Four-month-old Renee was an adorable baby, swaddled in a pink blanket embossed with a large picture of Piglet. Holding her close to his chest, Ethan looked down at her angelic face as a proud father. She was sound asleep in his arms, producing tiny spit bubbles between her red lips as she breathed.
Even after four months, he couldn’t get over how white and bald she looked coming out of the womb. Based on Maria’s baby pictures, they expected a darker skinned child with a full head of black hair.
He had the luxury of rocking her to sleep before work, allowing Maria time to lay down since she had been up for a few hours already. He loved holding his baby girl when she was so still and peaceful. It gave him a chance to stare at her precious face and admire what it meant to be a father.
Before having a child, he only had to take care of Maria and the two could spoil themselves. Now, not only did his responsibility grow, but he also felt a different kind of purpose. He now had a daughter that he could share the magic of the world with. On top of the wonderful things to look forward to, there were many new fears he had to consider as well; more fears than other parents because of how familiar he was with the atrocities that people were capable of.
Slowly and silently carrying his bundle of joy to the crib, Ethan laid her down gently to avoid waking her. Mommy was cranky enough having to wake up so early in the morning. If he had to hand Renee off to Maria again, crying and needing to be fed as he left for work, the evening would be far from stress free when he returned.
He really wanted to stay and cuddle with her, but other children needed his attention at work. Having a daughter of his own made him more protective of the children he was fighting for. Trying to remain subjective and not allowing work to become more personal was an arduous task in itself. The job was difficult to turn off when getting home, even before becoming a father himself.
Ethan closed the blinds in Renee’s room before the rising sun was able to beam light through the bars of her crib. While shutting the door to her room, he took one last glance to make sure the baby monitor was on for Maria, and one last moment of admiration for the gorgeous, little girl that he had helped create. He found it hard to believe that such a feeling was nonexistent just four months ago.
Owen pulled into the office parking lot at the same time that Ethan arrived. Of course, Owen was holding a donut in his hand as he climbed out of his blue, Toyota Prius. He had a silly grin on his face as he approached Ethan. “Dude, I have a date tonight with a gorgeous little honey.”
Ethan gave a tight-lipped grin, nodding his head. “I’m so excited for you, buddy.”
“Thanks, man. I’m going to need you and Maria to come with.”
“Seriously? Why do you have to drop a bomb like that on me first thing in the morning? Anyway, I don’t think we can get a sitter with such short notice.”
Owen rushed ahead and opened the door for Ethan. Not being characteristic of Owen, he was clearly kissing ass. “Can’t you get your mom or mother-in-law to watch her? I really need you guys there to keep me grounded. This girl is super hot, and I’m afraid that I’ll fuck this up. I was lucky as hell to even get a date with her.”
Ethan sat down at his desk while Owen shoved half of the donut in his mouth. “I can’t wait to hear how that happened.” His sarcasm was lost on Owen who couldn’t wait to tell him.
“So, while I was picking up donuts and coffee this morning, I couldn’t take my eyes off the sexy new girl that was preparing my coffee. When she handed it to me, we locked eyes for a moment. I didn’t know what to say other than to thank her.”
“That’s so romantic, Owen. Great story.”
Owen barely took a breath as he continued his riveting story. “There’s more, man. I sat down just so that I could hang out and watch her longer. She was busy for a moment, then looked up at me just as I tipped the coffee over onto my lap. I jumped up from the table cause that shit burned. I was probably blushing because everyone in the place was staring at me. She quickly brought over some towels to help me out. That’s when I took a chance and passively asked her out.”
Ethan raised his eyebrows. “And that means?”
“I just said, ‘Great, I just ruined any chance of taking you on a date, huh?’ Surprisingly, she said she would go out with me. You don’t think I seem too desperate by making our date for the same night I met her, do you?”
“It really doesn’t matter. If she agreed to it, you better just stick with it. I’m putting my money on it being a pity date,” Ethan said, unable to prevent himself from chuckling.
“Ha, ha. Will you please just go with me? I’m nervous as shit.”
“I’ll check with Maria when I get home. I can’t promise anything if we can’t find someone to watch Renee, though.”
Lin walked up and handed a file to Ethan. “When you two are done bullshitting, I’d like you to go check this house out, Ethan. We got a tip a few minutes ago from a concerned neighbor. They’re worried about a toddler living at the home in question that hasn’t been seen in a while. Apparently, the home has been neglected lately, so there’s a good chance the child may be as well. Child endangerment is our primary concern, so I need you to get out there ASAP. It’s yours if you can handle it right now, or Owen can have it.”
“No problem, Lin. I’m on it now,” Ethan said, jumping out of his chair to pursue the investigation.
“Have fun, Ethan,” Owen said, waving goodbye.
Assuming he was off the hook based on his condescending farewell, Lin slipped another file into his waving hand. “You should be right off behind him. You’re do for a follow-up on this case.”
Ethan smiled as he left the building.
Walking toward his Escape, Ethan opened the file to find the address. The exterior of the home in question was described as being neglected and in a state of disarray, beginning as recently as two months ago. A preschool-aged girl had been seen playing outside on a regular basis, but had not appeared in the last several weeks.
Fifteen minutes driving along the worn roads in Onett’s older neighborhoods, Ethan’s Escape rounded a corner onto a pothole-ridden road that was located in a low-income neighborhood. The asphalt was in shambles and covered with a thin layer of loose gravel. Due for a replacement, the bald tires on his car skidded as he came to a stop in front of the house.
Looking around the neighborhood, he assumed which home needed to be investigated before even checking its address. The dilapidated, single-story house was no more than about twelve hundred square feet. The yard was overgrown with weeds and thistles where a green lawn must have existed at one time, littered throughout with trash such as an old patio set and broken appliances. The planters surrounding the front porch housed brown flowers and the skeletal remains of shrubs.
Ethan wondered how lazy and disgusting a person had to be to live under such conditions, especially when housing a young child. He feared for the condition of the little girl, praying not to find her lifeless body.
As he approached the front porch with notebook in hand, Ethan winced at the stench in the air. The aroma was a mixture of what he imagined to be unwashed clothes and sour milk. The aroma became more pungent the closer he came to the front door. It seemed that the smell was coming from inside the house. He couldn’t fathom what he might find inside.
Ethan knocked on the door, announcing his name and title as usual, but received no response. He placed his ear an inch away from the door, listening to what sounded like creaking floorboards on the opposite side of the door.
“If you don’t let me in, I’ll have to bring the police!” Ethan shouted loud enough for even the neighbors to hear.
Still not hearing a response, he turned the knob and slowly opened the unlocked door. The chance that someone could be waiting on the opposite side of the door to attack crossed his mind, so he proceeded with caution. He realized he was entering the home illegally, but sensed that it was necessary. Something seemed wrong and the child inside may be in need of rescuing.
As Ethan pushed the door open, he held his breath knowing that the potent stench coming from inside was about to pour out onto the porch. The door opened about a foot before it hit something that prevented any further movement. The odor was so strong that he imagined a poisonous, green mist seeping out of the doorway. He had to lift his shirt collar over his nose to prevent himself from getting nauseous. He cursed himself for not putting on any cologne before work.
Brazenly, he maneuvered his head through the gap to see what was preventing any further movement of the door.
Junk had been piled up on the floor and stacked against the walls in the living room. Beyond that was a kitchen draped with dirty dishes. Counter space was nonexistent. A narrow walking path remained somewhat clear in the center of the room, leading only to the refrigerator and the couches.
His heart broke as he witnessed a dog pacing back and forth, causing the damaged, chip-board floors to creak. A muzzle was attached to its face, clearly not being fed or cleaned based on its anorexic body and mangy appearance. The poor thing was missing chunks of hair and was covered with pustules.
Ethan stepped inside and set his notebook down on a pile of junk, immediately removing the dog’s muzzle. The dog licked his hands appreciatively before rummaging through the scattered trash for food.
Sitting in the living room were a man and woman, probably in their thirties, watching television. They both wore soiled tank tops and stained, ripped jeans. They were also both obese, as evidenced by all the fast food wrappers that had been thrown throughout the house. They most likely had not bathed recently based on how dirty and greasy they appeared.
Among the litter scattered throughout the living room were several empty beer cans on the floor, a bong caked in residue on the coffee table, and even a few used syringes surrounding the couch.
Ethan carefully approached the man who didn’t notice him. They were both high and completely oblivious to Ethan’s presence. “Where the hell is your daughter?” he said, angered by the disaster he had discovered.
The man remained silent for over a minute, his eyes barely open, until managing to garble out a barely audible sentence. “The kid is playing in her room.”
Ethan began wading through the trash in search of the girl’s bedroom. He tripped several times while making his way down the hall and stumbled upon a dead cat, likely a primary culprit of the unbearable stench. Its corpse was stiff and covered with flies. There was a plastic bag over its head and appeared to have been decomposing for some time. He began to dread the next horrific discovery.
Entering what looked like a child’s room, he found the girl sitting on her twin sized bed. The bed was covered with junk, preventing her from having enough room to lie down. In the corner of her room was the dead cat’s litter box, overflowing with feces. Somehow, empty beer cans were scattered around the child’s room as well.
The little girl was a toddler, maybe four years of age. She calmly played with a dirty, tattered doll and a pony that was missing two legs. Humming to herself, the young girl played with her broken toys while completely ignoring the nightmare that surrounded her.
Ethan’s heart sank into his gut, his eyes unable to prevent tears from escaping as the innocent child looked up at him. Her hair was frayed and greasy as if the poor girl had not been bathed in weeks. Her blue eyes seemed to glow, surrounded by the dirt and grime that coated her face.
Despite wearing smelly, unwashed clothes and being covered in filth, the child smiled at him once noticing his presence. Children never ceased to amaze him with their ability to endure harsh treatment. They always seemed to have a positive attitude despite the deplorable situations he usually found them in.
Ethan kneeled down next to the little girl, wiping tears away from his eyes. “What’s your name, darling?”
“My name is Lindsay. What’s your name?”
“I’m Ethan. Is that your mother and father in the living room?”
“Yes. They’re busy right now, so they told me to play in my room. I play in my room a lot.”
“Did you have breakfast or lunch yet?” he said, knowing that the chances were slim.
“No. I only had a slice of pizza last night before bed.”
Ethan’s empathy for the child quickly transformed into anger directed toward the parents. Her treatment was despicable, especially knowing that it came from her own parents. “Do you mind if I take your picture, Lindsay?”
“Okay!” Lindsay said, excited as most children were to have their picture taken. She reached behind her bed and pulled out a tattered, wicker hat with a ripped bow that hung off the front of it. “Cheese!”
Despite the child smiling as he took a picture of her with his phone, the picture was as unsettling to look at as it was to take. He needed evidence of the state in which he found her, but vowed to get her cleaned up as soon as possible. After taking her picture, he called to alert the authorities.
While on the phone with the dispatcher, Ethan ran down the hall and found the bathroom. While looking for a towel to clean Lindsay with, he cringed at the sight of black and green mold growing in the shower and toilet. There were no clean towels, so he tried to use water from the faucet to wet his shirt. Ethan figured they had not paid the water bill as no water came out. They must be living on welfare, he decided, because no one would give them employment in their current state.
After hanging up with the dispatcher, he didn’t hesitate calling animal control to rescue the suffering dog. Then, he quickly returned to Lindsay and picked the smelly child up in his arms, removing her from the house of horrors. “Let’s go play outside together, honey.”
An elderly couple stood on their porch next door. They watched as Ethan carried Lindsay out of the house, gasping once they saw the state she was in.
“Can you please help me clean her up?” Ethan said.
“Of course, sir. Bring her inside and we can give her a bath,” the old man said.
Ethan followed the couple inside and put Lindsay down in the bathroom. “Will you be alright if . . . ” Ethan turned to the old woman, “Sorry, what’s your name, ma’am?”
“I’m Claire,” the elderly woman said.
“Are you okay if Claire gives you a bath, Lindsay?”
Lindsay nodded her head, so Ethan left them to it. He walked back outside and stood on the porch next to the old man. “Were you the ones that reported the parents?”
“Yes, sir. We were concerned for that poor girl. We often watched her playing by herself outside most of the time. Her parents aren’t friendly types, but that sweet little thing has always been very friendly and well behaved. It’s a damn shame to see how they’ve been treating her. Some people just don’t deserve to be parents.”
“You’re right about that, sir.”
“The parents didn’t put up much of a fight for her?”
“No. I don’t think they even noticed. They’re high out of their minds. I’m going back over to have a chat with them. The police should be here soon.”
Ethan entered the disgusting living room and stood in front of the television, blocking the parents’ view. The father groaned, but couldn’t rouse enough energy to move. “You fucking people,” Ethan said, remaining perfectly calm. “I can’t believe you two worthless human beings would treat a child like that.”
There was no reaction from the couple. He couldn’t tell if the mother was asleep or dead, but the father was still vaguely conscious.
Ethan came within inches of the man’s face. “Your daughter is being taken away from you. You don’t deserve her.” Ethan grabbed the man’s greasy, chubby cheeks, pursing his lips. “You will both go to jail. While you’re in prison, you’re going to forget that you even have a daughter.”
Ethan let go of his face and picked up a used syringe off the grimy floor. He imagined how easy it would be to just inject another syringe full of heroin into each of their arms. Assuming they may have overdosed already, he decided jail and the threat of murder would do the trick. He pointed the syringe at the father’s face in a threatening manner. “If you attempt to get your daughter back, I will seek out and kill you both. I can easily make it look like a junkie accident. I’ll do whatever it takes to protect that beautiful little girl that you have disgustingly neglected.”
Ethan placed the syringe on the man’s lap, watching as he succumbed to the drugs and lost consciousness.
Ethan left the house confident that he had made his point. The death threat was meant to be empty; a scare tactic used solely to deter them. But deep down, realizing that the parents might get sober in jail and actually try to regain custody of their daughter, he couldn’t rule out keeping good on his word as it would be the only way he could live with himself. He couldn’t let Lindsay be another Kevin East.
Inside the neighbor’s home, Claire was combing Lindsay’s hair while the girl ate a sandwich. Lindsay looked like a completely different child. She was finally clean and wore a brand new, Disney princess dress, which happened to be one size too big for her. Ethan smiled when he saw how delighted and appreciative Lindsay looked. “You are very adorable, Lindsay . . . I mean princess.”
Lindsay grinned at Ethan with a mouth full of food, crumbs falling from her lips.
“The dress was for my niece,” Claire said. “I figured Lindsay could use it more. I can just pick up another one later.”
Ethan grabbed Claire’s hand. “Thank you for all your help, Claire.”
Sirens arrived outside, prompting Ethan to meet them outside. Only one police car arrived, but another could be heard in the distance. He greeted the male and female officers that climbed out of the cruiser, holding Lindsay by the hand. “I’m Ethan and I work for Child and Family Services. There’s a man and a woman stoned out of their minds inside. I removed the child from home as soon as I entered.” Ethan leaned closer and whispered, “It’s a hell hole.”
The officers entered the home. Ethan witnessed their reactions to the stench, both cupping their noses with their hands simultaneously. He had no intention of going near the house again. The odor still lingered in his sinuses.
The mother had to be carried out by the officers. Her feet dragged along the ground as each officer had one of her arms around their neck. The other police car arrived while they were placing her in the back of the cruiser and handcuffing her.
Two male officers got out of the newly arrived vehicle and were led inside by the others. The two new arrivals both had the same disgusted reaction upon entering the front door. Escorting the drugged father out of the house required all four officers, who carried him out in handcuffs.
Animal control pulled up to the house during all the commotion. Ethan greeted the two individuals and directed them inside the house to find the dog.
“Where are they taking Mommy and Daddy?” Lindsay said.
“They have to go away for a while. They weren’t treating you properly, honey.” He could see a nervous expression on her face.
One of the officers approached Ethan. The name tag on his lapel read “Watkins.” “Is the child alright?”
Ethan waved Claire over and handed her Lindsay’s hand. “Do you mind putting her in my car?”
“Of course,” she said.
Once Lindsay was out of earshot, he responded to Watkins. “The girl was in bad shape. She hadn’t been bathed in at least a week, but possibly longer. They weren’t feeding her much either.”
“Who answered the door when you arrived?” Watkins asked.
“The father was clearly too wasted to answer the door, so he just shouted for me to come inside after I threatened to bring the police if he didn’t let me in. The door was irresponsibly unlocked, by the way,” Ethan said, fabricating the truth a little to make sure the parents went to jail.
“Did you have a warrant?”
“No. I was just investigating an anonymous tip from the neighbors.”
“Did you touch anything once inside the home?” Watkins asked.
“No, sir . . . well, actually, I took a muzzle off the dog because it hadn’t eaten in quite some time. Other than that, I just carried the girl out of that shit hole.”
Watkins put his pen and notepad back in his pocket. “Alright, that should be all for now. You did a good job today, sir. Even though I’ve seen many instances of this kind of neglect, it’s not something you get used to. I’m sure you understand that.”
Ethan’s stomach began rumbling as he walked back to the Escape and sat in the driver’s seat. He rolled down the window as the elderly gentleman approached his door. “Thank you for all your help, sir. I know Lindsay appreciates it, too. You’re a good neighbor.”
“You take care of that girl. We’ll pray for you both. You do God’s work,” the man said, shaking Ethan’s hand and walking back to his porch.
Ethan had always thought so, but enjoyed hearing it from someone else. He looked at Lindsay in the rear-view mirror as she hummed to herself and admired the jewels on her dress. “Do you have a grandma or grandpa, dear? Or aunt and uncle?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“I have to take you to a foster home for the night. It’s a family that will take care of you until I can find you a permanent home. If you have any relatives, I’ll find them for you. I can promise you that.”