Missing children are a heartwrenching staple of tabloids and cable news; The constant attention to what is, statistically, a rarity can really give a workout to a mother’s stranger-danger radar. This past week, authorities were searching for a two-year-old who vanished at a Rockport, Mass. beach, and a six-year-old girl in Tucson who went missing from her bedroom; and in New York City they were tearing up a basement for clues to a six-year-old boy, Etan Patz, who disappeared 33 years ago. It all brings back a memory for mom Amy MacKinnon.
The drinks wobbled in their cardboard tray, sloshing my hand, sluicing down my forearm. My eldest walked beside me, intent on balancing an equally fragile basket overflowing with fried clams and hot dogs.
While her focus was on lunch, mine was on my two younger children biking just ahead along the crowded esplanade: my daughter a flash of pink metal and ribbons, her older brother on his new bike, something more befitting a boy of 10. They were scouting a picnic spot with a view of Boston Harbor and the buzz of the airport beyond. It was a perfect summer day, dazzling blue skies, and the park was full.
I ached to call them back. They were so young and if they passed the next rise, I wouldn’t be able to see them. I glanced over my shoulder to my husband. Between the distance and the press of bodies he was nearly lost, struggling to catch up as he pushed both his bike and our older daughter’s before being swallowed by the crowd. He wouldn’t hear me, couldn’t shush my warning to the younger children. Wait. He had lectured me on the car ride to the park while I stared out the window.
“Loosen the apron strings,” he said. “Let them explore, they’ll be perfectly safe. You’ve got to let go, don’t stifle them or they’ll never grow-up.”
It was only a moment before I returned my gaze to the children. They were stopped now, my son standing beside his bike, taking one step, and then another backward. My little girl straddled hers. She appeared perplexed, but I barely saw her. My vision became telescopic.
A man in gray sweat-shorts pulled low under his expansive naked belly loomed over my boy, his hand gripped my son’s shoulder.
I lost my hearing, my taste and touch, my nostrils were no longer filled with salt air and tanning lotion. All of me saw only the stranger touch my child. I closed the distance between us, never seeing but somehow sensing my daughter rushing along behind me. Another part of me was aware of the drinks teetering in my hands and a jet screaming overhead.
“Can I help you?” My voice was not my own. It was low, a growl, louder than I’d been taught a lady should speak.
The man continued to look at my son, a forgotten soft-serve cone – chocolate – dripping along his left wrist. No one had ever taught him to speak quietly. “What? You can’t do that no more, talk to someone else’s kid?”
He started so reasonably, but then spittle began collecting at the corners of his mouth, his pitch growing frantic, that kettle-drum stomach heaving, soft and white. I remembered him from the clam shack; he had been in line ahead of us.
I remembered him because I pulled my eldest daughter closer the moment I saw him. The man’s wiry hair, cut close, matched the brown tufts that peeked over both shoulders and in the narrow gorge of his chest. When he spoke, his teeth reminded me of weathered cedar shingles, discolored by wear and neglect. How easily they could break. Something inside of me became detached, reasonable in this most unreasonable situation. I should have been crying out for help, but I didn’t. A part of me didn’t want it.
In that brief space between his words and mine, I came to believe that the sinew and muscles of my smaller body, my mother’s love, were enough to protect us all.
“Move along.” My voice was loud and had a quaver to it. I repeated myself, careful to sound resolute. “You need to move along.”
He took a step toward my son, but I slid in front of my boy so that the man was inches from me. I was vaguely aware that my children formed a triangle around him – whichever way he turned, he could grab one of them. My youngest stood behind him, to his left. If I pushed him hard, he’d fall into her, smash her to the ground. I didn’t think he had a weapon in a pocket of those tiny shorts, but it was only a guess. These were the thoughts that pushed and pulled at me in that instant.
He pressed into me, his chest bumping the drinks. “What? I can’t talk to your kid?”
“That’s right.” I felt the tray in my hands and positioned my fingers so I could push it into his face, buy myself a moment to flex my knee toward his groin.
Push me again, I thought, I hoped. Anything for my child. I had no fear. I waited for him to strike first.
The man took a step back, started gesturing to the people who passed us, none of whom stopped. He screamed to them while trying to stare me down. “This b*** thinks I’m gonna hurt her kid.”
And then my husband was by my side. “What’s going on?”
The spell broken, I motioned for my children to move. They walked quickly through the crowd of passersby, all of whom aggressively ignored us.
The man pulled aside a woman walking two lap dogs. “Can you believe the world today? [She] said I couldn’t talk to her kid.”
“What a shame,” the woman said and hurried away.
I could still hear him while my family climbed a hill and settled ourselves overlooking the water and the airport. We ate in silence, my eyes following the man on the concourse below us. Snatches of conversation he made with strangers floated my way; it was all about the confrontation.
I looked out over the water and saw a jet descend and another taxiing to parts unknown. The man was watching the planes, too. He sat on a wooden bench, his legs spread wide, the threat he posed to my family now passed.
While my mind turned this over, my son placed a hand on my arm: “Thank you for saving me, Mommy.” His face was too-knowing for a boy his age.
The man was still sitting on the bench at the bottom of the hill. His head swiveling, watching little ones skate by before locking onto two little boys heading to the docks, fishing poles at the ready. Alone. They didn’t notice the man.
Then the man stretched his arms and rose to his feet, becoming one with the masses under that lovely clear, blue sky. I turned to my son, pulling him close. “Don’t worry now, you’re safe.”
In that instant, and for many moments since, I wondered where he went, if he ever tried to grab another boy, one whose mother’s apron strings weren’t so tightly wound. I wished we had taken a different path, chosen a different park. I wish it had never happened at all.
But most of all, I wish I hadn’t waited for the man to push me again.
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