The day, like the week preceding it, started out dreary and overcast, but patches of blue soon poked through the dense clouds, offering a promise of bright sunshine. Then the doorbell rang and the weather was no longer a concern, as the safety of my small grandson became threatened and the lives of those who loved him, thrown into panic.
My 20-year-old daughter was in the downstairs den and answered the doorbell. She seemed to be speaking at great length and I assumed it was another magazine salesman spouting his pitch. Curiosity overcame me and I glanced out the front window in time to see a police car pulling out of my driveway. As I turned around, Nicole and 4-year-old Jesse, who had spent the night with us were coming up the stairs.
“What did the policeman want?” I asked.
“He wanted to see Jesse,” Nicole answered. “Someone reported him as a missing child.”
“Don’t get upset. I explained that Jesse’s been with us since he was born. But you should have seen the picture of the missing boy. He looks exactly like Jesse.”
“You should have called me.”
“Don’t worry, Mom, it’s all taken care of.”
But it wasn’t. Half an hour later, two police cars pulled up and six policemen, including a sergeant, were at my door. By the time I got downstairs, they were crowded inside the living room of my other daughter’s downstairs apartment. Jesse, who had been visiting his aunt, was backed up flat against the back of her recliner, his face masked with fear. I reached for him and as I picked him up, he whispered, “Grandma, get these guys outta here and lock the door. They think I’m some missing boy.”
“It’s all right, Jess,” I said out loud. “We’ll just tell them that they have the wrong little boy.”
“They won’t believe us, Grandma,” he whispered back.
“Of course they will. Don’t be frightened. You know that policemen help people.”
I put him down and he returned to his previous stance, backed as far into the recliner as his small body would allow; his expression guarded and apprehensive. I would not realize until later that Jesse’s instincts for self-preservation were far stronger than my own.
My two daughters and I spent nearly an hour speaking with the policemen, who were all pleasant and non-threatening. Apparently a young couple in our neighborhood had seen a poster of a missing child at the post office and then saw Jesse riding his tricycle up and down my block and reported him to the police.
The resemblance to the missing boy was uncanny. In the picture he was even wearing a cowboy hat similar to the Australian bush hat that Jesse wore and coveted. We gathered up pictures of Jesse and pointed out to the policemen that while Jesse resembled the missing boy, who was two-years-old in the picture, when Jesse was two he had looked entirely different. They seemed to agree.
I gave them a run-down on Jesse’s life; how he had come to Staten Island at six-weeks-old with his mother and older brother after his parent’s divorce; how I had babysat the boys while their mother worked and how, until recently, when she remarried, the three of them had lived in the downstairs apartment. I was confident that they believed me.
Then the sergeant looked at Jesse, who was no more relaxed than before and said, “Would you like to take a ride with me?”
“No!” Jesse answered, a stony look on his face.
“Jess,” I said, “Wouldn’t it be fun to ride in a police car?”
“No, it wouldn’t,” Jesse stated emphatically, pressing himself even further into the back of the chair.
“Listen,” I said to the sergeant. “Why don’t you drive over to our daughter’s home and she can show you his birth certificate and answer any other questions?”
They agreed and wrote down the directions. Jesse, clinging tightly to my leg, watched them leave, then insisted that I close and lock all the doors. I called his mother and told her what had happened.
“My God!” she said. “How can I prove he’s my child? Birth certificates can be forged. Mom, don’t let Jesse out of your sight!”
Eventually the matter was cleared up and the police were convinced that a mistake had been made. But the nightmare was far from over. Ironically, my daughter also resembled the description of the missing boy’s mother, who had taken her son and disappeared.
I remembered having asked one of the policemen if it was possible that a private detective was looking for the missing boy and if we would have to watch Jesse carefully for some time. The man had looked at me somberly and said, “If he was mine, I would.”
By the day’s end the entire family was a nervous wreck, as the ramifications of what had happened and still might occur, became increasingly clear. Only then did we realize that the police, upon returning with extra men and a superior officer could have and probably would have taken Jesse from us if they believed that he was the missing child. Had my child been missing, I would have expected them to do no less. And only then did we realize that the boy’s family and/or hired detective might still take him first and ask questions later.
What scared us the most was that the father of the missing boy had not seen his son since he was two-years-old. Jesse, at four, looked just like what the father would expect his son to look like. Jesse, was frightened, acutely aware of what had nearly happened. He feared realistically for his safety.
“Nicole,” he said to his aunt, ” If I get taken somewhere and I can’t get back home, I’ll always remember you.” He had nightmares for weeks, clinging to his mother and me, and often cried for no apparent reason.
Jesse’s mother called the Missing Children Hotline, and explained the situation, begging them to explain to the missing boy’s father that a mistake had been made, and that he was welcome to come to New York and see for himself that Jesse was not his son. The person she spoke to told her that he was aware of that particular case and that he would handle it. My daughter asked that he please get back to her. He never did. We also tried to contact the boy’s father ourselves, with no success. We felt as if we were fighting an invisible threat with no means to protect ourselves. Were we believed, or were we being watched?
From that day on, we guarded Jesse carefully, watched him every moment and never left him alone; always careful not to let him sense our fear. But as time passed and Jesse forgot the incident, we were never able to relax completely, never again able to feel secure.
The paradox to this story is that the couple reporting Jesse as a missing child did precisely the right thing for the right reasons. The police responding to the report took exactly the right action. Anyone spotting a possible missing child has a moral obligation to report it. I would not have hesitated notifying the authorities if I thought I had spotted a missing child. And if, God forbid, my own child was missing, I would demand and expect immediate police action, willing to go to any lengths to recover my child. Yet in doing all the right things, a family was given the scare of their lives, and a small boy was made to feel frightened and insecure. That day, which had shown so much promise turned, albeit through the best intentions, into an ominous nightmare from which we would be a long time awakening.
Micki Peluso began writing after a personal tragedy, which lead to publication in Victimology: An International Magazine and a 25-year career in Journalism. She’s been staff writer for one major newspaper and freelanced for two more. Twelve of her award winning short fiction and slice of life stories are published in anthologies, magazines and e-zines. Her debut book was published in 2012; a funny family memoir of love, loss and survival, called, . . .AND THE WHIPPOORWILL SANG which won the Nesta CBC Silver Award for writing that builds character. She is presently working on a collection of short fiction, slice of life stories and essays, in a book called, DON’T PLUCK THE DUCK. Her debut children’s book, ‘The Cat Who Wanted a Dog’ will be released in May, 2016.