I’m nine years old, and life is pretty good.
For an early September day in the ‘burbs outside Chicago, the weather is stunning. The winds are milder than usual, and the great northern chill has yet to descend. My classmates and I adore it. A mob of us have just walked a few miles to school. We pour into the hallways just before opening bell. It’s a private school, and so the boys are dressed in matching gold shirts and dark pants, while the girls wear classic plaid skirts.
We look pretty slick, all things considered.
The moment we pile into our classroom, we can tell something’s up. Miss Calvin’s late, and she’s never late. I hear people talking out in the hall. One of the voices comes from a man, a tall man. He’s wearing a police uniform.
That’s weird, I think.
After a few minutes, Miss Calvin and the policeman enter our room. No one asks us to settle down; we’re already quiet.
“Morning, kids,” the policeman says. He towers over Miss Calvin. He towers over everything.
“I’m from the JPD, the Joliet Police Department. Your principal and several of your parents have asked me to talk to you today.”
This is no big deal, I figure. We’ve had police visitors before. The message is always the same: don’t do drugs, don’t talk to strangers, look both ways when crossing the street.
I almost check out.
“Kids, I’m here for a special reason today,” the officer continues. “You see, there’s been some trouble, and since so many of you walk to and from school, we think it’s important to have a little talk.”
At this point, the class is riveted. Even I, the class clown, am itching to hear what he’s about to say.
“Two children from the public school have gone missing.” He drops the bomb.
“Both children were nine years old, and both were last seen approaching a late model Chevy Nova. It’s a smaller model, olive green. Other children have reported that the man driving this vehicle called the kids into his car while they walked home from school.
“And neither of the children has been seen since.”
He lets it sink in.
And then he goes on to explain that if any of us see a green Chevy Nova, we’re to get away as fast as possible. Most of us don’t know what a Nova looks like, but he describes it in detail:
He also describes the alleged man inside the car. I’m only half listening anymore. Being a young kid, I’m sure this whole event will end up having nothing to do with me. I’m afflicted with the same sense of invulnerability most nine-year olds feel.
The only thing nagging me: the officer never tells us anything about the missing kids.
Not even their names.
The officer departs. The rest of the day is normal. We work on our multiplication tables. We play kickball. I manage to not get into any trouble. Everyone’s whispering about the man in the green Nova, but only for a while. Without knowing the missing children’s names, it’s hard for us to be afraid. The kidnappings are a thing that didn’t happen to us.
They happened to someone else.
We’re safe. Right?
A few days pass. Everything goes back to normal.
The weather stays nice. In fact, it’s perfect. We can’t remember the last time September stayed so warm, so sunny, and so ideal for walking to and from school. Late in the month, the same as every afternoon, I decide to walk home with my friends, Stephanie and Brenda.
We’ve walked this route hundreds of times.
Only…we’ve never walked it with a green Chevy Nova trailing us.
As we turn onto Lilac Lane, it’s Brenda who spots the car. Stephanie and I are too busy plotting out our afternoon’s mischief. We’d never have noticed a thing.
“You guys…” Brenda shakes us out of our daydreams. “Look.”
We glance to our left. There, just beyond a row of young oaks, gliding along the street at maybe five miles per hour, we see the ugly green car. We can’t believe it. It’s almost not real.
Brenda doesn’t wait for Stephanie and me to make up our minds. She bolts away from the road, skirt swishing as she vanishes between two houses. Within seconds, she’s gone.
Brenda’s pretty smart.
The car rolls closer. I’m trying to play it cool, as if my indifference can save me. Stephanie says something to me, but I tune her out. I think she’s shouting my name. It doesn’t matter. She takes off in the same direction as Brenda. Her house is the opposite way. I’m not worried for her. Everyone in our neighborhood knows everyone.
She’ll be fine, I figure. She’ll get home.
Still in disbelief, I finally give the ugly green car a good look. The man inside is older. He’s wearing a hat.
He looks exactly like the creeper the policeman warned us about.
I think I see him stop and start rolling down the passenger side window.
And I’m gone.
I’m a fast runner. Faster than Brenda and Stephanie. Faster than anyone in my class. In my neighborhood, among houses I know better than anyone, the old man has no chance of catching me. I’m gone in five seconds. I don’t even know which way I’m running. What’s important is that he’s gone, too.
You’re not stuffing me in your trunk, buddy, I think.
Not today. Not ever.
The next morning at school, we hear the announcement over our classroom speakers:
The man in the green Nova has been caught.
He’s in jail now, charged with several kidnappings. Not just the two kids from the public school. Several more.
The streets are safe again. Brenda, Stephanie, and I agree never to tell anyone about what happened.
But the thing that nags me for several weeks afterward:
No one ever says the names of the missing kids. I’m sure it’s mentioned on the news, but at our school, within our insulated bubble, no one ever speaks of it again.
It’s as if those kids never existed.
As if, because we didn’t know them, their lives weren’t as important as our own.
* * *
The story above is true.
Want more like it? Read Reality is Best Served with Red Wine.
J Edward Neill