by Carolyn Tileston

Not then; not ever. The recent series on sex trafficking in the Local brings forward memories best forgotten, but too important to forget.

Years back, in a casual conversation with an old school friend, he said, “Did you know that my sister had had a teenage daughter? One day, after school, the girl never came home! Imagine! They called and tried every thing, but found no trace of her.”

I shuddered to think of it. I had a little girl. My mind raced. I couldn’t imagine how such a horror could happen. But a few years after that conversation, I found out.

The year 1977 was a defining one in our lives. My 15-year-old Sarah and I were moving out of the big house that had been our family home. It was my first step toward a divorce from her father, and she was sure she wanted to live with me.

I’d found a two-room apartment over a shop in Mt. Airy. It would do.

Sarah was a ready helper. We had chosen a weekend in August, and I’d made a list of the few things we needed from the big house – a table, two chairs, two beds. We filled a few boxes with things from the kitchen – dishes, two pots, cups.

We bent to the task in good spirits – she was ready to work in denim cut-offs and a jaunty red bandanna over her bronze curls. I followed the movers up the narrow stairway and started sorting through the boxes as they left.

“Sarah!” I called. “Come help me with this heavy one!”

No answer. She was not in the bedroom, the closet or the bath.

I hurried down to the sidewalk as the moving truck pulled away. No sign of her on the street.

Maybe she had gone back to the big house to pick up a forgotten treasure or a few more clothes.

But her name echoed in the empty house. I called over to the workman at the gas station.

“Did you see a young girl go by? Wearing a red bandanna?”

“No, sorry, Ma’am. I didn’t.”

Heart pounding now, I ran irrationally up one block and then another.

Finally I found her. Sarah – Pretty legs, short shorts, red bandanna – was leaning from the sidewalk into the passenger’s window of a black car with an out of state license plate parked at the curb.

I came to the car from the back, on the street side, to the open window.

“Why are you talking to my daughter?” I demanded.

The driver turned, startled. He was a sleazy looking white man, dark hair slicked back, his suit rumpled.

“Oh, sorry, M’am,” he said. “You see, I’m a photographer from San Francisco. I wondered if she’d like to come to my studio here. Pose for a few pictures.”

He smiled.

“Get out of here,” I glared. “And don’t come back!”

I hugged my little girl and noted the license plate as he pulled away.

Back in the apartment, I found two cups and a box of tea, while Sarah put some water to boil on our new stove.

“He wasn’t a photographer, Mom,” Sarah said. “He asked me if I did drugs and if I’d had sex.

He wanted me to go out with him for a drink. Don’t worry, I wouldn’t get in the car.

I told him we’re moving into an apartment. Come on up and have tea with my mother.”

She laughed at her joke. Oh, the vulnerability! Flattered, and thinking she could out smart him.

The phone in the apartment was working. I called the police. Hearing the story, the officer, a woman, said, “There have been more reports of this happening around here lately,” and in a more official tone, “but you know it’s not against the law to talk to somebody.”

I hung up. But the event wasn’t quite over.

I didn’t let Sarah out of my sight as we walked for the last time over to the big house to lock up. As we walked in, the phone rang. It was Mister Photographer again. She, in her coquettish innocence had given him the phone number. Another cute trick on him, knowing that she didn’t live there any more? I hung up again.

So I saw how it could happen. But not then. Not that day. Not to us.

Carolyn Tileston is a resident of the Fairmount section of Philadelphia.

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