Noah likes to take a pre-dinner bike ride around the neighborhood. It's part of his routine whenever the weather is nice: come home, snack, homework, load the dishwasher, ride his bike around the same set loop two times, maybe three, then back for dinner. I've encouraged him to explore the neighborhood a little more, but he got a little lost doing that not long after we moved so now he prefers to stick to the same path. It takes him around to the street directly behind our house, and he likes to wave at me if I'm outside or at the kitchen window. I wave back.
The other night, I missed the wave. I was at the stove making dinner. Ezra and Ike came in from playing on the swingset and set the table. I put dinner out and realized Noah wasn't back yet. Which, okay, that's fine, he'll probably be back in a few minutes.
He wasn't. I checked the garage for his bike, scanned the street out back, then the front. I went to his room on the off-chance he'd come back and retreated there to play without anyone noticing (his stealth move to get out of further chores, or practicing his saxophone). He wasn't there. But his wristwatch was, which: Crap. That's the back-up plan if he decides to take extra loops or deviate from his path: Home by 6 p.m.
It was more like 6:30, a really unusually long ride for him. Plus his dinner was getting cold.
"He always comes back," Jason said, noticing the concern lines on my forehead and my restless pacing around the front door.
"I know," I replied.
I decided to hop in the car and drive around anyway, figuring maybe he went to a friend's house. Also not like him, but really all it would take is a neighbor kid mentioning that s/he had something-something-Minecraft inside he'd dump his bike on their yard and promptly lose all sense of space and time and hunger.
I drove around his loop. No sign of him or his bright yellow bike. I followed the sidewalks around, here and there. I slowed at the sight of kids playing outside -- nope, not there. I drove further away and then doubled back to his normal route, just in case.
"Is he home yet?" I texted Jason. "Not seeing him anywhere."
"No," was the reply.
"WTF," was the next one.
Now, we are not helicopter parents by any stretch of the imagination. We chose this house and neighborhood specifically with the idea that our kids would be free and safe to just "go out and play." Everybody wear your helmets, Ike needs to stick with at least one brother, come home when you're tired/hungry/filthy, whatever.
But in that moment, sitting in my car debating where else he could possibly be, my reptilian parental brain went straight to the worst-case scenarios.
I keep meaning to buy a cheap phone or GizmoPal or something similar to send out with them; the fact that I hadn't yet for no damn good reason other than laziness filled me with familiar Ceiba's-not-microchipped levels of guilt. The fact that I hadn't reminded him to at least put on his regular watch added to the "what the hell were you thinking" voices in my head. He was wearing short sleeves and doesn't like to wear it on bare skin because he says it pinches his arm hairs, but I should have told him to put it in his pocket. It was almost 7 p.m. now.
I started to feel a little sick to my stomach. Where was he? When exactly did he leave? When was the last time I quizzed him on our address and phone numbers? At what point do we need to ask for help? Crap, what was he wearing?
Blue shirt, grey shorts, bright blue shoes, green bike helmet. And on the Spectrum on the Spectrum oh God he's lost and he's on the Spectrum.
Jason went out back and started calling for him; I asked a couple people out walking their dogs if they'd seen a little boy on a yellow bike. No, they said, looking alarmed. I smiled and said everything was probably fine, he was just late for dinner. Tell him to come home if you see him!
Then I'd drive on and let out a panicked gasp. Spectrum spectrum spectrum.
"Did you check the next cul-de-sac overr?" Jason texted. "I hear kids."
I texted back irritably: Of COURSE I did. I've driven past it five times now.
In fact, I was just about to make my sixth pass. I slowed down again and saw the same pack of kids riding scooters. And then.
On the far, far end, right where a driveway vanishes behind the main row of houses, I spotted Noah in his blue shirt, grey shorts, bright blue shoes.
I parked and practically tumbled out of the car. I hadn't bothered to put my shoes on.
Noah saw me and smiled. "Hi Mom!" he said. "I'm having a playdate!"
He'd left his bike up on a path that connects that cul-de-sac to the one behind us, the one that was part of his loop. It wasn't visible from either street. He hadn't heard Jason calling; they'd all been busy talking about Five Nights At Freddy's.
A slightly older girl, assuming I was angry, assured me he actually was just about to head home after sensing it was probably getting late. "I invited him to a playdate," she said. "He's been having fun."
"That's great!" I replied. "It's totally fine! I just got a little worried. Thanks for inviting him."
I got back in the car. Noah sped past me on his yellow bike, with his green helmet and a sneaky grin on his face. "RACE YOU HOME!" he shouted, pedaling furiously.
I drove past him and stuck out my tongue. He laughed.