In the police station, the walls are smudged white, the filing cabinets gray, the desks and chairs brown. Horrible crimes and wrenching sorrows have bleached all color from the world.
Becca perches on the edge of a wooden chair as if, at any second, she might take flight. Police officers encircle her, standing, sitting, lounging on desks, answering phones or ignoring them, their eyes curious or skeptical or boldly intrusive with no fear of being called to account. They focus on every part of her body, judging her. Her long brown hair feels tangled and unkempt at her neck, greasy even, although she shampooed it this morning. Sweat does that to hair. She sees their attention snag on it, as if it might hint at the reliability of what she says. Does a girl with dirty hair tell the truth?
Officer T.’s name is too long to pronounce. She’s said it a different way each time until he told her impatiently, “Just call me Officer T.” Not an invitation, an order, rather. Now, he’s questioning her too quickly, his words rapid-fire like a machine gun on a TV show.
“Was the van white or off-white?”
“White, although not as white as snow, I don’t think.” She must be as accurate as possible. Robbie’s life may depend on it.
“Not as white as snow. I see.” Officer T. scans the room as if calling on everyone to witness what he must contend with. “Well, let me ask you this. The man you saw. Was the van as white as his hair?”
“No, his hair was sort of a silver white, like platinum, whiter than Robbie’s which is more yellow —”
“We know the color of your brother’s hair.”
They’ve been through this all afternoon, so they’ve heard it before, and they cut her off. “Don’t waste our time,” they seem to say. She doesn’t have a chance to finish her answers the way she did at first. But maybe that’s because she wanders off the topic. She tends to do that. One idea leads to another, and before you know it, you’re on to something else completely. Her fifth-grade teacher, Ms. King, calls her “creative.” When you write poetry about the ocean on the beach or play the sunrise on the piano, it helps to let your mind wander.
“I was too far away to see the driver,” she tells them again.
President Reagan looks down on her benignly from the wall, as if he understands.
She’s on automatic now. She doesn’t even hear all their questions, but somehow she gives appropriate answers, her mind elsewhere.
Her mother has gone home to wait for Robbie. Wait for him to come through the door with his big grin, saying, “Scared ya’, didn’t I?” Wait by the phone for some word — of ransom, perhaps. Her dad’s flown out of town to see Grandma Emily, who’s sick again. That was this morning after he and Mom fought and before Robbie was taken. He doesn’t even know yet. Becca wishes her mother had stayed here at the station with her. Maybe then she wouldn’t feel so alone and afraid. But her mom was right to leave. She even waived a lawyer for Becca. Robbie is more important now. It was Becca’s fault. She shirked her responsibility. The least she can do is stay here in this miserably stuffy room and answer their sweaty questions over and over. She tells herself she’s doing it for Robbie. If it will bring him back . . .
“No, I didn’t notice anyone closer to the van who could describe it. They were all on the playground or sitting on the benches. But maybe there was one . . .”
“Who? Why didn’t you mention this before? Describe them.” Officer T.’s face reddens, and his cheeks quiver with fervor as he whips out his pad and pencil from his top pocket.
“There might have been a woman with a baby carriage on the sidewalk. No,” she corrects herself. “I’m just imagining it.”
“You have a hard time telling real from imaginary, do you?”
“Come on, Pete,” says Officer Samantha “call me Sam” Von Trier. “No need for that.” She wears a thick blonde braid pinned to the back of her head and the skin on her raw-boned frame is milky.
“Did you imagine the van?”
Becca stares at him. Could she possibly have imagined the van?
Now Officer T. and Officer Sam are arguing, oblivious to Becca, like her mom and dad who can argue about anything — the cost of apples, whether it will be foggy tomorrow, and Mom staying home instead of going with Dad to his mother’s, so that he has to be alone with her while she’s dying. Except Mom said Grandma Emily wasn’t, “and don’t talk about it in front of the children,” meaning Robbie, of course. Becca knows all about death.
What was the question?
“I told you, I ran after the van. And then I ran home to call Mom.”
“Why didn’t you call from the playground?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t think I had a quarter. And if I did, it would take too long to find it.”
“You don’t need a quarter to dial emergency.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“You can dial 911 from a pay phone without any money.”
“Oh. I’ll remember that next time” my brother’s kidnapped.
“I need to.”
“Didn’t your friend, Annalyn, have a quarter?”
“I didn’t ask — I was too — home’s only a few minutes away, and I just felt it would be quicker. I had to get back there.”
“Quicker than dialing from right there on the playground,” and then under his breath, “for Chrissake?”
“I don’t know.” The ultimate refuge. She doesn’t know anything anymore, her eyes wandering back to the pictures of missing children and crooks all over the walls so that you’re not sure which is which. Some of the crooks are young and the children old, and the pictures fuzzy, as if taken long ago. They’re all WANTED, either to lock up in jail or give back to parents who’ll hug them to death.
Will Robbie’s picture be up there soon? Will it be on a milk carton? Robbie always talks about the milk carton children, the ones who are missing because somebody snatched them away and did horrible things to them, and they’re probably dead anyway. But Dad says they just ran away because their parents weren’t nice to them. “That won’t happen to you,” he says.
“I could play ball with him,” Robbie said over his Crunchy Bunchies this morning, pointing to the little boy about his age with a grin as wide as a jack-o’-lantern’s.
“How do you know he plays ball?”
“I know. Just look at him. Besides, everybody plays ball.”
“I don’t,” Becca said, turning up her nose.
“You’re a girl. Aw-w, it’s okay Bec-Bec, you can’t help it.”
“Being a girl’s better than being a silly old boy any day.”
“Becca!” her mother warned. She thinks being a boy is better.
“Are you going to put Robbie’s picture on the wall?” she asks Officer T.?
“Would you like that?”
Becca feels the tears choking up her throat again.
“No,” she manages to get out, breathing hard, trying to get enough air, only it doesn’t come.
“That would mean — “ She snuffles back the tears. “That would mean he’s missing.”
Officer Sam hands her a tissue, and she blows loudly. Officer Sam’s the nice one. She and that cute Officer Slewski, except his name is twistier than that. They’ve brought her a cheeseburger and a Coke and said she’ll be going home soon, but that wasn’t true, was it? She’s still here.
“He is missing,” says Officer T.
“I — what?”
“Becca! Becca!” Officer T. reaches over and shakes her arm.
“She’s exhausted,” says Officer Sam.
“So’s her brother, most likely,” Officer T. snaps. “In the best case scenario,” he adds. Probably, he thinks Becca doesn’t know what he means.
“What do you think they’ve done with him?” Becca asks again.
They never answer straight on. They say, “We’re doing everything we can to find him.” “Not much evidence to go on.” “Searchers, dogs, no eyewitnesses except you and your little friend.” “Combing the area. The creek, the river, the beach.”
“You think he’s drowned?”
The whole afternoon, they’ve been hinting that Robbie’s had horrible things done to him and is now at the bottom of the San Lorenzo River or in the cold cold ground. Every time the phone rings, some officer picks it up gravely and snaps his name. Becca watches and listens intently, until Officer T. drags her back to the same questions over and over. She wants to search, too, but she’s stuck here while everyone else is being useful, including Mom. Becca can almost see her sitting at home by the phone in her white nurse’s uniform, still stained with the blood of the last baby she helped deliver.
Sue Merrow had gotten the call to take an extra shift at the hospital this morning. Sunday morning. Great! Dad had just left for another flight to Chicago to be with his dying mother, Grandma Emily, and they’d had a fight about it, because Dad wanted his family with him, and Mom didn’t like to come. She’d never gotten along with Grandma Emily. She’d gone a few times for her husband’s sake, but Emily ignored her.
“You’ll have to watch Robbie,” her mom said to Becca.
“But, Mom, I’m supposed to meet Annalyn at the park.”
“Emergencies happen,” said her mother, smoothing her uniform. “Too many babies being born. Sometimes they’re inconvenient. They don’t plan around your social life.”
“We’ll have to take him with us, I guess.” Becca heaved a dramatic sigh. “If we stay here, he won’t give us a minute’s peace. Hear that, Robbie? We’re going to the park. I’ll make your favorite bologna and cheese sandwiches if you promise not to bug us. You can play on the slide.”
It was at that point that Mom hesitated.
“No, I don’t want you going to the playground today. Stay home.”
“But I promised Annalyn.”
“She can come over here.”
“But Robbie’ll just hang around us with nothing to do.”
“No, and that’s final. I’ve got enough to worry about with an extra shift and your dad away and your grandma sick, what that’s going to do to him. I don’t need any more.”
That was Mom for you. Solved problems by eliminating them!
Or could it have been a premonition?
“Becca? Becca?” Officer T. is shaking her again. “Stay awake here.”
“I am awake,” she says, shrugging his hand from her shoulder.
“Well, were you?”
“Was I what?”
“Mad at your brother?”
“What do you mean?”
“Did you ever fight?” Past tense. As if they’ll never fight again.
“I — no — well, not much, just little things.”
“He takes my stuff.”
“Just stuff. Pennies from my collection. My Hanon Studies — that’s my piano exercise book. My diary. He can’t read it. He just does it to bug me. And he calls me Rebecca. Just to tease me. He does it all the time.”
“Didn’t that make you mad?”
“Is that why you left him alone on the playground?”
“I told you,” she bursts out. “I didn’t. Only for a minute. I had to go to the bathroom with Annalyn.”
“Seems pretty convenient for the kidnappers.”
As if she’d planned it!
She hadn’t really needed to go. Annalyn had seen her boyfriend, Nick, walking down the street with a group of his friends. At least, she liked to call him her “boyfriend”, but only to Becca. It was their secret. She had the hugest crush on him and enlisted Becca to ask him stupid questions.
“Did he see me?”
“Not yet, I don’t think.”
“How do I look? I’ve got to get to a mirror.”
They had dashed for the bathroom, Becca telling her she looked fine while Annalyn fussed with her hair and smeared on lipstick so pale it hardly showed, but that’s all her mother allows her to wear.
Becca remembers the vague sense of unease she had then. Now she thinks it’s because she felt it was wrong to leave her brother alone on the slide even for a minute.
“If you don’t step on it, Nick will be gone,” she told Annalyn impatiently.
“Guess what. Mom’s gonna have a baby,” said Annalyn, smoothing her eyebrows with spit, because it worked better than water.
“Oh, no, Annalyn, you poor thing. You don’t know what you’re in for.”
“Are you kidding? I can’t wait.”
“You’ll have to do all this work and baby-sit and get him his food and clean up his mess.”
“Maybe it’ll be a girl.”
She recalls this warning with guilt now. She hadn’t felt guilty then. Just resentful.
They emerged from the bathroom, still talking about Annalyn’s baby sister, because that was what they had decided it was. At that instant, Becca spotted Robbie half a block away getting into the white van with a man. It’s like a picture in her mind now. The only picture, nothing else. It will never be erased, never dim. Robbie will always be just inside the van door in his red sweatshirt with the bears on it, waving jubilantly at her and shouting something she can’t hear. The man with the white hair will always look back sharply at Becca, then twist around to Robbie and push him farther inside, leaping in after him and sliding the door shut. The van will always carom down the road with a roar. Becca will always run after it, screaming, “Robbie! Robbie!”
“Blue,” she tells Officer T. “His pants were blue. Jeans, I think.”
“The kidnapper’s.” Who else’s? Hasn’t he been paying attention? Becca starts to giggle. Maybe she should shake his shoulder!
Officer T. reddens all the way down his neck. “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing,” Becca says. Even Officer Sam looks taken aback.
“Your brother’s been kidnapped and you’re laughing? I don’t think it’s funny at all.” His jowls quiver with anger. How long does it take him to get his sideburns just right in the morning? Does he comb them or brush them? Does he mousse them? She giggles again. He must think they make him handsome, but Becca doesn’t.
“Blue jeans,” Officer Sam interrupts. “That’s good. Isn’t that good, Pete?”
Officer T. gives her a long look. Some of the other officers drift away, and others drift in to stare at Becca’s hair. Officer T. turns back to her.
“Have you any idea what they do to little boys? If you’d seen what I’ve seen, you wouldn’t laugh.”
“Pete, she’s just a child.”
“People always talk about what gets done to little girls — and I’m not saying little girls don’t deserve the sympathy. But little boys get raped, too.”
“Pete, we need to talk,” says Officer Sam, grabbing his arm and pushing him down the aisle, while the other officers shift uncomfortably. Becca is trying to get her mind around what Officer T. just said. How could a boy be raped? She’s pretty sure they don’t want her to ask.
“You’re sure you can’t remember part of the license number?” cute Officer Slewski asks before she can think too much about it. His nose is tipped upwards, but when he smiles, she sees he has bad teeth. Probably afraid to go to the dentist. She is, too, and Robbie yells.
“I told you. It was way too far to see.”
“Any letter or number would help.”
“There might have been a ‘B’. Or an ‘8’. It could have been an 8.” Now Becca isn’t sure how much she’s remembering and how much she’s making up.
“Was there anything on the side of the van? A sign or a picture, maybe?” She’s already told Officer T. there was nothing. But perhaps there was lettering after all.
“A picture maybe. No, I think I’m remembering the diaper van with the stork on the side.”
“Was it the diaper van?”
In disappointment, he subsides. “We’ll check the diaper van just in case.” He makes a note. “Maybe there were stickers on the front window?”
“I didn’t see the front, only the side and the back.”
“Bumper stickers. Do you remember those?”
“There might have been.”
“I told you, it was too far. Maybe green.”
“Green, that’s good,” says Officer Sam, returning with Officer T. who looks, if possible, even grimmer. Becca notices his arm muscles rippling under his blue shirt. Does he want to hit her? No one hits her, even boys. They know that Becca can beat them up. The secret is to twist out of their reach and make your fists fly.
“Or blue, maybe?” asks Officer Slewski.
“Might be blue-green. I want to go home now.” Why hadn’t she demanded to go before? She had a right, hadn’t she? Well, she’d stayed to help, and now she was just wasting time.
“We need you here,” Officer T. interrupts, and Officer Slewski gets up to make way for him. “You want to find your brother, don’t you?” Prove it!
“I want to help with the search.”
“You’re more help here,” says Officer Sam.
“I don’t feel I’m helping. You’ve got everything I know.”
“We’ll decide that,” says Officer T. “Poor little fella,” he adds to the officer standing beside him. Officer Sam gives him a stony look.
“You really are a great help, Rebecca,” she says.
“Becca,” she corrects. We’ve been here all afternoon. Don’t you know my name yet?
“Tell you what let’s do. We’ll put you with a sketch artist so you can describe the kidnapper, and she can draw him. Then maybe you can go.”
“If we don’t need you further.”
They’ve said this several times, but it’s not happening. It seems to Becca that it would be more important to help a sketch artist than answer the same stupid questions over and over. Maybe not. She was way too far away to see the kidnapper’s face, and she’s already told them his hair was short and white-blond. Twenties, long, thin and graceful, the sleeves of his blue shirt rolled up —
“His sleeves were rolled up.”
“Rolled? How far?”
“To the elbows.”
“Why didn’t you tell us this before?” another officer asks, leaning over to peer into her face. She winces, not because he’s too close, really, but he feels too close. “You been holding out on us?” he seems to ask.
“I forgot,” she says.
“She remembers now,” says Officer Sam, popping a Coke can and handing it to Becca. Becca takes a sip, all eyes on her. She’d better not drink too much. She can’t tell why that would be wrong, but it would be.
“So, you say your mom told you to stay home, and then you left for the playground,” Officer T. continues.
“I told you, I called Annalyn first. I said I couldn’t go like we planned. But Annalyn said, ‘Who’d know?’ And ‘We have to eat lunch sometime, somewhere. Why not at the playground?’”
Actually, it was Becca who’d said that. She felt a little guilty, but she was the one being blamed, not Annalyn. At least, Annalyn got to go home. Probably. And if they hadn’t gone to the bathroom because of Annalyn’s stupid boyfriend, none of this would have happened.
Hungry now. Maybe it was thinking about the bologna sandwiches she’d made them, the chocolate milk in Robbie’s dinosaur thermos, Crunchy Bunchies in baggies, fruit rolls for something healthy. Later at the picnic table on the playground, Robbie smacking his lips, his chubby little chipmunk cheeks chewing away. Her eyes fill with tears.
“You’ve remembered something else?” Officer T. presses.
She shakes her head. She can’t tell him about Robbie’s chipmunk cheeks. The cheeseburger sits on the table in front of her, cold, its fat congealed. She can’t see it, but she knows it’s there, like the bottom of a frying pan the morning after. If only she could have a few crackers, just to hold her. She looks to Officer Sam, who seems to divine what she wants, nods, and goes to get something from the machine. Peanut butter cheese crackers. Officer T. watches her bite into one as if he resents anything that goes into her mouth. But Robbie may not be eating anything. Anything at all. She chokes again, and puts the cracker down.
“You have to eat something,” says Officer Sam, giving her permission, but Becca senses that Officer T. will only approve of her if she never eats again. After what she’s done to her brother. She lays her head down on the table and gives in, sobbing, her heart breaking into chunks that rattle around in her chest like pinballs.
Officer T.’s voice cuts the air. “This isn’t helping us find Robbie.”
Now, everybody’s arguing in tones so low that she can’t quite hear what they say.
Officer Sam’s hand is on her shoulder.
“Come along, Becca. Let’s go see the sketch artist, and then you can go home.”
“I love my brother!” she bursts out, jumping to her feet, suddenly furious. She returns their stares with a shake of her dirty hair. “I love my brother,” she says again, trying to impress it on them. They’d looked a bit bored until now. Now, they just look startled. “I didn’t do it on purpose, you know. It’s not my fault!”
“It’s the kidnapper’s fault,” says Officer Sam.
“Why aren’t you out looking for him instead of asking all these stupid questions over and over.” She ignores Officer Sam’s hand on her arm. “Because it’s easier to just sit on your fat rears and look like you’re getting something done?” She shakes off the hand meant to gentle her. “They’re getting away!”
Shocked stares and silence. Not a move. She’s done it now, but she doesn’t care.
Officer T. finally breaks the tension.
“But you weren’t supposed to go to the park, were you?”
No, she wasn’t supposed to go to the park. She’s sitting across from Robbie at the breakfast table that morning. He’s building a house for the milk carton child. The cereal box with the empty “sugar” bowl on top, turned on its side, its blue sugar substitute packets spilled out, and a tilted slice of bread on top of that. Building, always building.
“He could be my friend,” Robbie says.
“Relax,” says the sketch artist, whose name is Eileen and who smells of lilies. “Go ahead, eat your crackers. Just don’t get crumbs on my table.”
She has a warm Irish accent, and Becca feels less condemned here, without all those eyes prying into her head. So she nibbles at her crackers while Eileen talks steadily.
“Let’s begin with a full figure, shall we? They tell me you didn’t get a very good look at the face.”
She sketches quickly, Becca correcting her.
“His chest isn’t so broad, I don’t think. He wears the sleeves of his shirt rolled up. His waist’s narrow, longer, I think. His head’s narrow, too. His hair’s short, yes, like that. Maybe he wears an earring. I think I remember a flash at his ear, just as he turned.”
Bit by bit the man emerges on the paper, in his twenties, small and slight, graceful even, no facial hair, sleeves neatly rolled, a belt at his waist. And it’s amazing that Eileen can do this. Even Becca hadn’t realized how much she can remember. It’s almost as if she’s seen him somewhere else before today. Or is she imagining it — imagining the man who would have taken Robbie?
They’re eating lunch at the picnic table under the trees, Robbie munching his bologna and cheese sandwich.
“Is Toyman coming today?”
“Toyman?” Annalyn asks. “Who’s Toyman?” She’s ignored Becca’s picnic because it’s too fattening, preferring the apple she’s brought with her. She plans to be Miss America, although she admits it might be boring.
“One of his imaginary friends, remember? I told you about him,” Becca answers. “It’s very common at the age of five,” she adds expertly.
“Why do you call him ‘Toyman?’” Annalyn asks. “Do you have to wind him up?”
She and Becca both laugh, but Robbie suspects she’s teasing him and frowns.
“He brings me toys,” he says defiantly.
“You mean like Santa? Down the chimney?”
“Uh-uh,” Robbie shakes his head. “He gives them to me at the mall. I’m finished now.”
“You haven’t eaten your fruit,” Becca says, pushing a grape fruit roll at him. “Come on, just a bite.”
“Fruit rolls aren’t real fruit,” says Annalyn sternly. “They’re just sugar. Not like an apple.”
“It was all we had.”
“At least, take a bite of mine. There. So, what kind of toys does this Toyman bring you?” she asks, winking at Becca.
“Boats, mostly. I gonna play on the swings, now,” he adds, sliding off the bench.
“But you don’t even like boats,” says Becca. “You like trucks and blocks. And wipe your mouth.” She always gives him trucks and blocks for his birthday and Christmas. He has a collection.
“Toyman likes boats.” says Robbie. “He says I’m his toy.”
“Toys are things, stupid. You’re alive.”
“He says I’m gonna be on a milk carton.”
Had he really said that last? Or was she imagining it now, because of what had happened?
He runs off to play on the slide, giving Becca and Annalyn a chance to talk. He never stays in one place for long. Now he’s on the jungle gym, and now the swing where Becca pushes him without his begging, because she’s feeling just the tiniest bit guilty for bringing him to the park. Maybe if he has fun it’ll be okay. Now he jumps off the swing to chase a little friend, and they play “Monster,” which means they dash around after each other screaming “Monster’s coming.”
“Stupid game,” says Annalyn. “No one’s tagged. No one’s ‘It.’”
“Finished?” asks Officer Sam.
“She did very well,” says Eileen.
“Come on, let me take you home.”
On their way out, they pass a glass office where Annalyn’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Woodward, are giving information to a detective. Mrs. Woodward looks up at Becca and scowls furiously. Mad enough to ground Annalyn for a week, Becca thinks.
Outside, the October air is crisp with the hint of winter already, the branches flinging their leaves about like a child having a tantrum.
In the front seat of the car, Officer Sam explains some of the dials and knobs.
“I don’t understand,” Becca says. “Why would anyone want to take Robbie?”
“Sometimes, people can’t have children of their own.”
“But what was that Officer T. was saying about — “ she breaks off, embarrassed. “I mean, I don’t understand how they can do things to a boy that they do to a girl.”
“Oh, it’s way to early to worry about anything like that.”
“But I don’t understand it.”
“When you’re a little older.”
Becca hears a tick on the window pane, and then another. She looks up quickly.
“Rain,” she says, the full implication dawning only gradually. “Do you think Robbie’s out there?”
“He’s a smart little boy. I’m sure he’s found a place to stay dry.”
“Probably the man who took him, too, don’t you think?”
“No one likes to be out in the rain.”
“Will they keep searching?” Becca asks, anxiety burrowing into her chest.
“It depends on a lot of things. If they think they’re making progress, how heavy the rain is, how muddy it gets, lots of factors,” says Officer Sam, meaning to reassure.
Alarmed, Becca asks suddenly, “Can the search dogs smell in the rain?”
“Sometimes. Some dogs can smell anything anywhere. We have real talented dogs.”
“But you wouldn’t want them to get soaked.”
“That’s true,” says Officer Sam.
They’re driving up Mission Street now, and Becca is suddenly exhausted. She leans back. In her mind’s eye, Robbie chews his cereal like a chipmunk as he stares at the milk carton boy.
“He could be my friend,” he says. “We could play ball.”
Robbie wasn’t sure what woke him. He thought it was a scary dream that he couldn’t remember. Or maybe the sun streaming through the windows and casting barred shadows across his face. Or the sound of voices arguing, or the smell of food. The colored balloons drifted limply just below the ceiling. For an instant, Robbie wanted to be home so badly that he thought he was.
by Patricia Weenolsen
Paperback: 550 pages