19 December 2011

Who's that girl?

Since the school year started, we see her most mornings, the son and I. It's early, so you tend to recognize the people who are out and about: an older couple with their coffee, the woman with the young Australian shepherd, another woman who meets her daughter to go for a walk, and this girl, clearly walking to school, the high school up the street. I always notice the younger ones because it's early, and as a parent I feel protective. The son noticed her because she is cute, of middling height, slim, with long hair. She noticed the son, which I teased him about, just a little, because he is insecure about his looks, and it was important that he know he was being checked out.

I feel an odd fondness for this girl I don't know at all. She walks briskly, with purpose, sometimes eating her breakfast as she goes. She's dressed modishly, but modestly. She stands tall, but without the swagger and attitude of most teens, and she doesn't carry the snarky, mean girl attitude that I see on so many her age. She seems to be thinking about things.

I notice when I haven't seen her in the morning.

The son notices, too.

The first report was Thursday evening, and a little shiver went up my spine. I check the sheriff's department blotter in the newspaper to keep up with what's going on in the neighborhood, especially when there's been a nearby fire or we see emergency vehicles.

"Missing juvenile," it said. "Sixteen year old female. Left note that she would be home by 6pm. Hasn't returned."

Lots of kids around here, I told myself, despite the fact everything matched up too closely.

The next morning, there was a photo in the paper. It was fuzzy and the girl who was pictured had her hair pulled back, but I felt an uncomfortable certainty. Still, we weren't quite sure it was her. I chat with the woman who meets her daughter, so I'd surely recognize her, and occasionally I exchange stiff nods with the older couple, but I tend to avoid looking at the teens passing by unless they're causing trouble or are known to me. It seems a nicety.

The half-familiar, half-unfamiliar photo gave me pause. I was unpleasantly reminded of Shirley Jackson's short story, "The Missing Girl," in which no one quite remembers or quite recalls anything about the girl who has disappeared. In this day and age, could someone fall through the cracks so easily? Are too many of us averting our eyes politely?

She still was missing the following the day. A new gallery of photos showed up in the newspaper, and it was then we knew: it was without doubt the girl we see walking in the morning.

"Oh no," said the son. "Should we say something?"

"What?" I asked him. "That we see her walking in the morning? We haven't seen her since earlier in the week. We haven't any information that can help."

I understood his frustration, though. We weren't friends or family, just two random strangers who recognized someone in danger, and we were powerless to help. She was a piece of our world, just a small bit, someone who passed by in the morning, but we wanted her back, safe, where she belonged.

So often these stories don't have a happy ending. This time, at least, the missing girl was recovered, evidently safe and sound. I know more about her now because of the newspaper stories, her name and what she likes to do and that she's had a rough time recently. I know she has family and friends who care about her. It's unlikely she'll ever know that two random strangers worried over her absence.

But I know. She is a piece of my world, a tiny bit, back where she belongs.

Go listen to some music: "Who's That Girl?" from the album Greatest Hits by Eurythmics.

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