I was a slightly spoiled child, headstrong and independent. I didn’t always get my own way. Pouting was a sure-fire way to get my mom to send me to my room, but I was used to making my own decisions based upon my extremely egocentric take on the outside world.
Every year, 114,600 non-family abductions are attempted and 3,200 to 4,600 are successful, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics.
So of course, one day I didn’t walk home from school on the path my mom had set for me. My best friend Teal walked the opposite direction than I normally went, but we had been having so much fun telling secrets and giggling and gossiping about the little boys in our class -- who all seemed to be in love with us.
Teal was a small girl with straight, sun-bleached blond hair usually pulled back into a pony tail. She had intelligent green eyes, a snub nose sprinkled with freckles, and an infectious laugh. I was also a small 5-year-old. My head was covered in a mass of mahogany hair that curled in ringlets. I had large, defiant eyes the same shade as my tresses and a tiny rosebud mouth that was quick to smile. My aunt had described me best when she told me in later years, “You’re pretty now, Mellisa, but you were an amazingly beautiful little girl.”
I had tingled with excitement when I walked with Teal that day, knowing I was doing something forbidden. It had made the world vibrate with detail. I was young and intensely alive, being naughty and bold. The air was crisp with the promise of winter. Small breezes teased the fallen leaves. The atmosphere sparkled with the joy of two little girls who were enjoying themselves with every atom of their beings.
“Stanger-kidnappings” account for 24% of cases. Family members account for 49%, while 27% are acquaintances, according to Justice Dept. statistics.
Too soon, Teal and I reached the spot where we had to part ways. We lingered by a cute little house surrounded by a fence covered in late roses. I was quite taken with the soft, pink blooms, the only thing that still seemed to be growing in a land of dormant trees and gray skies. I had bent over to fill my nostrils with the sweet scent of all those tardy flowers when a man began to speak.
He was standing on the other side of the laden fence. The man seemed extremely interested in talking with us. He was a short, balding guy, quite unremarkable in his physical presence. He was kind of funny, but I didn’t like the way he looked at me and kept licking his lips.
Then Teal said that she had to go home. The man wanted to keep talking to me, but he was beginning to make me feel nervous, so I said that I had to go too. As Teal left, I began to regret my impulsive decision. I was alone and still had quite a ways to go before I got back to my babysitter’s house.
According to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, 840,279 people were reported missing by police in 2001. 85% to 90% of those missing were kidnapped juveniles.
Still, the day was quite winning with its smell of frost to come. I shuffled my feet in the leaves and plowed up big piles of brown, gold, and orange as I slowly made my way to my destination. Behind me, the man had quietly opened the gate and was following. I hadn’t been aware that he’d been closing in behind me or that another man had walked up to him and stopped his forward movement. Quite innocent of what was going on at the house of roses, I continued to shuffle through piles of leaves until I made it safely to my babysitter’s house.
The only reason that I had ever become aware that the man had been a threat was because I got in trouble that evening when my mom came to pick me up. “Why didn’t you walk home the way I told you?” my mom asked me. “I don’t know what would have happened to you if your Uncle Pete hadn’t felt like he needed to keep an eye on you today.”
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that most non-family child abductions are sexually motivated.
When I was older, I learned that my grandma had awakened that morning feeling that her eldest grandchild was in danger. She had called her brother Pete and asked him to go with her on what ended up being a guardian-angel mission. They had sat in my Uncle Pete’s car and watched as I walked with Teal. They’d grown very concerned when the man had started to talk with us. When he came after me, Uncle Pete had gotten out of the car and given the man a few choice words, and probably a few choice threats.
Neither Teal nor I ever saw that guy again. He never emerged from his house when we were walking home from school. Only once more did I walk the wrong way back to the babysitter’s. It was early spring. The roses around the house were dead. I felt guilty for walking the wrong way and was afraid that I was going to get in trouble. I didn’t, but I also never went that way again.