Imagine you’re six and a half years old. The extra half makes a big difference, because it means you’re that much closer to being one of the big kids. The ones who can stay up late and ride their bikes to school and who know all the jokes with words you don’t understand and get in trouble for saying. Your world is all warm hugs and juice boxes and glittery gowns, movies where the princesses’ dreams always come true and where no problem is too big to solve in ninety minutes, provided you’ve got a few talking animals to help.
Imagine you’re at a street festival with your best friend and her family, eyes wide at all the colors and sounds, breathing in the scent of grilling meat mixed with the sugar-sweet aroma of funnel cakes and cotton candy. You hold hands with her, because that’s what best friends do and because the crowd makes you nervous. But she’s not afraid. She laughs at the performers and twirls in her pink tulle skirt she wears over purple leggings. You watch a man turn long balloons into animals with just a few twisty squeaks, and your friend’s parents buy one for each of you. Yours is a yellow dog with big floppy ears. Your friend gets a pink unicorn, and now you wish you had a unicorn instead.
Imagine you see a carousel with all kinds of fantastical creatures bobbing up and down in a whirl of colors and tinkling music. You point it out to your friend, who squeals in joy. Her parents are busy buying food for her older brother, a boy who smells like dirt and corn chips, and they don’t see you and your friend run to get a closer view of the carousel. You think that maybe if you get there first, you’ll get to ride the unicorn and this time she’ll get stuck with the dog.
Imagine as you clutch the metal rails around the outside of the carousel, a man speaks from behind you.
“Excuse me, little girl. I think you dropped this.” He holds out the yellow balloon dog you dropped during the run.
You and your friend both know that talking to strangers is wrong. But your friend has always been more daring than you, and when you take a step backwards, she takes one forward. “I have a unicorn,” she says proudly, showing her pink balloon creation.
“Is that so?” the man asks. He has a pleasant smile.
“The dog is hers.”
He holds it out. You only have to grab it, but you take another step back instead.
Your friend, who usually takes the lead in all social situations, reaches for it.
Imagine the last sight you have of your best friend is a flurry of pink skirt and purple leggings as she tries to kick free of the arms that grab her. The last sound you hear is one solitary shriek, drowned out in the screams from a nearby roller coaster. The man and your friend disappear, and all that is left is a pink balloon unicorn lying in the dirt. You don’t want it anymore.
I don’t have to imagine all of this, because I remember it. Every detail of that day, except for one thing. I can never picture the man’s face. I couldn’t then, couldn’t tell the police any more than that he had a nice-man smile, and even now in my mind his face is a blank. Except for that smile. Pleasant. Normal. No sharp teeth or evil laugh that I’d expect from a monster.
My mom has spent hundreds of dollars — maybe thousands, I don’t know — on therapy to convince me that Shannon Ginther’s kidnapping wasn’t my fault. But the truth of it is, I never thought it was.
It’s just my fault she was never found.