It was a bitter cold night, down below zero, yet the parking lot was packed with people. They shivered in the cold glow of the street lamps and rubbed their hands together to warm them. Some weren’t even wearing coats, so quickly had they rushed out of their apartments. 

It was cold, all right, but none of those gathered outside the housing complex seemed to notice much. Their eyes were wide with alarm as they talked with their neighbors and got caught up on the details. 

A kid had gone missing, and although the search had been on for nearly an hour now, there was no sign of the toddler. The boy’s mother, wrapped in a blanket, was teary-eyed as she spoke with the police officers. No, she told them. Her son had not been wearing shoes or a coat, he was wearing pajamas because it was bedtime. One minute he was right there in the living room, she said, sobbing, and the next minute he was gone. Just . . . vanished. 

The police were quickly putting together an organized search, but in the meantime, the rest of us were doing what regular people do when they search for things. We bent to peer under cars. We used whatever flashlights we had to check behind dumpsters, bushes and piles of snow. 

More people drove over in cars to help with the search. Police did their best to keep them at bay so not to  contaminate the scene, but the search grew larger and more unorganized by the minute. 

I remember that night well, although it was probably two decades ago. I remember how feelings of alarm and grim uncertainty seemed to double with each minute that passed. We were talking about a 2-year-old here, a kid barely old enough to walk on his own. Had he been snatched from his home by a stranger with bad intentions? Was he even now collapsed, cold and dying, in a snowbank somewhere? 

I encountered the same sense of terrible panic the following spring when a young autistic boy in Greene went missing. It was the middle of the afternoon and not freezing cold like before, but the intensity of the search was no less frantic. There were streams all around the missing boy’s home. There were bogs and marshes and deep woods. The imagination, a wretched thing in times like these, insisted on conjuring all the worst-case scenarios. 

That search party grew very large very fast. Police officers from all over. Firefighters joined in along with game wardens and local hunters who knew the woods better than anyone.  

These were the days before the internet and cellphones, but I tell you, rumors of a missing kid still had a way of spreading like wildfire. Word spread through corner stores, laundromats, lumber yards, hair salons . . .  

“A mother’s worst nightmare,” they said to one another. “Let’s go help them look.” 

The search party grew immense, indeed, and the game wardens organized all of us into smart, efficient units. The search covered a lot of ground, but hours passed and now night was coming on. You could hear the worry in the voices of the searchers as they continued to call out the lost boy’s name.

Was it all in vain? Was it too late already? Everybody knows, even if they don’t say it, that the longer these things go on, the less likely it becomes that the poor child will be found alive. 

I’m pretty sure I know what you’re thinking here. Quit trying to flower this thing up, reporter, and tell us what happened to the missing kids!

I understand. Because even people who have never had children of their own seem to possess some atavistic parental instinct that kicks in when a kid is in trouble. It’s an important and respectable part of human nature that makes us want to protect our young at all costs. 

So, I’ll tell you. The little boy in Greene was found in a thicket somewhere not far from his home. I wasn’t there when it happened, but I’m told the lad grinned when a searcher stumbled upon him. When the boy was carried home, the whole crowd applauded, and I reckon they were applauding the whole collective effort, themselves included. 

The missing boy at the housing complex was found, too. This one, as it turned out, had never left the house at all. I believe it was a cop who found the child when he decided, halfheartedly, to check beneath a pile of clothes in the living room. The kid had been napping under a heap of warm towels and bed sheets the whole time, and when word of THAT got around, the whole bunch of us laughed with good humor — with relief and with a strange, unnamed affection for the boy who had caused such a scene simply by taking a nap. 

Kids go missing all the time. I may have covered 100 reports of missing children in my years on the job and as far as I remember, every single one of those kids came home, alive and well and frankly baffled over all the fuss that was made. 

Yet still we can’t help but to assume the worst every time it happens. 

Last week, a 2-year-old was reported missing from his home on Howe Street in Lewiston. His mother reported at about midnight that her son had vanished, and again, in spite of the hour, word spread quickly. It didn’t happen in corner stores or laundromats this time, it happened on social media, and within minutes of the first report, dozens upon dozens of people were following the story. A whole bunch of them wanted to throw on their pants and coats and join the search, although by that point, the police were all over it, setting up a perimeter and searching building by building, street by street. 

Midnight turned to 1 a.m. and general unease grew into outright alarm. Then it was 2 a.m. and still the boy had not been found. People who would normally have been tucked into their beds stayed up into the wee hours, glued to their computer screens and waiting for word that the boy had been found. 

Kids go missing all the time, yes. Most of them are found in short order, it’s true. 

But not all of them. 

“You know,” I said to one cop on the night the Howe Street boy went missing. “I can’t help thinking of Ayla Reynolds when this happens.” 

The cop didn’t need me to remind him of that agonizing case. 

“Believe me,” he said, “we think of that, too.” 

How can you not? On the night of Dec. 16, 2011, the 19-month-old Waterville girl was put down in her bed for the night and as far as we know, that’s the last time she was looked upon by people who love her. 

Nine damn years, man. Nine years with absolutely no answers as to what happened to the blond, rose-cheeked little lady. Is she dead? Still alive? Will she ever be found? 

Not a clue. 

Ayla Reynolds represents a kind of worst-case scenario when kids go missing. What horror is greater than not knowing? What agony is more soul-shredding than being left to wonder, day by day and hour by hour, what has become of your child? 

The Ayla case gnaws at the mind, a terrible wound that’s not allowed to heal. It nags at the consciences of good people who innately understand that protecting the young is a collective responsibility, and that somewhere along the way, someone let this girl down big time. 

The boy who vanished from his Howe Street home last week was found eventually. The official story is that the rascal was discovered wandering in a nearby apartment house six hours after he disappeared. 

Again there was vast relief and a cacophony of nervous laughter. Kids, huh? What are you going to do? 

But for those tense six hours, nobody was laughing. For those hours, a whole mass of people thought about Ayla Reynolds and about worst-case scenarios. 

Which, when you get right down to it, is exactly how it ought to be. 


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