“Ma’am? Ma’am, are you okay?”
I shielded my eyes from the glaring sunlight. Its warmth usually brightened my spirits but for some reason, it didn’t today. “Hi, sir,” I managed to say. There was a man outside my window wearing a white polo and slightly worn-looking khakis. He had to be the new assistant principal because I didn’t recognize him.
“Yes, I’m looking for my daughter,” I replied. “She hasn’t come out yet.”
“What’s your daughter’s name, ma’am?” he asked while reaching for his walkie-talkie.
“Tia.” I shifted in my seat. “Tiassale Richards.” The vapor of my breath escaped through my fingers and collided with the cool air. The last of the withered brown leaves on the oak tree across the street glided gently to the ground, leaving it naked and bare.
“Thank you, ma’am,” stated the man, quite matter-of-factly. He then curled his lips into a reassuring pose. “I need Tiassale Richards for pick up. Tiassale Richards for pick up.” The Assistant Principal motioned for me to drive forward so the cars behind me could pass by.
One minute turned to three and three turned to five but I still hadn’t seen Tia. It wasn’t like her to keep me waiting so long. One by one, the long line of tired, worn out parents disappeared from behind me. A few more remained and even still, a handful of stragglers could be seen making their way around the bend leading to the pick-up line. Maybe she had Art Club today, I thought to myself. No, she had that on Wednesday and today’s… wait, what day is it? I reached for my phone. If it weren’t for my digital calendar, I don’t know how I’d keep my head above water. The screen lit up and I breathed a sigh of relief. It was Wednesday.
Fantastic. I whispered. Not only did Tia have Art Club but that also meant Donnie would be home late, which was great. I didn’t have to see any long faces about me not having dinner ready yet. Donnie was a decent man but like many old school husbands, he expected a hot plate and immaculate home upon entering our modest cottage every day. I remember telling him it was 2019 and he was crazy for thinking primitive wife rules still applied.
He told me I was crazy to think they didn’t.
Maybe I was crazy, maybe I wasn’t.
Hmm, I could try that new recipe Imelda gave me at lunch, I muttered to myself. Just as I was about to search for the recipe, a gust of wind howled, knocking over a nearby empty trash can. A wide-eyed little boy shuddered at the commotion then went back to fighting off the evil villains around him.
In my rearview mirror, a woman was walking briskly toward my old grey Buick. She looked as if she may be fresh out of college. Her long, blond locks floated in the wind under a grey knitted hat, revealing a youthful glow. Before she could tap on the passenger window, I rolled it down.
“It’s Mrs. but yes, that’s me.”
“Oh, my apologies,” she gasped. “Well, Mrs. Richards, there seems to be a problem.”
“What do you mean ‘problem’?” A large lump formed in my throat, making it difficult to swallow.
“Well, I’m not sure how to say this–”
“So, just say it.” I snapped as my hands trembled on my thighs.
“Mrs. Richards, it appears that we aren’t able to locate your daughter.” She shifted her eyes toward my hands. “Do you mind spelling her name and telling me what grade she’s in, please?”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Maybe Donnie was right. We should’ve given Tia an easier name to spell. “It’s T-I-A-S-S-A-L-E, like the town in the Ivory Coast. She’s in the second grade and she has Art Club on Wednesdays.”
The woman smiled. “Thank you, Mrs. Richards. I’ll be right back.”
A few minutes passed by and the blond-haired woman made her way back to my car, her smile gone. “I feel silly for asking this, Mrs. Richards, but are you sure this is the school your daughter attends?”
“What kind of question is that? Why wouldn’t I know the school my daughter- my only daughter attends? I dropped her off here this morning like I do every other school day!”
She stared at me for a moment, carefully examining my eyes and bodily movements. She cleared her throat and inhaled deeply. “Ma’am, I can assure you that your daughter is not a student here. I can have our administrators speak with you for further assistance if you’d like.”
“Yes, I would, ma’am. I want to know where my daughter is and why y’all can’t find her. You can’t lose somebody’s child and expect them to just drive off without answers.”
“Of course,” the young woman replied.
As soon as she walked away, I instinctively dialed Donnie’s number. With every ring, I grew more and more impatient. “Come on, Donnie. I know you’re there. Pick up the phone already!” I could never count on him to be there when I needed him most. You’d think higher-ups could answer their wive’s phone calls every now and again.
Typical, I groaned. I got his voicemail.
“Donnie, I’m at Tia’s school and they’re saying they can’t find her! I told them I’m not leaving without having those administrators tell me how on Earth they could lose a whole seven-year-old. Can you believe it? How the devil do you lose a child and think you can get away with it? Call me when you can, okay?”
Maybe my mama was right. Maybe I was crazy to move away from my family and enroll Tia in a school like this.
Tap, tap, tap.
“Ma’am? Are you okay?” The Assistant Principal stood outside my window, peering into my car.
Startled, I tried to collect my thoughts as my window rolled down. “No, sir. I am not okay.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am,” he answered empathetically. “Our school counselor tells me there seems to be some sort of mix up. Can you tell me your name, please?”
I inhaled and exhaled slowly. “My name is Faridah Richards. I’m the mother of Tiassale Richards and I want to know what’s going on. Where is my daughter?”
“Ma’am, I wish I could give you the answer to that question but it seems as if your daughter is not in our system.”
“What do you mean ‘she’s not in your system,’” I air quoted. “That’s not even possible. I literally dropped her off this morning like I do every other day.”
“Ma,’am,” the man replied, “I can assure you that you are mistaken. Perhaps your daughter attends another school in our district?”
Who does this man think he is? Telling me I am “mistaken.” What kind of person would forget which school their child attends?
“Sir, all you need to do is watch the video surveillance from this morning’s drop off and you’ll see that I’m telling you the truth,” I pleaded.
The man opened his mouth as if he wanted to say something and instead nodded his head, his reassuring smile nowhere to be found.
“Can’t I come inside to watch it with you?” I asked.
“You can come inside, ma’am, but the video surveillance room is quite small. You’ll have to sit in the main office and wait.”
“Fine,” I sighed. “I’ll just wait out here.”
The sun still glowed brightly but had already shifted its position slightly from when I first arrived. “This is taking too long,” I grumbled. I turned off the ignition and leaned to the side with my fingers intertwined so I could stretch my muscles. To make matters worse, Donnie hadn’t called me back. Sometimes, I didn’t know how we could still be together. Seemed as though we’d been traveling different paths lately. Donnie was more withdrawn than usual and moody. A simple sentence could make him explode or go into this game of twenty questions where he’d want to know my every move and why I did the things I did.
“I should probably try to reach him again,” I muttered.
Before I could complete the call, the Assistant Principal exited the building, this time with a man in uniform. It could’ve been the School Resource Officer. They walked in sync, like the main characters from Men in Black, only with their heads down. The howling wind didn’t seem to deter them.
By the time they reached my old Buick, I was ready. Ready to finally hear the truth about what happened to my daughter.
“Mrs. Richards,” began the Assistant Principal, “this is our School Resource Officer, Mr. Paez.” He extended his hand toward me and I reciprocated. His hand was surprisingly warm considering the low temperature outside.
“Thank you for your patience, Mrs. Richards,” stated Officer Paez. “I want you to know that it took a while, but we are certain you did not drop off your daughter here this morning.” He continued speaking but I couldn’t hear or see him. Everything was a blur so I held onto the steering wheel to help center myself.
“Mrs. Richards? Can you hear me?”
Within a few seconds, I managed to regain hearing and vision. “Where is my daughter?” I growled. “Why do you keep telling me I didn’t bring her here this morning and place her under your supervision? Didn’t you see us on the video surveillance?”
“Ma’am, we looked at every inch of the footage and you, your daughter, nor your car are anywhere to be found. Mrs. Richards, your daughter’s name isn’t even in our school district’s database,” replied the Assistant Principal. He stared at me intently as though there was some foreign object on my face. “Do you have someone you can call to be here with you right now?”
“What are you trying to tell me, huh? That I’m delusional? Because I’m not. I’ll prove it to you!”
Donnie better answer this time.
“Donnie? Thank God you picked up!” I cried. “Let me put you on speaker so you can tell these people that I dropped off our daughter here at school this morning.”
I turned up the volume so everyone could hear. “Go ahead, Donnie. Tell them.”
Donnie exhaled loudly. “Faridah, your mother’s worried about you. She told me you stopped taking your meds and that you missed your last two psych appointments.”
“Wait. What are you talking about?” I laughed. “I’m not on meds and I certainly don’t see any psychiatrists.”
“Faridah,” whispered Donnie, “Tia died five years ago, remember? And shortly after, we divorced because you couldn’t handle looking at me without seeing Tia.”
I heard the thud of my phone against a hard surface and indistinct voices around me. Time seemed to stop for a moment.
“Ma’am? Ma’am, are you okay?”