A few weeks passed after returning from the mountains. We told our story to family and a few friends that we saw… “Your spring break looked so fun! I can’t believe how much snow there was!” “Oh, it was great, except for this one part…” My friends at work are just used to my insane stories by this point…just another day for us.
Cosmo had been deteriorating; at 14 years old, he was moving less, eating less and seeming less like himself. He hadn’t slept through the night without needing to go out for months. I was used to his low growl and shifting around that signified I had better get up. I picked him up - he couldn’t reliably walk on the hardwood floors, and turned for the hall.
The light was on.
Scarlett’s light was on. That was never a good sign. Maybe she was coloring on the wall again, or had dumped all the houseplants again. Maybe she was on the trampoline again. I started looking. Not in her room. Not on the couch. Not in the bathroom, or the kitchen. Not on the trampoline.
Here we go again.
I yell for Chris. He comes running. We look on the side of the house and see it…the gate is open. DAMN IT. The gates have combination locks on them to prevent her from opening them. She has never gotten them open. Someone left it open. We run out and look in the front yard - nothing. Down the sidewalk - no sign of her.
Here we go again.
Chris grabs his keys and I grab the phone. I open the camera app and look for her last movements. She walked into the backyard around 11. She looked at the trampoline, looked around once, and ran to the side gate - how did she know it was unlocked this one time? She lifted the latch and went straight through, laughing. She walked out the sidewalk, and ran to the left down the street, and disappeared from view. It had already been over an hour, and we were only just starting to try to catch up to her.
I call 911 and start the same song and dance…me trying not to panic, trying to calmly describe what has happened and what she looks like. I don’t remember how tall she is or her most current weight. I realize then that she is wearing the exact same pajamas as the last time. They take the report, and since we are home, an officer is at the house within a few minutes. I text him the exact same photo I had used the last time - same pajamas, same hair. I quickly inventory her room; as far as I can tell, she didn’t take any shoes.
He checks the house, looks through her room and the closets. He flashes his light under the trampoline and around the shed. He tells me they have officers out looking.
At some point, another officer arrives. They talk to each other under their breath in the front yard, and he asks me the same questions again…and then asks if I have dental records.
Again, my TV and movie experience has taught me why police use dental records - to identify dead bodies. I catch my breath. My brain is screaming, “ARE WE IDENTIFYING A DEAD BODY?” Somehow I say they exist, but we don’t have them at home.
Do other people have those kinds of dental records at home? I have a lot of strange imaging - MRIs, 3d CT scans - but no dental records.
The officers eventually have everything they need from me and say they are going out looking. I see police cars pass our street every few minutes, search lights going down our small street. They come by, stop in front of the house, and then keep going. It was painfully quiet in the house. I had nowhere I could go - the younger kids were peacefully sleeping, and I was assigned to stay home “in case she came back” (which she has no way of doing). It felt wrong to scroll on my phone. I realized that no matter what happened, I would not be any shape to be functional at work in the morning, so I put in for a substitute for my class and tried to focus on writing somewhat coherent sub plans.
As we rehashed the night later, Chris told me what it was like for him this time around. He drove around our neighborhood looking for clues. He flashed his phone flashlight into parked cars. He searched the playground that we frequently visit, where he ran into suspicious police officers and had to explain who he was and why he was there. He drove around to the big furniture store around the corner and dug through the dumpsters of cardboard. He watched for anything suspicious, any clue that there was a reason to look closer. He saw nothing. Again, we texted back and forth, called every once in a while to hear each other’s voice and try to think of anything else we could do. At one point, I thought she might have taken her tablet - it looked like she was holding it in the video footage. If she had it, we could use the device tracker to find it. We began frantically trying to figure out which account and log in would allow us to track the device…only to hear the tablet alarm from her blankets.
Minutes and then hours passed. Sometime after 2am - she had been gone 3 hours already - I saw another police officer outside. I walked out to see if there was any update. It was the first female officer I had seen, and she was more gentle with me. She told me that, luckily, it was pretty quiet in the rest of the area, so they had the entire city department out looking, and had made a report again to the National Missing Children’s registry. Some kind of accomplishment to be on it twice in a month.
The officer then brought my attention to the sound that I had not noticed. A helicopter was approaching overhead. She said, “They're here for us.” A police car at the end of our street was signaling with lights to the helicopter team from the California Highway Patrol, and they were searching the neighborhood from above.
She then told me she would be looking in the yards up and down our street, just to be sure. I thanked her, and went back inside to sit and wait.
Not long after, I heard steps and radio voices on the porch. I opened the door before she could even knock. She was talking but her face told me they had found her. In her radio talk, I heard them talk about stopping the trains; she had been spotted on the Union Pacific tracks more than a mile from our house.
Here’s what I pieced together: Scarlett ran for several blocks with no shoes or jacket. At some point as she wound her way through the neighborhood, she reached the railroad tracks, and started to follow them.
One of the things the police had done in their search was to alert the unhoused people living in the vicinity. They showed her picture to some of their more reliable “sources” from the homeless encampments nearby. One of the people they contacted saw her. Several of the people she encountered along the tracks had tried to stop her, but she kept running. One man finally got her to stop, knew who she was from the description and contacted the police. She was cold, and he gave her his sweatshirt while they waited for the police to come. She was not hurt.. It had been almost 4 hours since she ran out the yard into the dark.
Has any child ever been so unlucky and lucky at the same time?
When the officer at the house described this to me, I was completely floored and in shock. I sat in the doorway shaking. I laughed. I swore. I called Chris to come back. The police had an emergency hold put on the trains; it is a busy section headed to the Oakland shipping piers, and trains pass regularly. Scarlett was retrieved by the police and brought home in the front seat of a police car. When the car pulled up, I looked through the windshield and saw her. She just smiled. When I opened the door, she said, “I’m so sorry” in her playful way. I carried her in to the couch to inspect her and see what needed to be done next.
She smelled like a combination of putrid sweat, urine and smoke thanks to the sweatshirt that had been given to her. She was totally unhurt - sore feet (NO SHOES!!), cold, but not a single cut or scrape. We went through the motions of calming her, warming her up, checking her over and trying to get her to tell us if she was hurt. The only things she said were, “I’m so cold,” and “I’m so sorry.” The police were visibly relieved and left us quickly once they saw that she was all in one piece. We promised, yet again, that we would add more safety measures to the house, and profusely thanked them for their help. I mentioned to the one officer how much I had appreciated her calm and understanding, since other officers had asked for dental records and in previous episodes, made comments about our poor parenting. She apologized for them unnecessarily, and reassured me that she saw what was happening and knew we had done what we could.
We gave Scarlett a warm bath and packed her into bed. Chris fell asleep, but I was up for the day. When morning came, we let Scarlett sleep but got the other kids off to school. I started searching and calling security alarm companies to see if anything could help. The technicians I talked to said they didn’t really have anything that would improve on the cheap magnetic alarms we already had; they could better protect from people getting in, but weren’t sure how to better secure us from having anyone leave.
We have upgraded our protective layers many, many times. When she first started opening doors to go out - even before she could walk, she would stand to open, then crawl out - doorknob baby guards stopped her. When she could stand and figured out the doorknob locks, we added chain locks to the top of the doors. When she figured out how to drag a chair over (or got help from a very sweet but misguided little brother), we added a spring-loaded security lock (the best so far, still unbreached) and a small, loud “bing bong” alarm to the front door. After this, we added a wireless doorbell to the back door and put the alarm box in our bedroom.
When she tried to climb the fence and pulled a large section of it down, we replaced the fence with taller panels. When she kicked out the old boards on the original gates, we replaced them with all new gates, and added the combination locks that she could not open. We added motion-sense cameras to the front door, driveway, backyard, and both sides of our 1200 sq. ft. house, as well as inside the kitchen. We give her high dose, extended release melatonin, by prescription, to help her settle into sleep more reliably; she often just entertains herself well into the early morning if we don’t catch her.
We have a Jiobit GPS tracker that we have her wear when we go out. We have notified every neighbor, school support, and every relative, though they have all been through it with us (or when they have tried to keep her on their own). When we are out, we are vigilant; anyone with us knows we have an eye on her at all times, check in with each other before one of us leaves the area, and will jump up and run if we think she has wandered.
And she still gets out. We live with the daily cacophony of noise if any door is opened, constant phone alerts for motion on our cameras, and a device we try to keep charged and on her, and she still gets out. Inevitably, something goes unchecked, batteries die or we just miss something once in a while. Nine times out of ten, she won’t do anything. We let our guard down unintentionally, and then it happens.
A few weeks ago, we found her at midnight, stuck on top of the fence. She had gone out - the batteries on the door alarm were out and we hadn’t noticed - and she found the ladder had been left out from tree trimming a few days prior. She carried the ladder, set it up and tried to climb over the fence, but got stuck. She was there for several minutes before her screams woke us (and somehow not our neighbors, whose bedroom window is equidistant.) We got her down, brought her in, and just wordlessly put her to bed.
When we have traveled since these events, we take the plug-in doorbell alarms with us. We use painter’s tape to attach them temporarily, and set up an alarm on every door. This worked well for hotels and rental houses across our road trip, in hotels for short stays and in the cabin at family camp. We often set up "boobytraps" of chairs or tables after she is in bed - at least to slow her down, maybe to deter her. When we went camping, both Chris and I had trouble sleeping, worried she would try to get out of our tent. We ended up using a twist tie from something to tie the zippers together so, if she did try to get out, at least she would likely be noisy and wake us up. She never once tried to get out on any of our recent trips, at least that we know of.
She remembers now. If we mention her running away, she knows it was bad. I think she remembers feeling unsafe, even if she is not sure why. She feels embarrassed and insists she won’t do it. But I don’t think that, when the opportunity presents itself, the past memory will stop her.
It is mentally and emotionally exhausting to be on high alert every night. Any sound in the night makes my heart race. We frequently get out of bed before falling asleep to do one last check. The first thing I do every time I get up is check her door. For now, we have enough safety nets that I can sleep. At some point in the future, I expect she will do it again, and we will be thrust back into the panic again. And, hopefully, we will find her.