Jenny’s scent clung to the wool fibers of the tiny blue coat with the wooden toggles. I breathed in vanilla baby shampoo and Vaseline, a shiny smear of goo on the toy coat’s collar from her morning game of hospital with Paddington. Was that only two hours ago? The flashing red and blue lights of the police cruiser turned the grease stain blood red then blue-black and back again.
“We’re going to do everything we can for Jenny, ma’am, but we need to ask you a few questions. What time did you come into the house, leaving your daughter in the yard alone?”
Alone. The officer with the hard eyes made the point. I’d left her. Everyone in the neighborhood would talk. The old bitty on the corner would happily confirm what a horrible mother I was letting Jenny play outside unsupervised again. What was I going to tell Paul?
“It was just after ten. I came inside to get more Band-Aids and Paddington’s coat, her bear. Jenny said he was cold. She had taken it off him to put on more bandages.” The officer with the hard eyes raised an eyebrow. “It’s a game she plays. Hospital.”
I held up the toy coat and the box of Band-Aids, as if any of that mattered now. While I had been inside, there had also been a short phone call from Kate over her concerns how I’d been disciplining Jenny at our Saturday playgroups, but that was hardly a detail worth involving the police.
“I went right back out and assumed she was in her playhouse to keep Paddington warm. I waited a couple of minutes before I called her, thinking she had forgotten about the coat and bandages. But then I didn’t hear anything so I went looking. When I saw the empty playhouse I panicked. I called and called but she didn’t answer.”
“Three-year-olds have a way of wandering off,” said the officer with the unpronounceable M-name on her badge.
“She didn’t do this on her own. She can’t open the gate, not without help.” I pointed to the chain-linked slatted fenced enclosure out front. The officer with the M-name scratched some notes on a pad. “Shouldn’t you be out there looking for her? Why are you wasting time asking me questions?”
“Mrs. Brewster, we’re as concerned for the safety of your daughter as you are. Have you been in communication with your husband?” asked Officer Hard Eyes.
“Paul’s on a business trip. He’s in the air right now.” Thank God. He was not going to forgive this. I had lost her at the mall a year ago and she had had a bad fall. Paul had said it wasn’t my fault, but I knew he still blamed me. Then there were those incidents at the park, so he’d installed the playhouse and fenced enclosure to keep her home. She still bruised or broke too easily. Paul always left on his trips with the same warning: “You can’t let her out of your sight, Tess, not for a second. She’s liable to get seriously hurt.” We had to find her before he got back. A few hours at most. What if some monster had her and was hurting her?
“Officer Merczak will stay here with you while we sort this out.”
“I don’t need a babysitter. Shouldn’t all of you be searching?” I gestured to the female officer.
Officer Merczak said, “I have experience in these situations. It’s better if I’m here until we get to the bottom of what happened to Jenny.”
“Could she have been kidnapped? Held for ransom? We’re not rich.” As the words tumbled out my brain clanged physical danger, murder—or worse.
“We’re going to need a current picture and description of what she’s wearing,” said the officer with hard eyes.
I held up Paddington’s coat. “She’s in a matching blue coat and red Wellies, like the bear but no hat. Denim dress and white tights.” She loved her duffle coat, how it covered up all of her boo-boos, just like her bear’s.
Officer Merczak jotted down more notes. I texted the officers some pictures of Jenny wearing the same coat and boots at the playgroup last weekend. Other officers came and went until I was alone with Officer M-Name.
“Call me Mary,” she said, squeezing my forearm in a show of female solidarity. “Now, what can you tell me about your relationship with your daughter?”
I was refilling our coffee cups when the doorbell rang. The side window showed Helena Loucks, the gossip from the house on the corner, standing on the stoop. She held Jenny’s Paddington. The stuffed toy was coatless and covered in Band-Aids.
I pulled open the door and grabbed the older woman by the shoulders and shook her hard. “Where is she?” Helena’s head bobbled on her stick neck, knocking her glasses askew. “What’d you do with her?” I yanked the toy from her hand causing the woman to stumble off balance and fall into me. I shoved her back.
“It, it…” she started, pushing her glasses back on her nose. “It fell out of the car when your husband picked up your little girl. Thought she’d want it back. Is there trouble?” She pointed with a trembling finger at the police car.
Officer Mary helped the woman inside. Helena told us how earlier that day Paul had come by and picked up Jenny when she was playing outside. But Paul was out of town. It made no sense.
A phone rang. Officer Mary answered it, exchanged some terse words, nodded and handed me the phone. Paul’s voice, an equal mix of anger and sadness, filled my head. “Jenny’s safe. We know what you’ve done, Tess. You can’t ever hurt her again.”
Officer Mary pulled out her handcuffs. “Mrs. Brewster, I’ll need you to come with me.”
I looked down at Paddington’s coat lying on the floor. Could pain ever be truly covered up?