Lost child

I thought I was ready to give my daughter more independence. Then my worst nightmare came true

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The rain had stopped and the sun was shining. On the leisurely walk home from school, my daughter and I took care to splash through as much mud as possible. As we splattered along, she asked if we could rent a video.

“Certainly,” I said. “After I finish my work.”

When we got home, she threw her backpack on the floor, but kept her jacket on. She looked up at me, her big brown eyes full of determination, and said, “I could go to the video store by myself.”

My daughter, I’ll call her Katherine, was seven years old, almost eight. We’d walked to that store many times. She’d also walked there with her 10-year-old brother, William, a few times. No big roads to cross, just a left turn off our street, Hill Drive, then straight on Orchard Heights — a five-minute walk. I thought back to when I was seven. I roamed a lot farther out than that.

“If I don’t come back soon, you can come after me.” There was that sure little smile of hers.

“OK, Katherine,” I said. “Come right home. Don’t talk to strangers. If anyone stops their car to talk to you — scream. What’s our phone number?”

Watching her skip off, I wondered when this mature person had come along and stolen into little Katherine’s body. I sat down to answer a few emails and return a couple of phone calls, then went out to meet her on her way home.

I was surprised when I turned the corner of our street and didn’t see her coming toward me. I didn’t worry, though, because a couple of girls who live on the block smiled at me and said, “We just saw your daughter.”

“She’s having her first by-herself adventure. I’m following to make sure everything’s OK,” I said. They giggled.

I picked up my pace, certain I would meet her at any moment. I could see the video store now. Each time the door opened, I expected Katherine to pass through.

It wasn’t until I opened the door myself that the surprise of not seeing her turned my skin to ice. I took in every aisle before even walking in.

She wasn’t there.

Completely panic-stricken, I rushed over to the man behind the counter. “Did you see my daughter?”

“Yes.” He took out the receipt. He seemed to be speaking in slow motion. “I asked her if she was allowed to rent a video by herself.”

“And?” I was trying to hurry him along into my world, where everything was out of control and moving at supersonic speed.

“She rented….” He must have said what she rented, but I was too busy losing my mind to hear him. He thrust the receipt in front of my face. The time stamp said four o’clock. It was 4:20 now.

I started running, then I stopped. Then I started again. Why was I so out of shape? Why couldn’t I run all the way home? Maybe she had come in while I was working and was right now sitting in front of the TV watching her movie. I huffed up to the two girls still at the corner. “Have you seen my daughter?”

“Yes, we saw her go that way.” They pointed toward our street. “She’s probably home by now,” one of them called after my rushing backside.

When I got there, I knew she wasn’t in the house. I called for her anyway. “Kate? Katherine? KATHERINE???” Maybe there was a message. There was! My fingers tripped over themselves trying to punch in my voicemail password. When I heard the inane babbling of a friend whose voice usually makes me smile, I had to stop myself from throwing the phone through the window.

All at once, I wanted to stay by the phone, run out the door, search on foot and jump in the car to cover as much ground as possible. The car won. With tires screeching out of the driveway, I circled back toward the video store. There is a crescent between our street and the plaza where the store is; maybe Katherine had turned there by mistake. The two girls were still at the corner. I skidded to a stop. “Tell me again. When you last saw my daughter, was she on her way to the store or on her way back?” I asked them.

“On her way back.”

I drove around the streets in our neighbourhood. “Have you seen a little girl wearing a white jacket with puppies on it?” I asked everyone I saw. No one had. I came to a ravine and stopped. The most morbid part of me got out and looked over the barrier. “Katherine!” I called into the valley.

I got back in the car. Is this why I had started working from home? The kids were better off with a babysitter. Why did I answer that last email? Where was she?

I drove past our street. I didn’t know which way to go. The simple five-minute walk now looked like a jumble of so many crescents, so many meandering streets. I turned in one of them. I needed 10 of me. I needed to go back home and call the police.

On the way, I was stopped by the neighbourhood girls, who had organized a bike posse. Two of them were going to scour our street. One was going to search the next block over, and more forces were being called into action. I blinked at them through my tears.

I went home and called the operator, croaking into the automated message, “Police for Aurora.”

A live person came on the line. “Are you OK?”

“No,” I said, and wrote down the number for the police in bold on the front page of the phone book.

Wait, I thought, check the messages again. There were three now. I pushed the delete button on my friend’s message 15 times. Next message — click. Then, “Hi, my name is Jerry. I have your daughter Katherine here. She’s safe.”

Air entered my lungs. I called back. “Jerry?!”

He started to say something, but I was way ahead of him. “Do you have Katherine? Is she all right? Where are you now?”

“Orchard Heights.”

Orchard Heights? I had just driven along Orchard Heights. “Where?”

Orchard Heights and Hill Drive at the other end of the crescent. So near and yet so far.

Jerry looked like he probably had a couple of kids of his own and seemed pretty shaken too, standing at the end of our street with a briefcase in one hand and my daughter’s hand in the other. Kate’s movie flew behind her as she rushed into my arms.

She didn’t remember turning on the way to the video store, so she kept going in a straight line on her way home. Finally, she realized she’d been walking too long and turned around. Then she realized she was lost, and started crying. When she saw a man coming, she had a dilemma — he was a stranger. But she cried out anyway.

Fifteen minutes after I got Katherine home, the police were knocking at my door. I assured them that Kate wouldn’t be walking anywhere alone until she was 20.

After that we got a big piece of cake out of the fridge and sat down to watch the movie that Katherine had rented — The Incredible Journey.

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