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The Brief Encounter

Updated on March 22, 2014

A short story, by Mary McShane

Published December 16, 2013 by Mary McShane

To bring awareness to missing children, there are random photos of currently missing children throughout this story. If you know any of these children, or have lost a child yourself, please contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST or at this link:

Everyone looked forward to 4th of July weekend
Everyone looked forward to 4th of July weekend | Source

July 4, 2008

After several downpours and creeping along in holiday traffic for over three hours on the New Jersey Parkway, the Henderson family finally reached the outskirts of Ocean City where they would be spending the next week on vacation.

John pounced on the steering wheel and said to his wife, "So many people are traveling for 4th of July. Doesn't anybody stay home anymore?"

His wife laughed at the irony of his question and he smiled back at her. Every year, John's company shut down business for the whole week and he, like many employees, took advantage of the time to pack up their families to go on vacation.

John and Joan Henderson tried to choose fun, educational vacations, sneaking in some subtle history lessons so their kids could see as much of the United States as possible. Consequently, Jack and Anna came to love history as much as their parents did. At their young ages, they were still excited about going on vacations with their parents.

Rainbow seen after the rain, while driving to the bungalow.
Rainbow seen after the rain, while driving to the bungalow. | Source

Wait until they are teenagers, Joan thought. I didn't even want to be seen with my parents by the time I was a teen. She smiled at the thought of her last vacation with her parents.

John said, "Even though the rain stopped, I think we should skip the beach today."

The kids groaned from the back seat.

"Hold on, hold on, we'll see what time we get there. Between traffic and the rain, the day has gotten away from us," John said, trying to smooth things over.

Ocean City, NJ - seashore spot
Ocean City, NJ - seashore spot | Source

He noticed his wife's faraway look. "What are you thinking about, dear?" John asked, taking his eyes off the road for a second.

"I was just thinking that our fellow travellers won't want to go on vacation with us for many more years. I was remembering my last vacation with my parents."

Since both her Mom and Dad had passed away, John just smiled. Turning left brought the bay into view and from the back seat, the children marveled at the vastness of the bay. Joan started looking at the house numbers for the address that the owners had emailed them.

Seashore Bungalow
Seashore Bungalow | Source

Finally they pulled into the crushed seashell driveway of the three bedroom bungalow they had rented for the week. It was rather cute and certainly lived up to the photographs that were posted on the internet, located four blocks from the ocean with the bay at their back door. The owners emailed that they lived next door.

"I'll go get the keys," John said. His tall, lanky frame crossed the driveway in a few long strides.

Joan admired her handsome husband, his brown hair kept just at the collar, his smile warm and inviting to everyone he met. Her high school dances didn't seem so long ago when a timid John had asked her on a date. They married a year after graduation and Joey, their first child, was born in 1990, the spitting image of his father.

Bay view from screen porch sliders
Bay view from screen porch sliders | Source

Shaking the memories away, she picked up a box of cleaning fluids from the trunk and met John at the front door. The kids grabbed their backpacks and waited while he struggled with the key, the lock being stubborn due to the salt air.

As soon as they entered the living room, a musty smell permeated the air. The owners had never bothered opening the windows to air the house out for their new renters.

Joan put the box on the kitchen table and went from room to room, opening windows, checking the place out. John went back and forth to the car bringing in their luggage while the kids laid claim to their bedrooms. Nine year old Anna claimed a room on the bay side of the house and eleven year old Jack claimed the room across the short hallway. The master bedroom had sliding doors to a screened porch overlooking the bay and Joan looked forward to relaxing there with John in the evenings.


Right away, Jack and Anna begged to go to the beach, but they knew it was too late in the day. John said first things first, that they had to go to the supermarket to get food for the week, get some coupon books for the area, and a newspaper.

Both children groaned that it was the same thing on every vacation.

"Hey, we like to eat, what can I tell ya?" Joan said, jokingly.

Trying to salvage some part of the day, John suggested his wife should go to the store by herself and he'd stay behind with the kids to clean the place up, maybe get a little fishing in since it was too late to go swimming. The kids called out "Hooray!" Joan was happy with that and smiled at her husband.

Wishing them good luck with the fishing, she used the GPS to locate the nearest supermarket.

Along the way, Joan noted a pizza shop here and a video game store there to keep in mind for the week's activities. The GPS voice told her the store was at the next light. She took the first parking space she saw, grabbing her list and her purse.

Robert Romero, missing since June 7, 2000 from Santa Fe, New Mexico
Robert Romero, missing since June 7, 2000 from Santa Fe, New Mexico | Source

She always had some deja vu when she shopped at supermarkets while on vacation. The day her son Joey was taken from her shopping cart changed her and her husband's lives forever.

For years, on every vacation, but particularly at seaside resorts, she found herself looking at children's faces, hoping to see her son's face in the crowds, on the beach, at the amusement piers.

The doctors she was sent to said she would shake off that feeling as time passed, but it never happened. Because of it, she kept an even more watchful eye on Jack and Anna, never letting them stray too far from her cart while she shopped.

She finished her food shopping and looked for a checkout that didn't have a dozen vacationers in line getting their week's supplies. As Joan put her groceries on the conveyor belt at the checkout, she barely glanced at the cashier. Suddenly, she stood still, gaping at the young man.

My God, he looks like a younger version of John! she thought. She couldn't take her eyes off him, thinking he might even have her eyes. Her heart was beating very fast as she let herself ponder if he possibly be Joey all grown up.

She got her cellphone out of her purse and stopped herself from calling John. But she quick thinking made her snap a picture of the cashier because when she told John, she knew he wouldn't believe her without a photo.

When the customer in front of her was given her change, Joan moved up a little more in the line. She got a look at his name tag and saw the name "Brian."

No, I guess he isn’t Joey. But he sure does look like him, or at least what I think he might look like all grown up.

At The Checkout
At The Checkout | Source

As she studied this young man. she speculated he looked to be about eighteen years old. That would be the right age, she thought.

Imagine after all these years of looking for him, to find him while on vacation, she thought. Could it possibly be him?

“Any coupons, ma’am?” he asked, getting ready to start scanning her first item.

She quickly recovered herself and shook her head no, still taking in the way he spoke and moved. She now started to see some of her son Jack in him. Oh why couldn't John have come to the supermarket too? Would he think this young man looked like their Joey?

She glanced at his name tag again. Of course! His name would have been changed when he was taken. It could be him, she thought.

“Something wrong, ma’am?” he asked.

“I’m sorry for staring, but you look remarkably like my son, Joey,” she smiled.

After an awkward moment, she felt slightly embarrassed for what she was about to ask but, she reasoned, how will I ever know if I don't ask him?

Joan bit her bottom lip and then very matter-of-factly asked, “By any chance, were you adopted?”

Brian didn't answer right away and she immediately regretted asking the question.

Warily, Brian answered, “Yes, ma’am, I am adopted."

Joan figured in for a penny, in for a pound, so she asked anxiously, "Do you know how old you were then?"

"My Mom said I was three," he answered.

Oh my God! Joan's brain was screaming at her. This could very well be my Joey!


Brian had barely noticed the woman moving up in his line. He just wanted to finish his shift and hurry home. He and his parents were leaving for the airport to go to see his sick grandmother in California on a 7PM flight. He knew he'd have to really hurry home after he clocked out.

This lady’s acting real strange, he thought. Man, I hope she doesn’t give me a check or anything to hold up this line.

She was staring at him and he felt a little anxious.

When she had asked him about his adoption, he started to notice her a little more.

But it was when she asked how old he was when he was adopted that her question triggered some hesitant feelings about sharing that fact with a stranger. As far as he was concerned, his adoptive parents were the only parents he had ever known.

Handing her the bagged groceries, he looked at her more closely.

Yes, her face did seem sort of familiar. But it wasn’t until she smiled, that his brain registered more than a hint of recognition.

Could it be her? he supposed, as he watched her leave the store.

Could this be the woman I have been dreaming about since I was a little boy?

Yes, her face seemed sort of familiar. But it wasn’t until she smiled, that his brain registered more than a hint of recognition.
Yes, her face seemed sort of familiar. But it wasn’t until she smiled, that his brain registered more than a hint of recognition. | Source
Allen McPeak, with age progression, missing since August 9, 2001
Allen McPeak, with age progression, missing since August 9, 2001 | Source

Joan reluctantly left the store but was happy when she checked the photo on her cellphone. She put her groceries in the car and hurried back to the bungalow to show John the picture she snapped.

Her eyes teared up with unshed tears. She had never lost hope that someday she would find Joey. She always told John that Joey wasn't dead, that mothers knew these things. If he were dead, she would have known it.

Joan remembered it like it was yesterday. Joey was taken fifteen years ago this summer just short of his third birthday. John had to work second shift at the plant and couldn't get out of work until midnight. The check-in at the Wildwood New Jersey hotel was at 3PM on Friday. They told John when he booked the room that they would only hold the room for them for two hours, so he told Joan to drive down with Joey and he'd follow the next morning.

On 4th of July weekend, driving down from the Poconos was a long ride but she babbled with Joey, singing songs and telling him a story to help pass the time. After settling in the hotel room, she decided to go to the market to get some milk, cereal and frozen foods to stock the full size refrigerator in the kitchenette, figuring it would save some money on restaurants.

Joey sat in the shopping cart seat playing with a red toy truck while Joan pushed the cart from aisle to aisle randomly putting items in her cart. In the dairy aisle, she walked a little away from the cart to get a half gallon of milk from the refrigerator. A lady came out of nowhere and bumped her arm, spilling the milk all over the floor.

In the few seconds it took for the woman to apologize, Joan recovered herself, looked over at Joey and her eyes fell on an empty cart. All that remained in the seat was his red toy truck.

She screamed "Where is Joey? Where is my baby?" and that sounded the alarm. In short order, the store manager appeared, questioning many bystanders but no one saw a thing. Not one person saw who took Joey out of the cart. The woman who had bumped her was also gone. It wasn't until she was being questioned by police that she realized the lady had been a diversion and possibly an accomplice.

Crime Scene
Crime Scene | Source

The supermarket doors were the kind that opened automatically when someone stepped on the rubber mat. The manager scrambled to put the store on lock down which included all doors, computers and cash registers. He instructed his assistant manager to call the police so he could get on the loudspeaker to make an announcement.

"Attention Shoppers! We have an Adam alert. A three year old little boy named Joey Henderson was taken from his mother's shopping cart. He is wearing...."

Joan didn't hear any more of the announcement, her brain just shut down. She knew her Joey was long gone from the store. Within minutes of being called, the manager was using the key to let the police in the front door. The police got the lay of the land rather quickly, and after questioning some annoyed vacationers, they slowly let people leave the store.

Four hours later, John arrived at the police station and cradled his wife as they cried in each other's arms. The detectives called in the FBI as per protocol who asked the young couple all the same questions over again.

Joan was now past crying. She was mad and she turned the tables to question them. Why were they wasting time drilling her and John with questions while the kidnappers were getting away with her son?

The popular seashore was crowded for 4th of July weekend. Anyone could have taken Joey and got lost in the crowds and they obviously did, because fifteen years later, her son nor his kidnapper had ever been found.

Sara Bushland, missing since April 16, 1996 from Spooner, Wisconsin
Sara Bushland, missing since April 16, 1996 from Spooner, Wisconsin | Source
Thomas Gibson, missing since March 18, 1991 from Glendale, Oregon
Thomas Gibson, missing since March 18, 1991 from Glendale, Oregon | Source

There was never a question of parent or familial abduction, but their babysitter at home coincidentally moved to Texas around the same time. When the police tracked her down, they found she had ran away with her boyfriend to get married, after finding out she was pregnant. That search was another dead end in a long line of dead ends.

John and Joan had no other children then, just Joey. They never really gave up looking for him, but after fifteen long years, she admitted that the police had long since given up the search. John didn't talk about it any more, which stifled her from doing so.

It took quite a while for Joan to conceive again due to the stress the couple was enduring in 1993. Four years after Joey was taken, Jack arrived and Anna came along two years later. Joan was so overprotective that she feared it would threaten her marriage.

After each argument with her husband about it, she ended it with saying she just didn't want anything to happen to either of them, like it did with Joey.

Joan pulled into the driveway of the bungalow, left the groceries in the car and practically tripped up the couple of steps to get into the house.

"John..." she called, and suddenly realized he and the children weren't there. Ugh, she smacked her forehead, they went fishing!

The beach was four blocks away but the bay was at the back door. Where would they have gone fishing? She opted for the bay, went out the back door and scanned the area. No John and no children.

She jumped back in the car and drove the four blocks to the beach. The meters were empty as people were now done at the beach and probably getting ready to go out for their dinner.

She parked and threw some quarters in the first meter by the boardwalk. Grabbing her purse, she ran up the boardwalk ramp and over to the rails scanning the beach for the threesome.

There! There they are!

She cupped her hands and while running down the ramp, she called their names over and over. The sound of the surf drowned out her voice. A man walking toward the threesome saw Joan and pointed to her so that John turned around. He dropped his bucket and fishing gear and ran to his wife.

"What's wrong? What happened?" John said, checking her over for injuries.

"I found Joey!" Joan cried, "I found him, I'm sure of it!"

She pulled out her cellphone and showed him the picture of the cashier and John's eyes filled with tears.

"Let's go!" John said. "Kids, come on, we have to leave." He waved them over but being children they dawdled. "Come on guys! Let's go!"

Joan excitedly shepherded the children to hurry back to the supermarket, explaining that she possibly found Joey. Joey was a mythical figure to them, someone they never met and only knew from baby photographs. They got into the car and Joan drove them all back to the supermarket. She never gave the melting ice cream a second thought.

Daniel Cantrell missing since 2 16 2006
Daniel Cantrell missing since 2 16 2006 | Source
April Andrews, then and with age progression, missing since November 18, 2006 from Pea Ridge, Arkansas
April Andrews, then and with age progression, missing since November 18, 2006 from Pea Ridge, Arkansas | Source

Joan pulled into the closest spot to the store and urged them to hurry before Joey was done work for the day.

As soon as Joan entered the store, she saw his register was closed and she just sunk inside. She had missed him, he had gone home already. John said he'd be right back that he was going to talk to the manager.

"My wife was shopping here earlier and the cashier looks very much like our son who was kidnapped when he was a toddler," John began. He knew he sounded like a crazy person but he trudged on. "The cashier's name is Brian, do you know where he lives?"

Angie, the manager, couldn't have been more than twenty. "Yes, but I can't give out that information."

John could see this was going badly and he needed to get an address out of her before it was too late. "Look, Angie, we need his home address so we can talk to him. Now I know this is ...."

"Hold on a minute, I'll call him. He and his parents have a 7PM flight to California, so I let him go ten minutes early."

John watched as she dialed the number. She waited a few rings, then hung up. She said, "The answering machine is on, so I think they are gone already."

"Please give me the address?"

"I don't know. Suppose you are a kook, I don't want to be responsible for anything bad happening," she hemmed and hawed and John got madder and more exasperated by the minute.

Joan came over and said to her, "Angie, you have a locket around your neck, is that a picture of your baby inside?"

"Why, yes it is," she was surprised this lady would know that. She opened the locket and showed them a picture of Jason, her six month old.

"He's adorable, Angie," Joan said. "Angie, imagine how you would feel if he were taken from you and never found by police." Angie toyed with the locket quietly. "Now imagine you are on vacation and you see someone with the same features as your husband and your other children. Then you ask him some questions that lead you to believe he is your son."

"Okay, okay, " she resigned. She reached for the rolodex and located his card. John didn't wait for her to write it down, he took the card from her hand.

"Thank you, Angie," Joan called as she grabbed the children's hands and rushed out the door. John jumped in the driver's seat and as soon as the last door slammed he hit the gas.

Joan plugged in the GPS and quickly entered the address. She had no clue how far they had to go.

"Drive 1.2 miles and turn right," the female voice on the GPS said.

"Hurry, John, hurry," Joan urged, not caring if they got a ticket or not.

Coming up to the light, John turned right.

"Go 400 feet to destination," the GPS announced triumphantly.

Gone Missing?

Do you know of a child who has ever gone missing?

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Never Found

Brian White's house was the fifth house from the corner. Joan's heart sank because the driveway held no cars. They quickly navigated the steps to the porch and Joan knocked very hard on the door, calling out his name.

"Brian, Brian! Are you there?" John hollered, trying to peek in the windows.

An old lady sitting on the porch of the house next door looked over and said, "If yer lookin' for the White family, they all lit out of here about twenty minutes ago, lock, stock and barrel."

"Oh, I guess they went to the airport already!" Joan asked.

"Nope, they left for good and they aren't coming back," she said. "Zelda gave me all the food from their freezer, gave me back the keys since they rented the place from me, and told me to sell the furniture and keep the money too. Brian hugged me, kissed me goodbye. I'm sure gonna miss him."

"Where did they go?" John asked, clearly getting annoyed by now,

"Did they go to California to see a sick grandmother?" Joan asked.

"I have no idea where they were going, I just know they ain't coming back. They were good renters for the last three years too," the old lady seemed melancholy.

John had his cellphone out and had already dialed 911. He got the make and car model from the old lady but she didn't know the license plate number. How many blue Chevy Impalas could there be in New Jersey?

Well, it turned out that there were over half a million blue Chevy Impalas on the roads of the United States. As each hour went by, the Hendersons became more and more despondent.

They had lost their chance to even talk to this young man. John certainly thought he might be Joey going by the cellphone picture. He would have given anything to talk to him some more, knowing that he'd be able to tell by his eyes and demeanor if it was Joey or not.

But Joan was very sure, and he was going to go with her mother's instinct.

They repeated all the steps they had gone through fifteen years before and the cellphone picture became their new "Missing" poster.

Now all they had to do was sit and wait.


Missing Child Found


December 2013

A knock at the door.

A young man and his wife framed the doorway.

Joan Henderson was on the phone and called out for the person to come in, since she was expecting ladies from her church for a holiday luncheon.

When she saw her visitors were a young couple, she quickly ended her phone call. At first she was confused because she expected the ladies from church. When she looked at the young man, she crumbled to the nearby sofa.

"Joey!" She sobbed. "Oh my God, it's really you." He came to her and they hugged and cried, and hugged and cried some more.

John Henderson was getting ready to go to work for the night shift and came downstairs when he heard the commotion. As soon as he laid eyes on the young man, he knew this was his son. They both cried as John gathered him into his arms.

Joey introduced his new wife, Nancy to them.

Of course, they all wanted to know what happened that fateful 4th of July in 2008 at the supermarket in Ocean City, New Jersey. Joan grabbed the brewing coffeepot and filled four mugs, listening intently to her son.

Joey told them about how he went home from work that day and while getting ready to go to the airport, he mentioned meeting a lady he thought looked familiar. He confided to his Mother that he kinda remembered dreaming about her face back when he was a little boy. He told her when he saw her in the market, he was convinced he knew the lady, but didn't know from where.

Right away, both his parents got very angry and upset. Within an hour, his life was changed as they packed a few sparse belongings into the car, gave the house keys back to the landlady next door and told her to sell off their stuff to pay her for the rent they owed her.

"It wasn't until my Dad died this past June that my Mom told me what happened back in 1993," Joey said. "My Mom couldn't have children and because my Dad was a felon they couldn't adopt. They tried for years to have a baby, but she was infertile. So, when they saw me in the shopping cart, my Dad thought I kinda looked like him and my Mom. They saw an opportunity to take me when you were getting milk. My Dad told my Mom to bump into you to give him enough time to get me out of the cart and hurry out the door."

Joey hugged his wife a little closer to him and continued to tell his new-found parents what happened.

"My Mom said after they snatched me that they couldn't stay in New Jersey anymore because they didn't know if you were summer people or permanent residents so we moved all over the place. I don't think I spent two years in any one school. Then we moved back to New Jersey to Wildwood."

He paused to take a sip of coffee.

"It was so crowded there, my Dad told my Mom that no one would guess I was a missing kid. So I got to go to one high school for three years. I only had a year till graduation. I missed that. I had friends for the first time and I had a job but my Mom didn't want me to work. I wanted to earn enough to buy my first car. I missed that too.

"Later, when we moved to Michigan, my Dad stole one for me. Not quite the way I wanted to get my first car. Anyhow, my Dad got arrested for stealing the car. It was his third strike so he went to jail. After he died in a gang fight in June, my Mom told me where she thought I used to live but it was the wrong place. She didn't even remember what my name was to be able to give me a good start to look for you. So I contacted the National Center for Missing Children and I found out I was missing since 1993."

Joey didn't want to let go of his mother's hands and she didn't want to let go of his. John put his wide arms around both of them and folded Joey's wife Nancy into the embrace.

Their boy was finally home. That's all that mattered to each of them.

The End

© 1995 Mary McShane

Miracles That Have Happened

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Author's Note

As authors, many of us get our inspiration from real life and this story is no different. This short story is an excerpt from a novel I wrote in 1995 of the same title. Because I am a perfectionist, after polishing and tweaking the manuscript to death, I didn't send it to my agent until June 1996.

My perfectionism and procrastination made me too late to be considered for publication because another book titled "The Deep End Of The Ocean" was published in June 1996 (and later made into a movie). Imagine my surprise and the full gamut of my emotions when I saw that book in the bookstores!

My agent said I didn't have a chance in hell of getting it published then, since she felt there was no market for two books on such a sensitive subject. Despite many submissions, my novel "The Brief Encounter" remains unpublished today in 2013.

This plot was borne of two separate incidents which I melded to form one story.

1) My first point of reference was from a supermarket incident with my cousin's one and a half year old son who was taken while on vacation in Norfolk, VA in the fall of 1994. He was found within 6 hours at Norfolk Int'l Airport when the abducting couple acted awkward with the child, didn't have all the "baby" paraphernalia one would think parents carried for a long airplane trip and although a birth certificate was not required at the time, they couldn't even produce any baby pictures. It was not a well-thought out abduction!

An observant airline employee became suspicious. The police detained them for questioning. The wife broke first and confessed, the couple was arrested and the baby was returned unharmed. It was only after the wife confessed, that the police saw the missing child alert which was buried in a pile of faxes in their fax machine tray.

The Amber Alert system was not in place until 1996 in most cities.

The Code Adam system was created by Wal-Mart in 1994 but it didn't catch on around the USA until more than a year later. At the time of my cousin's case, it was still known only in Wal-Mart, selected stores and a few cities/government agencies.

A missing child alert was issued and that was only because he was a baby. At that time, the police waiting period for acting on a report was 24 hours, but that too has now been waived. There is no waiting period at this time.

FYI for anyone interested - this Southwest Airlines link ( is to provide the "current" TSA regulations regarding children under two years of age; different guidelines apply for children over age two. Most airlines have similar guidelines.

2) My second point of reference was from a seashore incident with a very good friend's child who was abducted in his stroller in an arcade on the boardwalk in Ocean City, New Jersey in summer of 1995. He has never been returned to them, despite my friend thinking she has seen him while on many vacations, using family resemblances and an artist's age progression photos as a guideline.

So although my inspiration for my novel came from two real life incidents, it is a work of fiction.

Thank you for answering the poll questions and for reading my story.

Mary McShane

© 2013 Mary McShane


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