When I got the call about the Tollefson girl, I could have kicked myself. Like I didn’t see that trainwreck coming, and I tried to make something different happen. I’m lucky it wasn’t such a cold day, she didn’t die of exposure, walking out on that country road. When I first heard how they found her, I thought, Little girl, you don’t have any more good sense than your mother. But I’ve been in the house now and … I’ve seen some bad things, been seeing more lately. My god, how a mother could raise a girl in that mess, that poison mess.
I probably could have prevented it, or at least protected that little girl better, if I had just done my job. I thought her mother was in trouble. I had heard that she’d started a big fight at the Uptown a couple of weeks ago. I had seen her at the C-store a few times over the last few months and her face seemed to be turning the color of ash and when she talked it was like all the expression was draining out of her. At first I thought it was just the winter coming on. Then I thought, oh no, she’s getting into it too.
We’ve had these burglaries lately, not common up here. A couple of weeks ago, I had a night shift because one of the guys was out sick. I’m coming up Maple, that last block before the library and the elementary school where all the big old houses are. Right in front of the big Hanson place I see a kind of beat-up car there I don’t recognize, and which sticks out because you don’t usually see beat-up cars on that block. Right as I’m almost to it I see there are people sitting in it. I pull over just ahead of them. I wait a minute to see if they’d pull out but they didn’t. I get out of my the patrol car and walk back. She rolls down the window. She and a guy are sitting in the front seat. The girl is in the back, wide-eyed. She said they were driving home from a friend’s house when they realized she might have left her wallet at the friend’s house, so they pulled over to look for it. I ask for her license, even though I know who she is. I dated her back when we were in high school, when I was a senior and she was a sophomore. She tells me the man is her husband and the car is his. She holds up her hand and she’s got one of those discount-store rings on her finger. I ask for the registration and for his ID. I go back to my car and call it in. It all checks out, at least that the car is his. I’m not going to challenge her on that. The guy doesn’t look good but I don’t want to know how far she’s come down since we were together twenty years ago. I should have been thinking about that girl, how frightened she looked, but I was just thinking about Doreen. She looked like she was in some trouble and I wanted to help her if I could.
I asked her to get out of the car. It was cold and she didn’t have a heavy coat on. She was standing there, shivering, rubbing her arms and shoulders to keep warm, getting angry. Hostile, really. I knew she was living at the old Nygard farm and her story might have made a little sense but I knew it all a lie. I should have looked in the car, should have asked her to open the trunk. I did think about the burglaries and I was just hoping that she wasn’t involved in some way. I told her I didn’t quite buy her story and I asked her if she needed some help. She said there was nothing wrong except that she was freezing, I should just let her go. I said again that I wanted to help her. She was like a cat then, spitting, Who did I think I was? I said something dumb, like, “Somebody who cared about you once.” I totally lost control of the situation. She was starting to yell, on that quiet street. If the wind hadn’t been up that night, I would have expected some lights to come on. Probably somebody was watching us, since I had left the car running. She just tore into me for thinking I had anything to offer her that would be helpful. Maybe we had gone out once a long time ago but it had meant nothing to her. “You should have forgotten about it, like I did.” I’m embarrassed to say how I felt then. Stupid, because I have my own family now. You wouldn’t think I would have felt that … that protective of her. She was getting wound up, saying just get on with my business. If I didn’t have any reason to hold her there, I should let her go. She and her husband had found her wallet while they were waiting for me and she wanted to get her daughter home to bed. I felt bad for that girl and I just wanted to get out of there. She got back in her car and I got in mine and I waited to see her off. She drove off slowly, as if to dare me to follow her. I tellya, I haven’t had a situation throw me like that in a long time. I was so thrown off, I didn’t even write anything about it in my log.
I knew she was in trouble and it probably would have helped if I’d checked out that car, brought her in. The guys from the state say they were running a meth lab in that kitchen. They’re going to raze that old farmhouse now, it’s considered a hazardous waste site. They’ve had a crew in there wearing these suits, look like they’re on a moon mission. I feel bad for the Nygards. They were just renting the place out while they were deciding whether to fix it back up or not, and now that original farmhouse is going to get torn down, just because they rented to the wrong people. I
When I think back to that night, I think I might have prevented a burglary. I don’t know why else they’d have been sitting out in front of the Hanson place. We’ll see whether that problem stops. But that’s a small thing compared to what I didn’t stop. Doreen’s gone god knows where. I’d have them hunt up that man who she said was her husband but like I said I was so unnerved by trying to talk to her outside her car, I didn’t write anything down. And I threw away the scrap of paper I used to call it in. I don’t really want to admit to anyone else that I had that conversation and let her go. But I did. And I keep thinking about that girl’s wide eyes that night. When I talked to her last week, the day they found her, she wouldn’t say anything. Her eyes looked shut down then. It was as if I’d had my chance and I’d proved she couldn’t trust me, just like all the other adults she knew. Here I work hard to protect, to keep people safe, and when it came down to it, I was as worthless as all of the people I’m supposedly protecting against.