The washcloth wiped away the dirt that was caked on her cheeks. Once her face was clean, I noticed her arms were covered in dirt too. “Can I wipe off your arms?” I asked. She nodded yes. It reminded me of when my dad worked in the construction business after a long day in the hot sun. This wasn’t the first time I had seen this young girl in such condition, but it was the first time I did something about it. I cleaned both of her arms, thankfully seeing no bruises, and tapped her nose when I was done to make her smile. Her feet were dark with dirt, no shoes in sight. I played it off like it was no big deal. She didn’t need to sense my concern. I was eyeing her hair, matted like a rat’s nest, wanting to brush it and offer her an Elsa braid. But I wasn’t sure how her parent(s) would have felt if I did this without their permission – a stranger brushing their daughter’s hair – so I didn’t offer.
“I’m thirsty,” the young girl said to her older sister as they were playing in my driveway.
“I’ll get water,” I offered.
When I brought water, both girls were thankful. “How old are you ladies?” I asked. They have played with my son and the neighbor boy off and on all summer, but I never really stopped to talk to them. My initial perspective of them was quite different than it is now.
“I’m seven. She’s four,” the older one said. She didn’t have dirt on her face nor her arms, but I noticed her clothes didn’t fit quite right.
“No I’m not. I’m five!” the little one exclaimed.
I’m not sure either of them knew their age because the seven-year-old looked to be eleven, and they couldn’t agree upon how old the younger one was.
“Are you hungry?” I asked, unsure of if they were going to be offered dinner once they went home. Perhaps I was wrongfully assuming.
“No,” the replied innocently.
The sun was quickly fading as they were finishing their water. Their mom pulled up across the road where the little one’s bike was laying on the ground. She got out and stomped over to my house. “What are you guys doing?! They weren’t supposed to leave. I turned around and they were gone!"
They had been playing with my son and the neighbor boy for about an hour.
“They’re just taking a water break from playing with the boys,” I answered for them, hoping they weren’t going to get in trouble. I could feel tension as we chatted. After a minute, the girls went with their mom.
While concerning thoughts still lingered in my mind, I reminded myself of what a police officer said a few months back. “Some people parent differently than others.”
I had called the local police department for many reasons that day. The reason that pushed me over the edge was when the older girl was chasing a little boy swinging a golf club at him that she had found in the dumpster nearby. She was swearing like a sailor, acting like a tough girl who was getting in a fight in the back alley of a bar. I didn’t know what to do and there were no parents around, so I called the non-emergent number. I couldn’t stand by and wait for these kids to get hurt and thankfully when the police officer arrived, the fighting stopped. Such a young girl was so familiar with violence and foul language; it hurt my heart, but at the time, I was upset with her. Think about it: it was so violent that I called the police on a (supposedly) seven-year-old.
Back to last night…
We stayed outside and as the sun disappeared and the moon took over the sky. After a bit, the older girl came back to my house on a broken scooter. “Have you seen my sister? She took off,” she said, implying that her sister ran away.
“She did? No, we haven’t,” I said, instantly standing up. My friend and I started looking around the neighborhood from my front yard.
“How come she ran away?” Maybe I was subtly prying. Maybe that was wrong to do. But something in me needed to know.
My question was never answered.
After five minutes of talking with the older one, we still did not see the younger one. My friend and I suggested she go home so her mom wouldn’t have two children to look for. We promised we would keep an eye out and direct her home if we saw her. After a prolonged and obvious hesitation, she finally went home. By this time, it was dark outside. Too dark for a four- or five-year-old girl to be out alone.
My friend and I sat down in our lawn chairs again while my son got himself a small bowl of ice cream. It was still over eighty degrees out, a beautiful night in September. “I hope she’s okay,” I said. We wondered why she ran away from home, but at the same time, we weren’t sure we really wanted to know. What I did know though was that this wasn’t the first time she’s run away from home.
I turned on a show on my phone for my son to watch while he enjoyed his ice cream. I told him I was proud of him for being nice to his friends and being a good boy that day. While we were enjoying the music of the crickets, the warm breeze, and the stars and moon, there was a sudden scream. It cut through the warm night’s air like a knife. It was the scream of a small child, the young girl. Sure, kiddos that age can be dramatic. But I can’t say that this young girl was being dramatic.
My son put down his spoon and turned his head toward the scream. It’s her, I knew he was thinking. My friend and I listened, but also tried to distract my son from hearing it by engaging him in conversation. After a while, I can’t say how long because my heart was hurting too much for me to acknowledge the length of time, the screaming stopped. Surely there were next door neighbors that would intervene if it was needed? We didn’t even know where their house was. Some people parent differently than others.
Was I glad the screaming stopped? I’m not sure. Maybe she was okay so stopped screaming. But maybe she was just inside the house. Maybe we couldn’t hear it anymore. Maybe she was afraid of something. Maybe she saw a spider. Maybe she was being dramatic…
It reminded me of a night last week when the mom was chasing the young girl around the neighborhood in her vehicle. The girl was on a bike weaving from the sidewalk to the road through the grass, trying to stay away from her mom. But why? It was like watching a movie, like a victim running from the bad guy. Except it was a young girl, not even in kindergarten yet. It pulled heart strings of mine I didn’t even know existed. When the mom caught up with the young girl that day, she stopped in the road, got out of her vehicle in a mad rush toward her daughter and screamed, “What the f*** are you doing?” at the little girl. She was crying as her mom picked her up and put her in the vehicle. We watched the mom drive away like a car from Fast and the Furious heading toward their home.
What a wakeup call these experiences have been. And maybe my perspective is inaccurate. But what would your perspective be? At first, I didn’t want these girls hanging out with my son because of the language they used. But now, I feel the need to protect them.
My hope is that their daycare providers and teachers pay attention and report concerns as needed. My hope is that the young girl simply came to my house after playing in the mud and played so hard that her hair was a disaster. My hope is that my perspective is wrong.
I’ll continue to show these two girls kindness. I’ll continue to welcome them to play in our yard, hoping they see how my son and I treat each other with kindness, respect, and love.
I’ll continue to be a safe space.
Of note, this is all true.