Sunday, June 12, 2011

Panic Button

Hear the story read by the author.

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. Last week, the church made the police blotter in the Normal Star Times. The mention was brief, but it had taken investigating officers Glenn Johnson and Cindy Beaumont the better part of an hour to sort out exactly what had transpired.

On the afternoon in question, Johnson watched as Beaumont poured water into the red, swollen eyes of the pastor, who was sitting on the church steps. Johnson skimmed back over the confusing jumble of notes on his pad with a sigh. The slim, stately woman in front of him looked to be in her mid fifties and was nervously fiddling with a button on her flower print cardigan. “Are you sure you don’t want me to call the paramedics, Mrs. Billings?” he asked.

“Oh no,” she said. “That’s not necessary. It’s just when you came into the office with your guns drawn it rather frightened me. I fainted, that’s all. I’m very embarrassed.”

“All right then. Why don’t you tell me what happened. From the beginning, please.”

“The beginning? Well, I guess the first thing you have to know is Pastor O’Donnell has been quite nervous about Dr. Walech’s visit for over a week. See, Dr. Walech was his favorite professor at seminary, and the pastor wanted to make a good impression. That’s why he asked me to keep an eye on Mary and Susie.”

“Are you related to the girls?”

“No, I’m the church secretary.”

“They’re the pastor’s girls then.”

“No. They belong to Jill Boyer.”

“Her,” Johnson said, and pointed his pen at the young woman seated cross-legged on the lawn with the girls in question.

“Yes,” Tammy Billings replied. “You see, she was working in the garden. The women’s group takes turns and it was her week. She brought the girls along because her husband was playing golf or something.”

“But it was the pastor who brought the girls to the office.”

“Yes. Apparently Jill had given the girls colored chalk to draw on the sidewalk. Then Susie had to use the bathroom, so Jill took them inside. But Mary had gotten chalk all over her and I guess she kind of left a trail in the social hall. When the pastor saw that, he thought maybe it would be better if the girls colored with crayons in the office while Dr. Walech was here.”

“Okay, I think I follow. But what does that have to do with the panic alert we received from your alarm system?”

“Well, once Pastor O’Donnell and Dr. Walech began their tour of the grounds, I thought it would be safe to start copying the newsletter. But when I looked up, Mary was gone.”

“Mrs. Billings, the panic button is for serious emergencies – violent break-ins, for example. You can’t push it whenever a child wanders off.”

“That’s what I’m trying to explain. It wasn’t me. It turned out Mary hadn’t left the office at all. She was hiding under my desk. She saw the button under there and pushed it. It’s all my fault. I should have known you don’t dare take your eyes off that girl for a second.”

Johnson looked over at the four-year-old in question. “She’s just a child,” he said. “I’m sure she didn’t mean any harm.”

“You don’t know her,” Billings said with a shudder.

While Officer Johnson was interviewing Tammy Billings, Officer Cindy Beaumont examined the eyes of the chubby, middle-aged man who she now knew was Pastor Henry O’Donnell. “Are you feeling better, sir?” Officer Beaumont asked.

The pastor blinked several times and squinted at the elderly gentleman who was admiring the flowers in the garden as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. “My eyes are,” O’Donnell muttered.

“Good,” Beaumont said. “Now, can you explain again why you were climbing out the window when we arrived?”

“That man over there is Dr. Walech. He’s the pastor of a big church in Philadelphia with all kinds of programs and mission work and even a radio station. He’s had three books published and he teaches a legendary seminary class on semantics. I was so honored that he would come visit our little church, I just wanted everything to be perfect.”

“And that somehow involves you exiting via the window.”

“I was giving him a tour. While we were in the social hall, I happened to look out the window and saw that Mary had drawn that big picture of the devil on the sidewalk in colored chalk. It was frightening, really. Whatever else you can say about her, that girl has some artistic talent.”

Beaumont glanced over at the drawing. It was impressively horrific. The eyes seemed to follow you wherever you stood.

“Well, I didn’t want Dr. Walech to see that,” O’Donnell continued, “I was worried he might think Mary was typical of the children in our Sunday school program. So I directed him to a display on the bulletin board and told him I needed to use the restroom. I climbed out the restroom window so I could hose off the sidewalk. But I kind of slipped and fell into the bushes. And that’s when you saw me.”

“So why didn’t you just identify yourself and explain all that? Why did you come running out of the bushes waving your arms?”

“There was a spider in there…” the pastor said, his cheeks reddening to match his eyes.

“That wasn’t very smart, pastor. You could have been shot.”

“I know,” O’Donnell mumbled. “Thank you for only using the pepper spray.”

Officers Beaumont and Johnson got together to compare notes. Clearly this was all just a big misunderstanding, but it seemed hard to believe such a little girl could have caused so much chaos. So they decided to talk to Mary to confirm the story.

“I’m sorry I pushed the button,” Mary said, tiny, adorable tears gathering on her eyelashes. “I just wanted to find out what it did.”

“Well now you know,” Johnson said with mock sternness. “And you won’t do it again, will you?”

“No. I promise.”

“Why did you draw a picture of the devil on the sidewalk?” Beaumont asked.

“Oh, that’s from a funny movie I saw last night. I woke up and I was thirsty and when I came downstairs for some water, my Daddy was asleep in the reclimber chair and I saw that red man with the horns on the TV. I thought he was really cool so I stayed and watched.”

Johnson stifled a laugh.

“Can I go play now?” Mary asked.

“Sure,” Beaumont said. “But why don’t you draw something a little happier this time. Like a rainbow.”

“Rainbows are boring,” Mary scoffed as she skipped away.

The two police officers gathered the others together. “Okay,” Johnson said, “obviously this was a false alarm. And I have to say, I’m a little embarrassed for all of you. You’re adults. You shouldn’t be passing the blame onto that sweet little—”

Johnson’s lecture was interrupted by the earsplitting wail of a siren very close behind him. After making sure he hadn’t soiled himself, he turned around to discover Mary Boyer behind the wheel of his police cruiser pretending to drive. He grabbed the door handle, but Mary had apparently locked the doors. Johnson pounded on the window to get her attention, but the little girl couldn’t hear him over the noise.

As O’Donnell watched this newest bit of chaos forlornly, Dr. Walech put a hand on his shoulder. “I know just how you feel,” Walech said. “We have a little boy at our church named James Mendelsen…”