Every day at noon I would walk around the corner from school and meet my mother and the crossing guard. I was a “home luncher” rather than a “carrier” or a “buyer” meaning I got to leave school and spend some time just me and my mom. I am the youngest of five children, the only girl. I loved lunchtime.
One day I was on my walk home for lunch and a van pulled up in front of me. A tall man with reddish brown hair and a mustache started walking toward me. He was saying something that I couldn’t understand, not because it wasn’t English but because I was terrified. I knew there was something wrong with a stranger getting out of a van walking toward an eight year old girl and trying to talk to her. I ran to the corner to where my mom and the crossing guard were waiting. As I did, the van peeled around the corner fast. I relayed the story to my mom with tears streaming. I was out of immediate danger but felt fear after that when I would walk home.
I have often thought about that day and wondered, was the man talking to me at all? Was he really some kind of a creep? The school is very close to several highway on ramps and it would have been easy for him to jump on a highway and be long gone before anyone knew. Maybe he was there to meet his girlfriend and he was talking to himself in anger that she wasn’t there and didn’t have any bad intentions at all toward me. I will never know what may or may not have been the reason that this situation imprinted itself on me. Something about it made it different that the thousands of other contacts with people that quickly vanished from my memory. Perhaps it is just a healthy fear of strangers, especially those in windowless vans. Kids have been taken.
About four years after the van incident a girl who lived a few blocks from me went missing. I knew her but not well. We were on softball together one season and she was a year older. She had glasses and short straight blonde hair. She had a paper route which was a big deal. That was one of the few jobs a kid could get. All of my brothers had paper routes and I helped them and wanted to take on a route when I was 13. But that was never to be.
Writing this is emotional, I have tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. I didn’t have the language for it then but now I would say it was surreal, terrifying. Where was she and why didn’t she come home? There were 7 blocks between her house and her paper route. It felt like she would have to turn up, like it was all a mistake. Being a kid there is a naive sense of hope that kept me focused on her being okay, but also the sense that something was wrong. All the parents were visibly shaken and when the adults are worried the kids feel it. Deep down we all knew this wasn’t going to be okay.
They found her. She was dead. My friends mother explained a little bit of the news story because we didn’t understand what had happened. Looking back, I wish she hadn’t. I didn’t need to know how ugly the human mind can be and how a depraved man can steal a beautiful child from this world. I had nightmares for a long time after that and my seemingly safe little working-class neighborhood suddenly felt like a danger zone. In my dreams, when I saw her it was either as a scary ghostly floating vision or as one of the kids at school as if nothing had happened.
There was no paper route for me or any other girls in my neighborhood after that. In gym class we started a pretty aggressive chapter on self-defense. I remember being scared. We were learning how to put a man’s nose through his brain or groin kick him to do damage. I didn’t feel empowered to take out a bad man, I just felt like the bad men could be anywhere and they wanted to get little girls.
As I grew up and the initial fear of being taken began to fade, I started to read books about criminals. I had this idea that if I understood how they thought and worked then I could spot one and I would be safer for it. I had a conversation with a friend who was police officer for years and I got some serious wisdom from him. There is nothing different about these people. There is no key to it all that will illuminate why someone will wake up today and do something that most of us would never do. They just make these choices. That is so sensible and yet also difficult to accept.
The normal quiet man in the blue house with the nice lawn could be a killer, trust your instincts and suspicions.