Let me start this off by saying that I am actually happy to see Halloween becoming a tradition that Australia is adopting. Each year there are more people celebrating and all the accoutrement is easily sourced. I have never been a huge Halloween fan as I despise carving pumpkins for a start, but the distinct feeling of home is what inspires me to participate. Nostalgia drives me and the high price of pumpkins during the wrong season is what gets me out of the most dreaded task. Now dressing up and free candy? That I can completely get behind. This year I was particularly excited as Gemma and her BFF were going to be trick or treating on their own.
One of the main reasons we relocated to Melbourne was so that our children would have more free-range childhood. It has been hard to dislodge the tight grip of fear that I developed in America, but when I reflect on life here, I really do feel so safe. More importantly, I feel like my kids are able to have a childhood similar to the one I enjoyed in the 70’s. Being just a month shy of ten and quite the old soul with a boundless sense of responsibility, I felt that Gemma was ready to do some unsupervised neighbourhood roaming. Especially since we are in such a tight knit community where we know so many families, I was confident it was the right choice.
The twins got dressed in costumes of their choice and Gemma pulled out the YouTube videos for me to learn how to do a Katniss braid. I took a few photos and then put the camera on my desk. With best friends on their way over, the excitement was building. The plan was for the two big girls to head off on their own and the other mom and I would take the smaller kids with us. It was a great plan where the big girls could feel very big, the littles could have fun and my friend and I would have time to chat about whatever we wanted. The streets were filled with familiar faces from our huge neighbourhood primary school. I even recognised them behind layers of zombie makeup. So much happiness out and about on a hot and beautiful Friday evening. We noticed groups of unchaperoned kids at nearly every turn and soon our conversation ended up on the subject of phones for tweens. I have been thinking of letting Gemma walk to and from school now that the days are so long, but was worried that I would not know she had made it to school if she did not have a way to text me. As we were talking about that and other subjects, we realised we had not seen the big girls for quite some time. It was getting late and the neighbourhood had emptied of kids as they headed home for dinner. Deciding we would finish up the street we were on before looking for the girls (we kind of just assumed they would be where we were at the end) we hit up a few final houses that bore the trick or treat welcome signs a neighbour had printed and put in letterboxes. The street was actually quite deserted. A lot of the homes were new builds, for sale or renovations and you could still see the signs languishing unread with the other junk mail. Just before we decided to turn home, we noticed a bag on the ground at the side of the road. It was one of the hand made trick or treat bags the kids had done at school.
It was sitting upright full of candy and the handle was torn.
And it belonged to Gemma’s BFF.
There was no other trace of our two girls.
Suddenly that empty street felt a mile long and the time since we had last seen the two of them, hours… Immediately we started calling out their names. They must be close. The three little siblings were screaming their older sisters’ names. How could they not hear us? There had to be a simple explanation for why her bag was sitting right there. Full of candy. Right? There had to be. Of course, the reasonable explanations were being drowned out by a flood of worst case scenarios in my head. I kept bringing myself back to the fact that this is Australia and a very safe corner of Australia at that. But what ten year old out for the sole purpose of getting free candy LEAVES her entire bag of free candy on the ground WILLINGLY?
How long had it been since we last saw them anyway? I hadn’t been looking at my watch. Out came our phones to call the husbands. Maybe the girls were home already. They must have just gone home. THEY WEREN’T AT HOME. My feet started moving very quickly and my friend and I decided to split up. We told the dads to get in the cars and start driving around. I went to ask at houses of neighbours when they had last seen the girls and my friend took the little siblings heading to the scout hall where Gem and her BFF had been spotted about half an hour or so earlier. No luck in either direction, so I decided to call the police. It wasn’t like our girls. This was not something they would do.
The police asked me to describe the girls and I couldn’t remember what my daughter’s BFF was wearing beyond the colour of her t-shirt. Why had I decided to take tonight off from photographs. How could I not have taken a picture of her with Gemma? The dads circled back to where we were standing on a main corner in our neighbourhood. Neither dad had seen them. My friend took off walking, the little kids got in the car with my husband and went one way while the other dad drove in the opposite direction. I had to stay on the line with triple zero and answer more questions. They told me to wait there for the police. My eyes kept darting up and down the main road. The girls just HAD to be there in the distance, if only I just looked hard enough. A police van pulled up next to me and another cruiser as well. With the description of our girls eerily being announced over the police radio, the cruiser took off to start searching while the police officers from the van asked me all the same questions as before along with some new ones. Panic was taking over and I was starting to feel like I was standing next to myself.
No officers, they wouldn’t leave home. These are geeky girls who love to read and still sleep with stuffed animals.
No, they don’t have phones. I KNOW! I KNOW!
No, we did not tell them where to meet us and when, this is a tiny little close knit neighbourhood. We thought we were just one street over from them. And we NEVER IMAGINED THEY WOULD GO MISSING.
The dads circled back again and drove off to continue looking. My phone rang, but my heart dropped because it wasn’t a call to tell me they were found. Another friend was sending her husband out to look. A kind woman in a white station wagon pulled up next to me and called out the open window; “Who are you looking for? Describe them.” After I said that it was two ten year old girls, one dressed as Katniss from The Hunger Games and the other with a bright yellow shirt and jean shorts, she drove off. How could she tell someone was missing? Could she see through my chest to where a third of my heart was currently just a black hole?
The community was coming together as I was falling apart.
How long had it been? It was nearly two hours since we left my house. Life was normal two hours ago.
The Scout leader came over. He knew the girls from scouts and he was going to help. The police were speaking into their radios about my daughter; “Brown eyes, light brown hair, slim build…mother does not know how tall…” DON’T FORGET TO MENTION THE SPECIAL BRAID! I did a special braid for her. How was this happening?
My thoughts were darting around my head with so many stories on the news lately. The girl who ran away from home in Sydney last week and was taken in by a stranger. The little boy missing since September in New South Wales. The girl who disappeared on her way to school in a Melbourne suburb a few years ago. Bad things do happen in Australia. My bubble was burst and just at the moment that fear had settled into my soul the white station wagon came speeding down the side street. Through the window I could just make out the silhouette of a stranger giving me a thumbs up. I crumpled to the sidewalk as the car shrieked to the side of the road and the back door opened spilling out my daughter and her friend. Both of them were in tears, saying sorry over and over and I was crying the same thing. We just hugged and I tried to call my friend, but couldn’t remember how to use my phone. I managed to get it to dial her and just said “THEY FOUND THEM!” While I was trying to figure out how to call my husband, I saw him at the corner and just waved him over…he stopped in the red zone, but no one was giving tickets. The police asked the girls what happened, kindly grilling them for information on the lost hour. When all was determined to be a series of misinformation and accidents (while stopping to tie her shoe, the BFF put her candy bag down and forgot it as she thought it was in her backpack…they were thirsty so they just went to school to use the drink taps…they had iPads with them and were headed to get WiFi to text us. By that point no one was at either home…) the police left stating they were preparing for a busy night. That broke my heart again because I knew that another family might not have their happy ending.
I learned a lot that night, but the silver lining was confirming all that I already knew. Like that this is a beautiful and caring community in which to raise our family. That my friend is a strong mother and level headed woman who can keep smiling and calm even though I know she is breaking on the inside as well. That we are so lucky for so many reasons… the horror that families of missing children live through on a daily basis must drive them crazy.
I know now to set rules for my kids so that they can roam free and stay safe. Clearly stating a time to meet us, geographical boundaries to remain within and providing a way to stay in touch would have saved us all from the chaos. I apologised to Gemma for having made so many mistakes. Also, having photos of what they looked like when they left the house would have been extremely helpful. Gemma will have a phone with her the next time she is doing something unsupervised.
In the aftermath, I did not get to say thank you to anyone who helped and I really feel I must. Thank you to my friend for being consistently awesome in some crappy situations. Thank you to the police for showing up so quickly. Thank you to the husbands who did not brush us off as being dramatic and silly and got off their couches and into the cars. Thanks to the little siblings who never really noticed how scared the adults actually were. Thanks to the friends, neighbours and strangers who rallied to help without being asked. Thank you to the girls for being really great kids. Thank you to the bag of Snickers I went home and ate in one sitting.
When Gemma hugged me after being found that night, I could smell something familiar, yet unidentifiable. Like a childhood memory, it was a feminine, summery mix of perfume and oddly enough, bug spray. I paused to acknowledge it, but did not give it another thought until that night when I was in my bed falling asleep and suddenly aware of the same scent. I am not sure who the guardian angel was, but thank you to her as well.