Sometimes we would catch a glimpse of his face, and it would take a second to place him. There was the red baseball cap, the missing teeth, the sweaty hair. We'd think for a second that we knew him. And we did, in a way.

Ah, we would realize, back when we were 4, then 6, then 7. It's Adam.

He was still dead, his father was still looking for the killer, and we were still haunted by the freckled face of Adam Walsh - the specter of 1980s childhood.

This week, Florida police closed his case after 27 long, unsolved years. Ottis Toole - a drifter whose confessions and recantations agonized the Walsh family until his death, in 1996 - was guilty after all.

"The not knowing has been a torture," John Walsh, Adam's father, said at a news conference. "But that journey's over."

Adam Walsh was the reason why, when we played on the front lawn, we couldn't go past the irises. He was why we '80s children couldn't wait in the car at the grocery store, even for 10 minutes. A few years after Adam died at the age of 6, adults would discuss it, but the terminology (decapitated?) was unfamiliar.

What happened to Adam Walsh?

I'll tell you when you're older.

Tell us now.

And then we wished we didn't know.

And then we replayed it again and again. We played Adam Walsh at sleepovers, pretending to escape from mall parking lots. And when grown-ups asked what we were playing, we said, "Nothing."

But they found the killer, right?

No, they never did.

But he won't do it again, right?

Don't ride farther than the Sweeneys' driveway.

It was before the Internet; before Nancy Grace made a career of crying over missing children she never knew; before information dispersal became so efficient that unsolved mysteries became daily appearances in our in-boxes. Have you seen . . . ? they ask. But we never have.

Before all that - for years and years, it seemed - we had only Adam to think about. At first he looked like a big brother, then like a playmate. One day, he appeared on television and was suddenly just a baby. We'd grown up; he hadn't.

Later in the 1980s, another boy disappeared: Jacob Wetterling, 11, taken at gunpoint from a Minnesota park. A few years after that, Polly Klaas disappeared from her slumber party in California. Winona Ryder put up some money for her return.

Adam's severed head had been found just two weeks after his 1981 disappearance, but Polly's body lay undiscovered for two months, and Jacob was never found.

We remember adults talking hopefully right after each of those abductions, telling us reassuring things, saying there was a good chance that Jacob and Polly were safe and sound and would be home soon.

We nodded. But inside, by that point, we already knew all of the bad things that could happen to children.

E-mail Monica Hesse at www.washingtonpost.com.