On June 7, 1984, seven-year-old Louis Anthony Mackerley arrived home from school to a babysitter. His mother was in the hospital, and his father, an Allentown manufacturing laborer, was at work. Louis informed the sitter that he was going to visit a friend down the street. Anyone watching would have seen a small boy step from the apartment clad in long, blue pants, a green striped shirt, and brown shoes. If you looked closely, you may have noticed his pink socks, the boyish auburn hair, or the rounded almonds of his eyes. You may have seen him step into the street, even heard the taunts of the other school children as he slipped into a hot dog shop to escape them. It’s possible that you may have seen him leave that same shop, minutes later, in an attempt to resume his journey. But, it seems, no one saw Louis Mackerley after that. Not ever again.
These details may have had little relevance to my life, to my family, were it not for Louis’s photograph on a milk carton, his face a dead ringer for my brother’s.
More than a year after Louis Mackerley’s disappearance, my mother, father, brother and I set off in the middle of the night for our annual drive to Florida. I was eleven, my brother seven. Somewhere in New Jersey, as the sky lightened with the first rays of morning, my father stopped for milk. We weren’t used to seeing the photographs on the cartons, a practice only recently begun by The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. We hadn’t yet adjusted to rows and rows of missing kids, snatched from their lives in the time it takes to snap a photograph. They were new enough to hold our attention, to keep our eyes from blurring their black and white faces into one. I don’t remember who noticed it first, whether it was my mother or father, or which one of them initiated the joke, but we were all complicit.
“Jason*,” my mother said, the lines of her mouth turned down, “we have something to tell you.” She showed my brother the picture on the milk carton and went on to describe how we had been responsible for his abduction. He stared quietly at the photograph.
“You were too young to remember,” I said, catching on to the game, “but I begged for a brother so mom and dad picked you up one year on our way to Florida.” I loved to tease him, to convince him that I could fly with the aid of a pillowcase or that my favorite doll was a real baby he had to stay awake all night to care for or it would die. But this was even better.
“The only thing is,” my mother said, “we feel guilty for taking you from your real parents. Since we’re right next to Pennsylvania anyway, we’ll give you back.”
My brother continued to stare at the picture of Louis Mackerley. The likeness was such that even he began to believe that the image was his. Since he remembered growing up in our family, I believe his terror came not from the possibility that he was Louis, but that he had been somehow confused with someone else’s missing kid.
“See,” I said, “your real birthday is February 15, 1977–you’re really eight, but we changed your age to seven in order to fool the police.”
“Don’t worry,” my mother said, “you’ll like your real parents.” Continue Reading…