Mrs. Pam called one day to tell there was a problem with one of the parents of the children at Gooseberry school, and the doors would be locked when we came to pick up our own. The story she left on the message, as well as the story Mary heard at the college, was vague enough to be alarming, so I got the truck over there early, walked the curving path around the back to the door to the basement. The red barn stood in the field a mile off behind her place as always, I think it was this time of year, spring. The mountains miles past marked the gnarled border of North Carolina.
Sam, who was a year younger than Henry and still ten pounds heavier and who hasselled my kid daily unlocked the door and let me in. The room was open and airy , many lights in the ceiling, many doors and windows facing the blue edge of mountains east. There was red mexican tile over most of the room's breadth, the noise from the children was constant and almost deafening most of the time. I crossed to the horseshoe shaped countertop in the heart of the room, which served as a kitchen, where Mrs. Pam, in the middle, was serving up juice. The other children were in centers, Henry playing with his legos, and I let him be. Mrs. Pam was tall and midwestern, with short hair and the kind of glasses you might think a woman from the midwest would wear and everyone loved her dearly.
She leaned in and told me, almost in a whisper that the father of one of the kids, Gabriel I think it was, was bi-polar and stopped taking his medication, and today had gone missing from wherever he was interned. There had been some talk that he might come to try and take Gabriel. I remember she smelled like something, lilacs or cookies, one. I remember hearing her husband Scott upstairs in the kitchen and imagined him staying home from work that day, carefully loading borrowed guns while the muffled noise of the children floated up the stairs.
Just past the kitchen area was a large carpeted patch where I always managed to bring Henry in late and disrupt the story each morning. The was a tall window behind it facing a deep window-well where the earth fell away toward the back of the house. Field mice would tumble into it and so trapped, would die, the children poking at the window like a terrarium. Mrs. Pam would tell them each mouse was sleeping, until Scott would come later and remove the thing.
The window-well bothered me so one rained-out friday I constructed a chicken-ladder for it, one of four I have built in my time as a carpenter. You have seen them before, they consist of one long board with small cross pieces, blocks, nailed across it acting as rungs. It is an ancient and simple construction. I think I built it out of some half-inch plywood I used for templates and some white oak left over from a porch job. Mrs. Pam said it was the nicest thing anyone ever did for Gooseberry. I set it down into the well so the mice, at night when the children had gone, could perhaps make their way up the rungs and out.
I used to look at my chicken-ladder when I sat at the horseshoe, as I had a hard time meeting her quick blue eyes. As we talked another parent came in and told us, hushed while the children played very quietly all around us, that we could unlock the doors now, someone had found the father dead in someone's house. With a pistol he had erased himself, his illness, from Gabriel and everyone else in this world.