The old cargo van caught Sophie’s attention the moment she stepped outside the Baylor Middle School’s double front doors. Instantly wary, she stopped on the top step and squinted into the blinding El Salvador sun. The vehicle was black and beat up, the windows tinted dark. It was also as out of place as a tank on this street lined with school buses and high dollar limos parked right alongside used compact cars driven by parents or nannies or maids waiting to pick up their kids on the last day before the school’s summer break.
The van crawled like a heavy-bellied lizard stalking prey through street traffic that was thick and harried, stop and go. Students laughing and happily leaving the campus jammed the cracked sidewalks, the dirt packed school yard and the littered curb. All the kids were anxious for summer to start. All of them were looking for their ride. All of them knew to beware of strange vehicles. Yet in their excitement to start their break, they all seemed oblivious to the possibility of a predator among them.
Sophie had made the difficult decision to dismiss classes three days earlier than planned. It was a precautionary measure after a rash of kidnappings for ransom had paralyzed the community. Her heart ached for the two children who had not yet been returned. Her anger boiled at the thought of the ruthless monsters who preyed on a parent’s terror and for the corruption and ineptitude of the San Salvador policía that had been criminally incompetent in their efforts at recovery.
Not again, she thought, never taking her eyes off the van as she dug into her pocket for her whistle. Another child was not going to be abducted. Not from her school and not on her watch. Her students were well versed on what to do if she or any of her teachers sounded three sharp, shrill blasts. She was just about to sound the alarm when the van moved on down the street and disappeared out of sight.
She drew a deep breath, let it out with a mixture of relief and embarrassment. Vigilance was one thing. Panic and paranoia, however, did not look good on a school administrator. It wasn’t very reassuring to the children, either.
“Whoa.” Sophie laughed and caught her balance when little Juan Gomez ran up to her and wrapped his arms around her hips.
"Yo le perderé, Sra. Weber."
Sophie bent down to return Juan’s hug. He smelled like youth and summer. The ten year old was a darling little boy. He’d come a long way from the shy, illiterate waif who’d arrived two years ago, wide-eyed and frightened and on a track to follow his older brother’s footsteps straight into the violent Mara Salvatrucha gang.
“I’ll miss you too, sweetie, but I’ll see you in the fall, okay? In the meantime, don’t forget your summer reading.”
No, he wouldn’t, Sophie thought as the child waved good-bye then skipped down the steps. The Baylor School had opened up a new world to Juan. A future that promised something more than poverty and despair. She smiled as he disappeared into the milling crowd of students, some of whom were privileged and some whom were poor. To insure minimal class distinction, they all wore the standard school uniform of white short-sleeve shirts and khaki skirts or shorts. To insure equality, many of them had been awarded scholarships that came with the promise of a future they would never have had without her school. Juan was one of those children.
She breathed deep of the fragrant blossoms of a row of mature white coffee bean trees lining the school yard. She would miss that scent and her kids during summer break. She worried about them, encouraged them, stood up for them. Granted, only one of the two hundred fifteen middle school students was actually her child, but she considered all of them her kids. Because this was her school. The school she’d made happen five years ago in a part of the city where those most in need usually did without.
Her sense of satisfaction was tempered with the wish that she could do even more.
“You can smell the freedom in the air, can’t you?”
Sophie grinned at Maris Hoffman when her vice-principal joined her on the front steps, her pretty brown eyes sparkling, her native German tongue barely discernable any more when she spoke English.
“Do you remember that feeling?” Sophie asked her, congratulating herself – again – for having had the foresight and good fortune of hiring Maris two years ago. Maris had proven to be not only an exemplary educator and administrator, but a trusted and cherished friend. “Being young and free with nothing ahead of you to worry about but summer sun and fun?”
“Oh. You thought I meant the kids?” Maris laughed and brushed a straight fall of auburn hair out of her eyes. “I was talking about me. Two months without calls from parents, school board meetings and doling out detention. Ah, yes, the sweet scent of freedom.”
“If I didn’t already know that the next couple of months you’ll be pouring your heart and soul into curriculum content and ways to increase the quota on scholarship students, I’d buy that line.”
Maris lifted a shoulder. “Oh, well. A girl can dream. So what’s on your agenda for the summer?”
“Haven’t thought that far ahead.” Well, if she didn’t count Diego’s tantalizing yet somehow, manipulative offer of that trip to Hawaii.
Maris pushed out a huff. “And you accuse me of being dedicated.”
Yes, Sophie thought again, all the stars had aligned when Maris had interviewed two years ago. “Lunch next week?” she suggested as Maris turned to go back inside.
“Sure. Give me a call in a couple of days. I’ve been dying to try that new place that was written up in the paper last week.”
Sophie turned to follow Maris back inside and hit that paperwork but paused then smiled when she spotted Hope. Her lovely, yet currently gangly daughter stood by the curb chatting with her “BFF” Lola Ramirez, while waiting for Lola’s mother to pick them both up. Peas in a pod, those two. Both wore their dark hair straight to the middle of their backs with thick bangs falling over their foreheads. And both so wanted to be older than twelve.
Too soon, she thought, watching them. Too soon Hope would get her wish. Her daughter was growing up, a truth that both saddened and thrilled her.
Hope caught her eye just then and waved. When Lola also spotted her, she waved to Sophie, too. Smiling widely, Sophie lifted her hand to return their greeting – then froze on a sudden clutch of alarm when the black van reappeared out of nowhere, careening down the street, motor racing.
The van wove recklessly among the waiting cars then screeched to a stop by the curb where her daughter stood.
Sophie’s heart slammed into her ribs like a fist. She grabbed her whistle, gave it three short, sharp blasts and sprinted down the steps, her heart racing as fear shot adrenaline through her blood like jet fuel. “Run! Hope, run!” she cried as the side door of the van flew open.
A man jumped out; he headed straight for Hope.
“No!” Sophie yelled, her breath catching as knots of frightened children cried and screamed and ran for safety.
She raced toward her daughter but by the time she reached the street, it was too late. The van sped off, took the corner on two wheels and sped off – stealing a piece of Sophie’s heart as it disappeared.