The man stood on the sidewalk across the street, watching the doors of the local elementary school. The bell would ring soon, and the children would be sent out into the warm, sunny afternoon to make their way home. The man looked around the streets of the small, quiet town where everyone knew everyone else – the tiny town where bad things rarely happened, except now something bad had happened – four times in the last four months. Four children had gone missing on their walk home from school, each on the night of a new moon. The man was surprised anyone had noticed that detail, but someone had. The police, the parents, everyone was asking the same question, “Who is taking the children?”
Tonight, there would be another new moon, and parents were on edge. Those who could do so, had started picking their children up, but not everyone could do that. Then there were those parents who simply couldn’t seem to believe that their children could be the next to go missing. So the children of those groups still walked home, and those were the children he would follow today, the same ones he’d followed every day for the last week in preparation for this afternoon.
From the man’s vantage point, he could see the side street where a row of mini vans, SUVs, and sedans waited to pick up the car riders. Right now, the line circled around to where he was, but it would soon clear out as children were ushered, rather efficiently, into the cars of their parents or sitters. He knew that the buses would be lined up behind the school, waiting for the small riders to board, but here in front of the school, there would be only a teacher and a crossing guard to help the children navigate through the afternoon traffic. Once the children were safely on their way, those adults would disappear, eager to get home themselves.
He would wait back here, out of sight until the children were well on their way, isolated. At the start of their journey, there would be groups walking together, talking and laughing, but those groups would thin out as, one by one, children made it to their own homes and bounded through the doors, happy to be done with school for another day. Eventually, the remaining children, the ones who lived the farthest away, would be left to make the last bit of their journey alone. Those were the ones to watch. They were the ones who could just disappear into thin air.
The parents, if they were home at all, wouldn’t miss them if they were five or ten minutes late. They wouldn’t really start to get worried until a little more time had passed, but still they would rationalize it. After all, children stop to talk. They get distracted, delayed. What’s five or ten minutes? Fifteen? That might require a scolding, but the parent would hardly be in a state of panic by that point. No, it would be around half an hour before the parents got really worried. Even then, they would first walk the route themselves trying to call their child’s cell, if they had one. They would tell themselves that little Sally had only lost track of time. Only after that, would they start the process of frantically calling around, trying to locate their child. First, they would call the school and the other parents. Then, finally, they would give up and call the police. How far could someone get in that time with little Sally in tow?
The school bell rang, and the man watched as the children made their way out of the building. So small. So vulnerable. He could feel his palms sweating as he climbed behind wheel of his car. He was on edge now, waiting for the opportunity to arise – waiting for the moment that that one child was alone. A group of five children headed his direction. Three walked side-by-side in front. Another two followed behind. They talked among themselves. The man could hear their muffled chatter through the closed windows as they passed his car. They never even noticed him sitting there.
He would wait until they were a ways ahead of him before following. He recognized them all after following them for the past week. The little girl in back, the small one with the blonde ponytail, had the farthest to go. Her name was Lily. He knew this. He paid attention. She lived way over on Smith Street. This group always stayed together as they walked, undoubtedly cautioned to do so by their worried parents, but Lily was always alone for the last bit of the walk. Two blocks. That wasn’t far, but that was the window of opportunity. That was when she could disappear without anyone noticing.
The man could simply rush ahead and wait for that last leg of the trip. At some point, he would have to move ahead of them to avoid arousing suspicion, but he would wait a while to make sure that things were unfolding the way they usually did. After all, today could be different. Some children might split off in a different direction. Perhaps one child might be spending the night with another. Maybe Lily herself would go home with another child. In that case, there might be no isolated child today. If so, the man would simply follow them home and then keep driving. Once they were safely inside, there would be no chance to snatch them up. To take a child from his or her own home or one who was simply not alone added an extra layer of risk, and the man doubted it was worth it. There would be other new moons, other children than these.
He drove a safe distance behind them, waiting to see if they would all follow their usual routes. They did. When only Lily and one other girl were left, the man moved ahead to his planned position. It was a dead spot on the last leg of Lily’s trip. There were only two houses in the area. One was for sale. Much of the area was occupied by an overgrown, wooded lot. Beyond that, was a row of self-storage buildings, normally empty at this time of day. Lily would pass the occupied house and then the small empty home. Then she would be on her own for rest of the block. To be sure he would not be spotted by anyone, the man pulled his car between a row of self-storage buildings and got out. He looked around. Seeing no one, he made his way to the wooded lot and waited.
A few minutes later, a dark colored car pulled onto the street, driving slowly. The man held his breath and moved back into the shadows among the trees. His hands were sweating, and he wiped his damp palms on his jeans. He watched the car carefully as it passed. Inside, he could see a young woman. In the backseat were two children. The mother was distracted, dividing her attention between the road in front of her and the rowdy children in behind her. She did not notice the man as she cruised slowly by and disappeared around the corner. The man realized he’d been holding his breath. Now, he expelled it and refocused his attention on the intersection where Lily would soon appear.
A few minutes later, she did. The man looked around searching the area to be certain no one else was there. The street appeared to be completely empty, but he was still on high alert, watching for any sign of movement. Lily passed the occupied house. In the stillness of the afternoon, he could hear her singing softly to herself as she walked. She was in front of the abandoned house now, so close to his position. A mosquito buzzed near his ear, and he batted it away, never breaking his attention. He glanced around again – still no sign of another person. There were no cars parked on the streets. The woods around him appeared empty. He recalled seeing no one at the storage buildings. He felt the sweat from the warm afternoon run down between his should blades as he waited.
Without warning, a voice echoed down the street, “Lily!” the voice called.
The small girl spun around, startled, as an elderly woman walked around the side of the empty house, carrying a brightly colored canvas bag. She walked slowly with a bit of a limp, slightly stooped over. Lily’s body relaxed as she moved toward the woman. Her voice sounded relieved as she spoke. “Mrs. Johnson, what are you doing back there?”
“Oh, just tidying up a bit. The owner moved out last month, and I guess they just abandoned it. I don’t want it all blowing into my yard so I try to keep it picked up,” the old woman said.
“You need any help?” Lily asked.
“Oh, I don’t want to delay you,” Mrs. Johnson replied, waving the suggestion away with one frail-looking hand. “Your mom will be worried if you’re late getting home.”
“No, it’s fine,” the little girl said. “Mom’s still at work today. She won’t know, and she’d be happy to know I stopped to help you anyway. She almost called you last night to see if I could stay here until she got home.”
“Well, OK then. I could certainly use the help,” Mrs. Johnson said. “I was just about to take a little break before I get back to it. You want to come in and have a glass of lemonade? I’ve got some cookies, too. You can call your mom and let her know where you are so she can pick you up later.”
“Sure,” Lily said, following the old woman as she moved slowly up the steps to the house.
The man watched her go. His body felt shaky as he crashed down from the adrenaline high. He stood, bracing himself against the tree for a while before moving. Even though Lily was not taken, he did not want to be seen. Again, there would be other new moons, and Lily would likely still be alone on those days. Moments passed in silence, and the street remained empty. Eventually, the man felt comfortable leaving the cover of the thick brush and made his way back to his car. He drove home, feeling disappointed that this afternoon had not gone as planned. He made a phone call and explained the situation to the person on the other end. Then he went home to his empty house, warmed up some leftovers for dinner, and crawled into bed early.
Several hours later, he woke to the shrill sound of a ringing phone cutting through the dark stillness of his bedroom. He fumbled for the phone as he sat up in bed. “Hello?” the man asked, his voice raspy after waking so suddenly.
“Mike?” the booming voice asked from the other end of the line.
“Yeah, Chief, it’s me,” the man said, rubbing his eyes with his free hand. He leaned against the nightstand, his elbow knocking his badge to the floor.
“I thought you said the little Smith girl – uh, Lily – got home safe today,” the voice said. There was an accusatory tone in the Chief’s voice.
The man, Mike, was suddenly very awake. “Wait, what happened? Is she OK?”
“No,” the Chief said. “No, Mike. She’s not OK. When her mom didn’t hear from her by five, she tried calling. No answer. So she left work. It’s about an hour’s drive so she started calling other parents on her way home. Nothing. Nobody has seen her. You called in at – let me see – just before 4 p.m. So, something happened in that hour.”
Mike replayed the afternoon. In his mind, he saw Lily, so little, so vulnerable, following the old woman up the steps, and he, Mike, just stood there in the woods, watching her go. His head began to spin. His chest tightened as he fought to speak. “Chief, I know who it is. I know who has been taking the children…”