THE MISSING CHILD – short story by Dr. Shahzad Rizvi
They were expecting their first child, so Bob and Bobbie decided to move out of the basement efficiency they were renting and find a place with a little more room, where they could create a nursery. They agreed that it would have to be something inexpensive. She was a cashier in a drugstore and he did the accounts for a small business. On a spreadsheet, Bob had calculated—almost down to the dollar—how much it would cost them to live after the baby arrived. He believed that they could do it on one salary, if the new rented place fit their budget. Every weekend, they looked in the papers, but couldn’t find what they were looking for. In the meantime, Bobbie was showing more and more.
Bobbie’s pregnancy generated interest among the female customers, especially the one who came to the store every week to get medicines for her ongoing illnesses. Bobbie went out of her way to be helpful to her. The two women often chatted. On Christmas Eve, Bobbie was working. When the woman came in, there happened to be no customers. Right away, Bobbie noticed that the woman was in bad shape. Without saying hello or anything, she began, “I get so depressed during the holidays. It was during this time that my sweetheart was killed in Vietnam. We were to get married when he came back. He did come back, but in a body bag. I feel so happy for you, with a touch of envy of course, that you have a husband and are expecting a child.”
Bobbie comforted her and in the conversation that followed, she told the woman about their problem of not finding a bigger place that they could afford. They didn’t know what they would do when the baby came.
“Why don’t you come and live with me? I can easily spare three, or even four rooms,” said the woman.
“But…but…the rent,” Bobbie managed to get out, as the baby inside her was kicking hard.
“Don’t worry about it,” said the woman, when they were interrupted by a customer.
That night, when they were together, Bobbie talked to Bob about their good fortune. “Don’t be stupid, Bobbie! People don’t go around offering three or four rooms to strangers to live in their house,” Bob blurted out.
Bobbie burst into tears and would not be consoled. “In all the years we’ve known each other, you’ve never talked to me like that,” she said through her wailing. It was true that their harmony had been legendary among their relatives and friends. They finished each other’s sentences and one always knew what the other was thinking. They were elementary school sweethearts and graduated from the same high school. People always mentioned them in tandem—B&B. Neither was ambitious and they both wanted the same thing from life: to make an honest living and raise a good family. Bob regretted his thoughtless comment, but then he was not expecting such a strong reaction, either. He attributed their heightened emotions to the pregnancy for which neither had been prepared.
“Honey, shall we go and look at the house this weekend?” he asked.
Bobbie wiped her tears and said, “Sure, dear.”
“Do you know where this woman lives?”
“Not exactly, but I have her phone number. I can call her tomorrow and find out.”
“What’s her name, anyway?”
“I’m sorry I talked to you that way.”
“Don’t worry about it.” They cuddled as best as they could under the circumstances before drifting off to sleep.
It was a Sunday when they finally found the house after making a wrong turn and getting lost. Adjacent to a federal park and surrounded by plenty of land, the house looked like a little mansion. Sarah was waiting for them on the porch and greeted them by saying, “You two look like twins: same blond hair, same blue eyes, same Nordic features and same height.”
“That’s what everybody says,” responded Bob, and shook Sarah’s hand warmly.
“I don’t believe any introductions are in order because Bobbie has talked so much about you that I feel like I know you well,” said Sarah.
“I feel the same way about you, Sarah,” responded Bob.
Seeing them look around the house, Sarah said, “This house was built by my grandfather who was a wealthy builder. He left it to my father who was his only child. My father left it to me. He also left a trust to pay the property tax and my support.”
“How many rooms do you have?” Bob asked.
“Ten, but I only use five. The rest of the rooms remain closed. You’re welcome to use the rest.”
“I don’t think we can afford this fancy house,” Bob said.
“Look, I’m not doing this for money. I don’t have to. I’m doing it for your company. I feel so lonely out here. I want to be done with mourning the death of my sweetheart and my parents, and living the life of a recluse.”
Bob and Bobbie followed Sarah to see the rooms. Every one of them had antique furniture and memorabilia of past lives. Their size, high ceilings and opulence were overpowering. It would be quite a switch from basement living in an efficiency, but they figured they could get used to it quickly. They looked at each other and expressed joy at this windfall.
“I’m embarrassed to ask, but could we pay you what we are paying for the efficiency?” Bob asked.
“If you want. I’m treating this as if my sister who is expecting a baby were moving in with me. This will give me a chance to talk to someone all day long and play auntie.”
“We can’t argue with that. But what are those openings in the corners of every room?” Bobbie asked.
“Those are the passages for the dogs and cats to run around all over the house. We had many of them at one time until I found out I was allergic to them. I can’t have birds, either. I’m allergic to their feathers. They make me sneeze like crazy. It’s a shame because I like animals and I particularly love exotic animals. I do very well with them, but they frighten people. So, if I ever have them, I don’t let people see them.”
Both Bob and Bobbie wondered what animals she was talking about and whether or not she had any concealed. They pictured elephants, giraffes, lions, hippos and kangaroos—animals that could frighten people—but of course that was silly. Neither pressed the issue. They left, thanking Sarah over and over again for her generosity. Throughout it all, she kept protesting that she was doing it for herself.
When Bobbie’s water broke and her labor contractions were three minutes apart, Bob was in the air thousands of feet above the ground, somewhere over Kansas. He was returning from a business trip in California. Apparently, the baby had decided to arrive early, throwing off their careful calculations. Bob and Bobbie had attended Lamaze classes together, and Bob had every intention of being present in the delivery room. But now, as things stood, the matter was literally up in the air. Sarah offered to drive Bobbie to the hospital, and be with her in the delivery room. When the baby was born, it was a boy. Bob and Bobbie had opted out of prenatal testing, so the baby’s gender was a pleasant surprise. Sarah was one of the first to see and hold the baby. Bob finally arrived, regretting having missed the experience of his son’s birth. He vowed that he would never be late for his son’s birthdays. They named their son Robert and, rather than calling him Bob, decided to call him Junior.
Bobbie quit work to stay home with the baby. After Bob left for work, which was usually early since he had a long commute, Sarah, Bobbie and Junior would spend the day together. Sarah became so fond of Junior and fussed over him so much that people took her to be his grandmother. It was amazing how skillfully she handled him, considering that she had never had a child of her own.
One day, Sarah announced that she would be going away for a yoga retreat. It would just be overnight. “I don’t like to be gone for a long time,” she said. “And you don’t need to bother about my part of the house. I’ll just lock it.” Although Bobbie spent almost every day with Sarah, she had never seen her side of the house—except for one room. Of course, Bobbie was curious, as was Bob, but neither was in a hurry. They knew that someday they would have a chance to see it. Bobbie was in the bathroom with cramps and an upset stomach when she heard Sarah’s voice saying, “Good-bye,” followed by the car driving away.
When Bobbie came out of the bathroom, she heard thunder and it started to pour. As the weatherman had predicted, the tentacles of a hurricane were obviously reaching this far North. She was surprised that the baby was sleeping through all that noise. Realizing that she was alone in such a big house with the baby, a chill ran down her spine.
She needed to do laundry. She was completely out of clean clothes. It would be a shame to disturb the baby, she thought, to take him down to the basement where the washer and dryer were. She never had a problem of that kind when Sarah was around. She took care of the baby so well. Why did she have to go away…especially in this weather? Maybe I can leave the baby undisturbed for just a few minutes, she thought. She decided to lock the nursery where he was sleeping, just to be on the safe side.
As she descended the stairs with the laundry basket, she saw that rainwater had begun flooding the basement. She had no idea what she was supposed to do in a situation like this. There were some expensive antiques stored there. They’ll be all ruined, she feared. She picked up a bucket and began to scoop the water, but then realized that she had no idea where she could dispose of it. The best thing would be to put the precious items out of harm’s way, she thought and began to pile them on top of each other.
Through all this running around, her cramps came back and she had to run to the bathroom. Fortunately, there was a bathroom in the basement. She was in the middle of dumping her clothes in the washing machine when she heard a loud clap of thunder. It heightened her concern for her baby and she hurried upstairs. At the door, she realized that she had left the key in the basement. She ran back downstairs and found the water steadily rising. But where did I put the key? It was nowhere to be found. She ran back upstairs and kicked at the door as hard as she could. The door flung open, but the crib was empty. The baby was gone. She let out the loudest scream, while cold terror gripped her. First, she looked for him all around the nursery, then ran from room to room looking for him. Her screams were muffled by the noise of thunder and heavy rain.
With shaking hands, she picked up the phone and punched the numbers to call her husband. She dialed the wrong number. When she tried again, she got his voice-mail. She was sure that he was on his way home; but she couldn’t reach him. In a hurry this morning, he had left his cell phone. She decided to dial 911. When a woman’s voice came on the line, she blurted out, “My child has been kidnapped!” Within minutes, the police were on the scene.
When Bobbie told them that she had locked the room before going down to the basement to do her laundry, the police officer began to concentrate on Sarah. It had to be someone who knew that the baby was there; someone who had the key to get in. “But Sarah left earlier for her retreat,” she told the officer. The policewoman wanted to pursue the matter, anyway. She questioned, “How did you find this place? How long have you lived here? What is Sarah like?” The officer went to her cruiser and checked the crime database. Sarah’s name popped up. She had taken someone’s child home and had taken a long time to call the police. She had later explained to the police that the child she’d found wandering in the adjoining Federal Preserve was hungry and drenched from heavy rain. She had thought that she would dry him and feed him first before calling the police. In the meantime, his parents were frantic, while the police were searching for the child everywhere. The charges against her were dropped at the parents’ insistence.
The police put out an All Points Bulletin for Sarah. When Bob finally arrived home after having been slowed down by traffic congestion caused by the recent storm, his theory was that Sarah had returned home to get something she’d forgotten when Bobbie was struggling with her upset stomach in the bowels of this huge mansion and, on finding the baby unattended, took the baby with her to keep him “safe.” It would be a very strange thing to do, but it was a possibility in view of her having done something like this before. “There’s no reason to panic and expect the worst,” he told Bobbie, who was weeping and shaking uncontrollably.
The next day, the baby’s disappearance was front-page news in the Capital Post. The rookie reporter, in his freshman journalistic enthusiasm, mentioned the mysterious disappearance of the Lindbergh baby in the story. Lindbergh was a celebrity at the time, which of course Bob the accountant was not, so how the two stories were parallel was anybody’s guess. There was no sign of Sarah, whose return was expected. The FBI got involved and Special Agent Donovan was assigned to the case. Donovan arrived at the scene and—on finding the broken lock of the door from where the baby had been “kidnapped”—was told that Bobbie herself had broken the lock to reach the baby. He wanted to interview the neighbors, but there were no neighbors except for the Park Rangers in the adjoining federal land. They seemed to be familiar with the case of the lost child in the park, as well as the recent disappearance of the baby—both instances in which Sarah’s name was mentioned. Beyond that, they didn’t know anything about her, though they could hardly miss her big beautiful mansion that stared at them every day, as they went about their business.
On the third day, when the rain let up and the sun came out, a state trooper spotted Sarah speeding, arrested her and handed her over to the FBI. During intensive interrogations, she not only repeatedly expressed ignorance about the whereabouts of the baby since she’d left home for the retreat, she broke down and expressed her grief over his disappearance. She had really come to love him very much, she told Donovan. In regard to her unaccounted time, she said that she was the last one to leave the cabin in the remote wilderness where they’d held the yoga retreat, and was trapped on the little dirt road which was flooded and blocked by fallen trees. There was nobody there to help her, so she’d slept in her car and lived on chips and crackers that she kept in her car for emergencies. It was a plausible story, but there was no one to confirm her alibi. The circumstantial evidence was enough to keep her under lock and key.
Special Agent Donovan was sitting in his office in the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, looking through the window at the Capitol’s shining dome and feeling helpless about the case of the kidnapped baby. The media had given it so much hype and it had become such a high profile case, that not solving it would be tantamount to professional suicide. He could see himself being hauled before a Congressional Committee to testify and being harangued by congressmen or senators for having failed. He was startled from his unpleasant reverie by the loud ring of his telephone. He immediately picked up the receiver and shouted into it, “Hello…Donovan.”
A park ranger was on the other end of the line, asking him to come immediately.
When he arrived on the scene, there were many people gathered around a table in the ranger’s office. On the table, to his great surprise and confusion, was a python.
“Did you pull me out of my office to see this snake?” he asked, as the round of introductions began. The ranger told Donovan that he’d found this python during his rounds, which surprised him very much because there were no pythons native to the park. “Snakes, yes, but no pythons,” he said. So, he called the reptile expert of the National Zoo who identified it as an East Asian Python. “It had to be someone’s pet and somehow it got out of the home where it was kept. There are no private homes around here, except that mansion. There’s a bulge in the middle of the python’s body. It has swallowed some creature and by feeling it, I cannot identify any of the usual animals that would be fed to it. I’m sorry to say that it could very well be a human baby,” said the reptile expert.
“Oh my God!” Donovan gasped. He called the prison, identified himself and asked to speak to Sarah.
They all remained frozen in their places, as Donovan waited. It took Sarah a long time to get to the phone. Finally, he heard an almost inaudible woman’s voice: “Hello, this is Sarah.”
He barked into the little phone, “This is Special Agent Donovan. Sarah, do you have a python for a pet?”
There was a long silence, and then he heard a feeble, “Yes.”
He shouted, “Where do you keep it?”
After a long pause, through her sobs, he heard what he thought was, “In a cage.”
Donovan terminated the call and pocketed the phone. “Excuse me, you all. Please keep an eye on the python and don’t let it slither away. I’m going to that house to get to the bottom of this matter.”
When Donovan arrived at the mansion, he did find the cage in which Sarah kept the python. It was open. But how in the world could the snake go through so many rooms and end up in the nursery? That room, as Bobbie had told him, was locked. A python needs more than a crack in the door to enter. It was baffling. As he stood in the middle of the room, examining every part of it, he spotted the passage in the corner. “That’s the answer,” he shouted and ran from room to room, finding passages in every one of them. Of course, they’d been created for dogs or cats. Nobody foresaw that a hungry python would get out of its cage, slither from room to room in search of food, arrive in a baby’s nursery, swallow the baby, and then escape the house to end up in the adjoining forest. In her hurry, Sarah had failed to secure the latch of the cage.
Bob and Bobbie lived in a nice apartment now. Bob had been promoted and they could easily afford it. Bobbie was pregnant again and thoughts of the new baby’s arrival were helping to soften her grief over the loss of Junior. The pregnancy was going well. This time, they decided to do prenatal testing. They were both very excited at the prospect of having a little girl. Bob was thinking of all the ways that he was going to spoil her.
Sarah had sold the mansion to a developer, who had torn it down and replaced it with a high rise. She was truly sorry for what had happened. She was in therapy. Charges against her had been dropped, and Bob and Bobbie had found it in their hearts to forgive her. They were friends again. She had set up a trust for the baby from the money that she had received by selling the mansion. She had been out with Donovan, who’d been promoted. They were talking of getting married. “But no exotic animals,” he told her firmly. It was like preaching to the choir. She’d been forever cured of her love for exotic animals.
One Saturday night, savoring their current blissful existence, Bob and Bobbie were lying in bed. “Honey?” he began.
“The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
“I know…but what do you mean?”
“Junior had Krabbe disease.”
“What’s Krabbe disease?”
“It’s an enzyme deficiency. Babies with Krabbe disease usually die a slow and painful death before they’re two.” Bobbie became very still and didn’t speak for a while. Bob turned toward her and put his arm around her. Tears welled up and ran down her face. She was staring off into space. Her voice barely audible, she said, “How long have you known, and how come you never told me before?”
“Oh, honey. Maybe I was wrong, but I wanted to protect you. When we did the genetic testing for the new baby last month, the pediatrician told me that we parents carry a genetic risk for Krabbe’s. Our daughter’s doesn’t have it. The tests clarified something for the doctor, though. He had begun to suspect Krabbe’s in Junior, and was planning to discuss it with us at our next visit, but then…you know what happened. There wouldn’t have been anything he or we could do, anyway. The doctor told me that the only hope for Krabbe may someday lie in stem cell research, but that’s still a long way down the road and it would have come too late for Junior.” Bob choked with emotion.
Bobbie turned toward him and put her arms around him. “So you’re saying that God took the baby back which was not made right and sent a healthy one in its place?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. And who are we to question the ways of God?”
Information compiled by Muslim Saleem
Muslim Saleem reciting his ghazals at Jashn-e-Muslim Saleem at MP Urdu Academy, Bhopal on December 30, 2010.
From Left) Zafar Naseemi, MP Urdu Academy Chairman Saleem Qureshi, Dr. (Barqi Azmi, Prof Afaq Ahmad, Dr. Qasim Niazi, Muslim Saleem.