"It's daaaaddy's dayyyy!" proclaimed the fair haired, brown eyes of my only child Cole, the 4-year-old love of my life. "And I have a surpriiise for youuuu," he continued in a melodious tone.
It was Sunday, 7 am, and I had been warned the night before that today I would be awakened early with a special surprise.
A glorious morning sun streamed in the window of our bedroom and glinted off a crystal picture frame of my wife and myself at our wedding 14 years prior. Thus began the first day of two weeks with just the two of us. "The buddies", as we liked to call ourselves, would be on our own. Unfortunately for me, Cole didn't understand the rule of 'sleeping in' on Fathers Day. Oh, well.
Margo had left yesterday for a two-week extravaganza in London with her mother. Payback for a previous fly-fishing trip I had taken to Argentina. Concerned that she wouldn't be here for Father's Day, she and Cole had prepared a Sunday morning treat for me.
"Are you ready, daddy?" The smile on his face was gold, as it had taken all his willpower not to tell me.
"Sure am, Cole. What ya got?"
From under the bed, he slid out a blue tray prepared with two plastic wrapped bowls of Raisin Bran, two bananas, two little cartons of milk, orange juice and cards.
"Cole, you sweet boy! That's great! Did you and your Mommy do this?"
"Sure did. Just for you, Buddy."
He was so proud of himself and beamed with such brilliance that his glow was almost visible. So was mine.
We cheerfully ate breakfast on the bed, chatting and watching cartoons. A smart, precocious child, he seemed to understand quite well that his mom was going to be away for a spell and I would take good care of him. I wanted any fears he might have to be minimal and consequently, he was doing great.
. He showed no apprehension whatsoever as he was used to my making his meals, taking him to school, bathing him, etc. We have always had a great relationship and I, of course, try to provide for him all the things my workaholic absent father never did. We rough-housed nightly, read books, worked on the computer, played in my shop with model trains and radio controlled airplanes and went to the playground regularly.
"So buddy, what would you like to do today? How bout' we go to the park?"
"That's a great idea, Buddy," his smile was as broad as the happy face make-up on a clown.
And so we did. I showered and got ready while he put his clothes on and tortured the new kitten, which promptly, mercilessly, tortured him back.
We packed our usual bag of Cheese Guppy's, Ritz Bits, and juice boxes for him and papers for me to read.
In the car and off we went.
"Daddy, can we go to a new park?"
I looked in the rear view mirror at his smiling, inquisitive face that had me wrapped around its finger. "Another new park. Well, okay I'll see if I can find one."
"Dad, you're the best."
The finger wrapped coil tightened. This kid was good; better than I had ever been, and I was the best. I glanced at the gas gauge and noticed it was near empty, but knew that we would be okay until after the park.
Finding a new park was getting harder and harder within a reasonable distance from our home, but I managed to locate one I hadn't thought of before. It was a large recreation center that catered to the many different needs and desires of the neighborhood: a library, community center, and baseball fields were a few of the other things in addition to a nicely designed playground.
Cole ran from the car and immediately found someone to play with, as he always seemed to. He was confident and uninhibited, and made friends quickly where ever we went. I found a bench in the shade where I could watch him and read in comfort. It was an ideal Sunday.
He came running up to me, jumped in my lap, and gave me a big bear hug, as we often did. "Grrrrrrrrr," we growled together.
"Do you want a juice box?" I asked pulling one out.
"Sure buddy," he sipped away. "Dad, I'm going on the swings, okay?" he pushed the blue-framed eyeglasses he wore back up onto the bridge of his nose.
"Of course it's okay, but where's your new friend?"
"He didn't wanna swing."
He ran off to the swings, which were in clear view, about 50 feet from where I was sitting. He loved the swings and climbed on, quickly pumping himself to a nice arc. I continued to read my book, but looked up a couple of times and watched him as he swung, smiling and singing to himself.
Being particularly close to the airport, planes continually flew overhead with timed precision, but now a very loud jet roared over drowning out all other sounds, like a Saturn five launch, the noise was deafening. I looked up and scowled at this loud lumbering jet as it moved across the sky, cursing at the fact that those noise polluters are still allowed in the air.
When I looked back to see how Cole was doing, there was only an empty black band of rubber and clinking chain, swinging by itself.
I scanned the playground, calling; "Cole?" then stood looking around for the familiar black pants and white shirt. "Cole?" I didn't see him anywhere. A knot started to grow in my stomach and quickly extended into my throat.
There had been numerous times where I had watched over-protective, doting moms run around the playground looking for their little ones, only to scold them severely for being out of their sight for nano-seconds. I now started to become one of those moms.
I walked around the playground looking in and around the maze of playground equipment. Through the twisty slide, "Cole?" in the sand underneath the play ship, "Cole? Are you there?" and inside the tunnel, "Cole! Where are you?"
I was making a quick transformation to the frantic parent. The same ones I'd seen on the TV news.
"It's okay. It's okay," I said trying to calm myself. "He's around here somewhere." The most important thing was to find him and a cool head would do it better than a clouded, upset one.
I ran up to the little boy Cole was playing with, alone, digging in the sand, "Were you playing with Cole? Did you see him?"
Unconcerned, he looked up, "Nope. He went to play on the swings."
"I know he went to play on the swings. Did you see him after that?"
"Nope," he didn't even look up from digging in the sand.
"Where's your mom?" I demanded.
He lazily pointed to some of the benches surrounding the playground. A pretty, red-haired woman in blue jeans and a yellow tank top sat cross-legged, reading the Sunday paper. I instantly despised her relaxed posture as compared to my frenzied one, but her face and attitude changed as saw me approach. She could tell by the look on my face something was wrong, a look familiar to all parents.
"Have you seen my little boy, Cole? He's wearing black pants and a white shirt with blue-framed eyeglasses. He was playing with your son."
"Yes, I know. I was watching them. No, I haven't seen him," she closed her paper and stood up to join my search. "How can I help?"
"Thanks so much. If you could look over there on that side..." I pointed toward the community center and ball fields, "... I'll look over here by the bathrooms."
"Okay. You said his name was Cole?"
"Yes. Cole, Cole Fornby. And thank you, thank you so much," I grabbed her hand and shook it.
She attempted to comfort me. "No problem. Don't worry, we'll find him. This is a very safe park. He probably just wandered off."
At this point, I would only be placated by finding him. She went off in one direction and I started in the other.
He couldn't possibly have gone off with a stranger. I had coached him over and over about that. "Cole? What do you do if a stranger offers you candy or says I'm going to take you to your mommy and daddy?"
"I say no and run away or go tell a grown-up," would be his reply.
It was this factor I tried not to think about, but my worry was beginning to affect me as all the worst thoughts floated up. Jonbonet Ramsey, Polly Klass and every other child whom the police found nude and buried in shallow graves in some cold lonely woods, somewhere and nowhere. I always thought about the terror that those children must have lived through at the hands of some animal. What were the looks on their faces as some stranger brutally molested them and then tightened his sick adult fingers around their throat, choking the life out of their innocent bodies. Since I had become a parent, these cases took on new meaning for me and violence against children was more sickening than ever.
I ran to the bathrooms and checked both sides as quickly as possible, yelling his name. No Cole, nowhere.
A side street paralleled the park with a small grassy knoll between it and the playground. I ran up the knoll looking around hoping, praying that I would see him. "Cole!! Cole where are you?" nothing, he had disappeared.
The other parents and park goers began to notice my frenetic state. I was in a full panic, sweating profusely; my stomach tied in so many knots, I was on the verge of throwing up.
I ran up to the sidewalk next to the street looking around when a small blue car pulled out of the lot. At first I didn't notice it, but I looked closely as it passed by. A dark haired man with a clearly pock-marked face and dark glasses was driving; in the back seat was Cole, screaming and crying. I screamed back. "COOOLE!!!" The car accelerated down the street as my rage boiled over at the thought of someone hurting him.
I sprinted toward my car, about 75 feet away from the street. As I ran, I called out to everybody, their eyes now glued on me as I passed. "Call 911!! My kid's been grabbed!" a look of horror showed on their faces as hands covered mouths in shock and disbelief. Parents grabbed their offspring and held them close; relieved it wasn't their child. I experienced no such comfort.
The keys fumbled in my hands as I tried to open the car door faster. "Come on, come on!" every second wasted was another nail in his coffin. I was determined not to become another statistic in a computer file or one of those forlorn parents on TV as I put my foot down and raced out of the parking lot. I hadn't gotten the license plate, but I did get a good look at the car. An old Maverick, 4 doors, weather beaten with faded blue paint and a cracked rear window.
I tried to have some rational thoughts about where he might have gone with Cole. I knew I only could only choose one thing. Either he was in a house on one of the surrounding streets or headed toward the freeway. I chose the freeway.
Stop signs and red lights took on a non-existent meaning as I kept my hand pushing the horn and my foot to the floor, screaming like a madman. "MOVE, MOVE. GET THE HELL OUTA MY WAY!!" Other cars screeched to a halt as angry fists waved and clenched teeth spat curses at me. My peripheral vision saw a few rear enders and I felt sorry, but if those people had any idea what was going on, I'm sure they would have joined in. The only chance I had to catch up would be to do it this way, if I had made the right choice. I looked around for the old Maverick as I sped through the streets, but saw nothing.
The light was with me while speeding across Olive Avenue, but an older woman supporting her stride with a cane, decided now was the time to cross the street. I jammed my foot on the brake, screeching to a halt, stopping short of hitting her. Traffic on both sides prevented my escape and she looked at me like I was a lunatic, which I was right now, while she took her sweet time. I stuck my head out the window. "Jesus Christ lady, move yor ass! I got a life or death thing goin' on here!" Interminably, her pace remained unchanged. As soon as she cleared the front of the car I stamped the accelerator and was off again.
I passed over the bridge that crossed the freeway just before the entrance ramp and looked over the edge. There it was! The blue Maverick was just accelerating onto the freeway. I hauled the wheel over, cutting off several cars, and made a dash for the entrance ramp.
"Damn it! Come on! Move, move!" I was road rage epitomized as two lanes merged into one and I was stuck. Not accepting the traffic fate being dealt, I swerved around to the right, forcing cars out of my way and heard metal scraping against stone as the side of my car and the retaining wall exchanged molecules of paint and rock. Once clear, I hammered the gas pedal and listened to those cylinders wind out. "Come on you piece of shit! Faster, faster!" I rocked back and forth as if this would improve the acceleration. The poor Honda would never be the same and if Cole and I survived, neither would we.