The traffic signal changed to DON’T WALK just as the girls reached the corner. Carla stopped and lifted her sobbing sister up into the stone fence. She used a tissue to blot a trickle of blood from Pam’s knees and scratched hands. The dark-haired girl thought her little sister was more upset and angry than seriously injured. Still Carla was anxious to reach home and turn the problem over to their mother.
They had been playing at the park with friends when a group of older boys swaggered up to them and ordered the girls to leave the swings. The youths were too big for the play equipment but Carla and the others didn’t argue. The snickering boys were looking for trouble. As unfair as it was, the girls surrendered the swings.
Pam was too young to understand that it was best to avoid trouble and to leave the park at once. She had waited for her turn and she was determined to take it.
“Let’s go home, Pam. We can come back and play after supper,” Carla pleaded nervously. The other frightened girls had quickly left.
“No! They’re not playing fair,” Pam cried, looking stubborn. “It’s my turn and I don’t want to go home yet. You promised to swing me up high. I don’t want to play after supper. I want to swing now!”
“Pam, please! Let them have the swings,” Carla whispered. She tried to pry the little girl’s fingers loose from the chains, but Pam held on tightly.
“I’ll get that kid out of there!” the tallest boy boasted. He slapped Pam’s hands but she didn’t loosen her grip. The others laughed and shouted encouragement. Pam was frightened now and began to cry. One boy held Carla back when she tried to protect her sister. The tall one jerked and twisted the chains until Pam lost her balance and toppled out of the swing seat.
White with anger and fear, Carla fled with her wailing sister. The boys were scuffling over the swings and didn’t try to stop them.
Carla was busy trying to soothe Pam. She didn’t notice that a car had stopped at the curb until the driver called to her.
“Is the little girl hurt? Get in and I’ll take you home,” the smiling man offered, opening the car door.
Carla was so upset that she almost accepted the offer. She couldn’t stop Pam’s weeping, and the blood trickling down from her sister’s skinned knees frightened her. All she wanted to do was to get Pam home as soon as possible.
“Come on, honey, get in. Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you. All I want to do is help,” the driver said enticingly.
Suddenly Carla remembered repeated warnings about getting into cars with strangers. Her parents had told her never to accept a ride from anyone she didn’t know, no matter how nice the person seemed. She also remembered the lecture at school when a police officer had explained that some very sick people look normal but might be dangerous.
Something about the man bothered Carla. Most adults would have rushed to help a child who was hurt. But the florid-faced man didn’t really seem concerned about Pam’s injuries. He just kept inviting the girls into his car while glancing nervously into his rearview mirror. His darting eyes kept searching for anyone watching along the street.
Panic swept over Carla as she recognized a dented and rusted rear fender. She had seen the car before! The last two afternoons it had been parked near the play area at the park. The driver had stayed in it, apparently just watching the children.
Carla’s heart hammered with fear. “Thank you,” she stammered, “but we don’t need a ride. We live just down the block. We’re practically home now.”
It wasn’t true and the man sensed that she was not telling the truth. His eyes narrowed and he stopped smiling.
How can I run with Pam? Carla wondered. We’re over three blocks from home! Relief swept over her as she saw a neighbor’s car coming toward them. “Mr. Benning! Mr. Benning!” she shouted, waving frantically.
The stranger quickly slammed his open door and sped through a red light as Mr. Benning stopped his car and leaped out. Carla ran to him sobbing.
Later, with two police officers sitting in their living room, Carla felt embarrassed by all the trouble she seemed to be causing. Her parents were worried, and the policemen looked grim as one of them made notes.
“He didn’t really do anything,” she whispered shyly. “Maybe I was scared for nothing. Maybe he’s just a nice man who was trying to help us.”
“No, Carla. The man you’ve described isn’t a ‘nice’ man,” the tall officer stated flatly. “We know him. He’s suspected of being a child molester. If you and your sister had gotten into the car with him, you don’t know what might have happened. You were smart to remember all the warnings about accepting rides from strangers.”
Carla shivered and snuggled closer to her father. “I’ll always remember not to accept rides from strangers. And I’ll remind Pam and my friends too!” she said.
“Good,” the policeman said, smiling and closing his notebook. “The more children who remember, the easier my job will be. And don’t worry about any more trouble at the park. I’m going to talk to those older boys and their parents. When they understand that they may be banned from the park or arrested for bullying smaller children, they’ll stay at the ball diamond.” The officer smiled. “And none of you will have to miss your turns on the swings again,” he promised.