Milk Carton Kid

It was the summer of 1994, and my mom had enrolled me in something called “swim camp” at the nearest pool, a YMCA a forty-five-minute drive from our house. I didn’t know any of the other kids, and they didn’t seem very interested in knowing me, so I mostly floated on a noodle by myself, contemplating my two recent obsessions: Taco Bell and the missing children on the back of the milk cartons my mom brought home from the local Pay ‘n’ Save.

This week, there was only one kid on the back. His name was Patrick Reedy, and he was missing from Rockport, New York. 

“Why is there only one?” I asked. 

Mom briefly glanced over from the sink and shrugged. She was well aware I was not a normal child and tried not to encourage my most peculiar habit. “I bet his family has a lot of money.”

I spent all of swim camp that day floating on my noodle, thinking about Patrick Reedy and what it was like to have a family with a lot of money. I imagined his parents, roused in the middle of the night by a ransom call, and felt a pang of jealousy; the same way I felt toward the characters on Murder She Wrote when Mom let me stay up late to watch, every second of their lives filled with intrigue and consequence. It wasn’t fair. 

After swim camp, we made our nightly stop at Taco Bell, which was my favorite restaurant on account of it having been the scene of an armed robbery a few weeks prior, lending this particular franchise an ambiance unmatched by any other fast-food chain. Also, the cinnamon twists. 

I pushed open the front door in a cloud of Suave detangler and chlorine. As I approached the counter, I replayed the news report in my head, my scalp tingling with excitement. “I’ll have three soft tacos, a beef burrito, and a side of cinnamon twists, please.” I slid the money across the counter to a lanky teenager identified only as “Devon.” 

He counted change slowly, and I wondered if he’d been here when it happened. I waved to my mom parked outside, waiting in the van. She didn’t believe in drive-thrus, convinced by some unknown metric that you got faster service if you just sucked it up and went inside. Of course, she never went inside; she just sent me.

I sat at an empty table and made a fort out of my sauce packets. When that got boring, I stretched my legs and pointed my toes, just barely scraping the floor. It was then I saw him, sitting at a table alone, a dozen soft tacos stacked in front of him. Patrick Reedy. The kid from the milk carton. 

I desperately tried to recall the description. Green eyes. Reddish-brown hair. Almost identical to the photo except for the spot of sour cream on his chin. 

“Amy! Order for Amy!” 

Patrick Reedy looked up, and we locked eyes. I knew it was him. There was never something I had been more certain of in my ten years of life. He smiled knowingly, which is a hard thing for a kid to do. An errant chunk of beef slipped out of his tortilla and onto his tray with a splat.

Mom grabbed my arm from behind. “Amy, our food’s ready. They’ve been calling your name.”

I looked back at Patrick Reedy, my small body flooding with adrenaline. He slowly lifted an index finger to his lips, invoking the most ancient of all alliances, that of two kids against parental authority. 

“Come on,” my mom pulled me toward the counter, my free arm sweeping the table and sending the sauce packet fort all over the floor. Mom apologized profusely to Devon and marched me out to the car, yelling something about how I must have water in my ears. 

I ate my tacos in the car sans sauce, and as soon as we got home, I ran to the fridge, throwing the door open and digging for the milk carton. But when I turned it around, it wasn’t Patrick’s black and white face staring back at me. It was a pair of twins, a boy and girl, missing out of Grand Forks, North Dakota. 

“Where’s the carton from this morning?” I demanded, near hysterics.

Mom looked at me like I’d hit my head on the bottom of the pool. “We finished it. I put it out with the trash before the garbage truck came.”

We never went back to that Taco Bell. Six months later, we had one of our own within walking distance of our house. My regular order evolved from three soft tacos to two chalupas with fire sauce, but no matter how hard I tried, I never learned what happened to Patrick Reedy. 

I like to think that maybe he’s still there, at that table. That he loved Taco Bell so much, he left the trappings of wealth behind and hitchhiked to the suburbs of Milwaukee, that he used his parents’ money to bribe Devon to let him live in the storage closet, and that maybe, when he was old enough, the milk carton kid started working the register himself, in exchange for twelve soft tacos. 

Rachel Harner is a writer living in Los Angeles, where she writes across a variety of genres including television, stage plays, and prose. She currently works in development at a production company founded by former CIA officers. She is not a spy. @RachelHarner

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