“My daddy always picked me up at the bus stop.”
I was surprised by a tiny voice saying that, in the cramped corridors of the crappy apartment complex my brother used to live in. The girl was like a cornered kitten in every way. I asked her age and she told me she was 10, but seemed smaller.
I asked her if she was with someone, and she told me she was alone. I crouched down to her eye level and gently told her I would get her home then. If this happened three years ago, I’d just drop the kid by the local police department and go on with my life, having fulfilled my minimum role as a citizen. But I guess being a mother really softens you.
Right now, my 2 years old boy was two states away with my husband and I thought about how much I would want a kind stranger to find him and retrieve him safely if we ever lost him. I was traveling alone for the first time in years, since it wasn’t a family-friendly kind of thing; being the only relative my brother had left in the country, it was up to me to go through his stuff and arrange that he was buried properly.
Dean and I were never close. He was five years older and always hung out with the wrong crowd. I felt bad that he had died by overdose at age 42, but at the same time, it was surprising he got this far. He started early.
My brother was always working dead-end jobs and asking us for money when he couldn’t keep them, which was at least thrice a year. When we wouldn’t help him, he would be aggressive. Our parents and other two siblings live in another continent and cut contact with him years ago.
His apartment was tiny, dirty, and all his belongings fitted in a single box. He had no TV or such devices and clearly had been sleeping on the floor in his last days. Dean probably sold all his possessions for his last dose of drugs.
I was already finished and ready to leave, so I got the girl and we started making our way downstairs. It was weird that a child was alone in a place like that, but she seemed sad and scared enough, and I didn’t want to be snoopy. If I can get her to trust me, or if she needs help with something else, she will probably tell me, I thought.
In the ground floor, I met the middle-aged, evil-looking landlord again. He was punching a young man for not paying the rent in the last three months, but paused to call me a bitch again. “I can’t fucking believe I had to find your fucking brother’s body. The fucking smell! It should be you since you’re family, you fucking bitch. Hope you got all his fucking crap out.”
Not letting him get to me, I asked how much the rent was.
“You’re thinking of living in this piece of crap, you fucking rich bitch?” he laughed, but told me the price. It was ridiculously low.
“Stop hurting the poor guy. I’ll pay for him,” I told him, and got the money in my purse. I’m not rich at all, but it was a price I would pay any day to spare someone of unnecessary pain. “Just stop swearing in front of the kid”.
Both of them looked at me like I was crazy. The guy didn’t even thank me, but I just turned around unfazed; I didn’t do it to look good anyway, so I just headed to my car.
“You’re a good person”, the girl smiled timidly to me. “By the way, my name is Frankie”.
“Nice to meet you, Frankie. My name is Veronica”, I said, as I opened the door to her. She claimed to be 10, but she was so small and fragile that I thought it was better to put her in the backseat.
As we fastened our belts, I asked her if she knew how to get to her house from here. Frankie shook her head, but gave me a street name, so I put it in my GPS.
I was expecting it would be much harder, so I was glad. I asked her if she wanted to grab a burger in McDonald’s drive-thru, or any other snack, but she politely declined. I thought it was weird, but well, I didn’t have much experience with children her age after all.
The address was a bit far, and Google Maps indicated that we would get there in 45 minutes. Frankie was a sweet, incredibly well-behaved kid. She would be silent all the time, except to point someplace her father loved, like an ice cream parlor.
“So, how’s your father like, Frankie?”
“He’s super strong, because he works in construction. We don’t have much money, so our house is small, but he really wants me to study. I take the bus alone to my French lessons and he picks me up at the bus stop. Daddy says learning French is super important to be successful. Are you successful, Veronica?”
“I’m doing fine, I guess. But not as good as I would be if I knew French”, I told her. I lived a completely average middle-class suburban life. I liked my job, but it’s not like I was some CEO.
Frankie seemed to be warming up to me, but after that, she grew silent again. I think she even fell asleep a little. I’m not much of a talker myself, so I decided to give her space.
She opened her eyes one minute before I turned in her street. “Tell me where the house is”, I asked. It was a working-class neighborhood. Shoeless kids were playing in the streets unsupervised and there was graffiti everywhere, but it didn’t seem like a violent place.
“There it is!”, Frankie pointed to one of the smallest houses in the block, but it at least had been painted recently. “My daddy’s name is Jason”.
“Okay, dear, wait for me in the car. I’ll get your dad”, I said. I hoped he was longing to be with his daughter again, but I felt like first I had to scold him for forgetting such a young girl alone in a dangerous neighborhood.
The doorbell was broken, so I crossed the tiny front yard and knocked on the door. A lady is her 50s showed up, half opening the door.
“Hi, can I see Jason?”
“Jason?”, she asked, then screamed to the inside. “Honey, what was the name of that guy again?”
After a pause, she looked at me with pity.
“I’m so sorry, are you a relative? You seem to be from another country”.
“Well… yes”, I lied, since it was clear there was a mistake and they didn’t know Jason.
“This man Jason is dead.”
“Dead?”, I repeated, in shock.
“Yes. It’s quite the tragic story actually. The neighbors told us since we were uneasy to rent a house so cheap. It’s because the former tenant died in a work accident. He fell in a big hole apparently. His only daughter went missing the same day”.
I honestly couldn’t say a word. It was just so sudden. So weird. Why the fuck this lady and presumably her husband rented a house so soon after a tragedy? Then it occurred me to ask her.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but when did that happen?”
“Well, I guess 8 months. We’ve been living here for 5 months or so”.
Frankie went missing for eight whole months?
Dammit. Dammit. Dammit. I should have gone to the police. I shouldn’t try to be a Good Samaritan. Now I’m the one who has to tell the poor kid she lost her father. He never picked her up because he was dead. Of course. He seemed to be such a good father. It was obvious that he would only leave her alone if he had no choice at all.
I realized the older lady was still talking “…of course I considered it could be disrespectful but we’re really tight on money so I just asked a priest to come over in case the poor man’s soul was still maybe clinging to this world you know?”
“Yes. Absolutely. I don’t think you were disrespectful. Thank you so much”.
“Go to the police, dear, I’m sure they will have information on the girl’s case. I really hope they find your relative. You said you were a third cousin?”.
“Yes, madam. That’s what I said”, I mumbled, waved, apologized again and went back to my car.
“Where’s daddy, Veronica?”, Frankie asked. Her innocent eyes broke my heart.
“Frankie, I need you to be a really big girl, ok?”, I started. I honestly didn’t know how to say it, so it was fortunate that I didn’t have to. Her eyes glittered with tears full of understanding.
“My daddy is dead, isn’t he? That’s why Uncle Dean came pick me up that day”, she wailed.
“Uncle… Dean?”, I asked, in shock. Ok, now I have to go to the police and report my deceased brother as a child kidnapper. Probably worse.
“Yeah. They worked together”, she sighed, sudenly looking more mature than ever. “I’m so sorry, miss Veronica. You’ve been so good to me. But I should be with daddy”.
Before I could react, she opened the door and ran.
I chased her, first by foot, then by car. I asked around, giving her description. I spent hours and hours looking for this girl, determined to ask her if she wanted to leave with me. I promised I would get her home. If hers wasn’t available anymore, she would go to mine.
But I didn’t find Frankie. When it got dark, I cried, banging my forehead against the steering wheel. She was lonely and scared again. I was the only one she could count on in 8 months, and I screwed that up.
After crying for a few minutes, I noticed I still had my brother’s belongings with me, the box forgotten in the passenger’s seat. Absent mindedly, I started flipping through a photo album.
It was horrifying.
Page after page, I saw polaroids of murdered children. Some had their limbs torn apart, one of them was hanged, and there she was. Sweet Frankie.
At least she seemed to have died peacefully. At least she held no grudges, and could follow the light to be with her father.
Behind her photo, a note from my brother. It read “I can’t take being what I am anymore”. Maybe he considered surrendering, but he have always been a coward.
When I was finally able to drive, I went and handed all of Dean’s belongings to the police. The families of the victims deserve closure; I know I will never have.
They eventually found the bodies and gave them a proper burial. It eases my mind a little bit.
I never told my husband or my family about it. It’s enough that I carry this burden. I’ll never forget Frankie. I constantly think about the life she could have had if my own brother wasn’t such a monster. I’ve been doing therapy, but every time I tell a psychologist about my brother, they suddenly have to reallocate me to a colleague. I’m a lost case.
Everyday I pray for Frankie and Jason, and try to find solace in the fact that they are together somewhere, somehow. I try so hard to move on. I focus on my job and my family. I go to pilates. I started learning French. The other day I swear I heard a sweet voice whispering a merci.
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