The Life of Riley
(A story of Christmas)
It was snowing. Aunt Jane and Uncle Luke—and before him, Uncle Bob—had told Riley that it almost never snowed in Charlotte, but she didn’t know, being only six. And her name wasn’t “Riley” anymore, Aunt Jane told her it was “Sarah Ann”. Her name had been “Riley” once upon a time, she remembered that and she remembered the last time she saw it snow.
The last time she’d seen it snow was when she was just barely four. She was standing on the front porch of a house in a place called “Riley”, just like her name, though her mommy and daddy laughed when she said that and told her the place she lived was ‘Raleigh’ and not to forget it.
“If you’re ever lost and need help,” her mommy told her over and over, “tell someone that your name is Riley and you live in Raleigh.” Her mommy also told her the name of the street where she lived and her last name, but Riley—Sarah Ann—had long ago forgotten all that. She tried to remember when it started to snow in Charlotte. “My name is Riley and I live in Raleigh,” she said to herself, but she couldn’t remember the rest, not even her last name since her name now was Sarah Ann Smith and she lived in Charlotte with Aunt Jane and Uncle Luke.
The last thing she remembered from that previous snow was watching her mommy walk to a car, all dressed in white like the snow with a blue raincoat around her shoulders, and her daddy wearing brown and walking to a big brown truck. Riley—Sarah Ann—had learned her colors early and she always remembered that, especially on that morning in December when it started snowing, unusually, in Charlotte, where she was Sarah Ann and lived with Aunt Jane and Uncle Luke. She couldn’t even remember her parents’ faces anymore and she hadn’t seen them in a long, long time.
“What are you doing Sarah?” Uncle Luke said from behind her. She had her knees on the couch and her face pressed against the apartment’s living room window, watching it snow. Uncle Luke’s voice—like Uncle Bob’s before him—was coarse and nearly angry.
Sarah slid down on the couch, turning away from the wonder of snow. “Nothing,” she said, softly. “It’s snowing.”
Sarah glanced up when he didn’t respond. He was rubbing his eyes. Uncle Luke was very big and dressed in a white tee-shirt, stained under the arms and a pair of shorts. His face was covered with the stubble of beard that she had felt on her cheeks before. Uncle Luke had never hurt her in the way Uncle Bob had but he had rubbed his rough face against her face when it was bedtime. She remembered how Aunt Jane had screamed and turned all red and beat Uncle Bob with her fists when she found him hurting her. She remembered the policemen coming and taking Uncle Bob away. She should have told the policemen she was Riley and lived in Raleigh, but she hurt too much and couldn’t think straight.
She could have told the people in the hospital, all dressed in white, like her mother as she disappeared into the snow, that she was Riley and lived in Raleigh but they were all too busy and too grownup to understand. And she was too scared to talk. She’d been only five, she reminded herself and not a big girl of six yet. So Aunt Jane took her out of the hospital, still in her gown, telling her to be quiet, and they’d gone to a motel again. Then they moved and sometime after that Uncle Luke came to live with them. Uncle Luke never hurt her but he was usually either mean or angry and only sometimes gentle and always smelled of something smoky sweet—like the soda Aunt Jane loved in the big brown bottles.
“Jane needs you to help with breakfast,” Uncle Luke finally said. “Go help her.”
Sarah knew how to do that. She was always helpful to Aunt Jane, ever since that snowy morning long ago when Jane told her, “come on, let’s take a ride.”
Sarah…Riley…had enjoyed rides with Aunt Jane. Sometimes they went to the park where there were swings to swing on and other kids to play with. Sometimes they went to the store where she sat in a cart looking at Aunt Jane while they went up and down the aisles getting things to eat and hearing people tell Aunt Jane what a lovely daughter she had. Sometimes Aunt Jane took her to Uncle Bob’s apartment and Riley could watch TV while Aunt Jane and Uncle Bob were in the bedroom crying and making other noises.
But that day, the day her daddy walked to a big truck and her mommy went to the car, Aunt Jane had taken her to Uncle Bob’s and after a lot of yelling, the three of them drove a long way and stayed in a motel for days and then had an apartment in Charlotte. That’s when her name changed to Sarah Ann and Aunt Jane told her the awful things that had happened to her mommy and daddy.
“Your daddy went to prison,” Aunt Jane told her, though Riley didn’t know what that meant. “You go to prison in a big truck. And your mommy went with him. They’ll never come back. You’re going to live with me now….”
Riley cried for days and days and always asked for her mommy and daddy and her dog, but Aunt Jane told her not to cry, she’d see them in heaven and her name was Sarah Ann now.
“But I’m Riley from Raleigh,” she told Aunt Jane over and over, through a river of tears and an ocean of fear.
“No more, darlin’,” Aunt Jane said softly. “Now you are Sarah Ann and you live with me…..”
It took a long time—Riley didn’t understand much about time then, but it was three months before she stopped asking for her mommy and daddy and began to hope she’d see them in heaven, wherever that was, and that she now lived with Aunt Jane and her name was Sarah Ann.
She wasn’t unhappy, though such a thought as “unhappiness” hadn’t occurred to her yet. Aunt Jane loved her and took care of her and though Uncle Bob had been mean, Uncle Luke was just angry—and sometimes, gentle. So time passed and she became Sarah Ann. Until that unexpected Charlotte snow.
Christmas was coming and Lt. Don Marks of the Raleigh Police Department was feeling anxious. A week before Christmas, two years before, Riley Hope Nole had gone missing. Her parents, Joe and Mary Nole had come home and found the house empty except for their dog Annie, a mutt they’d adopted, who had defecated all over the house and was almost catatonic when they found her hiding behind the Christmas tree.
The parents claimed they had left for work, leaving Riley in the care of their baby-sitter, a thirty-something female named Jane, who Mrs. Nole had met at the gym and who, the parents said, “loved Riley like her own.” Jane Jones—the name the Noles’ knew her by—turned up on no voting lists, in no phone books, no public records of any kind, not even on the membership list of the health club. Joe and Mary had left their child in the care of a ‘non-person’, and since they paid her under the table, there were no Social Security or tax traces to follow.
Lt. Marks’ superiors had suspected that the parents were involved in the case of the missing child. So, Don Marks had interviewed, vetted, investigated and hounded Joe and Mary Nole for months. They became the scourge of central North Carolina. Everyone believed they had somehow killed their only child. But there was no physical evidence and no motive, so, after endless weeks of media coverage, the case had become cold and the parents—damaged greatly—had returned to whatever ‘normal life’ might be after losing a child.
Don Marks remembered the last question he ever asked them out of thousands of questions. He was sitting in their home. The Christmas tree—almost bare of needles--was still up well into March. He noticed a tiny crèche on the mantelpiece of their simple house. Joseph was dressed in brown and had a brown scarf on his head. Mary was dressed in white with a blue cloak. He didn’t even know why he noticed that, but the house seemed so empty, even with unopened presents beneath the unlit tree, that he noticed the two little figures around a tiny manger.
“I need to ask you one more time,” Lt. Marks said, still staring at the crèche, “is there any reason I shouldn’t believe you had something to do with your daughter’s disappearance?”
Joe Nole, smiled sadly and said softly, “do you have children, Lieutenant?” Mary was holding a small dog. She had told him, as she had a dozen times before, that Annie missed Riley most of all.
Marks nodded. He had a baby son, he told them, and a daughter, just the age of Riley. Marcia and Riley might have been born the same week in the same hospital for all he knew.
Joe motioned toward the gifts unopened. “Would you have done this for your child if you meant her harm?”
Lt. Marks sat for a long time in the chair across from the couch where Riley’s parents were. For all his training and for his police skepticism, he had no answer to the brightly wrapped presents, three months late.
Lt. Marks himself had never suspected them. And he had spent every free moment since the case was officially closed trying to track down a health club member, baby-sitter named Jane Jones—to no avail. He turned up a similar case in Roanoke, Virginia—a baby-sitter named Sarah Ann Wilson, who had a criminal record and a hospital record of losing 4 children to miscarriage, had taken a young girl. But police were called to a fast food restaurant near the North Carolina border that very night because the girl had started screaming and running to patrons. By the time the squad car arrived, Sarah Ann Wilson was gone, never to be heard of again.
As Christmas drew near, Don Mark’s thoughts turned to the Nole family and little Riley, wherever she was, and to his own children, their growing excitement about the presents that would be under the tree. He knew hundreds of copy shop photos of Riley were going up all over the state, put up by friends and relatives of Joe and Mary Nole. Christmas caused them to spring into action, searching for their lost daughter. So Lt. Marks booted up his computer, as he had so many times before, and started searches—“Sarah Ann Jones”, “Jane Wilson”, “Ann Wilson”…every configuration he could imagine—knowing it would lead to naught.
Riley never went anywhere without Aunt Jane or Uncle Luke. One of them was always home with her. They kept Sarah Ann isolated from the world. Riley thought she should be in school, but whenever she asked, Aunt Jane told her she was too smart for school. Aunt Jane did read to her every night and tried to teach her numbers from time to time. But Riley thought there must be something more.
One day, about a week before that unusual snow, Aunt Jane had taken Sarah on a ride in the car—a special treat. A few blocks from the house, Riley had noticed a display in front of a church. There was the statue of a man, dressed in a brown robe, and another statue of a woman all in white with a blue cape around her. Both the statues were leaning toward a baby in some strange bed.
“Who is that?” Riley/Sarah asked.
Aunt Jane sniffed and stared at her for a minute. “That’s called a crèche, it’s Mary and Joseph and their baby.”
Riley had never heard that word or that story—at least not since her father and mother went to prison, or heaven, and she had been living with Aunt Jane. But as they drove on, Riley began to remember. Something like that had been in her house when she lived with her mommy and daddy. A man dressed in brown, a woman in white with a blue cloth around her shoulders, a little baby. She tried with all her heart to remember…but she couldn’t, not all of it, only flashes—a crèche (such a funny word) somewhere up high, lights, a mommy and daddy, a dog licking her face, bright boxes around a tree. But she was Riley from Raleigh then and everything was different now.
There was Christmas with Aunt Jane—a tiny artificial tree on a table, some lights in the window, a real meal at the table and a teddy bear wrapped in colorful paper for Sarah. Uncle Luke gave her some candy—something red and white striped, since Sarah knew her colors and there was brown liquid in the glasses that Aunt Jane and Uncle Luke were drinking. It was very nice, Sarah had thought…not ‘thought’ so much as simply ‘felt’ what she experienced as ‘safe’—but it didn’t last.
Aunt Jane and Uncle Luke were yelling at each other and Sarah grabbed her teddy bear, who she had named ‘Annie”, and ran to the hall closet to shut herself inside. In the dark, she covered her ears with her hands and shut her eyes as tight as she could—she’d done this before and knew how to do it—but the yelling got louder and she heard something break and for some reason she remembered the man in brown and the woman in white and blue. She struggled with the closet door knob and the front door, then, holding ‘Annie’ under her arm, she ran down the two fights of steps and out into the chill night. She thought she remembered which way to go. If she could only get to those people—that man in brown and woman in white and blue—then the yelling would stop and the fear would go away and something else would be true. Jane and Luke didn’t even notice she was gone until Jane was pressing a wet dishtowel against her eye and Luke was picking up the broken plates from the floor.
Suddenly it began to snow. Sarah didn’t know what snow felt like on your face, your eyelids, your tongue. She stopped running about a block from the place where the man and woman were waiting. She began spinning—wearing only jeans and a thin shirt in the cold. She was holding her face up to the sky, feeling the snow, tasting it, spinning and spinning out beyond the sidewalk into the street….
Lt. Don Marks’ cell phone was ringing in the middle of dessert at his Christmas dinner with his family—his wife and two children, his brother-in-law, his father and mother and a distant cousin who happened to be in town. He considered another bite of apple pie but answered his phone instead.
“John Matthews from the Charlotte Police Department,” the voice said. “Sorry to interrupt your holiday, but I think you’d want to know about this….”
“What?” Lt. Marks asked.
“We have a young girl in hospital here, grazed by a car but doing fine. She didn’t have on a coat and we found a toy bear near her. No one has come to claim her and she keeps saying, ‘I’m Riley and I live in Raleigh’. She looks like the girl on the posters. I knew you’d want to know.”
Don Marks—a tough, world-weary cop, was suddenly weeping—tears and surprise and joy from deep inside himself. His wife was beside him now, a look of love and concern on her face. Don handed her the phone and said, between sobs, “get the details….And I have to go now….” But before he left he hugged his children so tightly they squealed.
When Sarah woke up, the sun was shining through the window of the hospital room. It was the day after Christmas, though Sarah didn’t think of that. She pulled her bear close before she looked around. A woman in white was standing by her bed—where other women in white had stood—with a man dressed in brown. Mary Nole volunteered to do the Christmas shift at the hospital in Raleigh where she worked and Joe, her husband, delivered for UPS on Christmas day. Neither of them wanted to be home without their daughter in an empty, painful, haunted house and neither had bothered to change clothes once they heard from Lt. Marks.
In the background, near the door, was a man in a suit who was standing very still. He was as big as Uncle Luke, but not as scary. He seemed to be wiping tears from his face.
“Who’s that man?” Sarah asked. “Is he okay?”
“That’s a policeman,” her mother said. “His name is Detective Marks. He’s been looking for you for a long time. He’s very happy. That’s why he’s crying.”
“Are you my mommy?” Sarah asked.
“Oh, yes, my love, I am,” Mary answered.
Sarah seemed calm beyond belief. “And you,” she asked the man, “are you my daddy?”
Joseph Nole simply bent over his daughter to hold her.
When he pulled away at last, Riley said, “I’ve seen you on TV. ‘What can Brown do for you?’”
“Anything,” he told her. “Anything….”
“Do we still have a dog? Was Annie her name?” Riley asked.
“Oh yes,” Joseph and Mary said together, looking at each other as they did. “And she misses you so,” Riley’s mother said. “We’ll see her soon. She’ll be so happy.” And Riley smiled.
“I named my bear ‘Annie’,” she said, holding the Teddy up for all to see. Lt. Marks came over to the bed to admire the stuffed animal.
Then she asked, “Is this heaven?”
Merry Christmas, my Love, Merry Christmas….Love JIM