. The green-tinged face, the round-shouldered lankiness, the thinning hair: is that me? He needed to find his room, shower, and change clothes. He needed to sleep more. He needed to attend the presentations. Not daring to risk the elevator again, he located an emergency door. It led to a stairwell. After climbing one flight, his energy dwindled. Lightheaded, he sank down on the steps.
He might have dozed off. When he came to, he noticed a card on the floor next to his foot. It was the business card from the stranger in the cafe, lying face up. He was able to read it without touching it, although the lettering was hazy.
Larry Anderson. Academic Ghost Writer.
The word ‘Ghost’ appeared to float above the rest of the card, shimmering in the half-light. As he stared, the word sharpened, while the other words and the card itself oozed into the general grayness of area. It was then that he heard a whimper. He concentrated, trying to locate its source. Was an animal trapped, perhaps on another floor? After a few minutes, the sound changed. It was a child, softly crying. It was saying something. Ben strained to hear.
Daddy! Daddy! Get me!
Instantly, he recognized Adam’s voice. His son was calling him. His son was in trouble, possibly hurt or lost. He sprang up, looking around. The voice circled his head, seeming to come from several directions, both from the flights above and the flights below.
‘Adam! I’m here. Where are you?’
I’m down here, Daddy. Get me. Hurry!
Ben looked over the railing. The stairs spiraled down for several flights. It was too dark to see the bottom. Perhaps there were several lower levels. Had his son fallen, tumbling down several flights? There was an object three flights down. He began the descent to see what it was.
‘I’m coming. Stay where you are. I’ll find you.’
He reached the object. It was a child’s battered blue and white shoe. The velcro straps were undone and hanging open. He was sure it was Adam’s. He remembered buying him just such a pair. If the boy had fallen to this floor, whichever floor it was, he could not be much further down. But when Adam next called, he did not sound closer. If anything, he seemed more distant.
Daddy! Hurry! I’m hurt.
Holding the shoe, Ben rushed down the stairs. The was a landing at each level with a door to the hotel floor. The first two were unlocked. He pushed them open to see if Adam had found his way out. But the third one and all subsequent ones were locked. This would make finding Adam easier. He would not be able to wander off.
Ben raced downward, calling his son’s name. If he looked over the rail, the bottom remained invisible. As tired as he was, he kept going down the endless stairwell. His son was down there, somewhere, calling for him. His son was alive. Soon, they would be reunited. Ben was wheezing from the exertion, but that did not matter. Only finding Adam mattered. He would descend to the earth’s core if it meant bringing his boy back. He clutched the shoe.
When he lost his footing, he did not realize at first what was happening. The walls, stairs, and ceiling changed places. His head was banging hard on each step. Something was wrong with the angle of his legs. The shoe was gone, dropped somewhere. As his consciousness faded, he could still hear Adam calling, quite near, but still out of sight.
The blackness ended abruptly. Someone in a white jacket was hanging over him, shining a penlight into his eyes. The stranger said he was a doctor, that Ben was in a hospital, that he might not be able to talk because he was on a ventilator to help him breathe.
‘We’ll do all we can to make you comfortable,’ the doctor said.
Ben thrashed. He tried to pull out the ventilator. He had to tell the doctor that Adam was in the stairwell. Someone had to find him. Maybe he was hurt.
‘Just a little prick,’ someone said. Then it was black again.
When he awoke, he saw his mother, smiling in a chair near his bed. She was holding a plate of oatmeal cookies, nodding for him to take one. And there was his father in his recliner, reading The Wall Street Journal, as usual. His brother was standing at the foot of his bed, texting rapidly with both thumbs. Becca, Ben’s wife, was sitting on the other side of the bed, holding his hand. Her eyes were moist.
‘Darling, you have the Powassan virus. It’s from a deer tick,’ she said.
His father lowered the newspaper and spoke in Ben’s direction.
‘Ticks. A nearly invisible enemy. They carry obscure diseases, like Lyme and Powassan. Makes your brain swell.” He buried his face in the paper again. “Your mistake was climbing that hill without tucking your pants legs into your socks when Adam fell in that sinkhole. That’s probably when you were attacked by ticks.’
Ben remembered the phone call, the frantic drive to the state park, running up the trail to the top of the hill where Adam had been when the earth collapsed, Becca falling into his arms. No, he had not tucked his pants into his socks or sprayed himself with DEET. He hadn’t thought of it. His son was missing.
‘You’re a dead duck, man.Just like Adam,’ his brother said without looking up from his phone. His mother was still thrusting the plate of cookies in his direction.
Ben was able to turn his head enough to look at Becca. How beautiful she was. What a fool he was to divorce her. Tears leaked from his eyes. She wiped his face with the end of the blanket covering him. He would not let go of her hand. Looking straight at her, he spoke with his gaze.
I love you so much. I’m so sorry.
Her smile was warm. He knew she understood.
Just behind her was another figure. It was Adam.
Daddy. I lost my shoe.
The shoe! Where was the shoe! Ben tore at the ventilator tube. He had to go back to the hotel and find Adam’s shoe. Becca was yelling at him to stop. His brother was yanking his hands away from the tubing.
‘He’s having a seizure,’ someone shouted. ‘Code blue.’
‘Don’t forget. Pants tucked into socks,’ he heard his father say before he hit the trail. Adam was just ahead, climbing with only one shoe on. The sock on his other foot was decorated with the image of a superhero, Ben couldn’t tell which one.
‘Wait for me,’ he shouted. Adam was nearing the sinkhole. He could fall in again.
Catch me, Daddy. I’m right up here.