“It’s me,” said a quiet voice.”
His name wasn’t Lucas, the way it is in my novel, Goodbye Forever. His name, he said, was Joshua. I can tell you that because it turned out to be a lie.
He stopped by my house one spring morning as I picked up the newspaper from my front lawn and asked if I knew where the elementary school was. I told him I did.
“Could you give me a ride?” he asked. “I’m late.”
I’m a sucker for little kids, and I live in one of the safest neighborhoods in our Central California community. Without thinking about it, I said, “Sure. Get in,” and we drove the two blocks to his school.
He asked about the make of my car. I told him.
“That’s nice,” he replied in a soft voice.
I took a second look at him. An impeccably put-together little guy, right down to his dark, carefully gelled hair, he smiled back at me.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Joshua. What’s yours?”
“Bonnie. How old are you?”
“Ten. I’m in the fifth grade.” I pulled in front of the school. “It’s Friday,” he said. “Snack bar. Could you loan me a dollar?”
He had already spotted the one in my change tray. I handed it to him.
As he headed toward the school, my phone rang, and my best friend asked why I wasn’t at home so that we could go to the gym as planned.
“I was driving a little boy to school,” I said.
“Are you out of your mind?” she shouted. “He could have an older brother. He could be setting you up for something. What were you thinking?”
I’m not sure what I was thinking.
That Saturday, when I spoke to a local writing group, I told them my story. I was trying to make the point that plots aren’t as important as what the writer brings to them.
“So,” I said, “if this were your story, how would you finish it?”
They made my point by coming up with answers as different as they were.
“He disappears, and the last person he was seen with was a woman driving a car like yours.”
“He gets out, and you realize you have driven into a Twilight Zone 1950s small town with no way out.”
“He was a figment of your imagination. You were trying to heal from some kind of crisis and invented this kid to help you do that.”
“It’s a horror novel. He’s bait to bring home dinner, and you’re it.”
They proved my point. Everyone took the initial event and made it their own story. They also warned me to be careful with my own real-life story.
“Next time, he’ll ask for five dollars,” one of them said.
“Or fifty,” added another.
The following Monday was so fragrant with spring air that I opened my front door and let the breeze drift through my security screen. As I worked in my study, someone knocked on the screen door.
“It’s me,” said a quiet voice.
I walked to the door, and there stood Joshua.
“I’m late for school again,” he said.
“Does your mom know you’re here?”
“Sure.” His grin grew wider. “It’s fine with her if you drive me.”
“Then let’s just call her, shall we? Just to be sure.”
“Never mind.” He began to back up. “That’s OK.”
“Because you didn’t talk to your mom.” I opened the door and raised my voice. “Did you?”
“No.” He turned and began to run.
What if he had knocked on the wrong door? I asked myself. He could be in danger, and I couldn’t forget this until I saw it through. Because I had no choice, I called his school. When I described what happened, the school secretary said, “I know the kid you’re talking about.” She emailed me his photo, and a little boy with enormous eyes and carefully gelled hair smiled up at me.
“That’s Joshua,” I said.
“It’s not his real name,” she told me, “but he is in fifth grade. He’s been stealing food and money from other kids, although his family is well off. This is the first time we heard of him knocking on doors in the neighborhood.” She paused and added, “He just walked in. The counselor’s taking him to the principal’s office right now.”
That was the last I heard of Joshua. After two years, I haven’t seen him again, although one Halloween I did hear a knock on my door and a soft voice saying, “It’s me.”
Did I invent the sound out of the many voices of children in my neighborhood that night? Was it another kid trying to coax me out of one more treat? Was it Joshua?
What would you do if he knocked on your door?
I wrote a book.
The kids in that book—a novel—didn’t get the help they needed. I hope Joshua did.
* * *
Bonnie Hearn Hill writes suspense tied to social issues. GOODBYE FOREVER is the second in the Kit Doyle series. It’s about a Sacramento, CA crime blogger who goes underground as a runaway teen.