Just like any other weekday afternoon, seven-year-old Lizzie was walking home from school with two of her friends who lived nearby. Yoli was tall and slim, while Dorothy was short and pudgy. Lizzie was slim but only as tall as Dorothy. All three girls had brown hair, but of different hues and lengths. Yoli’s ochre braid reached down all the way to her waist. Dorothy sported a seal brown bob, while Lizzie had a sepia-colored pixie cut.
The distance between school and the girls’ houses was a little over half a mile. The town, in which they lived, was a small one and the type where everyone knew one another. It was also back in the day when kids spent a lot of time outside, returning home only for dinner.
The most dangerous part of the journey to or from school was crossing Main Street, which was a road with multiple lanes of traffic in each direction. All those years ago, there were no traffic lights installed at the crossing.
“Look left, right, and left again before you cross,” was what teachers, parents, and well-wishing neighbors told all the kids.
Aside from crossing Main Street, there were no precarious spots on the way to or from school for Lizzie, Yoli, and Dorothy.
It was a nice, warm day. Not sweltering hot, just pleasantly warm. It was probably spring because the flowers planted in the gardens near the street were beginning to bloom. The girls walked hand-in-hand, chatting about the events from school that day and giggling every now and then. To a random observer, they appeared to be the perfect image of carefree kids, even though each one of them privately struggled with different demons.
Yoli's father was an alcoholic, and it was not rare that her mother had to go looking for him in nearby ditches. Dorothy's father was a druggie and a gambling addict. To numb the pain and balance the books, Dorothy’s mother worked two or three different jobs at a time, often leaving the washing and the cooking to her four daughters. Lizzie’s parents were almost always away on business trips, leaving her with her grandmother, who Lizzie thought was a witch, never smiling and always complaining. What all three girls had in common was the feeling of neglect, but whenever they were together, they felt complete.
The girls made their way past the halfway mark, the busy Main Street, carefully but gingerly, eager to get back home and rest after a busy day at school. Coloring, rope jumping, and watching TV were some activities the girls enjoyed doing most.
“Hello, girls,” a foreign-looking man called out from a car that was driving parallel to the path the girls were walking on.
The girls, having been taught not to talk to strangers, did not reply and kept walking.
“Would you like a lift home?” a man from the passenger seat of the car shouted.
“No, thank you,” Yoli spat out and picked up the pace.
Dorothy and Lizzie matched her step.
The car was a navy sedan, but the girls were not interested in cars enough to know the make of it. They were also too rattled to check and remember the license plate when the car sped up and drove away. What they did remember were the two men up front and a woman in the back. The men had gold chains, bracelets, and rings. Their perfume could be smelled from across the street. The woman had a flowery scarf tied around her head. She, too, had golden jewelry and even a gold tooth. From what the girls saw, her clothing appeared to be very colorful.
“Gypsies,” one of the girls whispered, remembering a story her grandmother told her a while back.
The girls were about to breathe out a sigh of relief when they saw the very same car U-turn and head right towards them. In an attempt to put more distance between the car and them, the girls run across the street.
“Should we split up to confuse them?” Yoli asked.
“No. It's too risky. Let’s turn in here,” Dorothy said, pointing in the direction of a non-utilized piece of land.
Years before, there was a water cleaning plant there, but it had since been abandoned.
“Are you kidding? I don’t know my way around there. Plus, there might be snakes!” Lizzie exclaimed, but did not stop running.
“It's alright. My uncle owned a piece of this back in the day. I know a path that will take us home while keeping us off the road,” Dorothy said with conviction.
The girls ran for what seemed like miles, turning their heads every so often to check if they were being followed.
“I can't run any farther,” Lizzie gasped, barely able to catch her breath.
“We will have to get back on the road to get home, but while we're here, let's try to catch our breaths,” Dorothy said and took a deep breath.
Yoli, with her long legs, did not even appear tired.
Passing by a couple of abandoned buildings, the girls subconsciously held their breaths, worried what might lurk inside.
“Okay. That's as much cover as we will get. Now, get ready to run. Don't stop until you get home and lock the doors behind you,” Dorothy informed her friends, preparing to run again.
Yoli and Lizzie nodded in understanding.
“On three,” Lizzie announced. “One… two… three!”
And the girls ran like never before, scared to even turn around. Lizzie’s house was the closest, then Dorothy's, then Yoli's.
“Thank God!” Lizzie uttered when she saw her grandmother in the garden in front of the house. “Grandma, open the gate! Fast!” she asked, pulling on the locked gate.
Her grandmother, a stern lady, did not appreciate Lizzie's hysterical demands. “And why would I do that?” she asked, sauntering towards the gates.
“Because I'm being chased by Gypsies!” Lizzie screamed out, frantically turning around to see if the navy sedan was anywhere in sight.
“What now?” Grandma asked, slowly inserting the key into the gate.
“They wanted to kidnap me, Dorothy, and Yoli,” Lizzie explained, her eyes welling up.
The moment the gate was opened, Lizzie ran through it and slammed it shut. Even though Lizzie’s parents had a landline, neither Yoli’s nor Dorothy's did, which meant Lizzie had to wait until the next day to see if her friends made it home all right. For a moment, she considered going over to their houses, but she quickly realized it was too big a risk as the kidnappers might still be lurking around.
Thankfully, Yoli and Dorothy appeared at school the very next day unharmed. They tried to share what happened the day before with others, but no one believed them. Soon, they stopped mentioning it even amongst themselves.
Decades later, for a split second, even Lizzie starts to doubt herself.
“Just because others refuse to believe in something doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen,” Lizzie tells herself as she looks around the park wearily. She clutches the knife in her pocket a little harder.