George left his Northwest Washington home at precisely 7:30 a.m., just like he did every workday morning, climbed into his BMW and headed for the Rock Creek Parkway.

A few minutes later, his wife emerged from the shower and noticed he was gone. Strange, she thought, he didn’t kiss me goodbye this morning. Oh well, he has seemed preoccupied lately. She finished dressing, climbed into her own BMW and headed north up Connecticut Avenue to her own office.

On the Rock Creek Parkway, George usually turned off onto K Street and to a parking garage near 18th, near the successful management consulting firm where he was Senior Partner. On this morning, however, he turned onto Interstate 66 and headed into suburban Virginia. He turned off I-66 at Glebe Road and parked his car in the parking garage at Ballston Common Shopping Center in Arlington County.

At his office, George’s partners looked at the clock on the conference room wall and wondered why he was late for their Monday morning staff meeting. He was never late. His secretary was dispatched to call his home. She got the answering machine. Next, she called his wife.

After locking his car and leaving it at the Ballston Common garage, he stopped at the Sovran Bank branch on Wilson Boulevard and cashed a check for $5,000. He may have caught the Orange Line subway to Metro Center and then changed to the Red Line to Union Station, where used his ATM card to withdraw $200, used his American Express card to buy an Amtrak metroliner ticket, stopped at the Union Station post office to mail three letters, and headed for the train.

His wife was worried after the call came from his office. He never missed meetings. He never missed anything. He was too careful and conscientious for that. She dialed the D.C. Police. They told her to call back after he had been missing for 72 hours.

Back in his office, his secretary noticed a favorite picture of him with his wife and two sons was missing from his desk. She told one of the other partners who had known George for 20 years. Probably nothing, he said, maybe he took it home. He wouldn’t, she said. That photo was something he looked at all day. As the day wore on, everybody wondered what had happened. It became obvious George wasn’t coming in.

That night, his wife watched the clock and waited for the phone to ring. Every few minutes, she walked to the front window and looked out, expecting to see his car pull into the driveway. By midnight, the crying started.

It took four days for the three letters he mailed at Union Station to reach their D.C. addresses. The first was opened in his office by his secretary. It contained his garage car key, office key, desk key and company American Express card. Nothing else. No note. The handwriting on the envelope was obviously his.

That night, his wife found the second letter among the circulars and bills in the day’s mail. At first, she put the letter on the kitchen table and stared at it, afraid to open it, scared of what it might say. Finally, she opened it carefully. Inside were his credit cards, the bank ATM card, and his car keys. A short note said: “I love you and I’m sorry.”

The next day, his attorney arrived back in his office after four days out of town. A letter in his in box was four pages, typed, and very business like, and including instructions on financial affairs. It ended with a crisp paragraph that said: “I hereby authorize you to act as my representative on all matters regarding my personal and business affairs. Take care of them. I can’t.”

By now, the D.C. Police had agreed to take a missing person’s report. They filed the normal reports, issued the usual bulletins and notified the FBI. The letters made it obvious that he had left voluntarily. They had no reason to suspect foul play. Hey, husbands walk out on their wives all the time. No big deal. They told his partners to look out for anything that may not be right at the office. Sometime a guy skips town because he’s taken some money or done something else wrong.

Over the next few weeks, his partners audited the books. Nothing wrong. His wife got bank statements and other bills in the mail. They showed a $5,000 withdrawal from their joint money market account, a $200 withdrawal from the Union Station ATM and the train ticket charge to Amtrak. The ticket was from Washington to New York. The police sent a bulletin to New York City, but noted that he could have gotten off anywhere the train stopped between Washington and New York. Nothing else was out of the ordinary. Their financial affairs were healthy and the family would not be hurting for money. He had set up scholarship funds for both sons and long-term annuities for the his wife.

Police officials and social scientists say more and more people walk away from their lives every day. It’s the stress, they say, that causes apparently successful people to leave everything behind. Few ever come back. If they leave on their own, they stay gone.

The weeks turned into months and the months into years. His old firm disbanded and the partners went their separate ways. His sons grew up, went to college and now have families and jobs of their own. His wife remarried and now lives in Seattle.

A few weeks ago, on a lazy Saturday, one of his former partners was eating breakfast at a diner in Arlington, just outside Washington. He glanced up from his newspaper and saw the cook looking at him. The man was gaunt, scraggly-haired, and bearded. The eyes caught his attention. He new those eyes. Oh my God, it was him. The cook turned away, took off his apron, and walked out the back door of the diner.

The former partner rushed out to follow. He was learning against the building, smoking a cigarette.

“George?”

“It’s Harry now.”

“What the hell are you doing here.”

“Working.”

“As a cook.”

“Yeah. I’m a damn good cook too.”

“How long?”

“Eight years.”

“But you disappeared eight years ago. You went to New York.”

“No. I stayed right here.”

“But your wife? Your kids?”

“I took care of them. They’ve done all right. I kept an eye on them. They just didn’t know I was here.”

“Why did you do it?”

“I had to get out. You, the firm, my family, you all always expected me to take care of things. I was the daddy for all of you. I got tired of being the daddy.”

“But what do I tell people.”

“You tell them nothing. You never saw me. I’m not here. Please. We were friends for 20 years. Leave me be and let me live my life the way I want.”

“This is what you want?”

“Yes, it is. Go home. Leave me alone. And do me a favor.”

“What.”

“Find somewhere else to eat breakfast.”

–Doug Thompson
Washington, DC

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