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The Painted Rock Game

It was July 2011 when the Polk County Rocks game spread to my area. People were painting up rocks, hiding them around and posting photos to the Facebook group set up for it. Essentially this was a big Easter egg hunt that was reaching everywhere from Lakeland to Arbuckle, with some people even finding these rocks all the way in Tampa and Apopka. I was 15 at the time and staying with my mom and her then-new husband Joe for the summer. Usually I liked this because it meant I got to be in Florida, but it also meant that I had to spend time with my younger step-siblings. So when they became obsessed with these painted rocks, I was the one who had to go along with them. Back then I was still in my edgy, Hot Topic mall-rat phase so being out in the sunshine really wasn’t my idea of fun. Neither was babysitting. I couldn’t drive and everywhere was connected by long stretches of highway meaning I couldn’t just go out on my own whenever I wanted, so I got stuck babysitting a lot more than I liked.

I was taking Sarah (aged nine) and Tod (who had just turned seven) to the community swimming pool when they found the first one. A small pebble decorated to look like a bumblebee in the corner of the tennis court. Once they picked it up and read the rules scrawled on the bottom they immediately wanted to find more. I ended up spending the rest of that afternoon being dragged around by two excited kids and taking photos of whatever they pointed at or held up to my face. A ladybug one on a wall, a happy frog by the lake, there was even a Pikachu one in a hole on the golf course. We picked them up and carried them with us until we found places to hide them again, as were the instructions given. By the time we had to go home my legs were hurting from all the rocks stuck in my pockets. At that point I was already sick of walking around, looking along hedgerows and picking up stones but they still weren’t done with the game.


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The next day I was woken up by Sarah and Tod tugging my sheets and chanting “Jess! Jess! We want to play the rock game!” I tried putting my head under my pillow and ignoring them until they went away, but my mom came in and told me that “They can’t go around the estate on their own,” and how apparently I needed the exercise and sunlight. Before I could argue back she went ahead and bribed me with “If you do this for them today I’ll drive you to see your friends in Orlando tomorrow.” At that I forced myself awake and grabbed around my closet for a matching set of black shorts and tank top. (I know it’s not the best color for the heat, but my wardrobe was very limited at the time.)

We set out with two grocery bags for the rocks we would keep and the ones we would re-hide, starting on our estate and leading up to the ones neighboring it. The colorful rocks were hidden amongst people’s front lawn ornaments, on top of mail boxes and some were just sitting on the grass. A lot of them had big pictures, mostly in a sloppy kids-art-project style but some were very well done. There was another ladybug, a clown face, and a nicely detailed squid among the rocks we ended up carrying. Tod found a US flag one under a bench and Sarah found one that was just painted green on the pier. Being the “adult” I had to carefully get the ones hidden near bushes or the edges of the woods, because apparently I “liked snakes” and somehow that would prevent them biting me. By about midday we stopped to get sandwiches from the gas station and Tod was all tuckered out. I suggested that we stop and go to the pool or go back home to play Wii games to get out of the heat, but Sarah was determined to stay out.

Tod protested by covering his ears and shaking his head. He was red faced and clearly tired, so I couldn’t drag him around anymore. I tried telling Sarah that “We have to go back for Tod, he can’t play anymore” but she was having none of it. She made an exaggerated pouty face at me and kept insisting that “We don’t have a full bag yet!” meaning “We have to go get more!” It was like a tug-of-war, trying to balance the interests of these two grumpy kids without making one have a tantrum at me. The best compromise I could think of was “Why don’t we go home and count all the rocks we have? Maybe then we can go find some more.”

Tod perked up at the thought of going back home and Sarah finally came around to the idea too, so we finished our lunch and I trudged them both back to mom’s house. As soon as we got in the door Tod waddled to his bedroom, and Sarah was pouring out the bags onto the kitchen table.

Together Sarah and I went through our hoard, separating out what we’d keep and what we wouldn’t while I photographed them all. Eventually we boiled the “Keep” pile down to a small few: a pretty cat, Tod’s flag and a yellow M&M amongst about three others. I considered keeping the squid but knew I’d probably lose it in a drawer anyway. The rest were an odd mix of basic smiley faces, bright patterns, local sports and brand logos along with some that were just scribbles and glitter. One was a crude line drawing of what looked like a spiky-leaf which I’d had to drag out of the reeds with my foot. There were a couple of basic Sharpie-drawn Pentagrams and Super-S doodles (probably done by bored teens) which I ended up skipping on the lake. By the time we had our “Re-Hide” bag full again it was close to 3pm. Joe’s usual curfew for the kids was 5pm so Sarah and I decided we’d just go and hide these ones rather than go properly hunting again.

We promised that we wouldn’t go too far, so we only went around our estate this time. I hid some smaller stones on a hanging bird house and Sarah put a few along the estate fence. Before long we were hiding the last one, a neatly-done Gators logo, on the wall of the community pool area. It was very close to her curfew and Sarah was still reluctant to stop. “Jess, can we find more? Just one more!” she begged, but I had to tell her no. I was too worn out, and mom would be so mad if she wasn’t back. Sweaty and groggy we marched home in time for dinner before both collapsing back into bed, fully drained from walking all day in the heat.


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That night I was woken up by a whispering voice saying “Jess, can we find more?”

I almost had a heart-attack before jolting awake to see Sarah standing there, fully dressed and waving a Disneyland tote bag at me.

“Go to bed!” I groaned. “No more rocks now.”

She stamped her foot and pouted at me before shuffling back out of my room. I got back to sleep pretty quickly and hoped the kids would forget about painted rocks game in the morning.

When I woke up at 11am after a good long sleep I thought I’d actually gotten lucky. Tod was watching Nick Jr when I went to make coffee and bacon, and he didn’t seem even remotely interested in doing anything else that day. I sat down on the couch next to Joe to eat my late-breakfast while he played on his tablet and joked about how “You make coffee in this house you make it for everyone.” After yesterday I was thankful for the quiet morning and cared about nothing other than mom’s promise to take me to town. I only got to see Becky and David in summer and I’d been missing them all year. By 12 I was dressed and ready (after putting on a whole rack’s worth of bracelets too) and waiting for mom to get back from Publix to pick me up. It wasn’t until then when I realised I’d not seen or heard anything from Sarah yet. At first I’d just assumed she was with mom, but Joe said she’d just gone on her own that morning. I didn’t want to leave and not know if the kid was okay, so I took a quick look around.

After checking the bathroom and the pool-deck I finally found her in her room. She was still asleep in bed. Her pyjamas were dropped on the floor, and knowing how much mom insisted on a tidy house I picked them up and put them on top of her laundry basket. As I bent down to gather up the strewn clothing my hand closed around something hard in the pocket of her pink stripy sleep shirt. Taking it out, I found another decorated rock.

It was a crappy looking one, and I felt bummed out just looking at the thing. The stone was mostly just scribbled black with some squiggle in the middle filled in yellow. It could’ve been a logo for something, but to me it just looked like a question-mark with a long swirly line drawn through the bottom dot. I didn’t remember seeing this when we were sorting out the rocks we kept. Maybe she’d pocketed it without me noticing. I put it on her desk with the rest of the “Keep” pile before rushing to get my shoes and bag in time for mom getting back. I forgot about Sarah and her silly obsession for the rest of that day, I had friends to hang out with and we didn’t care for kiddie rock-hunts.

Becky’s dad drove me home that evening and I got back in at 5pm again. I thanked him for the ride before stepping in the door and going straight to crash out in front of my laptop. As I got to my room I was met by Sarah, sitting on my bed with her Disneyland bag and playing with those damn rocks.

“Can’t you do that in your own room?” I sighed, tossing my own bag onto the desk.

She bit her lip at me and went back to arranging her collection.

I stormed over to the bed and began picking up the stones, putting them back into the tote

“Go play rocks with Tod or something! Let me have my room.”

I thrust her bag back to her and she ran out, looking as if she was trying not to cry. For a few seconds I felt relieved, but then the guilt dawned on me. I really didn’t want her to be upset, and Joe would be so mad at me if he found out! After taking a moment to calm down I crossed over to Sarah’s room and lightly knocked on the door.

“Hey Sarah, I’m sorry I yelled at you” I murmured. “Can I look at your cool rocks again?”

There was silence for a few seconds before she actually opened the door. The bag had been tipped out on to the rug and a few light-colored smooth stones were clustered up next to her bed.


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Originally I hadn’t noticed, but these rocks were new. Mom or Joe must have taken her out for an hour or so to find them. There weren’t as many as we’d found yesterday, and most of them didn’t look that nice either. One was a splodgy potato-face and there was one painted to look like a football, but most of them just had simple marks on them. There was a basic love heart and a waving stick figure, she’d found another spiky-leaf one drawn in red this time. But most were little more than initials and letters done in a straight-lines font on white pebbles. Whoever made these probably didn’t care much. Despite their blandness, Sarah still seemed proud of today’s spoils.

“They’re interesting” I humored her, “Would you like me to photograph these too?” She nodded and I went along with her request, uploading the photo to the page afterwards too. I didn’t think it was really worth sharing them but that’s how the game went.

I was able to sleep all night without any over-eager kids waking me up, and the morning was pretty dull. Both Joe and mom were at work so I had another babysitting day. I got myself dressed and ready in time for Tod waking up and asking for cereal. Luckily for me he was usually easily entertained so I could just give him a bowl of bran flakes, some juice and a Spongebob DVD to watch all day. Sarah however was still not up yet and it was my responsibility to make sure she did. Joe was very adamant that his kids kept up a good daily routine even during the times they weren’t at school. I made another tray of juice and cereal which I planned to let Sarah eat in her room, and carried it in for her. I pushed the door open, but she wasn’t there. Leaving the tray on the desk I frantically ripped off the bed covers to find nothing. I tried calling for her and dashing around the house again, but there was still no sign of her. Slipping on some flip-flops I went outside and to my relief, found Sarah sitting on the front drive in her pyjamas, humming to herself. I didn’t need to ask where she’d been as she was playing with more coloured pebbles.

I took a sigh of relief before reprimanding her. “What did Dad tell you about going off on your own?” I scolded.

Usually she’d get to angry or sad, instead she merely stared up at me and said “But I want another Yellow Sign.”

Not caring for her excuses I firmly reminded her “Your dad said you can’t go out without a grown up! Now get inside and eat your cereal.”

Taking hold of her arm I forcefully lead her back into the house. She struggled and tried to run off but I was having none of it. Her bare feet were dirty and the bottoms of her pyjama pants were tatty too. I made her take them off and have a bath after her breakfast which she ate without complaining.

Luckily I managed to get her to sit down and watch TV with her brother, just anything to distract her from this current obsession with rock hunting. The rest of that day went by pretty uneventfully, I just pissed around online and played Sims (or whatever I did back then) in peace for a few hours while the kids entertained themselves. By then I’d gotten a lot of replies from the Facebook group, people liking our photos and saying how glad they were that we’d found their rocks. Very few people were still posting though, so I hoped that meant the game was dying out and Sarah would stop caring soon. Nobody was really responding to any of the plain rocks with the black marks, but I wasn’t surprised.


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I made sure to keep checking up on the kids every hour or so to be safe in case Sarah tried to go out again. Much to my relief Sarah didn’t bug me to go back out again, she seemed content to stay in and play with Tod. At one point I caught her showing him her rock collection, getting each one out on the coffee table and giving him a lecture about them (much to his disinterest.) She had the bee and the cat face out when I walked in, but it was when she took out the weird yellow one that Tod decided he’d had enough. He shook his head side to side as his face went red and scrunched up. I had to act fast or else he’d start crying. Desperately looking for a distraction I grabbed the crayon tub and paper pad from the kitchen side, saying “Hey, why don’t we sit outside and do some drawing?”

Sarah was reluctant at first, but when I sat Tod down at the table on the pool deck and put down the big crayon tub she came out and joined in. He was happily rushing random colors all over and I really wasn’t surprised that Sarah just drew her rocks. I lazily sketched out some band logos for a little bit too. They weren’t bored, so as far as I cared my job was done. When Joe came home with donuts and chips they both dropped their crayons and ran to the kitchen. Glad to be free, I packed up the art supplies, gathered up the drawings and put them in the kids’ rooms. Tod had tried to draw blue-sky green-grass landscapes and I think one was supposed to be the lake with an alligator in it, and Sarah’s were mostly different interpretations of the patterns on her rocks. One page was her whole collection together but the rest were mostly rough recreations of the weird symbols from the boring ones, especially the spiky-leaf and the yellow question-mark. It seemed to be her favourite, but I didn’t understand why. The bee was a lot prettier in my opinion.

With my babysitting officially done for the day I retired to my room like an average bored teen. I stuck my headphones in and made a point of trying to avoid my step-siblings for the rest of the day. My peace was broken at about 4pm when Sarah came stamping into my room demanding that I go outside with her, insisting that “Daddy is too busy and says you’ll take me”

Huffily I told her “Oh yeah? Well I’m busy too.”

“No you’re not!” she insisted, but I wouldn’t let her have her way.

She stormed back out again threatening to “tell her dad” amongst some other mumbling, but she didn’t come back at me again. I could hear her shrieking and arguing at Joe, but he must have taken my side and made her drop the issue because that was the last I heard from either of them until dinner. That night it was heated-up pizza and some salad, which is pretty bland but filling enough. When I got to the table Tod was sat there being served a slice by Joe, and Sarah looked considerably mopey as she stamped her feet all the way to the kitchen followed by mom. She aggressively folded her arms and stuck her bottom lip out as her dad put a big helping of salad and a slice of Classic Margarita on her plate.

“What’s wrong honey-bee?” He asked, “Don’t want pizza?”

She shook her head, smushed her face with her hands and only just audibly grumbled “She said I couldn’t bring my special rock.”

Joe sighed and said “It’s only while you have dinner, tables are clean and not for dirty rocks.”

Sarah opened her mouth to talk back, but mom sat down at the table just in time to interject, “That thing is not coming to the table Sarah. Now eat dinner!”

I finished my meal as quickly as possible while Sarah took small, forced bites until she’d eaten enough before dashing back to her room. After one and a half slices of pizza and a small handful of salad (as forced by Joe) she was shuffling away as fast as her little feet could go.

After dinner that evening I settled down into bed and flicked through whatever late-night channels I could get on my bedroom TV. There was rarely anything of interest but sitcom reruns were pretty nice to fall asleep to. I’d just started to properly drift off when Sarah came shuffling in holding a purple purse-bag. “Jess…” she started, sounding as if she was hesitant to talk to me, “can we go looking for rocks again?”

I thought she’d forgotten about that dumb game by now. “Are you kidding?” I snapped at her, “It’s nine o clock, get to bed.” She gave me a faux-sad look with her teeth over her bottom lip and wide eyes.
“But Jess” she tried again in her wavering tone, “I want another Yellow Sign.”

Raising her hands up I saw that, of course, she had a rock in her bag. I didn’t give it a proper look but that black-out scribble made me think it was the one from her desk. She fumbled to get it out but I cut her off, “No more rocks Sarah! Go to bed!” Before she could bother me again I switched off my desk light and threw the duvet over my head. I could make out her muffled complaints of “I gotta go get another one” until mom came in and made her go to bed. There was foot stamping and shouting, a door slammed and I could hear Joe pleading for her to “calm down and go sleep.”

The arguing must have gone on for at least half an hour, and it took me a while to settle down and get comfy again.


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I switched back through talk shows and teleshopping before finally dozing off. I wasn’t asleep for long though before I was woken up by Mom shaking me and screaming, “We can’t find Sarah! She’s not in the house!” Her face was a mess of tears and bed-hair. Tod was crying and hugging her leg like a leech. At first I thought I was dreaming, but seeing the panic in mom’s eyes let me know this was really happening. Suddenly I was fully awake, in my nightgown and running out into the dry night air. Joe was outside with a flashlight looking for her already. We kept calling out “Sarah!!” but got no answer. Our shouting only managed to wake up the neighbors, and before long they were joining in our frantic search too. I remember the police showing up, two officers got out on the driveway and tried to ask mom and Joe about what had happened. Joe tried to keep calm, but mom was a wreck and unable to speak. I told them about the Polk County Rocks game, and where we might be able to find her. Joe and the neighbors looked all over the golf course, the community pool and the gas station while the police scanned the area around the lake.

She wasn’t found on any of the piers or boat docks, or along the water’s edge. She wasn’t at the tennis courts, or the picnic benches. Our make-shift search party checked all over the three estates to no avail. The regular ambience of cicadas and the rush of cars from the highway was drowned out by sirens and the echoes of people shouting her name. My bare feet were cold on the asphalt and my throat was sore from yelling, but it wasn’t my physical wellbeing that I cared about. I didn’t stop running across the roads and lawns until I was physically collapsing with exhaustion. The sun was coming up by the time Joe had to drag me back inside. She might have fallen in the lake, or wandered into the woods, but we didn’t find Sarah that night.

We posted her photo to all the local Missing Children’s pages, we even made Lost Child flyers which we spent the next few weeks posting in as many store windows as we could. I asked the Polk County Rocks group to look out for her too. There was a wide scale search carried out over the following weeks and she was in all the local papers. Her real mom was even investigated but they still didn’t find her. I can’t stop blaming myself for what happened. Had we gone to the pool that day like we’d set out to she’d not have become obsessed with that silly game. Living at the house in Florida eventually became too much for Joe and mom. About four months later they made plans for divorce meaning that she had to move back in with her sister, and I was stuck with dad in Washington all year from then on. The case for Sarah is still open, but I doubt they’ll find her after all this time. For a good long while I held onto her pretty rock collection, but I think they’re still in a box back at dad’s place now. I made sure to keep all the pretty ones, and the lazy ones too (all except for Tod’s, I let him keep that one.)

Even though I tried to make sure I took them all with me, there was one that I couldn’t find when I was bundling them all together. Her favourite, the one with the yellow-symbol. Sadly the Facebook group closed not long after Sarah went missing so I couldn’t ask who made that rock. I still haven’t found out if that symbol was from anything either. For some reason I feel that it might hold some sort of an answer, but I’m yet to find another one. I was wondering if there’s someone out there who could help me on this. Have you seen the Yellow Sign?


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Credit: TheRe_Writes

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The Painted Rock Game

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