An 8-year-old girl taken from her schoolyard slips into the underbelly of the city
The elementary children rush out the narrow doorways, pushing, crowding and bubbling over one another. The doors are never wide enough as children gush out into the schoolyard and wend their ways home. Teachers and school guards direct the kids to the appropriate channels — school buses, walkways, family pick-ups. Students exit into the rain, raise umbrellas and race toward their destinations.
How late will Marta be today, wonders Lucinda. I hate this — this waiting after school. Every day my friends go off in their own directions and I have to wait for my mother. Today is worse. It’s raining, it’s cold, and Marta is late again.
As the school yard clears, Lucinda peers across the school yard, hoping to see her sister on the sidewalk. The teachers huddle at the school entrance, talking among themselves, one teacher sneaking a cigarette, as they try to stay dry. The school guards hold up their stop signs and umbrellas as they shepherd the children across the street. Gradually the school shouts diminish, the playground empties, the teachers go inside the building, and the school guards fold up their umbrellas and leave. Lucinda is alone. She is invisible.
Where is Marta? Lucinda wonders. I’ll bet she’s not happy having to pick me up at school. How come I have to be on time for everything, but she doesn’t? Because I’m eight, that’s why. Marta’s fourteen. I know a secret about Marta. She likes a boy. I saw a text on her phone from a boy named Jamie. If she’d seen me reading the it, she would have killed me.
She heads toward the covered bus shelter at the side of the schoolyard. Before she gets there, a dark-haired boy she doesn't know races across her path and plows into her, sending her books and backpack flying, then he takes off. On her knees, she clambers around clumsily in the rain, cramming books and her hairbrush into the backpack, all while balancing an umbrella. She looks around the wet pavement to check whether she got everything. She sees nothing on the ground. She pulls herself back up and settles into the bench in the bus shelter Lucinda waits for Marta. Which side will she come from? From the left a blue van crawls slowly into the pick-up area. It stops and idles in the pick-up area, directly in front of Lucinda. A woman in the passenger seat scans the rainy schoolyard before spying Lucinda on the bus bench. She watches, turns her head to speak to someone, then climbs out onto the pavement — she’s round, short, squat and dark like her mother — and walks directly to Lucinda.
“Hola, mi querida!,” says the woman. “Your mother will be late, and she asked me to pick you up and take you home.”
Wait, what? thinks Lucinda. Isn’t Marta coming to pick me up? The woman smiles at Lucinda, picks up her backpack, places her arm over her shoulder and urges her to hurry so they don’t get soaked. Confused, Lucinda shuffles along beside her. Stranger-danger rushes into her mind, but she is wet and tired and her mom asked this woman to take her home. The woman opens the side door of the van, places Lucinda’s backpack on the floor and shepherds Lucinda into the van’s bench seat.
What’s happening, wonders Lucinda, nervous. Inside the van she smells cigarettes and a vaguely sour note similar to what she smells in the subway. A black haired man, silent and pocked, sits in the driver’s seat. Silent Man eyes her creepily in the rearview mirror while Miss Roly-Poly mutters to him in a language Lucinda does not recognize. She hears rustling in the back of the van, and cautiously turning her head she sees three children sitting on the van floor. Two boys, one girl, brown, white, black. They wear handkerchief blindfolds, and they have ropes tied around their wrists and waists. They all are connected, and none can move on his or her own.
Lucinda’s lips tremble as she sits on the seat, frozen. This is not right. Lucinda leans down and rummages in her backpack. Where’s my phone? Did I drop it? Did it fall out in the schoolyard? Did that boy knock it away? Lucinda tears up. She reaches for the door handle and finds none, no window lever, no way for her to open the door, no escape.
Silent Man takes corners sharply, gets on a highway and quickly moves away from the neighborhood that Lucinda knows. He pulls off the highway and stops the car in an unfamiliar area. Miss Roly-Poly Woman climbs out the passenger door, slides opens the van door and roughly grabs Lucinda’s arm. “No, no,” Lucinda cries. She tries to wriggle loose, but Miss Roly-Poly has an iron grip. Miss Roly-Poly’s face goes red, and she screams “Enough!” and slaps Lucinda. The slap is so loud the van goes silent, not a sound from the back. Lucinda is stunned, her face stings, she freezes.
The woman ties a rope around Lucinda’s wrists and ties a blindfold over her eyes. She roughly pushes her into the back of the van with the other kids. She ties her waist to one of the boys. Lucinda can see nothing, but she can hear one child whimpering, another repeating a phrase that sounds like a prayer. Lucinda starts to whimper, too. Did Marta look for me? Did anyone see me? Will anyone find me?
As Silent Man accelerates through the streets, the four children get tossed around the back of the van, the connecting ropes pulling them in whichever direction Silent Man steers the van. Lucinda goes quiet, surrounded by the sniffling of the children, the foreign murmurings between Silent Man and Roly-Poly and the sound of the tires hitting seams on the road.
Many minutes seems to pass, maybe an hour. When the van stops again, Lucinda sits up straight. Where are we? She hears Silent Man and Roly-Poly exit the van, open the sliding door and pull her and the others out with a tug on the rope. She and the other children fumble over one another as they get pulled roughly out the van door and onto the pavement. Roly-Poly and Silent Man remove the blindfolds and tighten the ropes on the wrists and waists of each child.
Lucinda blinks. The rain has stopped and the sky is nearly dark. They stand in a line on the pavement in front of a series of dilapidated apartments surrounded by metal fencing, busted windows and graffiti. Dirty, broken. Men and boys a block away stand in packs beneath streetlights or sprawl on steps, drinking out of paper bags and smoking something. I’m not supposed to be here, thinks Lucinda.
Miss Roly-Poly says, “Milosh, show the children where they will stay,” as if she is inviting the children into her countryside manor. A small boy, feral, a runt, comes close. Lucinda gasps. It’s the boy who elbowed her in the schoolyard. The boy who knocked over her belongings. The boy who kicked away her phone. The boy who set her up. This is all a plan, Lucinda realizes. My mother did not send this woman. This woman does not know my mother.
Holding the rope, Milosh leads the four children down a poorly lighted alleyway beside the building. The girl scratches herself on a metal fence, and one of the boys trips and cuts his knee. Lucinda tries to maintain balance as she and the others tumble forward. The alley is shadowy, with glassine bags and other debris on the ground.
Milosh unlocks a creaky door and pulls the rope line as each child, still tied at waist and wrist, stumbles through the door into a dank basement. Lucinda inhales. The stench is unbearable — ammonia, baby shit, cigarettes. The basement is tiny, and it is packed with children and women — sleeping and crying babies, vacant-staring boys and girls folded into small groups, disheveled women smoking and muttering in foreign languages. Lucinda sobs. I am not safe here, Mama. Please find me!