CRADLE WILL FALL - DANYAEL HALPRIN
It was Saturday morning, a little after seven o’clock. Panicked and bewildered, Andrea ran from the nursery into her bedroom. She raced around the king-sized bed to the side by the window where her husband was sleeping and threw back the light blue duvet cover. Chloe wasn’t there. “What are you doing?” her husband mumbled through half-open eyes.
Next, she sprinted down the hallway and burst into her toddler’s room. Chloe wasn’t lying in bed with her son either. She turned around and ran back to the nursery one room over. There was no way their six month-old baby could have climbed out of her crib, but Andrea still looked under the crib and in the closet. She let out a scream so loud, so primal, the sound of which was unrecognizable even to her.
It jolted Mark from his slumber and he came stumbling down the hall toward his wife. Andrea’s shrieking also startled Sam. He staggered out of his room and found his parents in his sister’s room. He was wearing yellow and navy truck print pajamas and one pant leg was hiked above his knee. “Mommy, what happened?”
By now, Andrea was hysterical. Her face contorted with fear and anguish. “She’s gone! Chloe’s gone!”
Mark reached into the white crib and lifted up the crumpled pink blanket. “I don’t understand,” Andrea wailed. “I heard her over the monitor five minutes ago.” A gentle spring breeze rustled the pastel green window curtains. Why is there a breeze in the room? she wondered. Her mind was cluttered and frantic and she couldn’t make sense of it. She hadn’t opened the window in Chloe’s room. It had only recently turned from winter to spring and there was still a chill to the night. Mark was thinking the same thing. He walked over to the window and swept the curtains aside.
Not only was the window open but the screen had been knocked out.
Once a family of four, the three of them huddled together on the floor in the master bedroom. Sam curled up in his mother’s lap and Andrea, embracing him tighter than ever, stroked his sandy brown hair while rocking him back and forth, back and forth. He kept asking where his sister was. He knew something was wrong. His sister wasn’t home and his parents were crying and making all sorts of phone calls. Mark and Andrea didn’t know what to tell him. They couldn’t very well convince him that everything was okay when they themselves weren’t certain of it.
“I need to report a missing person,” Mark spoke into the phone. His heart was pounding and his head was spinning but he tried to speak as clearly and slowly as possible. He couldn’t believe he had strung these particular words together. Andrea and Sam listened to Mark’s responses.
“Chloe Miranda Richardson. October 16, 2009. Six months and eight days. Brown hair and brown eyes. About 16 lbs. I’m not sure, hold on.” Mark turned to Andrea and asked what Chloe was wearing last night. Tears started streaming down Andrea’s face at the realization that Mark was providing the police officer with a physical description of Chloe, for one of those Missing Persons posters.
“Try and stay focused, Andrea. It could lead to someone spotting her,” Mark said, repeating the officer’s words verbatim.
The black, bolded words “Last Seen Wearing” possessed her, paralyzed her. It was Sam’s fidgeting with the belt at the waist of her pink velour dressing gown which broke her trance. She forced herself to concentrate. Closing her eyes, Andrea retraced her steps of the previous night. While Mark was getting Chloe’s bath ready, she’d stood in front of Chloe’s closet admiring her clothes. When Andrea’s girlfriends found out that she was pregnant with a girl, they’d started her layette months before Chloe was born. She was, without question, the best dressed baby in town. Andrea remembered moving along one plastic white hanger after another until she’d found the perfect pair of pajamas. There was still a nippiness in the air to these early April nights, so she’d wanted to bundle her up in something warm, cozy and cute, of course. “The orange bumblebee pajamas,” Andrea whispered.
Mark could barely get the words out he was sobbing so heavily. All he could think of was his precious baby girl dressed in her little bumblebee sleeper and some bastard was doing who knows what to her. When Mark ended the call, he took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. Sam had never seen his father cry. He buried his head into his mother’s chest.
Mark was in Sam’s room upstairs changing him out of his pajamas. As Andrea waited for the detective to arrive, she sat at the computer in the main floor office looking through photographs of Chloe from the last few months. The detective had requested a recent photo of her.
She printed a photo of Chloe that had been taken four days ago. She was wearing a light purple T-shirt with a cupcake on it and a denim skirt. A yellow plastic barrette pulled back her curly brown hair just above her left ear. Mark was crouching on the ground behind her to avoid being in the shot but you could still see his hands supporting her waist as she stood before the camera.
As Andrea stared into her daughter’s brown eyes, she asked herself again and again how, and when, someone could have broken into the nursery in the middle of the night. The baby monitor had been on, as it was every night, and Andrea had heard Chloe stirring in her crib throughout the night.
Chloe had been sleeping through the night since she was two months old. Her sleeping habits were the envy of all of Andrea’s friends who had babies. It was a blessing for which Andrea was immensely grateful. Everything was a huge learning experience when Sam was born but by the time Chloe came along, Andrea could distinguish the different types of cries.
When Chloe legitimately cried out for her at night, Andrea would go into her room to check on her. She might have to change Chloe out of her pee-soaked pajamas or pop the soother back into mouth. Otherwise she ignored Chloe’s whimpers and brief complaints throughout the night because after a few minutes she’d fall back to sleep. And last night had been a typical night. Andrea had heard Chloe wake up every few hours and then settle herself back to sleep.
All of a sudden Andrea felt her T-shirt become wet around her right nipple. She’d last nursed Chloe at 8 P.M. before putting her to bed, and she normally nursed her when Chloe woke up around 7 A.M. Was her breast leaking milk because her body was responding to her baby’s cries for hunger? There Andrea sat with two heavy breasts full of milk and no baby to feed. She began to weep.
Detective Warren Merrick spotted the address on the black metal mailbox, 272 Aurelyn Drive. He parked his unmarked car on the street in front of the Richardsons’ house. He made a mental note that the detached double garage was located at the back of the house. A wooden trellis framed the gate to the front yard. Andrea opened the front door before he had a chance to knock.
“Hello, Mrs. Richardson,” he said, extending his hand.
“How are you going to find her?” she blurted out, forgetting her manners in the wake of her desperation. Her hazel eyes were bloodshot and her pupils were extremely large. Detective Merrick took no offense. The exchange of pleasantries had no place in a child-abduction case.
“Shall we sit down?” he said, intimating that the front entrance was perhaps not the best place to have a discussion. They walked through the dining room and into the kitchen where Mark joined them a few minutes later. Detective Merrick removed his beige trench coat and draped it over the back of the kitchen chair. Crayon drawings of dinosaurs and cars were stuck to the white fridge with magnets. LEGO towers and buildings stood on a wooden table in the adjoining family room, and a half-completed puzzle of a train lay on the floor in the family room. These were good people, he concluded, feeling the love in the house.
Sam had been told to play in his bedroom while the adults talked downstairs. When he was sure no one was looking, he snuck out of his room and sat at the top of the stairs. He could hear almost everything.
“This is Chloe,” Mark said, holding the photograph. Though he extended the photo to the detective, he continued clutching it, as if letting go of the photo meant losing her again.
“Mr. and Mrs. Richardson.” The detective paused. “I need to ask you some questions.” Mark and Andrea reached for each other’s hands. He opened up his black leather notebook and inquired in detail about their daily routines, Sam and Chloe’s activities, the times of the activities and their locations. He wanted to know who their children played with, who their childcare providers were, and if any of their friends were having difficulty conceiving a baby.
Andrea began wondering about the nanny they’d hired to help them for the first two months after Chloe was born. Gina was her name. She’d been recommended by their friends’ cleaning lady. Andrea had really liked Gina. She was very sweet and nurturing to her children. But had she doted on Chloe a little too much?
Then there was that mother in Chloe’s music class who always pried her out of Andrea’s arms to hold her for a few minutes. Could it have been her?
The detective gave voice to her thoughts. “I need you to make a mental list all the people you interact with on a regular basis and think about whether anyone has ever acted strange around Chloe. Perhaps a little possessive of her. It might have been a fleeting feeling of uneasiness you had about this person. In the majority of cases, the abductor is known to the family.”
Detective Merrick then requested to look in Chloe’s bedroom. “I’ll take you,” said Andrea, pushing her chair away from the kitchen table. Sam coincidentally showed up in the kitchen just as they were finishing their conversation. No one had heard him come downstairs.
Andrea didn’t follow the detective into Chloe’s room. Instead, she remained at the edge of the room, leaning against the doorframe. Andrea glanced at the framed picture of an elephant that hung on the pale green wall above the changing table. The elephant’s trunk was up, which, someone once told her, symbolized good luck. She knew Detective Merrick was there to help them but the presence of a male stranger in her baby’s room made her feel violated, again. Moments after the detective began his search, Andrea was called away. “I need to go pee!” yelled Sam.
Andrea wanted to ignore him, because she wanted to be there if the detective found anything. Truth be told, she wanted to avoid all tasks and responsibilities that weren’t related to finding Chloe. But she knew she couldn’t do that. Sam needed the love and attention of his parents and right now he needed her help. Their three-year-old son was in the middle of toilet training.
Frankly, Detective Merrick was relieved. He preferred to conduct his investigation alone. Mr. and Mrs. Richardson had told him that they’d left the nursery as they’d found it this morning. He walked over to the open window and looked out. He immediately noticed the imprints of a ladder in the moist earth two stories below and lying a few feet from it was the discarded window screen, now bent and buckled.
He grunted a little as he knelt on the beige Berber carpet. It was getting harder for him to bend down these days. He was about fifteen pounds overweight and he was stiff from not exercising. Looking around the room on his hands and knees allowed him a different perspective. As expected, the carpet directly under the window was damp and splattered with specks of mud. But there were no footprints, because the bastard had had the foresight to wear Galoshes. A dusting of the window for fingerprints turned up nothing.
Working clockwise around the room, he now looked under the crib. There was a box of Huggies diapers under it. He tilted the box on its side. Two packs of diapers came sliding out and along with them a silver digital recorder. Right away he knew this was ominous. Call it intuition. The digital recorder could belong to the Richardson family. It was possible that their toddler had hid the recorder in the diaper box. After all, toddlers are renowned for relocating household objects. But he just had a bad feeling about it. He inched toward the bedroom door and gave it a light tap shut. Bracing himself, he pushed PLAY.
“The AMBER Alert is up and running,” said Detective Merrick. They’d reconvened at the kitchen table after he’d finished searching Chloe’s room. “By now, the media knows about Chloe, so if you’re thinking about making a public appeal then we should discuss what is best for you to say.” He wished with all his heart that he didn’t have to tell them about the recorder. He paused. “I found this, in the box of diapers under Chloe’s crib.”
Mark and Andrea looked at the digital recorder. They exchanged looks. “That’s not ours,” she snapped.
Detective Merrick chose his words carefully. “I’ve listened to it. There’s fourteen hours of recorded time on it. Most of the time, it’s just silence but every three hours there is a pre-recorded sound of a baby crying, or maybe fussing is the more accurate word, which lasts between five and twelve seconds.” Mark squeezed Andrea’s hand and covered his gasp with the other hand.
“I don’t understand!” Andrea exclaimed, pulling her hand away from Mark’s. She looked at her husband and then at the detective and then back at her husband again. “What does that mean? What does that mean?!” Her eyes were wide and wild.
Mark bowed his head and then looked up at his wife. “When we thought we were listening to Chloe on the monitor throughout the night, what we were hearing was a recording of a crying baby that played every few hours. Whoever took Chloe tricked us into believing that Chloe was fine and in her room when she’d actually been gone for hours.”
Andrea shot out of her chair and, holding her hand over her mouth, ran to the bathroom. Mark and the detective heard her vomiting into the toilet.
Back at the police station, Detective Merrick poured himself a cup of coffee in the staff kitchen. He exhaled loudly.
“How did it go today, Warren?” asked his colleague. He knew that he’d been at the Richardsons’ house earlier in the day. He also knew from working with Warren over the years that he needed to talk about his cases. It helped lessen the emotional stress and stave off the nightmares. Detective Merrick confided in his colleague about the digital recorder.
“That’s sick, man.” He shook his head in disgust. “Never heard of anything like that before.”
“There’s not going to be happy ending to this story. The bastard went to too much trouble to take the baby,” Merrick replied. “The abduction is way too premeditated.”
A week later, he was called to identify a baby that was found dead in the backseat of an abandoned car at an industrial site fifteen miles beyond the city limits. The car was a gold four-door 1997 Honda Accord. It was caked in dust and grime. Detective Merrick rubbed some dirt off the back passenger window with the elbow of his trench coat. He peered inside. He couldn’t see the baby’s face because the dirty windows were blocking out the sunlight, but he did see little bumblebees on the baby’s pajamas.
BIO: As a mother of two young boys, Danyael Halprin repeatedly asked herself how she could write a story about a child abduction. But the truth is, the story got into her head, dwelled there and the only way to exorcise it was onto the page. In addition to writing short stories, Danyael is a freelance writer based in Calgary, Alberta. From sipping cocktails in an ice lounge on a rooftop patio to sandboarding the dunes in Peru to describing her dog’s sex life, she writes eclectic lifestyle pieces for local and national publications.