“Lauren, I need you to talk to me,” Detective Riley said after a few minutes. “How did Selah get to the arboretum?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you see Selah at the arboretum?”
“Yes, we played hide and seek,” I took a sip of water. “We looked at the flowers, all the ones she wanted to see.”
“What else did you do?”
“I showed her the ones I like, and I showed her my drawings…she showed me her drawings…they were messy, little kid drawings.”
“How old do you think Selah is?”
“I think she’s 6 ½ because she told me she was 6 ½.”
“And how old are you, Lauren?”
“I am 22 years old. My birthday is December 13th. I’m a Sagittarius. That’s why I like being outside.”
“Okay…” Detective Riley smirked. “So Selah is much younger…”
“And smaller too. She couldn’t keep up with me when we were playing tag, so I went slower.”
“That was nice of you,” Detective Riley paced, his steps precise, metered.
“I also gave her my apple,” I said as he walked behind me.
“That’s all very nice, Lauren.” Detective Riley paused. “But we have a problem.”
“Lauren,” Detective Riley turned on the light. “What happened to Selah?”
“No light,” I screamed.
“We have to have the light on, Lauren.” Detective Riley insisted. “What happened to Selah?”
I closed my eyes and rested my head on the table. In my own cries I heard Selah’s.
“It’s okay, It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay,” I whispered.
“What happened to Selah?” Detective Riley repeated, his voice echoing.
Sweat beads slid down my spine. A sharp shiver ripped through me. I imagined the Antarctic swells rising from the depths of the ocean then crashing into the coral reef.
“I don’t know,” I mumbled. “I don’t understand.”
I needed to start over, to retrace my steps in a way that made sense to me.
I decided to wear a sleeveless, Bohemian style summer dress, blue with oblong, netted shapes scattered in an alternating pattern. It was my third choice. The first two didn’t meet the requirements, according to my friend, Kate, the expert on appropriate company picnic attire. I told her I couldn’t hang out on Saturday and discuss the botanical beauty, Blood Red Heath, at our usual coffee shop on River Drive from 1 to 3.
“I’ll send you the pictures I saved on my computer, so be sure to check your email in about 8 minutes,” I hung up the phone and pulled my laptop from my backpack. While it turned on, I put two slices of 9-grain bread into a sandwich bag. Then I put some leftover tuna in a small to-go container and grabbed an apple, the shiniest one, from the fruit bowl on the counter and put it all in a brown, paper lunch bag. I sent the pictures as a zip file to Kate and closed my laptop. It took exactly 8 minutes.
I decided to leave my laptop behind in my hiding spot, inside my folded zebra blanket, third in a pile of 5 in my hall closet. I grabbed my lunch and slipped it in my backpack, checking to make sure my notebook and pens were there. Next to the door on the small table were my keys and earbuds. With earbuds in and a triple check of the lock, I headed to the front house to tell my mother that I was leaving.
“You got everything, kiddo?” she said, wiping her hands on her apron.
“Yes…what are you making?” I peered into the white bowl.”
“I’m making cookies, for later,” she winked. “You may want this,” she moved to the kitchen table and picked up a blue, wool blanket.
“Okay…” I put the blanket under my arm. “I’m going to the picnic now.” I turned to leave.
“And you’ll be back at…”?
“The picnic is over at 4, but I’m going to leave at 2 and I will be home by 2:30 if the bus is on time. 2:40 if the bus is a little late…and if it’s going to be later than that I will call you.”
“How about you call me when you leave the picnic?”
“That’s a good idea,” I agreed.
Okay then…have fun,” I heard her say as I shut the door.
Bus 44 arrived on time, making a loud hissing sound as hot, compressed air escaped. I boarded and made my way to my second favorite seat, the window seat in the 4th row from the back, since a man with a dark beard was sitting in my first choice. As I passed, I resisted telling him that I preferred the seat he was sitting in, remembering what my mother had told me; “some things are better kept to ourselves.” The bus jerked forward, and I leaned my face against the window. Cold air seeped through, tickling my nose hairs.
We passed the church with the steeple where the Mormons worship; the park with the pond and early morning flag football games; the supermarket whose parking lot was littered with carts; too many gas stations to count, each equally equipped with regular and high octane fuel; multi-level city buildings, their purpose I’d never know; the car lot with an amazing selection and deals for miles; and the empty high school school waiting for Monday morning when moody teenagers would return.
We stopped for three young men, who hopped on mid-conversation, showed their passes, and found seats in the middle of the bus; a short, round lady with a wire basket on wheels, contents unknown, who took two minutes to board and then sat in the accessible seating area, her breath labored; a man in a dark blue suit who preferred to stand for his 5 mile trip; and a man and a woman with matching joggers and bottled water who seemed to float onto the bus, uplifted by positive thoughts, clean eating, exercise, recycling, and smiles.
“Babe, that was a great workout,” the woman said to her husband as they sat in the seats across from mine. “I feel great! I’m so grateful to be alive…really, really grateful,” the woman’s voiced trailed.
“Me too, babe,” her husband put his arm around her and squeezed.
By the time we got to Marshall Station, I had 45 minutes to walk the 6 blocks to Big Lake Park, the park with no lake, or any body of water for that matter. I steadied my pace, not too fast, not too slow, focusing just on my steps, nothing else: my right shoe slapping the ground then the left, fallen arches to blame. “Heel, toe, heel, toe,” I could hear my mother nagging.
I was afraid I wouldn’t know where to go, but Mary told me to look for the big, yellow welcome sign. So, I did and I found it. Two women I didn’t know were setting up the check-in booth while a catering team set up tables of cold and hot food. I waited under the welcome sign.
“I’m ready to sign in,” I said at 11:30am.
The woman with red, frizzy hair nodded and continued organizing the table with name tags, a sign in sheet on a clear clipboard, shirts ranging from small to 4x, and a goodie bowl filled with pens and whiteboard markers, magnets for the refrigerator, key chains, small tape dispensers and staplers, and hand sanitizer. The other woman with brown hair hid boxes under the table, making the area look neat.
“Find your name on this list,” the red-headed woman handed me the clipboard. “It’s organized by department.”
“I work in the mailroom,” I offered.
“Okay…then you will find your name under Mailroom.”
I picked a medium t-shirt and wrote my name on a name tag, putting them both on in front of the two women. They smiled as I walked away, and I smiled back at them, not a full smile with teeth, a small smile. First, I moseyed along the serving tables, mingling with the early birds and the serving staff. Then I decided to walk through the park and wait for other people to arrive, people I knew. Just beyond the picnic area, over a small, grassy hill was a long path lined with benches and flowers: Red Amaranthus with erect plumes; orange Canna Lilies poking through thick green leaves; pink Garden Cosmos, flowers with gold centers, standing high; bright yellow Creeping Zinnias, low to the ground, their vines hidden; and Marigolds fluffy and bright, a call to summer. I sat on the middle bench and took out my notebook, carefully drawing a perfect Marigold flower, just one, right in the center of the page.
“I thought you said you went to find Mary and Isaac after you checked in,” Detective Riley said.
“At first they weren’t there. I had to wait,” I explained. “I didn’t see anyone I knew.”
“I want you to tell me exactly what happened,”
At 12:20pm I walked back to the picnic area. It was a completely different scene. People were everywhere. I saw Isaac first then Mary. I found a spot near them and spread out my blanket.
“Hi Mary. Hi Isaac.”
“What’s up?” Isaac asked.
“Hey girl,” Mary said. “It’s getting warm. Isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I said, sitting on my blanket. I took my notebook out again, this time crossing out Go to the picnic on my schedule and circling Go to the arboretum at 1pm.
“Are you going to play any of the games,” Mary asked. “That three-legged race looks fun,” she laughed.
“I don’t know,” I shrugged.
“You want to go get some lemonade while you think about it?” Mary asked as she stood up.
“Okay, sure.” I followed Mary to the beverage area. “This park has nice flowers,” I tried to start a conversation.
Mary poured me a cup of lemonade, one for Isaac, and then one for herself before we went back to my blanket, where I sat with my legs crisscrossed, my dress stretched over my knees.
“Let’s go do the three-legged race,” Isaac stood up when he finished his lemonade.
“I’m down,” Mary gulped the rest of her drink. “Do you want to go, Lauren?” she asked.
Before I could give my answer, Isaac had whisked her away. I watched them run to the other side of the picnic.
“That’s when I saw her,” I heard my voice drop.
“Selah?” Detective Rile asked.
She was the most beautiful child I’d ever seen. Full of personality. And articulate. I saw her before I saw her mother. With a pink notebook under her arm and a purple purse on her shoulder, she approached the park’s entrance and waited. She swayed from side to side in her fluffy, lavender skirt, looking around at the celebration before her: The company’s picnic complete with fire-lit BBQ grills all lined with chicken, ribs, and hotdogs; two volleyball games starting, each with it’s own lively audience; long tables covered with side dishes stuffed in large bowls and containers atop ice; a row of ice chests filled with water—mountain, spring, sparkling–a variety of carbonated beverages–high in sugar, low in sugar, no sugar, caffeinated, decaffeinated—and coffees, bottled and canned. Across from the playground Steve from accounting and his partner Dave put on a clown show while Bea and Ryan, both analysts, sat at a table transforming small faces into tigers, dragons, bumblebees, ladybugs, and pirates. Loud cheers and squeals satisfied parents standing nearby, half engrossed in their own conversation and half smiles and celebration as their children pleaded, “look at me, look at me!”
A woman dressed in a white sundress and sandals pushing a baby stroller was just behind the child, motioning her to continue on the path. I watched. The child skipped lightly ahead. Her white sandals scraped against the ground on the downbeat. She admired the going-ons, pointing to the clowns and face painting station.
“Mommy, that looks fun.”
“It does look fun…let’s find Daddy.”
Jack, from management, saw them first. “Selah,” he called. The little girl’s eyes lit up, and she crossed the wide patch of leafy grass, running into his arms.
“Hey princess!” he picked her up and nestled his beard against her face. She squealed, dropping her notebook.
“Daddy!” she squirmed. “I dropped my notebook.
“Oh no…” he said sweetly, bending down to retrieve the thin, pink notebook. “What ya got in here?”
“I got grandma Joan’s recipe for pound cake…I got 5 math problems…I got a letter to mommy…I got a letter to Jack jr.,” she leaned against her dad and turned each page, pausing for him to nod in approval. “I also have a picture of Mister…see, I even made his whiskers. And Daddy,” she pulled his attention back to her. “I made pictures of flowers like the ones in the arboretum…can we go see them?”
“Yeah sure…in a little bit,” he said, half listening, and then kissed her forehead and stood up to embrace his wife. “Hey sweetie,” he held her close. “Thank you for coming,” he kissed her again and then peaked in on Jack Jr., his four-month-old butterball who’d be ready to eat in minutes. “I want you to meet some people.” He grabbed the stroller handle, his wife wrapped her arm around his waist, and Selah walked ahead. They stopped at the sign-in booth to pick up t-shirts, pens, and a tote bag. Selah stuffed her t-shirt and tote bag at the bottom of the stroller and put her pens in her purse.
I watched to see where they were going to sit, and then I picked up my blanket and my backpack and moved as close as I could to them.
“So you moved closer to Selah?”
“Why did you do that?”
“I wanted to see her.”
“I don’t know.”
“I think you do know, Lauren.” Detective Riley probed. “Think about it. Why did you want to get closer to Selah?”
I thought about it.
Jack stared at me as I spread my blanket between his and Scott’s, the assistant manager.
“Hey Lauren,” he said. “Having fun?”
“Yes, I’m having fun.”
While Jack’s wife took Jack Jr. out of the stroller, Selah sat down and drew in her notebook.
“Selah, honey, let’s go get your face painted?” Jack reached down for Selah’s hand.
“No,” she yelled, lining her pens up next to her.
“You said it looked fun,” Jack’s wife said, cradling Jack Jr. “You don’t want to get a bunny face?” she asked.
“Come one sweetie,” Jack bent to pick her up.
“No,” Selah screamed and threw a tantrum.
“She was inconsolable,” I told Detective Riley. “She kicked. She hit. She screamed.” I mimicked the guttural, heartbreaking sounds.
“But that’s not why you moved closer.”
“I moved closer to Selah because I wanted to see if she was like me.”
Jack’s wife was embarrassed. “Why do you act like this?” she said under her breath. Jack picked Selah up and tried to shake her into submission but couldn’t control her flailing limbs so he put her down and stepped over her. He ran his fingers through his hair and exhaled. I scooted once. I scooted twice. I scooted again and I was on their blanket, right next to Selah.
I leaned in and took her balled fist in mine. She kept screaming. She kept flailing. I opened her fist one finger at a time, and in her palm I made a big circle with my finger, and then a smaller circle, an even smaller circle, smaller, and smaller until my finger rested in the center. It was then that the wildness in her was subdued. She lay silent for a few minutes before she sat up and resumed her drawing. I moved back to my blanket and watched.
“What did Jack and his wife say?” Detective Riley asked.
“His wife said thank you. Jack didn’t say anything to me. He walked away.”
“When did Selah start ‘touching your stuff’?”
“After she finished her drawing, she crawled to my blanket and started going through my stuff.”
“Did she say anything?”
“And you didn’t say anything to her?”
“No. I didn’t say anything. At 1pm I put all my stuff in my backpack and left.”
“You went straight to the arboretum?”
“Do you think it’s possible that Selah followed you?”
“Yes, I think it’s possible that Selah followed me, but I didn’t see her following me.” I explained.
“What did you do when you saw her?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Do you think you should have done something?”
I replayed in my mind a list of things my mother had warned me to do: Be friendly. Be on time. Beware of thieves and scoundrels. Bring extra to share. Breathe when you feel anxious. Brush your teeth in the morning and at night. Call 911 if a situation gets scary. Do laundry on Sundays. Do not mix whites and colors. Do not walk If the Do Not Walk sign is on. Dry your hands after washing them. Eat dinner before 7pm. Iron clothes made of synthetic blends and cotton. Keep bus pass and other personal items safe. Love the earth, animals, and people. Let people know if you need to take a break. Listen to your boss when he tells you to do something. Live your own life and don’t worry about what other people are doing. Never get in cars with strangers. Never go off with strange men even if they ask nicely. Offer to help people carry things. Open doors for people. Put things away where they belong. Ride bicycles with the flow of traffic. Say thank you and please. Stay calm when meeting new people. Take an umbrella if the sky is cloudy. Tip waiters and waitresses. Try to do something before asking for help. Wash your hair every other day. Watch tv for one hour, no more. Wear socks with shoes.
“Do you think it was appropriate for Selah to be alone?”
“She wasn’t alone.”
“Who was with her?” Detective Riley’s eyes widened.
“Jack was there,” I said, removing the ham sandwich from its wrapper. “Can we turn off the lights now?”