By Alice Feller
By the time Jessica finished fifth grade she was the biggest kid in her small private school, even bigger than all the sixth graders. Strangers on the street had begun to mistake her for a Cal student. She seemed miserable in her little school. One day we were alone in the kitchen and I sat down across the kitchen table from her as she bent over her homework.
She sighed. “What.”
“How would you like to go to Willard for sixth grade?”
She gave a tiny shrug and went back to her notebook.
“Abby’s going to Willard. You’d have a friend.”
“I don’t care. If you want me to.”
I took that for a “yes.” I was sure I was right, even though her father disagreed and the principal of her little school warned us about the dangers of middle school. Jessica needed the shelter of a K through six environment, he said. Still I stood my ground. If this turned out badly it would be on me, I knew. On the other hand, how badly could things go? Willard seemed very safe. It was a five minute walk from our house. In fact I walked by the school every day on my way to work.
Safety was not Jessica’s concern, though. It was my walk past her school that worried her. She wanted me to find a different route.
“You’ll be inside,” I said. “You won’t even see me.”
“Someone might see you out the window.”
“But they won’t know I’m your mom.” I couldn’t believe I was having this argument.
“Abby will know. And she has a big mouth.”
I didn’t change my route but we agreed she could walk by herself to school and come home on her own. She had a house key. If she got home before I did she would just watch TV. She was a careful and conscientious girl.
Two months later Jessica came home and interrupted a burglary in progress. She fled next door and I heard nothing about it till I got home. Then she was full of the story. “They left the refrigerator open! They must be crazy!” It did seem comical that in the midst of a burglary the robbers would pause to have a snack.
At the time I never imagined where this would lead.
In the weeks that followed the burglary Jessica’s mood lightened. She seemed to have more energy, and her shyness dropped away. She spent hours on our big tabletop computer in the TV room. What I saw on the screen as I walked behind her seemed harmless. I was grateful that she seemed happier.
For the first time in years she lost weight. She colored her brown hair pink and it set off her dark eyes and her clear complexion. She bought chunky heels and a long green velvet gown at the Buffalo Exchange on Telegraph. I couldn’t imagine where she would wear them but they looked beautiful on her. All of it seemed like a blessing.
For a while. Then she became irritable and jumpy. She reverted to her old quarrelsome self with a vengeance and got into screaming matches with her father.
One afternoon she told me she was going to a concert at Willard. She’d walk over the next day at five o’clock. But the next day she forgot all about it.
“Are you still going to that concert?” I asked.
She gave me a strange look. “Oh, yeah.” Her voice held an odd, thoughtful tone, but I was distracted. I didn’t think about it when she left the house. Later, though, I began to feel uneasy. I decided to catch the last of the concert.
As I approached the school the street was frighteningly quiet. No music came from inside the building, no parents and kids milled around in front. Desperate to be disabused of what I could see for myself, I asked the first person who came out of the school building. “Concert?” he said. “No, there’s no concert.”
I raced back home, praying that Jessica would be there, knowing she wouldn’t be. I dialed and redialed her phone. After I’d called every house where she could possibly have gone I called the police. Then I started to search her room for clues. I piled through the papers at the bottom of her closet, the layers of all those projects that we’d started together and then forgotten about. A geological record of family failure.
After a while two police officers showed up at our door, a tall, jokey guy with a shaved head and his partner, a bored young woman in a pony-tail who stared off into the middle distance.
“Still no word from your girl?” asked the tall, jovial cop.
“Ah, well, she’ll come rolling in about eleven. Be sure and give us a call when she does.”
Eleven o’clock came and went and I could see that Jessica’s father was frightened too, much as he tried not to look it.
Around midnight two other policemen showed up. “Still no word?”
I shook my head and caught the worried looks they exchanged.
“Well. She’ll be back. She’s a rookie runaway.”
That night I lay in bed holding my phone and watching the red numbers on the clock mark the passing hours. I punched in Jessica’s number over and over, a hopeless prayer.
When the first light showed through the window I got up and left a message with my friend Linda to say I wouldn’t be in Friday seminar, we had a family crisis. Then I called my best friend Mary and told her about Jessica. She was at my house within the hour.
First, we searched the streets in a wild, chaotic way, then we went to Kinko’s on Bancroft and made a flier. We used Jessica’s fifth-grade school picture, long outdated by then. We described her current look, especially her pink hair. We wrote “Jessica is twelve years old,” in big letters at the bottom of the page and printed out hundreds of copies.
Fred called our book group friends and they joined the search. Linda called me back and soon my classmates from the Friday seminar joined the search. We blanketed the city with fliers. We put them in shop windows and buttonholed people on the street to show them the flier. We asked, “Have you seen this girl?” I saw their expressions change from mild annoyance at being stopped to shock as they looked in our faces and realized that one of us had lost a child. Every couple of hours Mary quietly stepped aside and canceled a few more of her client appointments.
Then at five o’clock my cell phone rang. A woman’s voice said, “This is the Berkeley police. We have Jessica. You can come to the station and get her.”
I must have driven there. Everything is a blur except the sight of Jessica sitting at a wooden table in the station with Linda Lagemann, my classmate from the Friday seminar. Linda was giving Jess a crash course on street smarts. How not to get trapped into prostitution.
Back at our house Linda walked us to the front door. “Goodbye, Jessica,” she said, “and don’t forget what I told you.”
Jessica gave her the slightest of nods.
With that Linda was gone and Jess and I walked into the house where the rest of the search party sat around the dining room table eating pizza. I said a hasty thank you to all of them and followed Jessica upstairs to her room. We sat across from each other, cross-legged on her window seat.
“What happened?” I said.
“I told you, I went to the concert,” she said. She was wearing her chunky heels and her beautiful green velvet gown, the one that came to her ankles. She hiked the skirt up to her knees to sit comfortably.
“There wasn’t any concert. I went to Willard and looked for you.”
She shrugged. “You can have your opinion.”
I sighed. “What really happened?”
She was silent.
“I know things have been horrible around here sometimes.” I was thinking of the screaming matches she’d had recently with her dad.
She gazed out the window, unmoving.
“Jess, I’m really worried about where you stayed last night. What happened that you didn’t come home?”
She faced me and her voice grew adamant. “Some men grabbed me and drove me away in a van.” For a moment I was shocked and she watched my face with a look of satisfaction. But then I remembered the concert that didn’t happen.
She turned away and stood up, smoothing the long velvet dress over her body.
I got up too then and put my arms around her.
“Jess, I’m so, so glad you’re back.” I held her close, my tears fell into her long pink hair and she didn’t pull away.
Alice Feller lives with her husband in Berkeley, where they raised their two daughters. Currently, she is writing a memoir about her work with people who suffer from severe mental illness.