“Fifty-eight, fifty-nine, sixty!”
Hide-and-go-seek was the order of the evening. Two days of rain with no signs of stopping meant mud, mud, and more mud. Jenn already knew where the kids were. They always hid together and in the same spot. Twins like to stick together, it seemed.
“Hmm. I can't seem to find them. Where could they be?” she said convincingly as they giggled somewhere in the house. She tiptoed down the hall and peeked into their room. “Goodness, I will never find them! Maybe... here!” she shouted as she dropped to the floor and pulled the covers back.
“Err, guess not...” she murmured searching the empty space under the bed. “How about... here!” she shouted again, this time at an empty closet. They’re really making me work for it this time, she thought. Nothing in the bath, no one in the laundry... she knew they were too scared to venture in the basement but decided to check after she’d exhausted all other options.
Jenn noisily stamped down the stairs to announce her presence, hoping to elicit some giggles and shuffling. “I’m going to find you!” she sang. She stopped, noting the uncanny silence. With a five-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl, the only silence she ever experienced happened while they were sleeping—and even that was often interrupted by nightmares.
“Jordan! Casey! Come on kids, you win! I give up!” she shouted merrily. “Olly olly oxen free! You win!” she shouted with slightly more urgency. “Mommy’s not playing anymore. Come on now, it’s time for dinner!” Still nothing. “All right, how about this? If you come out now, we’ll get a big cheesy pizza, two buckets of whatever flavor ice cream you want, and we’ll rent a movie! But, you have to come out now!”
A minute passed, and the panic set in. “All right, kids, come out now. If you don’t come out, you’re going be in trouble, okay?” she shouted in her serious voice. “Jordan Oliver Jones, you and your sister come out this instant!”
Jenn suddenly heard movement above her and sprinted up the stairs.
“What on earth took you so long?” she fussed as she reached the ground level. “I was starting to get wor—” Jenn froze. The front door was wide open. She knew she’d locked it. She was obsessive about locking the door and checked it at least twice a day. She ran out onto the porch, dizzy and nearly hyperventilating. “Jordan! Casey!”
She ran inside and called the police. Jenn wasn’t thinking clearly.
“Yes, I need help. My children are missing! Cherry Street, 43 Cherry Street, I was playing hide-and-go-seek with them and I couldn’t find them and I searched everywhere and then I found the door open and they’re not here! They’re gone!” she shrieked, the panic building.
“Is there anyone who might want to take them? Could they be with their father? A relative? The neighbors?” asked a calm voice on the other end of the phone.
“My family doesn’t live near here and the neighbors are out and...” Jenn’s stomach knotted up. “Oh god, their father. I... I have a restraining order against him. He shouldn’t even— He’s not supposed to be in town or anywhere near or—”
“Ma’am, I want you to go inside and lock the doors, just to be safe. Make sure all windows are latched as well. I’m sending a dispatch unit to patrol the area. Can you do that for me?” the operator asked in a soothing voice.
“Yes, yes I— Okay, I’m inside,” Jenn panted.
“Good. Thank you. Can you tell me about their father?” the officer asked.
Jenn shuddered as the memories flooded back. “He... he murdered his ex-wife in our home. It was all over the news. Jeremy Picking, he—”
“Oh, yes. Yes, I remember,” the officer interrupted. “Shouldn’t he be—”
Jenn waited for her to finish and heard silence. “Hello? Hello? Are you there?” Jenn tried another number, and there was no dial tone. She jumped hard at the sound of a loud knock at the door. She saw what looked like an officer’s uniform through the frosted glass and rushed to unlock it.
“Are you okay, Jenn?” It was officer John Daley, an old peer of Jenn’s from high school and police officer in town for over a decade. “Gosh, you got here fast,” Jenn sighed, relieved to not be alone anymore. “The kids, John, they’re gone. I—”
“Don’t worry, Jenn,” John interjected, holding her shoulders as she started to weep again. “They’re probably just running around the neighborhood, messin’ around. I’ve got two cars out patrolling right now. Just stay inside and try to keep a cool head. We’ll find ‘em.”
Jenn locked the door behind her again and paced the floor, wringing her hands, peering out the window, and re-checking every potential hiding spot. As she crawled out from under the dining room table, she suddenly noticed motion on the second floor of the house next door. Her breathing stopped. They were supposed to be away for the weekend. A light in the attic flicked on, and the curtains swayed. Jenn walked right up to her window, close enough for her nose to touch the glass, when the light suddenly flicked off again. Jenn yanked the curtains close, feeling exposed. She ran through the house, checking the locks again, roughly drawing all the curtains.
She reached the glass door in the kitchen and came face-to-face with her neighbor Todd, screaming loudly enough to make him jump. Todd frowned, breathing heavily, and shook his head, “Jesus, Jenn, what is it? What happened?”
Jenn cracked the door open, the chain lock still in place. “Sorry Todd, I—” She suddenly remembered he was supposed to be out of town. “Wait, why are you here? And why are you in town?”
Todd looked slightly offended, “Well, Crissy and I got into a big argument over how her dad always treats me and, while it was pretty rough, I am being spared a trip to see the in-laws. But, yeah, I got home like ten minutes ago and saw Officer Daley leaving, so I figured I’d come check in on you and see if everything was okay.”
“Oh, yeah, it’s just... well, the kids, we were playing hide-and-go-seek and I couldn’t find them and then—” Something shiny glinting by Todd’s side caught her eye. He gripped a pair of shears in his left hand. Todd followed her eyes down to see what had stopped her so abruptly. “Wh— Oh! Sorry, yeah when I was crossing the back yard to get to yours, a lot of brush was getting in my way so I thought, ugh, I thought I’d just get on it and, uh, you know, get it out of the way, and, uh... you know, you don’t have to talk to me through the door,” Todd smiled taking a step forward.
Jenn didn’t flinch. Her mind was racing. The phone line was down, Todd appear out of nowhere, the shears, the phone, the kids, the shears. Jenn slammed the door in Todd’s face and locked the other two bolts. “Hey!” Todd shouted and banged the door with the fist holding the shears. “I just want to talk!” he shouted, still banging the door. Jenn ran upstairs and tore through her father's old chest, desperately clawing around for the old 9-millimeter. Why would Todd want her children? Was he trying to get her alone? His wife was out of town, and he was always flirting just a bit too much.
She found the gun just as she heard glass shattering downstairs. She silently loaded and cocked it. As much as instinct told her to hide, she couldn’t, not with Jordan and Casey’s lives at stake. She crouched down, surveying the first floor from the top step. The kitchen door was completely obliterated, and Todd lay sprawled out on his chest. It had to be Jeremy. He took the kids and now he was back to take her. This can’t be happening, she repeated in her head over and over. She cracked. She couldn’t take the tension any longer. “What do you want from us?” she screeched down the stairs.
“Jenn?” she heard John shout back. “Oh god,” she cried out as she raced down the stairs. John stood in the living room facing the kitchen with his pistol drawn. She threw her left arm around him, keeping the gun out of sight. She wasn’t entirely sure if it was legal for her to have the weapon. “Todd was here, he’s not supposed to be and he had these big shears and I freaked out,” she wailed into his shoulder, “I think Jeremy was here, there’s blood everywhere-”
“Don’t worry, I showed up just as Todd broke the glass to get in through your kitchen door. I shot him; it wasn’t Jeremy,” he said stroking her hair.
“But... but I didn’t hear any gunshots,” Jenn said confused, thinking surely Todd had been stabbed. “Silencer,” said John, “I didn’t want to shake up the whole neighborhood if I didn’t have to.”
“Oh... right,” Jenn exhaled, “Are my children at his house? Did you find them? Was Todd even involved in that or does he just have amazing timing? Is he... is he going to be okay?”
“Sh, sh, sh,” John said, holding her tighter. You don’t have to worry about John or Jeremy or any other man ever again. I’ll make sure of it. Now, how about some dinner?”
Jenn pulled away, frowning, “John, I can’t exactly eat right now. My children are missing,” she began tearing up. John continued smiling. “How about, I could go with you and we could look together? You know, help the other guys you said are looking?” Jenn offered.
“Let them do their job, sweetie. They don’t need any help. These are professional police officers. We‘re going to find little Jordan and Casey.” Jenn stopped moving, trying to remember when she’d told him the names of her children. They went to the same high school together, but that was all. He didn’t know anything about her children. In fact, he hadn’t even asked for their descriptions to tell the dispatchers who to look for.
“We’ll get a big cheesy pizza,” he continued, “two flavors of ice cream and, hey, maybe we’ll even rent a movie to get your mind off of things.” Her heart dropped, her stomach flew into her throat, and her breathing grew short and shallow.
“John, how do the dispatchers know who to look for?” Jenn asked slowly.
“I told them what they look like, Jenny. You really need to calm down,” John said with a new note of seriousness to his voice.
“John, how... how do you know what my children look like?” Jenn asked, gripping the gun still hidden behind her back.
John’s smile faded and he took a step closer, his fists clenched. “That’s really not important, Jenny. Don’t you want your children to be found? Don’t you want them safe? Don’t you want your children back, Jenny?”
“Why do you keep calling me Jenny?”
“You ask a lot of questions,” John shouted, making Jenn jump. “That is what you liked to be called in high school, wasn’t it? When we still hung out? Before you met that freak, Jeremy, and cut me out of your life completely!”
“John, where are my kids?” Jenn shouted back.
“Jeremy’s children are none of your concern anymore!” John roared.
Jenn pulled the gun from behind her back and pointed it at John, shaking, praying she had loaded it correctly.
“Todd didn’t break the glass door, did he?” Jenn asked softly. “Did he?” she shouted.
“He was just another man that wanted to get to you,” John slurred lazily, unphased by the gun, as he plopped down on the couch. “You know, if you shoot me, you’ll never find them.”
Jenn felt her will slipping as she sobbed. “What do you want?” she whimpered.
“Sit,” John ordered, “and give me the gun.” Jenn did as she was told and collapsed into the armchair. “Did you even notice how much I cared about you in high school? I never stopped caring. I’ve been watching you and keeping you safe for years, Jenn,” John spat.
John continued his diatribe, relaying stories from high school that Jenn barely remembered. As he ranted, she noticed a light out of the corner of her eye. It was Crissy. She was home from her parents’ place. Please come here looking for Todd, Jenn thought to herself. Please, please, please. Jenn kept her eyes focused on Todd as she noticed Crissy crossing her backyard in her peripheral.
“I can keep you safe. No one will ever touch you ever again. Think of Casey. Think of little Jordan. I’ll keep them s—” John and Jenn jumped as Crissy’s screams interrupted them. She’d found Todd. Jenn seized the moment to snatch back the gun. John lunged for it, setting it off.
His face froze, his eyelids drooping. He’d taken a bullet straight to the gut. John staggered backward, crashing to the floor. Jenn ran to Crissy, who held Todd in her arms. He drifted in and out of consciousness. “There’s no time to explain! Please, I need to use your phone!” Jenn begged. She helped Crissy drag Todd to the front yard just as two officers screeched to a halt in their patrol cars. Four officers with guns drawn rushed toward the house yelling for Jenn and Crissy to lay down. Apparently, neighbors contacted police at the sound of the gunshot.
The officers didn’t immediately comprehend why one of their own was lying on Jenn’s floor after her children went missing; however, after hearing knocking coming from John’s patrol vehicle, they found Jordan and Casey unharmed in the trunk. John survived but was fired and sent to a psychiatric ward for counselling.