She answered Grumpa later, after it was all over, when he asked her where she had been going all by herself, with one word: "Home."
It all started after lunch today. We'd spent the morning outside with the kids playing in the their little blow up pools on the porch. We were talking about going outside to have popsicles, but the heat had already become oppressive as it hovered right around a hundred, and no one really wanted to leave the air conditioned living room.
Mae was in the kitchen, which opens up into the living room, but I couldn't see her from where I was sitting with James sleeping next to me and Patch curled up on my lap. She'd been playing with her PECS book and had surrounded herself with a huge amount of toys.
"I'm going to check on her." I said to my mom as I got up and put Patch down on the couch. "It's been a little too quiet for a little too long."
I was half joking when I said the words. It had been too quiet but I didn't really believe that anything was wrong. Not at that moment anyways. My parents have outfitted their house with more locks than our own home has. Every door has at least two heavy duty bolts on it.
I ran to the outer door. Because the inner door was locked we'd been more careless with this one, single outer door, which lead to the garage. We were all using to go in and out of the house. I silently hoped that the garage itself was closed but when I pulled the door open the room was filled with light and I knew instantly that it wasn't.
And she was nowhere in sight.
I ran out into the drive way, screaming for my mom as the door slammed shut and yelling for Mae in the next breath. I ran down the driveway, hardly noticing I didn't have shoes on my feet. How far could she have gone?
How long had it been quiet? Five minutes. Five minutes tops.
I made it to the end of the driveway and looked everywhere. She wasn't on the porch or in the backyard. She wasn't in the garden or in with the horses. She wasn't between my parents' and grandparents' houses. She wasn't over by the orchard or in the groves of trees right in front of me and she wasn't on the road down to the river or up to the main road.
I could hear my Mom screaming for my Dad, telling him Maggie was gone as I took off at a sprint towards the river. I ran down the dirt road, hardly feeling the rocks and fox tails and little pieces of glass under my bare feet. I made it to the giant flood plain at the bottom of the property line and kept running.
How could she have disappeared so fast? She was nowhere to be seen.
Halfway across the flood plain the searing pain started. I screamed for Maggie, for help, to God to keep her safe. I ran for as far as I could and fell, holding my feet before getting up and running another ten steps.
I couldn't go back for shoes. What if she was at the river at that very moment and if I'd pushed on through pain I would be there in time to save her, but if I went back I wouldn't be? How would I go on wondering whether, if I'd just pushed through the pain, she would have been okay?
I kept running and falling and getting back up until I came to the twenty foot drop off, where the river carved a steep bank this year, and looked over the edge. She was nowhere to be seen.
I looked upriver and downriver and turned and scanned the vast wilderness that stretched away in every direction. The forest was silent and still.
Dad was already driving down the hill. When I got to him he quickly told me he'd called 911 and the sheriff and dogs and search teams were on their way.
I ran up the hill and into the house and traded my moms flip flops for my shoes before heading back out the door. Sadie was sitting next to James praying as Patch played nearby.
I ran into the backyard and looked around, not expecting to see her and then I jumped the fence that Dad put up to keep the kids in the backyard and plunged into the gully behind the house, hoping that I wouldn't step on a rattlesnake as I hurdled over rocks. My feet were squishing in my shoes, with an odd sloshing feeling but I kept running, yelling all the while.
I sprinted up the hill looking left and right, yelling her name over and over again. There was a creek off to my left through thick brush, which I didn't realize right away was dry because of the drought. I headed for the house of a sweet neighbor lady who knows the area well and she heard me coming and came outside. She ran inside to get her shoes on as Dad drove by up another driveway, honking to bring everyone outside who might help.
With two of our neighbors and their two dogs we headed back down towards the river. One of the women in the second house thought she'd heard a child crying and so I took off in the direction they'd pointed, after explaining quickly that Mae's autistic and likely wouldn't answer if called.
As I headed off down a path that borders the river and approaches it from another angle I heard three loud honks. We all froze. I looked at the neighbor who I'd never spoken to before today and said "does that mean..." as I heard Dad yell, "I've got her."
A few minutes later he came driving down the road.
We ran to meet him and there she was, sitting on the passenger seat, sweaty and with rosy cheeks, barefoot in pink tights and a pink dress.
I scooped her up in my arms and kissed her face and held onto her tightly. She kissed me back, completely unimpressed with all the excitement. I introduced her to our neighbors and thanked them as Dad drove down to the river where Mom was watching the banks to make sure she didn't head that way if she hadn't already.
With everyone gone I started to walk towards the house carrying Maggie, but as the energy that had carried me that far ebbed, I found myself taking teeny tiny steps. "Come on!" Mae said in an exasperated tone ("come on" was a phrase she had even when she only had about ten words) and I hobbled back to the house and got her in the door where Sadie told me that Patch had been getting into trouble trying to go into Grumpa's office.
When he returned I began to piece together the rest of the story.
She'd walked up the long dirt driveway to the main road and had turned towards the highway when she reached it. A man who'd been driving on the road had seen her and started to follow her to make sure she was okay. She'd headed across a large flat expanse and past a huge gully, before heading down into the forest. Shortly after she'd gone into the forest, the cavalry had arrived in the form of the US Forest Service.
Apparently the response to my Dad's call had been quick and efficient. By the time he got there the Forest Service, volunteer firefighters and sheriff's deputies were on the scene. They told him that the first Forest Service guy had jumped out of the truck and said hi to her and she'd barreled on past, so that he had caught her and scooped her up and put her in the forestry truck.
She'd gotten down and sat on the floor in the truck, they said, but wouldn't respond to any of their questions (they'd gotten the message that a four year old girl was missing, but not that she was autistic).
The dogs and helicopter and search crews who were on their way were turned back.
Back at the house two sheriff's deputies arrived and went over what had happened. All of us were amazed at how far she'd made it in such a short amount of time. When we measured it was six tenths of a mile from our house and we think it was probably about fifteen minutes from the time she left until she was found.
About an hour after she was safely home, as the adrenaline ebbed, I realized that I should probably see a doctor. The burns on the bottom of my feet had blistered, and the soles of both feet were completely covered, with the exception of my arches, with blisters. I quickly found that I could no longer walk.
My grandparent's doctors office squeezed me in and I realized that the burns were a little worse than I thought when I heard the words "I'll be very happy if this heals up in about three weeks." Other advice included icing and keeping off them entirely, which is proving very, very difficult.
I held Mae's hand as she fell asleep in my bed tonight, playing with my fingers. She'd kissed my face about a hundred times when she got back, giggling the entire time, completely oblivious to the danger she'd been in.
I explained, for the hundredth time, that she can't go out like that by herself, that I can't lose her.
I spent those first frantic minutes praying that she would be found as I called her name over and over again and I've spent the rest of the afternoon thanking God and her guardian angels for bringing her back to us.
Now to try to get some sleep. Tomorrow I'm going to try borrowing a cane from next door to see if that will help at all with the little bit of getting around that I do need to do, while I try not to walk at all.
I am so thankful for my parents and our neighbors, for the man who stopped and made sure she was okay and for the forestry guy and all the first responders who saved the day today. I am definitely going to be writing a thank you letter in the letters to the editor for next week... although I'm not sure words can adequately express just how grateful I am that they found our little girl before anything happened to her.