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It was a little before 2 a.m. when we discovered our 4-year-old wasn’t in his bed, but it took several more minutes to realize he was also not in the house. The details of the night have grown muddled through the initial fog of panic, years of retelling and the way the now 11-year-old doesn’t exactly remember it, but here’s what we’ve pieced together:

The 4-year-old, at some point between the last time we checked on him and the 911 call, awoke in his bedroom on the second floor. He got right out of bed, opened his door, walked down the hall, turned left, went downstairs and passed through both the kitchen and living room, where his mom had fallen asleep on the couch while studying. He flipped up the lock on the sliding glass door, opened it, unlocked the screen door, opened that too, extracted a pair of floppy blue Crocs from the shoe basket, slipped them on over his footie pajamas and walked outside, closing both doors behind him. We’re still not sure if he was awake — we’ve come to find he inherited his dad’s entertaining gift for sleepwalking  — but we do know it wasn’t an accident, or some wandering gone awry. He wanted to go outside, so he went outside. For a child who spent a good two or three years being afraid of Tinker Bell, this remains a pretty shocking plot point.

It was an unusually warm and cloudy night. For the previous few weeks the neighborhood property owner’s association had been engaged in some inexplicable feud with the people who usually turned on the streetlights, so it was darker than usual, and really kind of annoying to drive around, let alone try to find a wandering toddler. Still, the moon cast enough glow for my son to walk through the backyard past the swingset, find the access road behind the detached garage and follow that in the general direction of Annie and Jason’s house. Somewhere along this part of the journey he got spooked and started running. Then he got more spooked and started running faster, because by the time Brendan and Kevin found him he was a quarter-mile from his bed and pretty near the entrance gate to the subdivision. Had he passed through he’d have been on a long, moonlit access road that wound a good mile through dark forest and, being in coastal South Carolina, probably contained an awful lot of animals.

Brendan and Kevin are the two guys I credit with my son still living in my house, as there is simply no good reason they should have been driving through the entrance to a reasonably remote neighborhood at 1:45 a.m. on a Sunday. I spent a good bit of time staring at them to make sure they were, y’know, real, poking them just to make sure they had corporeal bodies. Brendan and Kevin had driven in through the gate, spotted the curious image of a 4-year-old in light blue zip-up PJs and ridiculous Crocs sprinting away from home and, not having a great deal of experience with escaped toddlers, picked him up. One of them told me later: “I saw him running and I thought, ‘Yeah, that just ain’t right.'” I haven’t been able to describe it much better.

Anyway, at this point my wife and I were still back at home, she on the phone with 911 and me idiotically running laps around the house in flip-flops screaming my son’s name as though he’d pop out behind a bush like, “Hey!” and I’d say, “Oh there you are, you should really be in bed.” It’s wild to watch, almost outside yourself, how you react in these kinds of situations, how you as a parent respond to moments of primal panic, when the world falls away and your stomach explodes and your boring safe little life gets blown up for a minute. As it happened, Brendan and Kevin had called 911 before my wife did, so when she gasped, “Wait, you have him?” it was almost more shocking than losing him, feeling relief and panic, glee and horror, knowing he was somewhere but not here, wondering in a blaze where is he and who has him and how did they call first and how the hell long has he been gone?

Several minutes later I was absently poking at Brendan and Kevin, nice kids, chatty and friendly, given the circumstances, both in double-denim jacket-and-jeans outfits, one of them smoking. They both wore expressions that said, and I don’t mean this as a negative, “Uhhh.” By the time I arrived they had my boy (rather adorably) belted into the driver’s side seat and covered in a blanket, which, coupled with the lights of the two cop cars that pulled up shortly after, made the whole scene look like my toddler had been busted street-racing in someone else’s Mazda, but at least he’d remembered to buckle up. “Do you want me to put the fear of God into him?” asked one of the police officers, and I’m pretty sure I said something like YES LET’S PLEASE DO THAT PART. When the cop asked my son what he was doing out at such an hour, my son looked at us with half-sleeping bleariness and panic and said, pointing at Brendan and Kevin with utter matter-of-factness, “I was out looking for those guys.”

He was lying, of course. He’d later tell us he was being Alpha Pig from “Super Why,” who, we were told, “goes for walks by himself.” That is, as you might expect, a fantastic argument. That argument cannot be beaten. It’s the kind of glorious, unassailable toddler logic that renders you speechless and makes you look at the most precious thing in your world and say sentences like, “But son, you are not Alpha Pig.” (Later, he changed his story to report that he was simply looking for the Polar Express and frankly didn’t see what the big deal was.)

He didn’t like talking about it then; he’d catch me on the phone telling the story and say, quietly from the backseat, “Daddy, stop saying it.” He didn’t like when cars went by at night, still doesn’t really. But now and again, not often, but now and again he would get quiet for a minute and ask us things like, “Do you still love me even when I go on my walks at night?” Of course, we’d say, the world grinding to a brief stop, cop-car lights suddenly appearing on the walls of the house. Always and forever, even when you go on your walks at night. To be honest, I did try to leave a little fear in there too, so that he didn’t go for any more walks at night. Mostly I hoped that if he did, he’d be lucky enough to run into human beings like Brendan and Kevin. And that when he did start going on walks at night, by himself and on purpose, when he was outside our reach, when he was 11, and 16, and 21, and 39, that he knew it was still always and forever and his home wasn’t far away at all.

Vrabel is a writer, editor, humor columnist, very slow runner and father of two. You can find him @jeffvrabel and jeffvrabel.com.

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