I’m working in my office on Sunday afternoon when I hear my daughter’s panicked cry from upstairs:

“Daddy! Daddy! HELP!”

I’ve never heard her cry for help like that before. I’m more used to hearing her bellow in my general direction, which she does when she’s bored, (“Daddy, play Uno with me!”), frustrated (“Daddy, these markers keep drying out!”), or hungry (“Daddy, do we have string cheese?”).

So when I hear her call for help with what sounds like fear in her voice, my heart instinctively seizes as I leap up from my desk. Your child cries help, you run.

I jam upstairs, skipping two steps at a time. In the 1.5 seconds it takes me to run upstairs to her room, I imagine eight different horrible scenarios: Her bookshelf had tipped over and fallen on top of her (Dammit, I knew those earthquake-proof brackets looked cheap). Or she leaned too far out of her window, fell out, and is now dangling by her fingertips from the second story of the house (Screens! Would it have killed me to put in screens?). Or maybe a sudden, unexpected surge of the electricity in our neighborhood grid had sent a random finger of lightning out of one of her sockets, found her where she was playing with silverware, and now she’s up there having a seizure caused by electrocution, her tongue turning blue.

I burst into her room. I don’t see her. The bookshelf is upright, there are no little white knuckles gripping the window frame, and I don’t smell burning hair.

I hear her giggle from inside her closet.

“RILEY!” I say. Perhaps a little louder than I planned. She sticks her head out, a mischievous grin on her face. Clearly she’s put one over on me.

“Are you hurt?” I ask slowly.

She shakes her head. Her playful smile is quickly thinning as she senses my tone. “No, I was–”

I’m instantly angry. “Listen to me,” I say, using my Booming Daddy Voice. “You do NOT do that. When you call for help, your Mom and I assume you need help. You just gave me a minor heart attack, do you understand? When you cried out like that, you scared the life out of me!”

Her eyes get wide. And start to glisten a little.

“Are we clear?” I say, trying to turn my own volume back down. “You can’t call ‘help’ like that when you don’t mean it. I’m not kidding. You frightened me and Mommy just now.” She nods silently, all the fun and mischief vacuumed out of her. I have no idea what she was trying to pull just now, but at least now she clearly understands the problem with crying wolf. I turn and head back down, wondering if I was possibly just a little too harsh with her.

At the foot of the stairs, I see a folded piece of paper I must’ve missed before. I hear Riley suddenly following me. “Daddy!” she calls down, “Wait! Don’t read that!”

I pick the paper up. As I unfold it, she bursts into tears, runs down the stairs past me, and out into the backyard.

At this point, I have no idea what the hell’s happening here. Then I read the note in my hands, and I start to understand.

It’s addressed to me. It says:

“If you would ever like to see your daughter again, give me one hundred dollars. If you do, your daughter will not be harmed. Signed, Lex Luthor”

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