No one in the whole fuzzy world notices as she misjudges the curb and stutter-steps up onto the pavement at the entrance to the Target store. The man she follows moves purposefully but takes the time to reach down for her small hand, guiding her into the entrance of the store where he grabs a cart, its metallic clanks sounding dull and distant in her head. He steers them both toward the aisles.
The night shift of shoppers is sparse, the prime hours of teens-in-the-make-up-section and families-in-the-food-aisles having ticked away across the 5:00 to 9-ish block. She has become acclimated to these occasional groggy forays into a shadowy post-bedtime world. Behind him, she treads through molasses and twilight, only vaguely aware of the cart being filled with items. Liquid Benadryl. Nail polish. A child-sized toothbrush. Contractor trash bags. A doll that reminds her of herself.
As the man studies the shelf in front of him, she reaches through her haze and into the cart, touching the smooth brown plastic of the doll’s face. Its mouth is ajar, revealing a dark cavity intended for packets of pretend baby food—flavored powder mixed with water—that the doll’s battery-operated mechanisms will obligingly swallow. Instinctively, she puts her finger into the open mouth and retracts it, then jams it in harder and retracts it again, suddenly finding herself gagging as if she and the doll were Corsican twins. Stars spatter the dark periphery of her vision as she coughs and flails, bumping a display and knocking off several items that seem to land inaudibly, as if the floor were made of cotton.
She is doubled over, her view of the floor tiles bleary from eye water. The man’s shoes silently enter the frame, and a sharp note of fear trills in her brain. Soft edges harden and pastels saturate violently. She straightens abruptly, choking down spittle and looking up wide-eyed at the man.
Unfazed, he restores items from the floor to the display. He puts a hand on the girl’s shoulder, gives it a squeeze, then slides his hand to the back of her neck and caresses the small, tender area with his thumb and forefinger. This is where the dark curls of her hair make tight circles. When he does her hair, he comments on them, smelling the back of her neck as he works a brush through the softly yielding mass. This week, he has arranged her hair in four braids—two on each side of her head—the shorter front braids connected to the longer back ones with an elastic. Her hair is always properly done, its partings clean and neat. Nothing about her appearance would attract the wrong attention.
The momentary commotion now over, the small brown girl with the tidily-braided hair looks around. No one else in the store—no one else in the world—has seen what happened. The man returns to study the shelf in front of him a moment longer before removing the doll from the cart and replacing it with a pink-skinned, blonde-haired version.
“Nine-one-one—what’s your emergency?”
“Yeah, hi. I’m calling to report, I mean—to respond, I guess…to that Amber alert yesterday. I’m at the Westside Shopping Centre and…I don’t know if this is really it because they only gave a partial plate, but this van in the parking lot matches what they gave.”
“Okay, can you tell me what you’re seeing and your specific location?”
“I’m on the back side of the Target on Broad Street. In the parking garage. I parked on the ramp part where you first go up, and there’s a…white commercial van there with a license plate that ends in PNC. I remembered it cuz it’s the name of a bank. I know it could be nothing, but I thought I should call it in just in case.”
“Do you see anyone in or around the vehicle, ma’am?”
“No—I didn’t look inside. I’m sorry.”
“That’s fine, ma’am. Just making sure I have all the information.”
The blaring LEDs of the store trumpet his arrival in the children’s clothing area. The man, almost six feet tall and all of 280 pounds, strides exultantly into the little girls’ department and begins an agonizing process of choosing between colorful packs of size 8 panties. Hearts, stripes, dots, flowers. Kittens, smiley faces, strawberries, rainbows. He lifts his face to the light, eyes closed, and breathes deeply of his surroundings. His skin tingles with life. The cool plastic film of the packaging practically vibrates beneath his fingertips. He lingers a bit longer before reluctantly returning two packages to the display and dropping two into the basket of the cart.
The reverie ended, he signals to the girl that it’s time to move along. He is steering the cart past a rounder of clothing in a bid to visit the grocery section when he is stopped in his tracks by a promotional photo. The image, several feet in height, is perched atop a display of dresses and features a girl standing perpendicular to a seashore, her feet bare, one of them arched jauntily in the incoming surf. Her loosely ponytailed hair is tousled, and she wears a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses and a long white dress with flutter sleeves of eyelet lace. She is angelic. He is transported again, can smell the salt sea air, hear the gulls. He shades his eyes from the sun with one hand as he yells to her above the noise of the waves; the flounced bottom of her dress, grazing against her dainty ankles, is in danger of being wetted. He calls her away from the shore.
Blinking hard, he drags his gaze to the right of the photo, where he finds the dress in real life and fights the urge to grab one and press it to his face. He sifts through the sizes, lifting a size small from the rail by its hanger, the white of it glowing and pulsing before him.
“Come over here.” He summons the girl, holds the dress up against her. He selects another size now, switches it with the first one. He is unsure and looks around. He looks at his watch. “Take these in there—” he signals a dressing room area—“and try ‘em on. I’m gonna go get some food. Keep the one that fits. Just stay in the room. I’ll be right back, and then we’ll go.”
He supervises her departure, listening for the click of the dressing room door before turning to head back out into the store.
“Dispatch to an available unit for a 10-43-V at rear of Target on West Broad.”
“F-22 is west. You can put us on that.”
“Report is a possible 10-73 off an Amber alert from yesterday. Still no suspect description but we got a call on a potential vehicle match: it’s a white Chevrolet commercial van license plate 3-7-6-Paul-Nora-Charles. No visual on a suspect or victim; 10-43-V only at this time.”
“Caller says it’s on the first ramp going into the parking garage.”
In the dim light of the dressing room stall, the girl stands staring groggily down at a small pair of brown feet in white sandals. Several blank moments pass her by. Didn’t her mother hate both sandals and white shoes? If so, whose feet are these? The naked toes flex at her command. They are her toes. She blinks dully, remembering her circumstances, and holds the identical white dresses out before her at arm’s length.
They are long, frilly, and beautiful. In another life, the utter charm of a frilly frock—another item she recalls her mother never proffering—would have set the fitting room aglow with the warm white light of a fairy tale. She would have whirled into a Cinderella transformation replete with dramatic curtsies to a glimmering court of ladies-in-waiting. She would have twirled the ruffled hem as she led an imaginary sunlit sea of Mayday dancers, their bright ribbons spinning and weaving around a pole to the cheerful strains of violins. She would have heard the resonant chords of the wedding song and affected the stately step-together-step-together march as she beamed her way down the bright, happy aisle toward her beloved groo—
…In the faded silence of the stall, she unbuttons the bodice of her romper, and—drowsily, somberly—she slips the white dress over her head. It seems to fit. She cracks open the dressing room door and peers out into the vacant space. To her left, at the far end, there is a mirror with three panes. It is the kind of mirror she imagines would be in the bedroom of a rich little girl who would never be allowed to disappear. She steps out of the stall and peers down the length of the dressing room. From this distance, she can see the top of herself in this other world and is considering the white fabric gleaming crisply against her warm complexion when a woman with a blouse in her hand breezes in, passes her by, and heads to the mirror, blocking the girl’s reflection completely.
In front of the mirror, the woman presses the blouse to her torso critically, holds its sleeve up next to her face, considering whether the robin’s egg shade flatters or fights her biscuit dough complexion. She drops the sleeve and lifts her bottle-blonded hair with one hand into an ersatz updo, tipping her head to one side and squinting. She makes a decision and turns to go, approaches the specter of a girl on her way, and, unseeing, passes directly through her as she leaves.
“Station, this is F-22. We’ve got eyes on the vehicle on that 10-43-V at the Target parking garage. Taking a closer look right now.”
“Station, let’s escalate this to a 10-73.”
“Do you have a visual on the victim?”
“Negative, but there’s children’s Benadryl in a cup holder and a hasp on the back of this van. Can we get an unmarked unit here for surveillance while we pull back?”
“Dispatch to any available unmarked unit, start heading to rear of Target on Broad for a response on that Amber alert out of Maryland. White van with a match on that partial plate was called in. One unit at scene confirming report and requesting back-up.”
“B-9 responding on the 10-73.”
“Station, this is F-17. We’re marked but in the area. We’ll stay close.”
“Station, we have B-9 on scene at the Target, set up close to the van. F-22 and F-17 are in position out of sight line of the vehicle.”
“This is Griggs. I’m heading inside the store to see if I can get eyes on the girl.”
The man clackety-clacks the cart noisily from the tiled floor up onto the carpet of the clothing section, where it submerges into a silent glide toward the dressing room area. The door of the stall is ajar, and the girl is sitting inside on the bench, asleep in the white dress. He enters and gazes fondly at her for a moment before stroking one gravel-rough finger across her satin-soft cheek. She startles and, for a heartbreaking moment, is ensnared between the realities of waking and sleep, home and gone. Here and now. She blinks a long slow blink, rubs her eyes, and her recollection comes into focus. He stands her up, holds her arms out to her sides, and really sees her in the dress. She smiles. In her torpid state, she lets him help her back into her original clothes then she follows him gratefully back into the store.
To the tune of a Taylor Swift song, he rings up his selections at self-checkout, each one beeping brightly before he secrets it gingerly into a plastic bag. The girl rests at his hip, purring softly as she dozes. Then—in an instant—all the sound and light drops out of his world except where a female police officer in the store crosses his field of vision in a slow-motion spotlight on the opposite side of the checkout wall. The man can hear only her—each footfall, the slight squeak of her rubber-soled shoes as she passes, looking—really looking—at the faces around her. In the hush, every pore on the man’s skin prickles with alertness. He reviews himself with new eyes. Does the girl look like his daughter? Should the girl be sleeping like this? What would the girl’s real father be doing? He places one hand atop her head to stir her and sends words out, not really to her, but like sentinels against the menacing new silence.
“Your mama’s gonna like the dress we picked.” His voice sounds dull and distant in his head.
She squints up into the darkness to see the muffled words, plucking out only one, soft and calming, from the fuzzy air. Mama. In her dreamy state, she can smell her. Cocoa butter hands. Rubbing the lotion in. Mama, can you help me with my homework? Pajamas. Cereal. Do your dance—get it, little mama. Tying up shoes, zipping up coats. Hair like hers. Mama, can I…? For a moment, resting against the man’s warmth, it felt real.
The man pats her on the back, and she strains to fully open her eyes, to move forward at his bidding. This is when she sees the police officer—in a spotlight illuminating the dark. The woman is standing by the exit door. The girl’s blood quickens loudly; it is a siren sounding clearly in her head, a red strobe highlighting a way out. She, the cart, and the man are closing the distance between themselves and the officer. She will be right beside the woman in moments. She will reach for her hand and pull herself into the light so that the woman can see her. Her pulse is like a hummingbird’s, juddering the sleep from her veins. They are closing the distance with each step.
The man, the cart, the girl. The policewoman.
Hot black blood rises in the man’s ears, fills his head and crowds his vision. They will have to pass this officer to leave, and it will be noticeable and odd if he moves the girl to his other side. The threat is real and close enough to reach out and grab him by the shoulder.
And they are closing the distance.
They are closing the distance, and all she has to do is lift her hand.
They are closing the distance, and the man is sweating now, perhaps visibly. They are steps away from the exit and the distance is closing with each of these steps when a last-minute customer bursts through the entrance doors, triggering them to open, and the normal sounds and the lights and all the air whooshes back in and coolly, as casually as anything, the man detours the cart, the girl, and the closing-closing distance, out through the wrong doors and back into the wide-open night.
Outside in the parking lot, the girl cannot hold in her bile as they near the van. The man, still raw from the closeness of the shave, says nothing as the girl steps one car over and vomits dinner and Benadryl and alcohol onto the pavement. She sits weakly on the curb while the man rests his forehead against the cool metal on the passenger side of the van. He looks around before inserting a key into the back passenger door and cracking it open. The bright light being contained within the windowless van surges forth, filling the parking lot and summoning the police, who appear from every direction. Cars and men and guns converge upon the man, who is tackled to the ground and placed in restraints and issued various injuries that will be attributed to resistance.
“We got her!” comes the exultant cry.
The girl child does not even rouse as she is lifted limply but breathing from the back of the van. Her hair is golden and her skin blinds the eyes. The air is dense with lights, the roar of voices, the squall of radio announcements. Officers wipe tears and pat backs. An ambulance is summoned, and the tackled man is lifted and forced roughly into the back of a squad car.
And from down on the curb, one car over, the brown girl watches the last of herself—dainty ankles, lotion-rubbed hands, and naked toes—disappear irrevocably into the dark, inches away from the resplendence of the brightly lit night.
(Washington, DC) Eight-year-old Relisha Rudd was reported missing in March of 2014. She had been missing for 30 days at that point. The day after it was reported, an Amber Alert was issued—to D.C. phones only. Meanwhile, the wife of her abductor was found murdered in a motel in Maryland the same day of the initial report. Multiple studies have confirmed the phenomenon known as “missing white woman syndrome”—the experience of news media and police paying less attention when people of color go missing. Black children receive the least coverage and are more likely to remain missing for longer periods of time. In Relisha’s case, her abductor was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, but Relisha herself has never been found.
Jan Miles worked as a children’s book editor for several years. Her first book-length adult nonfiction volume, The Post-Racial Negro Green Book, is an examination of contemporary racial bias against African Americans. She is currently working on a second edition of this book as well as her first novel.