An Eye on the Little Ones
Katie took the kids to the park every day that the weather permitted, and even then, sometimes she bundled them up and took them out in the rain, to show that sometimes you just have to. The park was one of those rare gestures, on the part of the developers of the tract of homes, that actually worked out according to plan.
The park was designed around a stand of black oaks, which were too majestic for the powers-that-be to remove. Thus they formed the backdrop for a comfortable place to take the children, which was no more than seven minutes’ stroll from their home, even in a drizzle. And when it was mid-July, and blistering out, there was always some degree of comfort, beneath the shade of the oaks.
There was a corner of the park fenced off with a waist-high chain-link fence, and a gate on each of the four sides, in which an assortment of playground equipment was available for play. Katie found that Sadie and Johan played well in the neutral zone of the park, and that their close age-thirteen months’ difference-made it seem at times as though they were twins. She’d been asked that a number of times, Johan being the older of the two, at four years, eight months.
So it was nice that she could bring the two to this part of the park, bring along her book, and get anywhere from a half-hour, to more than an hour, to just let her body relax. The kids were old enough to function, for the most part, independently of her, if they were of a mind, but also young enough that she still had to stay very close to the surface of her book, to keep an eye on them.
There were others at the park, for the most part familiar personalities, that she had long since categorized as either acceptable playmates/guardians, or at least non-threatening to her or her kids. About the only questionable source of concern in the arena, was a homeless guy, Zack, who had been a part of the scene for so long, that he really did not seem homeless, so much as he seemed at home in the park.
Katie had never spoken with Zack, but she had spoken about him a lot in the beginning, asking around and not hearing anything that made red flags appear. That did not mean she trusted him, just that there was no reason to think that he should prevent her from frequenting the park. Phone calls to the local sheriff’s station had brought the response that the station was well aware of his presence, but that there was no record of any criminal behavior or complaint. The worst that had ever happened was he spent the occasional night in the drunk tank, when he ended up sleeping it off in an inopportune location, generally in the center of the outdoor shopping strip nearby, much to the annoyance of the merchants.
If Katie was sitting there on her bench, and she should happen to see Zack on his rounds through the park, or even just hanging around watching the people in the park at their leisure, she did not give it much thought. She did not exclude him from her mind, nor did she give him undue focus. He was just a part of the backdrop.
Thus it was that Zack was very much around one mid-August Sunday morning, the heat already oppressive and still, no breeze in effect in the back yard of their home, when Katie made an earlier-than-usual appearance at the park, already a little more populated than normal. She kind of liked the slower pace of fewer kids to sort out, while looking for her two, but still, there was comfort in numbers. What could happen when there were so many witnesses? Exactly, nothing.
Flip the coin over, however, and inspect the other side. Numbers tend to blur events. There were so many colors, so many guardians, each concentrating on his or her charges, incapable really, of following everything going on in the busy recreational setting. There was parking on all four sides of the park, with the side bordering the busy thoroughfare, being the least popular side on which to park. Naturally, people sought to avoid the busier option, out of concern for the safety of their kids.
On the other hand, it was convenient for a quick pick-up or delivery of older kids, to have one side of the park not usually filled with parked cars. You could almost count on being able to pause for just a minute, and then be able to go on your way.
Over time Katie had seen enough of Zack to take no more note of him, than that he was around. This morning however, he stood out because he was wearing a red t-shirt, and a red bandana, obviously to keep the sweat off his face, but it made him seem a little like a pirate, with his scraggly beard and his ill-fitting clothes. Of course, in this heat, anyone and anything could be slightly blurry; the pace seemed to slow down just a bit.
Whether it was a slow pace, the heat, or the cosmos in action, Katie did not know. Events distracted her, actions occurred with electrifying speed, and outcomes were determined at breakneck pace, the resolution presented to her, before she even had time to react. Even in relating all events, it must be remembered that each was occurring simultaneously with the others.
Katie had brought her book, but she was still on the same page she had been on when she arrived. She saw how filled the playground was, and liked the fact that both of her kids had on the same color shirt, white today, to try and block the sun as much as possible. The two had separated, with Johan and a playmate rotating through the tall slide, and Sadie absorbed in her sand-digging since shortly after their arrival. They were on opposite sides of the compound, so Katie could not keep the two within her range of vision at the same time. It just meant that she kind of ping-ponged her head back and forth, allowing her to feel assured that all was well.
Suddenly that sense of wellness disappeared. Johan had been clambering up the steel ladder to the top of the slide, when he’d slipped and fallen down five or so steps, not dangerously high, but high enough to cause him to shriek out, and draw her attention, and certainly high enough to demand immediate investigation. Katie sprang up from her bench, leaving her book on the seat, and dashed into the enclosure from the most immediate gate. She was at his side in an instant, attending to his needs, and determining that there was no structural damage.
Simultaneously, Sadie had looked up from her sand-play, and had dashed over to the fence, where a little puppy could be seen on the other side, wagging its tale enthusiastically, its yipping audible over the din of the park. As Sadie stretched her arm though the fence, A man came streaking from an idling van, parked on the curbside, and snatched Sadie from the other side of the low fence, and turned back toward the van. Sadie screeched, just as if Johan had just pinched her, and that was what caught Katie’s attention.
As her head swiveled in the direction of her child’s cry, she saw a flash of red cross her view, and before she had time to even call out Sadie’s name, Zack came out from nowhere, to trap the man between the door of the van, and the van itself, slamming the door from behind, as the man thrust Sadie into the passenger side of the vehicle. The force of the door banging the back of his head, jolted the man into realizing that he was not going to be able to carry out his plan, and he abruptly bailed out, abandoning child, van and everything else, in a pell-mell escape run, across the busy street, and down an adjoining avenue, to parts unknown.
Having left his van behind, Katie was assured by the investigating officer, that they would be able to trace the creep down and apprehend him. Zack was sitting over on the bench, between Sadie and Johan, content to be out of the sun, and sitting between his two small friends. For they were his friends, now and forever, and Katie was OK with that.