Sheree La Puma is an award-winning writer whose personal essays, fiction and poetry have appeared in or are forthcoming in O:JA&L, Burningword Literary Journal, I-70 Review, Inflectionist Review, Levee, Crack The Spine, Mad Swirl, The London Reader, Gravel, Foliate Oak, PacificReview, Westwind and Ginosko Literary Review, among others. She received an MFA in Writing from California Institute of the Arts and taught poetry to former gang members Born in Los Angeles; she now resides in Valencia, CA with her rescues, Bello cat and Jack, the dog.
March 6, 1995 - A Beautiful Life
Last week I was a rock at the bottom of my swimming pool, challenging/taunting life to step on me. The blue, chemical laden, water sloshed and swirled, encircling my body. Katie and Quinn giggled at the surface, splashing each other with renewed exuberance. I watched their little toes wiggle. Max, our yellow lab, howled from the deck. He was deathly afraid of water, some aberration in the breed, poor thing. He had two different colored eyes, gray and green and a big black tongue that drifted in/out of his mouth like a sail devoid of wind. A honeybee danced, buzzed near his head and he’d occasionally snap at it.
Six different varieties of roses carpeted the hill: Belle Rouge, Old Fashioned, Grandiflora, Hybrid Tea, Miniature, and Standard. I’d planted them a year ago, and they were now in full bloom, sweet, fragrant, lush. It was spring in L.A. The air was warm but not uncomfortable.
Everything seemed healthy.
Sept 27, 1985 – Motherhood
“I’ll name him, Quinn. It means wise one.”
They wrap him in a blue animal print blanket, the nurses that is and place him in my arms. I lean over and kiss his cheek, nuzzling into it, savoring the moment like no other. Oh, that beautiful fragrance, the sweet, clean scent of his skin. It is the smell of pure, unadulterated innocence.
I love him like a warm breeze in autumn, and I have big dreams for his future.
Ten Years Later – Broken
“He’s failing.” “What?”
“He hasn’t turned in any homework.” “Quinn?”
“Failing? He’s got a very high I.Q.”
There were little things, clues here and there that something dark was brewing in the sweetness of our lives. I ignored them, figured he was too smart, like me a little sensitive. I found the best private school when he had trouble with the public one. Then reclaimed him from that teacher, the one that dared to criticize his performance.
It was my job to shield him from the blight, and I took it seriously, wrapping him in bubblegum kisses. His little sister Katie was different, happy as a songbird, drifting free like a cloud in the summer sky. Katie was independent. She did not need me, not really. Quinn was grounded, heavy with the ways of the world. You could see it on his face, his eyes; in the way, he moved his legs, slow and methodically with each step.
He overthought everything.
March 11, 1995 - The Phone Call
The phone rang at 12:47 pm, a time permanently etched in my memory.
It was an average day. I’d dropped the kids off at Waldorf School, a twenty-minute drive from home, then came back to work on the garden. We lived in a beautiful Spanish bungalow in a canyon filled with wild oak and honeysuckle. Quinn was ten and Katie six.
The sky was blue as the Caribbean Sea, the air dry, warm, and heavy. I was digging a hole for a little orange tree when I heard it ring. I shook the dirt off my hands and ran in to answer it.
“Hello. This is Jennifer,” I said.
A little voice quivered as if straining to speak. “Mom,” (then a pause) “Mom?”
“I got kidnapped. He dropped me off on the side of the freeway.” My heart stopped.
If you’ve never imagined what’s it’s like to have a child cry out for help on the end of a phone line, I can tell you now, it’s like being struck by lightning. I couldn’t breathe. Fear invaded my being, spiraled down towards the hardwood floor. It left nothing untouched-even my toes contaminated.
“What? What did you say?” I sputtered.
“After you drove away, a man grabbed me/ threw me in the back of his truck.” “What?” I shook my head in disbelief.
“Did he hurt you?”
My imagination went wild. Four hours had passed since I’d left him near the entrance. My hands shook, tears welled in my eyes. Be strong, I thought to myself. Then I slammed my back against the wall for support. The cold plaster helped me regain composure, my mother sense.
“I’m okay Mom.”
He was struggling to speak, the pitch of his voice rising with stress.
“Quinn where are you exactly?”
“I’m on the side of the freeway by the new movie theaters. You know where. He dropped me off, and I started walking. These people stopped and let me use their cell phone.” “What people? Are you safe?”
“Just a man and lady. I’m safe.”
“I’m coming, Quinn. Stay right there.”
“Okay Mom, hurry.”
Life was spinning away from me.
“Quinn, Josh, and David miss you. Everyone at preschool misses you. They’re asking where you are. Do you want to go play with them?” “No!”
“Quinn honey, Mrs. Rosaline misses you too. She wanted me to tell you that she has a special treat for you in your cubby.”
“No! No! No! I want to stay with you, Mommy. I don’t like school.”
March 11, 1995 – Gone
Racing, my heart, this car, other people on the freeway, running somewhere, I wanted the quiet feathery moments, life under my fingernails. Instead, I got fog. I searched everywhere and didn’t see him. I hit the leather-covered steering wheel with my fist and then dialed Lee’s number into my cell phone. It rang three times.
“Lee, it’s Jennifer. Quinn was kidnapped and left on the side of the freeway. He called me, but I can’t find him. “He took a long deep breath before answering. “Did you call the police?” “Not yet. Quinn said he was near the theaters, but I've looked.
“Let me call them, and you keep searching.”
Six lanes on either side of the freeway cut jaggedly through the California hillside, light traffic, typical for that time of day. No disabled vehicles, no lost children perched precariously on the shoulders edge. No Quinn.
The ring of my cell phone was shrill, like the sound of an alarm in a concrete building. “Hello? Hello?”
“He’s on the shoulder of the 210, not the 134. The highway patrol is there. He’s safe and in their car. They’re waiting for you. I’ll meet you there.”
Quinn was safe. I reveled in those words; my relief rolling around like a child doing somersaults. Finally, I spotted them; three patrol cars lined up in a neat row. The staccato pulse of lights matched the rhythm of my heart. What would I say? It was different now. We were different.
A late model Chevrolet Impala, silver with wire rim wheels lingered in the rear of the line. I pulled up behind it. There was a vulture inside. He got out holding a video camera. Walk past him, and you’ll be fine, I said to myself.
“Ma'am, Ma'am could I have a word with you. Is your son okay?” A tall, lean man in a uniform raced over to shoo them away. “Please stand back,” he said in a deep, authoritative voice.
The officer was strong as the oak tree in my front yard. He reached out and offered me his arm.
“He needs more time with you. We never see you anymore.”
“I have a two-hour commute each way, Jennifer. What do you want from me?” “He misses you.”
“I’m doing the best I can.”
“We’re doing the best we can.”
March 11, 1995 - Men in Blue
“Mrs. Jacobs? The officer questioned.” “Yes. What happened?”
“A couple saw him walking on the side of the freeway and pulled over to help.”
I shuddered. The officer seemed sympathetic.
“He told them he’d been kidnapped and dropped off about ½ mile away. He gave us a good description, and we have an APB out on the truck and suspect.”
“Thank God. Did he say if the kidnapper? Aww… touched him?”
“No. We want to take Quinn back to the station and question him if you don’t mind. We’ve already contacted the school, and they’re going to notify all the parents.”
“That’s fine. Can I see him?”
“Of course, he’s in my car. You can talk to him in there. I don’t want that reporter to get any pictures.”
“Thank you,” I said.
I rushed to the black and white car, and the officer opened the door for me. Quinn was sitting in the front passenger seat eating candy. They’d given him Gummy Bears. I leaned over and gave him a hug.
“I love you so much, Quinn. Thank God, you’re safe. Daddy is on his way here, and then we’re going to the station so they can ask you some questions. They want to get this guy!” Quinn blinked his eyes as if holding back tears and said, “I love you too, Mom.”
I sat down in the seat and closed the door so we could have a little privacy. The officer stepped away. I was a mess, dirty from my gardening, sweating from fright and emotionally spent from the whole ordeal.
“How did he grab you, honey? I watched you walk up the path towards your classroom.”
“He was hiding behind the second bungalow. When I walked by, he grabbed me from behind then put his hand over my mouth. He carried me to his truck, threw me in the back and told me to lie still and stay quiet. I was really scared.”
“Yes, honey. Of course.”
He looked at me with his big blue eyes and said, “I figured that if I did what he said, I wouldn’t get hurt.”
I couldn’t argue. He hadn’t been hurt physically, as far as I knew. Suddenly, there were other voices, but I didn’t turn to look at them. I couldn’t take my eyes off my son. He was perfect/precious. 4’8” with a little button nose and a head full of curls. Everyone had said they were baby locks, that'd he’d lose them, as he got older, but he hadn’t.
“Hello Officer, I’m Lee Jacobs, Quinn’s father. Is he okay?”
“He's okay Mr. Jacobs. I’m Sergeant Riley. Your wife is sitting with him.” “Thank you for all you’ve done,” Lee said in his calm, flat manner.
“We haven’t done much yet, unfortunately. I need you two to follow me to the station so we can get a little more information on the suspect.”
“Oh? Let me get Jennifer then.”
I bolted out the car and gave Lee a hug. He looked shocked. “Quinn, how are you buddy?” he shouted over my left shoulder. “I’m fine Dad,” he smiled.
“Okay then. Why don’t you follow me? I’ll drive Quinn over,” said the officer. I squeezed Lee’s hand. “He’s OK honey. He’s going to be okay.”
Lee pulled away from me. I felt empty inside. We walked in silence, across the asphalt, towards Lee’s white Mercedes Benz. He got inside and shut the door. I winced slightly and turned back towards my own car.
“You have to go to school, Quinn.” “I can’t go, Mom. I’ll vomit.” “You’re not sick.”
“I puked on the grass in from of the school yesterday. Do you know how embarrassing that was?”
“I don’t understand what the problem is Quinn. You have to go to school.” “You can’t make me.”
March 11, 1995 - Interrogation
At the station, Officer Riley separated us from Quinn, taking him down the hallway to another room. The lobby was small, cluttered with desks and stacks of paperwork. About ten officers were milling about, trying to look busy. Lee and I were directed to a small room, eight by ten at the most. I got a tattered brown office chair, and he got a metal folding one. We weren’t comfortable. Lee’s legs shook uncontrollably, up and down, up and down. My eyes darted from wall to floor, floor to the corridor and back again. It was a long thirty minutes before someone approached us.
This time it was Sergeant Nicholson, thick, mid-forties, white with graying hair. My first impression was this man doesn’t like us. I wanted Officer Riley’s kind brown eyes.
Nicholson’s were steel gray. I gasped for breath.
“We’ve talked with your son, and I have to tell you this whole thing doesn’t make sense. Has he ever lied to you in the past? He questioned.
I spoke first. “No, Quinn never lies to us. Never.”
Lee nodded his head in agreement. I glared at him. He blinked me away. His legs started marching in place again.
“Quinn is a very articulate child. He talks about the kidnapping in detail, but when we ask him to describe the truck bed, we get very little. He says it was dirty, smelled like old paint or something. He supposedly rode around in it for hours, and he remembers nothing.”
“He must be in shock or something. I don’t know. I’m telling you, things happened the way he says they happened.”
“I’ve questioned suspects for over twenty years, and I can always tell when someone is lying…”
I looked at him incredulously. “Listen here, Officer …”
“Sergeant. I want you to find the person who did this to my son. Understand?”
“I don’t believe Quinn would lie. He has no reason to. He does well in school, has lots of friends,” Lee sputtered.
I swallowed hard. How would you know? I thought to myself. He coughed.
This was how we communicated: by mental telepathy.
“A great deal is at stake here. We have a school on alert and dozens of terrified parents. We have a child that says he was snatched off the school campus. Although he’s given us a general description of the events, we don’t have enough to piece together a crime. I want to bring him to the Altadena station. There’s an officer there that’d I’d like him to talk with.” “Fine.”
I knew the truth. I knew Quinn.
I watched him in his cradle, tiny baby breaths, sweet bubbles of life on his lips. Every few minutes a smile crossed his dimpled cheeks, then a quiet murmur. I used to think he was dreaming of me, that he loved me, even in those Buddha baby dreams.
The Altadena station looked much like the first one. Lee absent-mindedly hummed to himself. They took us into another waiting room where we waited for answers.
“This is it, Lee! Let’s get Quinn and head home. They have no right to keep him from us like this. They’re victim blaming.”
“They’re just trying to sort out all the facts,” he countered.
“Quinn has been traumatized by this. He needs to be home with me so that he can recover.” I stared at him in frustration.
“If it goes on much longer we’ll take him out of here. Okay?” he said softly. “Thank you.”
Three hours into our ordeal the Sergeant came back. From the scowl on his face, I knew it wasn’t good news.
“Mr. And Mrs. Jacobs please come with me. Quinn has something he’d like to say to you,” he said, his tone serious.
We sat down at a long conference table. Quinn looked utterly dejected. I’d never seen him so limp. His checks were flaccid, pale, his head hung down. His eyes were focused on the floor. What had they done, these officers of peace?
Nicholson spoke, his voice booming, self-satisfied. “Quinn, do you have something to tell your parents?”
Quinn’s voice quivered, and he let out a sound that was barely audible. “Yesss.”
“Go ahead then.”
“I lied. I wasn’t kidnapped. I made it up because I didn’t want to go to school. I tried to walk home, but I only knew the freeway route.”
I gasped and then tried to regain my composure. Nicholson looked at me with scorn. “I’d like to talk to you both alone,” he croaked.
Quinn refused to meet my eye. I wanted to tell him it was OK, that I loved him, but the Sergeant drug us to an adjacent room. I had nothing to say, and nothing to add but contempt.
“Quinn is the most convincing liar that I have ever interviewed. Most adults break down faster than he did. He’d only admitted to the truth after I’d threatened him with a polygraph test. He told me I’d have to get parental approval because he was a minor, and I said we already had it. That’s when he broke down, admitted making the whole thing up.”
“I don’t know what to say,” I whispered, devoid of emotion, completely numb.
My brain was nothing more than soft gray matter, dissolving; I was a kind of stone soup.
“I have to tell you; it’s a serious issue now that the school is involved. The principal sent home notices to the parents, and everything has to be retracted. We spoke to her a few moments ago, and she asked that Quinn stays out of school until things settle down.” “What?”
“He also needs a psychiatric evaluation and some counseling. We don’t want him back here.”
“Okay, then,” I said, flabbergasted. I knew there was no point in arguing. I stood up and collected Quinn, completely fragmented. I wanted to flee as much as he had wanted to flee, yet somehow Lee was the one that managed to escape, scurrying back to work with his tail between his legs.
“I’ll see you when I get home. You better apologize to your mother,” he said in an attempt to sound fatherly as if that could exorcise Quinn’s ghosts.
The drive home was filled with sniffles, snorts, odd expressions and no language. Quinn made no attempt to justify his actions, expecting me to know, expecting me to forgive. I’d lost the wondrous spring day, the happy, proud life of last week.
I was no longer a rock at the bottom of my swimming pool, watching soggy little toes dance with delight. I was a pebble, fragile, eroded, damaged. My son seemed unconcerned and mysteriously unburdened.