First published in the Scarlet Leaf Review February 2017
Having moved to a great neighborhood years before in anticipation of having kids, I wasn’t the least bit worried when my seven-year-old, Alyssa, wanted to ride her bike around our cul-de-sac. And when she asked if she could go with our neighbor Bryce to walk Pansy, I didn’t think twice about it. I knew his name, asked about the wife and kids every so often during his strolls. His family had lived next door for a month, and since they’d moved in, I’d seen the wife come out in her robe to pick up the paper every morning. I’d noticed the two sons playing Frisbee with a yellow lab plenty of afternoons, and had wondered as I looked on whether the boys had their father’s outgoing personality to go with the olive skin and handsome dark eyes they shared with their mother.
This day, I watched Bryce and my daughter turn the corner at the end of the street.
“Be back before the street lights come on,” I called out. As they strolled away, I went back to pulling weeds.
By the time I finished mulching the flower beds for winter, it was nearly 5:30. The sun was setting earlier each evening and the streetlights were just beginning to flicker. Positioning myself in a lawn chair at the edge of the garage, I awaited her return.
When the streetlights glowed, I decided to check in with Bryce’s wife; perhaps I’d missed their return and Alyssa was inside playing with their kids. I rang the bell, chewing my lip as I waited for someone to answer the door. The man had to have heard me telling my daughter when to be back. Why had he not brought her home? The obliviousness of people.
I jabbed the doorbell again.
Finally, the latch clicked, and Bryce’s wife opened the door. “Oh. Hi. Sorry I didn’t answer right away. I was expecting a delivery, not a person.”
“I was just checking to see if Alyssa was over here. I didn’t see them return and thought she might be playing.”
“Alyssa?” she asked.
“Yes, my daughter. She went with Bryce to walk your dog.”
“There must be some mistake,” she began. “I don’t know anyone named Bryce.”
My heart pummeled. I tasted bile.
New lines formed between the neighbor’s brows.
“We’re all here — me, Rasheed, and the boys. We don’t even have a dog. I’ve let the boys play with a neighbor’s dog all the time. I didn’t know the owner’s name was Bryce. You must have thought his dog was ours.”
“That’s because I’ve talked to Bryce several times about you and the boys,” I said.
The realization of what had happened hit me like a strike from a baseball bat. “Oh God,” I murmured, taking in huge gulps of air to steady myself. “I have to go. I’m calling 911.” I shouted, stumbling backwards before running down the driveway. “He’s taken Alyssa.”
I was easing Alyssa’s latest school picture out of holder to give to the police when my own doorbell rang. Hoping my baby had come home, I dropped the frame. The print fell away. I scrambled to the door.
Instead of finding Alyssa on the other side of the threshold, I came face-to-face with the neighbor’s wife. In front of her stood the boys, beside her, a burly, bearded man.
“I’m Sahar,” the woman said. “I don’t think I’ve ever introduced myself. This is my husband, Rasheed.”
I heard myself say my name and invite the family to come in. “Just waiting for the police.”
Rasheed nodded. “Sahar thought you could use some company. I want to know what this creep looks like.” His declaration carried the expected edge. Keys dangled from one hand.
"He’s white, hair on the sides, bald on top. Let me think. He’s not very tall, maybe 5’6”.”
“What does your daughter look like? What was she wearing? I’ll go after the two of them,” Rasheed offered.
I swallowed. “Um. She has reddish blonde hair and freckles. I turned aside. “Dear Lord, what she wearing? How can I not remember that?”
I gave the picture to Officer Garcia, then tried not to look at the emptiness of its frame. The disappearance was only temporary. The gaping holder wasn’t leering at me. The void wasn’t some sick warning of what was to come.
The officer’s voice seeped back into my consciousness. “Ms. Thompson?”
I heard her, but my tongue wouldn’t budge.
“Um. I’m… sorry? I rubbed my palms together. “How did I let this happen? I was right there."
Officer Garcia put her hand on my shoulder. “It can happen to anyone. We’ve got patrols searching all over the city.”
“I should be out there too.” I darted for the door.
The officer gripped my shoulder this time firmly enough that I stopped and turned to face her.
“We need you to be here in case she comes home,” she explained. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure she does.
The determination in her eyes and the thought of my little girl being greeted by strangers persuaded me to stay put. To an extent. I paced, sat, crossed and uncrossed my legs, drummed my fingers, and repeated this ritual for an hour that felt three times as long.
Then Officer Garcia stepped outside to take a call.
“Come with me,” she said when she came back in “Someone says she has Alyssa, and that she’s safe and waiting for you.”
The officer led the way, even after we’d both gotten out of the car. When I stepped out, I held my breath, wanting to run ahead of the others to find Alyssa and pull her to me. A woman stepped out of a Suburban, then pulled open the back door. Head down, Alyssa stumbled out. Gravel crunched under her tennis shoes as she ran into my open arms. Lifting her into my arms, I thanked God that she’d been returned safely. My sense of security had been severely shaken. What assurances could I give my little girl now? She’d been abducted by someone we both thought we knew, yet saved by a stranger. My advice hadn’t served her that night. But in other circumstances, it might have protected her. What I had told her was true sometimes. Sometimes — but, clearly, not always.