The woman is watching the children come home from school.  Her husband has just come in their small colonial house in time to receive a phone call.  He relays the message to her:  “They couldn’t make the sexual psychopath plea stick.  In the eyes of the law a man is sane when he knows right from wrong.”

            The tired woman asks:  “That means they’ll lock him up a couple of months and then turn him loose just as he is – sick and dangerous?”

            The man answers:  “If I’d caught him last night, I’d have killed him.  And I just missed him.”

            “Or he would have killed you,” she answers.

The day before began as usual when the alarm went off at .  The mother gets up, turns up the thermostat, wakes the only child well enough to go to school.  She starts breakfast before dressing, calls the little girl to breakfast.  The older brother and younger two sisters are sick abed with virus.  At breakfast the little girl asks permission to go home with a friend after school.  The mother is reluctant to give permission.  She doesn’t know the family, the phone number or address, or even how to spell the girl’s last name.  Her daughter had gone there to visit the day before, but failed to phone from her friend’s house to give her mother the information.  And the day before she’d walked over after school with the girl next door – and it wasn’t snowing.  But the house is a mess from the decorators, the children are sick, and with the deep snow, her daughter cannot play inside or out.  So permission is given, with another promise to phone.

            It is , as the little girl leaves for school, the painters arrive, and the cleaning woman.

            The mother makes breakfast for her husband before he goes out on the road.  The pediatrician arrives to check the three sick children and to report on the premature baby in the hospital.  The baby would have a transfusion that afternoon, preparatory to coming home, as soon as the viruses and the decorating were completed.  Then breakfast is carried to the children, the washing started, the kitchen cupboards emptied so the painters can start there after lunch.

            At the mother and the day worker are still polishing furniture.  The mother is waiting anxiously for the phone to ring.  The doctor calls to say the transfusion was completed successfully.  She has a strange reaction to contemplation of the baby not present, as if it were someone else’s child.  Suddenly she realizes her daughter has not called.  The sun is setting.  The painters quit for the day, first plugging in lamps and TV in the curtainless living room.  Time to pay off the dayworker.  Darkness is enveloping the little house.  Her daughter should have been home by dark.

            At she calls the next door neighbor, finds the name of the father of the girl her daughter is visiting.  The number has been changed; it takes several calls to get the girl’s mother.  She says Jill left before four – nearly an hour ago.  She should have reached home in fifteen minutes.  More phone calls to neighbors to see if she stopped off on the way home.

            At it is quite dark.  Husband walks in to mess and no supper.  Sends him to look at excavations on school grounds, in case daughter took forbidden shortcut home.  The flashlight doesn’t work, but there’s a spotlight on the car.  The doctor’s wife next door calls to say her son has come home and will go with a flashlight to help look.  She says the police man down the street saw children sliding on ice at corner on his way home.  More calls, but no one has seen Jill.  Policeman’s wife calls to say her husband advises to call police to come with squad car and powerful floodlight.  Call to police.  Description of child given.

            At husband returns.  No sight of child in excavations.  Leaves to search neighboring streets and ditches.  Mother fixes supper for three sick children.  They say a prayer together.

            At ten to 7, there is a knock at the door, mother answers, expecting police.  It is her missing daughter.  As she catches her breath, the bell rings.  It is the police.  As she is trying to explain, the husband walks in.  The other children are sent back to bed.  The police quiz the little girl.  She tells about the nice man who offered her a ride home; how the car got stuck on a lonely road and he had to call for a tow truck; the wait in the snowbound car; how he would not take her home, but dropped her off back at the school. 

            The police take her and father to retrace ride, check the man’s description at the house where he’d phoned for the tow truck, and with the driver of the truck,  By 8:30 PM she is home and tucked in bed.

            At the phone rings.  The detective on the case says the man has been picked up.  License and car tallies with description furnished by truck driver; description of man tallies with that given by girl.  He’s one of the twenty repeat offenders police have on record.  He made a statement that confirmed the girl’s.  Because of the stuck car, could not kill her and leave her.  Wants to plead guilty under sexual psychopath law and get treatment.

            Under sexual psychopath law, could be put in institution until cured; under charge of assault and battery with intent to rape, receives three to five months in jail with no psychological help.

            “You’ll have to take your daughter down to the morning line up to identify the man and to give her statement; if the plea’s accepted, she will not have to testify in court.”

The small red-coated girl detaches herself from the group of returning school children and runs up to her house.  The mother greets her at the door with grateful arms and anxious eyes.  The child is gay and confident, obviously untroubled by the morning at the police station or the harrowing adventure of the previous evening.  “Can I go to Jeannie’s to play?” she asks.

            “No, not today,” the mother says.  “I need you here.”  She hugs the little girl as if her arms alone could keep her safe.  Thank God she wasn’t hurt in any way.  But what about the next child?

Carla Harris

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