Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Mystery of the Lost Toddler & Neill Ruskin's Adventure

Grass grows slowly in Breken Park, I can attest to that fact, because on January 12th, I was watching it grow - right through the snow. I wasn't bored. There was plenty for me to do. But, there I sat on the side of Breken Park near the frozen pond with the fountain spewing in the middle watching the grass grow. Of course there was the two year old sitting nearby under a picnic table sobbing into her coat sleeve that caught my eye. But, I assure you, I wasn't watching her.

You may have figured out that I'm Neill Ruskin, the youngest of the Ruskin four. I'm the photographer and columnist who writes about local historic places for the local paper. It was an easy job to get, since my Mom owns the paper. She needed writers and, well, I'm a writer.

On any normal day, meandering through the park might be a boring proposition, but it was Tuesday and I was supposed to be taking pictures of the park for a special column about the historic stone walls located in the park. I'd already written the column for the paper, but I needed photos to go with the column. I'd just passed the ridge wall, and crossed the bridge in the middle of the park when I saw the pink coat with white fur around the hood. I thought at first it must have been left in the park by some kid. Then it moved. I knew there had to be a kid still in it.

There wasn't another person anywhere around the park, and I looked around really well. I hadn't seen anyone since I walked into the park from Marsh Road. The park was abandoned, except for the squirrels in the trees and some birds fluttering overhead. Or so I thought until I'd noticed that pink coat. It wasn't particularly cold. I was strolling along in my short sleeved shirt.

I dialed 9-1-1 first to see if there'd been any reports of missing children. Officer Ross was in the area, so he was going to stop by the apartment complex on Antelope Road and see if anyone was missing a two year old on his way over to the park. They wanted me to just stay put and see if anyone was around.

So, there I sat on the rock wall, snapping pictures of my new subject, and of course... the grass growing through the snow that still covered much of the ground from the last snow fall. The toddler didn't seem to notice me at first. She continued to sit there under the table playing in the sand. When she finally did notice me, she'd carried a handful of sand across the grass and dropped it at my feet, toddling back to the table for more.

"What's your name?" I asked when she carried the second handful of sand to me.

She looked up with clear blue eyes and a smile I won't soon forget and said, "My name is Virginia."

I raised an eyebrow at the level of communication she was capable of and asked another question. "Where do you live?"

"With Mommy," she answered and ran back across the grass.

I waited. She carried another handful of sand and this time I reached a hand down to see if she'd take my hand. "Wanna join me up here on the rock wall?"

She reached a tiny hand out and I was surprised to feel very cold fingers touch mine. I lifted her up on the wall beside me and she continued to hold my hand.

"Is Mommy in the park?" I asked.

"No, feeding the baby..." she answered and looked back toward the apartment complex on the other side of the park.

"Did you come here to play while she feeds the baby?"

"Yes." She answered, looking straight at me.

"Should we go see if she's done?" I asked carefully.

"Okay," she answered, leaning to slide off the wall.

I helped her down and let her hold onto my finger as we walked across the grass. I could see Officer Ross standing outside the apartment complex with a man watching us.

"Do you think Mommy is looking for you?" I asked her.

"No, she'd be mad." She answered.

I thought about my own mother and what she'd think if I had taken off to go to the park while she fed a baby. Yeah, she'd have been really mad. We walked slowly across the park, steadily placing one foot in front of the other, her never letting go of my hand.

"Are you tired? Can I carry you?" I asked.

Her arms reached high and I picked her up to carry her. We were still walking when I heard the blood curdling scream. A woman carrying a small bundle came running out of the back of the apartment building, screaming, "Virginia?"

I waved to her and watched the police officer and his companion motion at her.

She seemed totally panicked.

I carried Virginia toward the woman I presumed would be her mother, who was now walking quickly in my direction. The officer was on an intercept course toward us.

"Oh my gosh, Virginia, why didn't you wait?" She hugged the child, still in my arms. "Thank God you found her..." She left her in my arms.

"Yes, I agree. She was just playing in the park. I just came across her and realized there was no adult there." I explained, "She looked like she needed supervision, so I stuck around and called the police to help me find a parent."

"I let her play in front of the television, while I nursed the baby. The doors were locked. When I finished I realized it was too quiet, just the cartoons playing and went to check on her." She gasped, "the baby is only a week old and I can't lift more than him yet." Tears rolled down her cheeks.

"She's fine," I nodded toward the baby, "We better get him back inside. I'll carry her in for you."

"Well, now, just a minute..." the man with Officer Ross spoke up. "We've called social services and they're sending out a care giver for the children. You obviously can't keep up with them."

The man's voice irritated me, but his words shot vibrations of anger through me. I was only fifteen, but I knew how difficult it is to take care of two children, particularly a toddler and always know where the toddler was. I punched the cell on and keyed in Mom's number. My mom was the editor and owner of the Breken Gazette. This was a story I knew she'd want to write herself.

I knew how difficult it was for single Mom's to care for infants. My mother had been a single mom when I was young. My brother had slipped out of the house and sat playing on the curb one afternoon, while Mom put me down for a nap. I remember hearing my mom talk about that difficult moment, and the relief she felt when she found him. This young mother knew the same pain my mother had experienced. Her child was safe. She'd learned not to let her out of her sight, that should have been the end of the discussion.

"Important news story at Breken Park, near the Hills Apartment Complex." I gave the story away without letting the man who stood before us threatening the young mother, I knew Mom would be arriving shortly. She always followed my lead, and I'd already let her know that I had found a child.

"We need to get them inside, it's getting cold out here." I interrupted the discussion, "I'll help you take them inside. If there's to be a visit from social services, they can come inside too."

The young woman nodded to me and followed us in, never letting go of the toddler's hand. We left the Officer and his co-hort standing at the bottom of the hill staring after us.

"Kate Gordon, thank you for bringing her home." She spoke as we arrived outside her apartment door. "I know you're the columnist, I recognize your picture. How did you find her?"

"I was photographing the rock walls for a commentary I wrote for the paper. It's due out in tonight's edition. So, I was walking the park." I shrugged, "I called Mom when that guy threatened social services. She'll be here in a bit to write up the story. She'll know what to do about him."

"He's a jerk. My landlord. He knows I'm here alone and he's always threatening me. My husband is a Marine and he's in service. I haven't got any family here and I can't afford to move where they are, so I'm stuck putting up with him until I have some options. He's been trying to force me out so he can raise the rents on the place." She explained as we entered a neatly arranged living room. Toys scattered over the coffee table and a few larger toys on the floor offered expected kid clutter, but the room was amazingly immaculate.

I looked at a message on my phone and let go of Virginia's hand, "Mom's downstairs. I'll be going now, but we may come up for an in person interview... Can I stop by and visit sometime?"

She nodded as she settled into a comfy chair with a book and Virginia to read. She snuggled the baby close and curled her legs around Virginia. I let myself out the door.


  1. Jan,
    I can't get into the place to comment on this. It's great!
    Oris (via email)

  2. Jan,
    Really good story about a situation that anyone who has two children has gone through. One time my 3 year old daughter ran away while I was doing the laundry down the street. I got a call from the cleaners around the corner who she knew that she was there. I had no idea that she had gone. It happens to anyone. And I was living in Queens at the time!

  3. Jan,
    I've read this three times today. Good stuff.
    It's been fun watching this story progress.

  4. I've read this short at least a dozen times since I wrote it and each time, it surprises me at the simplicity of the words. Amazing short story --- even as familiar as it is.