The footage is grainy and overexposed in that way only old camcorder videos can be, hazy like a memory. It has been filmed with an unsteady hand and a penchant for zooming in and out, constantly shifting and refocusing, young faces and carefree smiles growing larger and smaller as the cameraman fixates on each pair of sunburnt cheeks in turn.

I’ve never particularly cared for being on camera, and on the screen I see my smile dim as I realise the camcorder is pointed my way, brow creasing and blue, popsicle-stained lips puckering. After a few seconds of my clearly ineffectual stink-eye, I turn away in a huff and head off-screen.

The footage cuts off there, and the next video opens with Bobby’s face startlingly close before the videographer has the good sense to zoom out to a more respectable distance.

“Wanna see a magic trick?”

My breath catches at the words, as it always does whenever I watch these videos. Wild horses could not have torn Bobby away from the magic kit his parents had gifted him for his tenth birthday, and he hadn’t stopped asking that same question the whole summer. I remember I’d grown distinctly sick of it within a few weeks; nevertheless, being well aware of my obligations as the elder cousin, I had dutifully replied “whatever” instead of “no” for months to come. But now it’s been over 20 years since he’s asked me, and I’d give anything to hear that question just one more time.

He pulls a pack of cards from the pocket of his cargo shorts and retrieves a single card from the stack, the king of spades. He presents it theatrically to the camera, pinched between forefinger and thumb, turning it this way and that. Then he palms it, gliding one hand over the other, and the card disappears.

“Oh my god!” my uncle’s voice exclaims from behind the camera. “Where did it go?”

Bobby can barely contain his grin, and with a few hand gestures, the card snaps back into existence. Uncle places the camera down to give Bobby an enthusiastic round of applause, imitating a crowd gone wild.

Bobby had always liked the disappearing tricks the most; they were the only ones for which he refused to share the underlying techniques with me. Maybe that’s why no one has been able to find him since he went missing the following summer: he had simply learned his magic too well.

In the nineties there used to be a wooded area right behind Uncle’s house, lush and verdant in the summer. I had always envied Bobby for it.

I still visit the area sometimes, even though the land has been developed now and I know there’s nothing for me to see there anymore, just streets and townhouses that hold no familiarity. Not even Bobby’s house was spared: when my uncle and his wife eventually moved out, it was snatched up by developers and turned into another duplex.

Still, the gesture brings me some measure of comfort, the thought that I can visit him like I did in my childhood; that although we may still not know where his physical body lies, I can still approach that wraith-like memory of him, forever eleven years old, sitting on our favourite rock and collecting cicada shells and building teepees out of sticks and pretending that the grass between our bare toes was actually a stream and that we could walk on water.

If I close my eyes tight enough and tilt my face to the sunshine, sometimes I can still smell that last summer, humid and heady, finally free of schoolwork and filled instead with frozen grapes and lemonade. Bobby, for reasons I had found incomprehensible at the time, had been frustratingly eager to start middle school, whereas I, one year older and already jaded, resented both his enthusiasm and the reminder that the holidays would eventually end.

Bobby would never actually make it to his first day of sixth grade, vanished somewhere in the fifteen minutes it would have taken him to walk to the bus stop — that route that he had, with great difficulty, eventually persuaded his parents to let him walk alone — or perhaps in the ten minutes he would have stood there waiting for the bus to arrive, having slept little and left early in his anticipation. Bobby had never in his life been early to anything before, but on that morning, of all mornings, he just had to have chosen to be punctual.

Of course, there’s no telling whether an extra minute or ten would have impacted the outcome in any way, but life is fickle like that, full of serendipitous and unfortunate coincidences that often seem timed down to the second. It’s terrifying to think, sometimes, how much a small difference in timing could change everything: if that meeting hadn’t run overtime, perhaps I would have never struck up a conversation with my now-husband at the bus stop, and our son would have never been born; if I had left the grocery store five minutes earlier, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten into a fender bender in the parking lot. Maybe if Bobby had run late for the bus, as he was wont to do, he could have had the chance to become something other than a missing person’s case.

If I’m not careful, it’s easy to drive myself mad with this train of thought, all the endless possibilities taunting me with their futility, questions without answers that I can’t help but ask myself anyways. What kind of person would he be as an adult? Would we still have been close? Would he be married by now, maybe with kids? How different would the world have been with him still in it? I can’t even picture him as anything other than eleven years old, gap-toothed and self-assured, not yet fully grown out of his baby cheeks. 

I wish I could travel through time and become a poltergeist, so that I could misplace his pencil case and hide his new school shoes so that he’d be forced to spend a few precious minutes searching for them; or else that I could visit his mother in her dreams, so that she would put her foot down the next morning and insist on accompanying Bobby to the bus stop. And then this whole nightmare would become nothing more than that: a nightmare. But I am only human, so I can only look towards the future, to try and ensure that the past cannot repeat itself. My son will undoubtedly come to resent my overprotectiveness, but I’m sure that one day he will understand, and he will forgive me.

There are many more videos on the camcorder, more than I could possibly watch in one sitting. Most of them are time stamped within a span of five months, true to my uncle’s propensity for quickly getting distracted by some newer and more exciting gadget. Some of the videos are quieter and more serious, featuring mostly the adults of the family, but the majority star me and Bobby: the camera trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to keep up with us as we chase each other around the backyard with water guns; us asleep on top of each other in the backseat of my parents’ car; Bobby and his mother, both in their pyjamas, opening Christmas presents.

One of them is a close-up of Bobby, cross-legged in the grass, waving a twig like it’s a magic wand.

“Whatcha doing over there?” I hear myself ask, high-pitched and juvenile. The camera rapidly and repeatedly zooms in and out for a few seconds as I discover and proceed to abuse the associated controller.

“Practicing my magic,” he replies, then turns to stare straight into the camera. “I’ve decided that I’m going to be a magician when I grow up.”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah,” he says in all earnestness, not catching my sarcasm. “I’m gonna keep practicing until I can do all sorts of things, and then, pew!” He imitates an explosion, fists at his temples opening and fingers wiggling. “I’ll blow their minds.”

“Knock their socks off, even.”

“Disappear their socks. Right off their feet.”


“Look, I’ve already learned some amazing new tricks. I’m now going to make my wand… disappear.” He gesticulates it wildly in front of him. Suddenly: “Look, a bird! Abracadabra!” and throws the stick over his shoulder, then gleefully showcases his empty hands. “See? Gone! Classic misdirection.”

“That defeats the whole point of the trick,” I laugh. “The wand has to reappear at the end!”

He shrugs. “I’m still working on that part.”

“Are you-” I start to say, but cut myself off as the video shifts abruptly downwards; after a few seconds of silence and nothing but rock and a sliver of grass occupying the frame, it ends completely. In the back of my mind I can vaguely recall our parents calling for us, and a scolding for having borrowed Uncle’s camcorder without permission.

They say that ignorance is bliss, but I would gladly bear the pain of knowing what happened to him, if only for the sake of closure. He is an unresolved magic trick, a magician’s wand vanished into the undergrowth, Houdini escaped from his water torture cell but never re-emerging from behind the curtain to greet his waiting audience. You can guess at what happened, the trick behind the magic, but the crowd’s theories are never as satisfying as the truth. One could very well pretend that Bobby is still out there somewhere, having forgotten all about us but nonetheless living a full life under a different name. But a more realistic hypothesis has Bobby dying a quick and relatively painless death in the best of cases, or suffering immeasurable atrocities in the worst of them, and the knowledge that I may never find out exactly where between those two extremes the truth lies is sometimes too much to bear.

There are days that I drive out to that accursed bus stop and sit there for hours, watching uniformed school children run for the bus, safe and sound and without a care in the world, at least for another day. I will picture Bobby sitting there on the bench, fiddling with his Game Boy as he waits for the school bus, and I sit there beside him, keeping him safe from the clutches of adults who would do him harm.

“But Janie,” he’ll pout, “I’m in middle school now. I can catch the bus by myself.”

“I know you can,” I’ll tell him, “but let me sit with you, just for a little while.”

And then I’ll come home to my son, who is thankfully still too young to argue about the potential harms of letting him walk somewhere by himself, and sit beside his crib until we both fall asleep.

I select another video, this one from several months later. We are sitting around the dining table at Bobby’s house, the lights dimmed and a cake with eleven flickering candles placed in front of him as the rest of us sing an off-key happy birthday. His eyes are ablaze with the firelight; my eyes are fixated solely on the cake, clearly ready for the formalities to end. It is the last birthday we will celebrate with him, and I should be focused on him instead of the stupid cake, but I am twelve and hungry and blissfully unaware of all that is to come.

July 17, 2021 02:19

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