I shut to door to the conference room behind us. “Sir, please calm down.”
“I’ll calm down when I get some answers.” Mr. Buxton rounded on me. “My boy went missing for more than twenty-four hours and no one can tell me where he was or what happened to him.”
The shrink and I turned toward the preteen boy on the other side of the observation glass. He was crouched at a table furiously sketching. More than thirty pictures already littered the table, each page filled with fantastical creatures and places. The kid’s hair hung in greasy streaks, hiding haunted, hallow eyes.
“Asher barely eats or sleeps anymore. Just writes and draws.”
I opened my little black notebook and flipped to the second page. “Let’s start at the beginning.”
Buxton clenched his jaw and scowled.
“Humor me. I’m trying to catch any detail you might’ve missed.” I skimmed the timeline I created earlier. “The principal said your son never showed up to school on Friday. Anything out of the ordinary happen that morning?”
I cocked my head. Nothing really was code for absolutely something.
“He was struggling in school.” Buxton sucked in a hurried breath. “But we talked about it. It was good. He was good. I finished my coffee, gave him hearty pat on the back, and left for work.”
I made a note to follow-up with the boy’s teacher a second time.
Buxton started pacing. “No one saw him the whole day. Asher didn’t come home that night. I called the police. The next morning, here he comes running into the house, acting like he’d been gone years. Breathlessly going on and on about other worlds and creatures.”
“And he still has no recollection of where he was during that time?”
“Besides his fantasies? No.”
The shrink crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Classic Alice in Wonderland syndrome. A condition that results in episodes of skewed reality.”
Buxton stopped pacing and raised his eyebrows. “So you’ve explained. But you haven’t said what caused it.”
“Typically, it’s due to abnormal blood flow in the parts of the brain that process visual perception. Sometimes brought on by migraines or lack of sleep. Most commonly it’s linked to stress.”
Buxton shifted his gaze to his feet.
Guilt. About what, I wasn’t sure.
I flipped back a page in my notes. “What about the book he said he started reading? The one where he claims he became a part of the story?” I read my scribbles. “Leather bound. Strange golden symbol on the cover. Said it was mailed to him.”
“I don’t know what book he’s talking about. He didn’t get any packages, and we certainly don’t have any books matching that description.”
I lowered my voice. “That you know of.”
Buxton shot me a fiery glare. He looked back at the doctor. “So, tell me. Is he crazy?”
The shrink shook his head. “No. His condition is caused by a single case of distorted reality.”
The boy’s father raised his voice. “Single case? He’s in a constant state of distorted reality.”
“Mr. Buxton, I’ve done every medical test possible. They’ve all come back normal…”
“Normal? That is not normal.” He pointed at Asher’s latest drawing—a giant creature made of rock. “Did he tell you why he’s drawing incessantly?”
The shrink nodded. “He’s on a quest to save a princess.”
Buxton nodded back. “Said she’d fade away if he didn’t keep her world alive.”
“Sir, the boy is not a threat to himself or to others, so I’ve decided to release him. I’ll prescribe something to help him sleep, and I’ll set up weekly appointments to follow his progress.”
Buxton’s head and shoulders slumped. “What do I do in the meantime?”
“Engage him. Ask him questions about what he’s seen and experienced.”
He sighed. “It’s never ending.”
The shrink put his hand on the father’s shoulder. “Turn around.” Buxton turned to look at his son through the glass. “Look at what you see.”
“A crazy person.”
The boy paused only to push his hair out of his eyes, then continued his picture.
Buxton shook his head and added, “A dreamer.”
I closed my notebook, ready to leave. “Dreamers are the ones who can change the world.”
After following up every lead, I headed back to the station and typed up my report. Unless more evidence surfaced, the case would remain unsolved.
I pulled the bottom file folder out of the stack on my desk, and scanned its contents one more time: a picture of an ten-year-old girl in pigtails, her shoulders slumped, her eyes pained; a newspaper article detailing the death of both her parents in a car crash; a letter from the grandmother to the school begging for emotional help and support for her granddaughter.
There were too many kids with stories like hers, like Asher’s, these days. My heart twinged. I couldn’t help them all.
But I could help Emmy.
I closed the folder and opened my bottom desk drawer. After stuffing the file underneath all the miscellaneous junk, I pulled out two items. The first was a leather-bound book with a golden symbol on the cover. I slid it into the envelope addressed to Emmy, sealed it, and put it in my outgoing mail tray. The other item was a second little black notebook. I flipped its pages until I got to the next empty one. I started drawing… a young girl with pigtails on the back of a flying dragon.
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