My husband and I were walking a friend to her car near the University of Arizona one evening. It was nearing dusk and the sidewalks and streets were busy. We said goodbye and turned to walk toward our own car. I don’t know what made me see the boy across the intersection, but he stood out to me. Something seemed off.
I watched the boy cross the street with other pedestrians, just as anyone would. He had a backpack on and was walking with purpose. He seemed just 8 or 9, but wasn’t with anyone. I pointed him out to my husband, and we concluded the boy was fine, that I was being paranoid.
And yet, I couldn’t let it go. We watched him walk down a block. Just as I was dismissing it as neurotic, he turned down an alleyway. I had to know he was ok, so we crossed the street and headed toward the alley. As we approached, the boy emerged and began walking the way he had been headed.
I looked at my husband and said, “Something is wrong.”
I approached the boy, walking at pace with him. He was talking quietly to himself and seemed agitated. He would not make eye contact with me. I told him my name and asked him his. “Michael,” he said. I asked if he needed help and he replied he was going home. I asked if he knew his address and he replied that he was looking for the billboard by his house was and couldn’t remember where it was. I immediately signaled my husband, who called 911.
Michael was nervous about the man walking behind us, so my husband backed up to give us space.
Michael began mumbling and rocking on his feet and became even more distressed. I tried to reassure him that even though we were strangers we weren’t going to touch him or make him go anywhere. I told him we were going to bring help to him so he could go home. I asked him where he was walking from and he said school. I asked him the name of the school and he told me. I knew the school; it was more than 2 miles away. He had been walking for hours. It was getting dark and he was scared.
I heard my husband describing what he was wearing to the 911 dispatcher. Within 30 seconds, a police car drove right up on the sidewalk, lights flashing. This pushed Michael to tears. I told him the officer was here to take him home, that he was here to help, that he wasn’t in trouble, that he was safe. There was no consoling him. The officer helped him into the car and told us Michael had been reported missing. He was a child with special needs and had walked away from his school. They had been searching for him for hours. And then they drove off. I never saw Michael again.
I cried then and I cry now, years later, every time I think of this child and all the what ifs. What if I hadn’t noticed him? What if he had kept going down that alley? What if I had just turned away?
For every Michael, for every Jayme, there may be more who no one notices, where everyone turns away. I will be forever grateful for that extra minute we took. Jayme’s return is a reminder to trust our instincts, take a moment, to look more closely.
Michael, wherever you are, I am so very glad you found your way home.