Their names pass by us now, too many to track amidst the clutter of our busy lives. From dawn until dusk, the morning news, the evening paper, the omnipresent blare of the radio and television. The nightmare made real seemingly every day.
Someone is missing.
* * *
I returned from the Browns afternoon practice on Thursday, after surviving the heat I endured to watch highly-paid men run around and drink Gatorade. I had pinch-hit for the real reporters, and now was time to prove my mettle.
Before that, though, I needed to hit the showers and assess the damage done to my beloved Jamir Miller jersey. The jersey had been given to me by a grateful friend, whom I had helped when her shop's website had problems. The jersey could perhaps be saved by the ingenious efforts of my wife, who often has to deal with the consequences of my near-legendary ability to sweat profusely. But this was not important now. First things first. I had to clean myself up before my family disowned me.
I cooled down in the shower and emerged ready to commit my real-sports-reporter prose to the ether. First, however, I needed something to drink. Checking the refrigerator, I quickly ascertained that we had nothing worth consuming, at least not at the mid-afternoon hour when adult beverages would blur what few analytical skills I possess. No, I thought, what I really need is a Gatorade, like those players drank. I must have it, and I will.
I headed down to the local convenient store. On the way there, I worried about all the things I needed to do that day, and decided to stop instead at a closer gas station, where I could snag the drinks and get home faster. I parked in a lot next to the gas station. As I left my car, I glanced around quickly, smartly evaluating my surroundings and concluding that there were, in fact, no motor vehicles preparing to run me over or gangs of young men looking to accost me for the five dollars I carried in my pocket. I crossed the parking lot to the store.
* * *
Spaulding Gray, a man with whom I have absolutely nothing in common except a love for his work, offered in Swimming to Cambodia the possibility that there exists a cloud of evil that circles the globe and randomly touches down. Gray speculates that it was this cloud, combined with the strange teachings of Pol Pot, which launched the Cambodians down the road to genocide. Their genocide was not directed at a race or a creed, but rather at the city-dwellers and the educated who might resist Pot's pure agrarian communism.
When I think of evil, the image that pops into my head is not of Hitler, or Pol Pot, or others who murdered on a mass scale in a time before mine. The image that comes to mind is that of burly and stupid Richard Allen Davis, spitting obscene accusations at the father of the young girl he killed. Davis abducted 12-year-old Polly Klaas from her home on an autumn evening in 1993, disappearing into the California night. A frantic nationwide search yielded nothing until Davis, busted by his palm print and personal history, led policemen to young Polly's body deep in the woods.
* * *
The only thing startling about my physical appearance is my utter normalcy. I am neither good-looking nor ugly. I am neither tall nor short, grossly fat nor scarily thin. I am one of the most average-looking people one could be unfortunate enough to encounter. I am a white male of average height, with no body piercing, tattoos, or unusual hairstyle.
I speculate sometimes that my averageness is a curse. Good-looking people, studies show, get treated differently than the rest of us, and the horrifically ugly are undoubtedly a protected group of some sort. It's only the blandly average who are available for easy and open scorn.
So it didn't take me by surprise when the man looked at me in a manner which didn't seem normal. He was standing in front of his car and didn't seem occupied with putting gas into it. Perhaps, I thought, he felt the parking place I had chosen was odd or he disliked the clothes I wore. Whatever it was, he glanced in my direction, and my radar picked up something.
Driven by my need for a refreshing sports drink, I kept my focus. I cannot be bothered with trivialities, after all. I'm a busy man, and soon to be a big-shot sports reporter. I opened the door and went inside.
* * *
I have a vision of innocence built on a lie. During that horrible night, Davis was visited by police deputies as his white Pinto was stuck in a remote wooded area. Davis was trespassing, and the frightened homeowner simply wanted this scary-looking man off her land. While Davis dealt with his Pinto and the police, he claimed that Polly was left in an embankment and bushes and told not to move.
That is my vision of innocence in a cruel world: a child frightened by a strange man, left alone in her terror, immobile and scared. Her father told her again and again that there was no boogeyman. But there was.
Davis further claims that Polly fell asleep and was happy when he returned. In truth, Polly was probably already dead. But I can't shake the image from my mind. It lingers like a lifelong curse, and returns on nights when my dread and fear for my loved ones is highest.
* * *
Good fortune is mine, I thought. Indeed, the gas station not only had the red-colored Gatorade I could use to emulate the athletes, but it also had Diet Rite. Diet Rite is certainly not my favorite low-calorie flavored chemical, but I had been told that it was the only one that had a healthier type of sweetener. I decided that I might attempt to develop a taste for the stuff rather than my usual, and moved to the counter to spend my five dollars in a manner which would aid America's beleaguered petrochemical companies.
All this and at least five minutes of my life left for other uses. I was at the top of my game.
Few people peak as late in life as I have but, heck, I might as well enjoy the ride.
As I left the gas station, I noticed that the man who looked at me strangely had left, and felt safe from scorn. I got into my car, turned the key, and left with my booty in tow. Within minutes, I would commit my already-fading memories of the hot afternoon practice to the front page of the website.
* * *
They seem to come quickly now, one right after the other. As a father, perhaps it is just that my antennae are tuned to a certain frequency of horror. But the stories in the decade since Polly's death seem to be coming faster. A youngster abducted on the East Side of town, near the area where I live, driving in an old car with a man who looked a little like Santa Claus. Except that the child was crying and man's pants were down when pulled over by police. It didn't rate the front page for more than a day.
Elizabeth Smart. Sara Gephart. Nichole Coppler. Erica Baker. Their smiles reach out to us from the pages of the Internet. Hope fades. Prayers linger.
* * *
"You have to see this", my wife told me, as I cranked away on the computer. There are changes coming to TheInsiders network, and I was working with my partner in this endeavor to design some new ads.
She handed me a copy of the local paper, folded back to page four. The story relayed that a man in his forties made repeated attempts to lure a young girl, aged fourteen, into his van. She pulled away from him and escaped down the road. He followed her in his van until she was able to lose him in some manner not explained in the story.
The predator could not pull in his prey last Thursday. But he is still out there, somewhere, driving in his van. There is a wisp of evil in my pleasant suburban enclave.
The scene of the attempted abduction was the parking lot of the gas station where I had bought my drinks. Less than a