Inside the hay maze, it was complete darkness after the first turn. I would’ve gone with him, but it was difficult to fit my whole body in the tunnel. Stacked wall to the ceiling with bales of hay, the entryway was a gopher hole for children. If you just kept following the tunnel, you’d find your way out through a portal only a few yards to the right of the entrance. But try telling that to a two-year-old.
Collins, my wife, had questioned if this was a good idea while pushing our other son, Hunter, in his stroller. Of course he’d be fine, it’s meant for kids. You don’t want him to be a wimp, do you? But now we paused.
“Logan, it’s dark in there, are you sure you want to go?”
“Daddy can’t fit. It could be scary. Are you sure?”
In the ten steps from Collins to the tunnel’s entrance, I had thought of everything that could go wrong while also telling myself not to project my fears onto my kid. The priority is to always smile. Not because life is one happy romp in the pumpkin patch, but because when you smile, you know what you’re doing. The possibility that I am a fraud occurs to me often — when you see me smiling most, that’s what is in my head.
Avery, our friends’ five-year-old daughter, was about to go through the maze. Compared to Logan, she looked like a teenager.
“Logan, do you want to come?” she asked.
“Yah,” Logan said, taking her hand.
“Are you sure, buddy?” I asked, but he was already gone.
So I waited. I did not hear any crying, which was a good sign. I did not hear anything. Kids went in one end. Kids came out the other end. They laughed and went again. The next one would be Logan. I would pick him up, swing him in the air, and ask him how was it, and he’d giggle ‘again, again’ and I’d give Collins a nod to remind her I said there was nothing to worry about. Another great fatherhood moment. A couple more kids came out. I smiled at a parent I didn’t know. I wondered what kept a hay maze from collapsing in on itself. I waited longer.
Then Avery came out the way she went in. Logan was not with her.
“It’s dark in there,” she said. “I got lost.”
“Avery, where is Logan?”
She cleared hair from her face and looked puzzled, like she was trying to remember who Logan was. “I think he’s still in there.”
Of course he’s still in there, you idiot, you left him there. But she’s not an idiot. She’s five. You should be yelling at yourself because you are an idiot for sending a two-year-old into a hole you can’t fit in yourself.
I moved with purpose. I pulled Collins away from Hunter, now napping in his stroller. “Logan hasn’t come out. We have to go in after him.” I sounded like a bad movie. She asked a near stranger to keep an eye on Hunter, but I didn’t have time to think about whether we were now making two bad decisions.
“You go that way, and I’ll go this way,” I told her. I climbed through the exit, holding out hope he was playing a joke on us. He loves going out the front door of the house without us, even though he knows he’s not supposed to. Because he’s not supposed to. When we run after him, his face is pressed against the glass and he’s smiling back at us. But in the maze, he had no light. He was not joking. Hay scraped at my neck, making me itch, even in places the hay had not touched. At the corners, I squatted with my knees wide to let kids scoot past. I asked them if they had seen Logan, but they didn’t know who that was. I crawled through another turn. I did not realize it went back this far. There was no Logan. What if he wasn’t in there? What if he was hurt? What if someone took him? What if, what if, what if.
Then I heard my wife. “Here he is.”
I met them outside the tunnel. “When I found him,” Collins said, “he was sitting in the middle of the maze in the dark. He was whimpering, ‘Dada, help.’” Her lip had an ‘isn’t that so sad, but cute?’ pout to it. I looked at Logan. He was resting his head on my wife’s shoulder. I could buy him ice cream. I could buy him a pony. I could hang the sun in his window so he’d never be in the dark again.
But now that the moment had passed, he was grinning as if nothing had happened. He pointed to the playground and said, “Slide?”
“Sure, buddy, go ahead.” I looked around. I smiled widely at no one.
That night, I watched him for signs of trauma. I waited for a burst of tears or for him to refuse to go to bed. Maybe it will hit him tomorrow, I thought. Maybe it will hit him in fifteen years. I watched him as if I would need to catch him falling from a great height.
He did not fall. He sat on his Elmo couch and watched Elmo on TV. He ate Goldfish. He asked for milk. Dada, milk. He had forgotten the whole damn incident.
For the past three nights, I’ve lain in bed and stared at the ceiling in the dark. I am the only one awake. I listen to my breath and repeat in my head words I didn’t actually hear. Dada, help.
Tomorrow, I will be a dad again. There will be no demotion. My sons will smile because they are happy. I will smile because it is the only way to keep them alive. It is absurd, and so am I.
Alex Strum is a writer living outside of Boston. His fiction has recently appeared in The MacGuffin, 34th Parallel, and Blackheart Magazine.