“Lisa! Hurry! She’s doing it again!” Jack called to his wife. He ran over to the balcony. It was almost midnight and the sliding glass door was closed, curtain drawn. “Hurry up! I think it’s getting serious this time!” He reached around the curtain and unlatched the lock. Gently, he pulled it open an inch. The door hitched and caused the wind chime hanging on the handle to clank to life.
He grimaced and quickly silenced it; cursing mother-in-law for the re-gift.
“Okay—okay! I’m coming! It’s not like we can’t hear it anytime of the day,” she said sidling up next to him. The scent of honeysuckle engulfed him as her hair draped itself over his shoulder. She squeezed her face next to his by the gap in the curtain. “I don’t understand where she gets the energy from. Morning, noon and night—let alone the cruelty,” she said lowering her voice so she wouldn’t be heard through the crack.
“I think there are three of them,” he whispered to her.
“Three? Oh my god. This is awful. Did she use names?”
“Yeah—I think the second one is Jackson and the third might be a baby.”
“No! A baby? What makes you think it’s a baby?” she whispered in disgust.
“Because she screamed and cursed at it to go get a clean diaper.”
“We have to do something honey. We can’t let this keep going on. Can you imagine our little Brandon in that situation—being subjected to browbeating all day and night, with no reprieve? Just picturing his sweet little face in my mind brings tears to my eyes and enrages me all at once.” She shifted around him to get a better view of the windows next door. Both upstairs bedroom windows were open; shades pulled down within a couple inches of the sills. The pale light from behind made the windows come alive like eyes peering through slanted lids, saying ‘mind your business.’
“I don’t know what else to do,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “DYFS said they couldn’t investigate without evidence of physical abuse. They said it’s within a mother’s rights to scold her children.”
“I just don’t understand. This is more than scolding. Did you tell them we taped an entire afternoon of the screaming? They need to hear her habitual ranting and raving at these children.”
“They wouldn’t listen to the recording,” he shrugged, again.
“What do you mean?” Her face twisted up in disbelief.
“They told me they had no way of listening to the recording. The woman said that it would be noted in their system for future records and that we should call the police when it happens.”
“You got to be kidding me? How could they note it in their system? We don’t even know her name! Did you explain we’re not just crackpots complaining about noisy neighbors? And that there is a serious issue going on here?”
“Yes, honey and ah—yes. The girl even put me on hold and checked with her supervisor. I felt like a fool when I told her that I’ve never even seen the children, just heard them. I even pleaded with her to let me text or email the recording to her personally—just so she could hear what I’m talking about,” he said brushing his wife’s hair back so that she would face him. “She wouldn’t budge,” he said shaking his head. “She said that the complaint is on file with the address and it’s searchable with that alone. I would’ve even put the recording up to the phone, but it’s on the app on my phone. If there was ever a time I wish we had a land line….” He let go of her hair and shook his head again. “I know if I could just get them to listen to the torment these children endure all day long, then they’d see they have a case here.”
“We have to call the police—it’s just cruel Jack. Those poor kids are being browbeaten and screamed at all day. It’s no wonder we hear about Columbine incidents in the news every other day. These children are being taught nothing but hatred and resentment. It’s total mental abuse! Maybe you should’ve lied—just a little white lie—said they were being beaten. For all we know it could be happening. Hell—it’s probably less abusive than the mental torment.”
“Li, you know I can’t do that,” he said, resting his hand on her shoulder. “Even if I did, they’d probably say the same thing when they saw nothing on the kids.”
She pulled away from him, letting his hand fall. “You don’t know that!” she snapped. “Maybe she is hitting them. We hear the little boy crying all the time. At least they’d go in and check.”
“Babe, the sad thing is—I think he’s crying because she’s always yelling at him.”
“All the more reason to get involved! What if this was happening to Brandon? Wouldn’t you want someone to help—to intervene?” she asked, looking him eye to eye. “I don’t hear any father over there and the next townhouse is too far away to hear what’s going on. We may be all these children have. We have to do something honey. We just have to!”
Jack looked at his beautiful, caring wife. Her propensity for morality was one of the reasons he fell in love with her. The streetlight was weighing heavy on her face from the gap in the curtain. The distress from the situation made her thirty-something seem more like fifty-something. He knew she was right, but he didn’t know what else to do.
A twinkle in her eye caught his attention as her big browns welled up with tears. He couldn’t stand seeing her upset like this. And more so, he couldn’t stand the tragedy next door. “Okay. I’ll call. It’s all I can do,” he said with a final shrug.
The next day the doorbell rang. Officer Rodgers was standing on the stoop in his crisp blue uniform and hat. Jack explained the situation, while Lisa stood by ‘uh-huhing’ and ‘mm-hmming’ while he spoke.
After the officer listened to a bit of the recording, he was in agreement that the behavior of the mother was unacceptable. He reassured them that they did the right thing. Despite the cruiser in front of their townhouse, the officer promised anonymity and reassured them he was going to investigate the situation and check on the welfare of the children immediately.
They watched officer Rodgers walk over to the neighbor’s townhouse. His badge gleamed from the afternoon sunlight with each knock on the door. Jack noticed the right bedroom window shade was all the way down now, like the house was winking at him.
While the officer waited for an answer at the door, the mother started screaming in the upstairs bedroom. “Angelina! Get over here! Someone’s at the door! Angelina! I said get yo’ ass over here! Bring me my slippers! Bring them!” A little boy started to cry in the background. “Jackson! You lil’—JACKSON! Shut yo’ lil’ mouth!” But, mama? Mama I— “SHUT IT! Shut it I said! AND sit down! SIT DOWN!” A baby started to wail uncontrollably. “Stop moving! QUIET!” Silence. “You don’t move until I say so! Stop moving! WHAT’S GOING ON? Jackson what’s that noise about? Where are those slipper Angelina? I said WHERE ARE THEY!”
“I hope we’re doing the right thing,” he said to Lisa.
“Excuse me?” She gave him sideways glance. “Are you deaf? Don’t you hear that? Of course we are. The cop even said so. How could you think we aren’t?”
“I know. I know that—but what happens to the children if they take them away. Will their lives be better in foster homes? Separated from each other?”
“Honey, what else can we do? We didn’t create this situation. She’s crazy! You hear her—she screams at them all day and night like a lunatic. No one, let alone innocent children, should have to endure that kind of abuse. We’re doing the right thing and I don’t even care if she knows we called.” She crossed her arm over her chest. “I’m not gonna pretend that I know anything about the system, but foster care has to offer a better life than that!” she said pointing to the window.
As they waited on the porch to see what happened, an ice cream truck was passing through the parking lot. Maddening music blared through mock ice cream cone speakers as children ran out from carports and from in between parked cars like mice to the Pied Piper.
“Mommy? Daddy? Can I get a Rocket Pop? Pleeeeease?” Brandon’s head was peaking out from the front door. “I finished all my home work Mommy, well almost. Daddy needs to help me wiff math. Dividing is hard. Can I get a Rocket Pop? Can I? Can I Pleeeeease?”
Jack fished out a five-dollar bill from his pocket. “Only if you can tell me how much change you should get back from this five-dollar bill,” he said holding up the bill.
“Okay! Gimme a sec—lemme—think. Ummm—Rocket Pops are three-dollars and fifty cents,” he said, looking up towards an invisible black board, tongue hanging out the corner of his tiny mouth.
“Remember how I showed you?” Jack said, snapping the bill taut.
“Ummmm—Fifty cents would make it four-dollars and—I got it! I got it! I should get one-dollar and fifty cents back!” he blurted out, jumping up and down.
“That’s awesome buddy! High five!” Jack said, as Brandon slapped his hand, snatching the bill.
“Thanks Daddy!” he said, as he pushed past them and made a b-line for the truck.
“It’s great to see parents teaching their kids values these days.” Officer Rodgers said, startling them both. He’d come back from the neighbor’s townhouse and was standing back at their stoop. “I want to thank you both for being good, concerned parents and for promptly reporting what you heard, but I want to assure you that everything is fine. Your neighbor has agreed to keep it down.”
“But—but what about the children?” Lisa said, shaking her head in disbelief.
“Again, ma’am,” he said pulling down on the brim of his hat. “I assure you, everything is fine. If you hear anything again, please don’t hesitate to call us. Have a great afternoon folks.” Officer Rodgers turned from their stoop and headed back towards his cruiser.
“But, but how can you—why won’t you? You can’t be for real? How can you just turn a blind eye and walk away from—“
Jack cut her off, “Li, baby. Stop! That won’t do any good. I told you what would happen.”
“I don’t care!” she shouted. “Something has to be done!” She started down the steps after the officer, but Jack grabbed a hold of her arm.
“Lisa! Get hold of yourself before Brandon sees you. Do you want to end up in jail?”
She yanked her arm back, watching the cruiser pull away from the curb and shouted, “It isn’t fair!” Then she turned on Jack, “And before you start preaching to me about life not being fair—these are innocent children we’re talking about! What freakin’ system says a mother has the right to scream at and belittle her children? Life is freakin’ hard enough. Just because they’re your children doesn’t give you that right!”
“We’ve done all we can Li. Let’s just go inside,” he said, taking her arm and pulling her into him. “It’ll be okay.”
“How can you say that?” she asked, resisting his comfort. “I won’t be able to sleep knowing what’s going on in there.”
“Let’s just get Brandon and go back inside. Tomorrow I’ll call DYFS and speak directly to the supervisor. I’ll even use your phone so they’ll have no choice but to listen to the recording. I promise, I won’t stop until they at least—“
“What? I don’t hear anything? Is she starting again?”
“Where’s the ice cream truck?”
“Aaahh—I don’t know honey,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “I guess it’s gone. You feenin’ for a cone?”
“Where’s Brandon!” she said, pushing away from him. “I don’t see the truck anywhere and he didn’t go back in. Oh my god. Jack?”
“He’s probably just playing with some kids. Calm down, we’ll look for him.”
They searched the entire neighborhood. They even went back and checked their townhouse to make sure he hadn’t doubled back and went in. Brandon was nowhere in sight.
“This isn’t like him,” she said, getting frantic. “He never goes anywhere without asking! Ohmygod—ohmygod—where is our little boy. Jack, what are we going to do? We have to find him,” she said desperately pulling at him.
“Babe we’ll find him. Calm down,” he said, more for his benefit than hers. “It’s only been twenty minutes; he couldn’t have gotten that far. Let’s run up, grab my phone and call the police back.” As he started up the porch, he noticed the neighbor’s shade pulled all the way back down again. He turned to Lisa, but she was already on her way. He jumped off the porch and ran after her.
“So help me god, Jack. If she’s even touched a hair—“
“Hold up Li!” he said, blocking her path. “Wait! Let’s not start thinking irrationally. We can’t just barge up in there!”
“Irrationally? Really? The woman’s a nutcase! Are you telling me it’s against the law to knock on her door and ask if she’s seen Brandon? Our son has disappeared and if he’s in there; so am I!” she said sidestepping him.
“Time-out!” he said, cutting her off again. “Take a ten second breather, calm down, act rationally and we’ll knock civilly on the door and question her. We just called the cops on her and I’m sure she knows it was us.”
“Exactly! Do you think it’s a coincidence that our son goes missing right after that? Is that enough rationale for you? We’re wasting time! We tried the right thing and look where that got us. Now either get out of my way or come with me! Your choice!”
He couldn’t deny it—she was right. Brandon didn’t know any children in the neighborhood; he was a shy boy. All his play dates were arranged and never outside the house unattended by an adult. The chances of him walking off and playing with children he didn’t know were slim to none—heavy on the none. “Let me do the talking. I will handle this. You can’t go flying off the handle. Do we have a deal?”
“I’m not making any promises.”
Her fiery passion was another reason why he fell in love with her. “Let’s just find Brandon honey.”
“My number one intention,” she said walking, around him.
As they walked up the steps, they both noticed the door was ajar. Jack went to knock and Lisa caught his arm in mid air. “No one leaves their door open by accident. We do this my way.”
Before he had a chance to protest, she pushed her way into the foyer. It was dark and she turned around and motioned for him to be quiet. He wasn’t too sure of the law, but they were now guilty of the latter half of breaking and entering. It was too late to turn back now; he had no choice but to play it out.
As they crept further into the house, they heard children’s laughter from upstairs. Step by step they carefully climbed up into the darkness of the hallway. If they were wrong and quiet enough, they could just sneak back downstairs and exit unnoticed. Either way, they had to hurry. The more time that passed, the less the odds were for finding him. Time was crucial in missing children cases.
“I think I hear him!” she said, at the top of the stairs.
At the end of the hallway stood the bedroom door. Light circled it like a halo. Sounds of laughter grew louder as they tiptoed closer.
“What do you think is going on in there?” he asked.
“I—I don’t know,” she said, stopping at the door, listening.
“Angelina? Wouldn’t you be so kind an’ pass’s our new friend a teacup and saucer?” Yes mother, I’s is delighted. “Jackson chile? Be a gent and introduce yo—self to ours guest.” I’m Jackson, Mr. Brandon. And I’m pleased to meet’in your acquaintance. You’ve met my sista, Angelina. And this be Percy; he’s one and a half. He’s still crawlin’ bout, but wes imagine he be up and walking any day now. Isn’t that right mother? “That’s right—nice Jackson.”
“A tea party?” Lisa said, horror reflecting in her eyes. “She’s crazier than we thought!” Without another second wasted, she burst through the door.
“Whys you must be Brandon’s parents! Childes! Say hello to Brandon’s parents!” she said, as her mouth went slack, quivering slightly: Hello Mr. and Mrs. Brandon parents! Nice to meet you.
Lisa and Jack stood there in astonishment. Brandon was seated at a children’s table set with a play tea set. His lips were purple from the Rocket Pop and he was grinning from ear to ear with the Popsicle stick hanging out of his mouth. Seated to his right were two dolls: A girl doll that resembled Raggedy Ann and a larger Buddy Lee boy doll. Next to that stood a highchair with a black Cabbage Patch doll sitting in it. The woman was spooning imaginary food into its mouth as she spoke.
“Leroy says I never discipline my chilren’ enuff. I think he’s wrong. What do you think Jackson?” I think you discipline us proper mama. Daddy gone come back any day now. Jackson’s right mama, you knows what’s best for us. A baby cooed in the background.