When the temperature soared above ninety-five, I sent my barefoot, scantily clad kids outside our brick-oven-of-a-house to play in the creek. Every few seconds I grabbed the hem of my apron to wipe rivers of sweat from my neck while mason canning jars submerged in a massive pot of boiling water bubbled in a mad frenzy, clinking against each other with a mesmerizing rat-a-tat-tat. My head spun in dizzy circles from the heat while the aroma of spiced applesauce hung thick and humid in the darkened kitchen as an aphrodisiac.
“Momma! We can’t … find Katie!” My eight-year-old daughter peered through the screen door with her hands cupped around her eyes, panting. Her voice cut through the steamy kitchen like an arrow, piercing my heart.
“What? You can’t find her?”
“We were … playing in the shallows … looking for minnows … and … she was following us around … and … then all of a sudden none of us knew … where she was.”
Her shoulders shrugged with despair as fear danced in her eyes. “I’m sorry Momma … she was right there …”
I flipped the stove burner to “off” and ran outside, slamming the screen door behind me.
“How long? How long has it been since you saw her?”
“I don’t know, Momma …”
“Where did you see her last?”
“By the stump … or maybe that tall grass closer to the road.” She swept her hand in a large arc.
Newspaper headlines from the week before flashed through my mind: “Men Escape from State Mental Hospital.” “Child Kidnapped along County Road.”
The state mental hospital was only about five miles from our farm. No one knew if there might be a correlation between the escape of the three men and the disappearance of a neighbor child, but the local farming community held its collective breath as authorities continued to investigate.
“Kaaatie!” I yelled at the top of my lungs, but then turned to face the terrified faces before me. “You kids split up. You … you comb the sides of the creek. You … you check out the shed and the barn. And you … you look down by the road and under all the bushes.”
I envisioned three-year-old Katie, perhaps lured by a lollipop, zooming away in a strange car. Dread pressed hard, suffocating my heart.
The noonday sun baked my head; I choked on my own panic and could hardly speak or think. I scurried with Katie’s three siblings here and there, searching, searching … calling her name. “Katie! Katie! Kaaaaatie!” Minutes dragged on; none of us uncovered a single trace or clue.
Should I call the police?
I trotted back toward the kitchen’s screen door where cinnamon-apple aromatherapy seemed to slap me in the face. “Not yet – don’t call, not yet.” I turned and panned the back yard slowly, left to right, as my apron flopped in an unexpected but welcome breeze. My eyes scanned the shed, maple tree, chicken coop, juniper bush – all the places we’d already searched. I held my apron down with my left hand and shaded my forehead with my right, then did a re-run. Shed, dog house, maple tree, chicken coop, juniper bush … wait, the doghouse!
Our outdoor farm dog, Sally, regularly dragged dead rabbits, squirrels, and other small game animals to her doghouse – either road kill or the victims of her own hunting. For this reason, we all stayed clear to avoid the repulsive odor of rotting carcasses.
“Hey!” I shouted. “Did any of you check the doghouse?” My words wafted up toward the white-hot sun, unheard, as frantic child-voices continued to shout, “KATIE-KATIE-KATIE!”
I surged toward the white doghouse with its steep-pitched roof as if drawn by a magnet, then crouched down and brushed aside a tangle of cobwebs and a few creepy crawly spiders. The darkness forced me to squint; my body shook with each heartbeat.
Musty, acid smells gagged me; I instinctively held my breath. My bare knees splintered tiny, dead sticks – or were they bones? – as I leaned deeper through the door and peered into a back corner.
“Heeee-hee, you found me, Momma! I play hide and seek!”
Katie’s cherubic face leaned toward mine until our noses touched. “I hide-ed, Momma.”
I kissed the sweaty, golden hair glued to Katie’s nose and took a gulp of stale, putrid air. “And I would never have stopped searching – no matter how long it took - until I found you, Katie.”
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