The day began normally in the family's modest Silver Spring apartment, with the mother, 27, helping her two daughters, aged 8 and 5, get ready for school.

At 8:05 a.m., the third grader slipped into her jacket, grabbed her book bag and bolted out the door.

It was a cold and sunny November morning, and to catch the school bus, the girl had to hurry. Her wavy blond hair streaming down her back, she walked rapidly along the path that wound from her building in the Knob Hill Apartments through a wooded area to the bus stop.

Fifteen minutes later, she returned home, sobbing and shaking. Pressed for an explanation, the girl refused to say. "I can't tell," she cried, "I can't tell." She rushed into the bathroom and closed the door behind her.

"I heard her say, 'Oh, no, I'm bleeding,' " the mother recalled, "and I knew immediately that she had been raped.

"I just about died."

"A man with a knife had come up behind her on the path to the bus stop. He told her he would kill her if she screamed. He dragged her by the arm into the woods and made her lie down on the ground. When he finished, he ran off . . . and she came back home."

A year after the attack, the mother is still struggling to help heal her daughter's wounded psyche, and to calm her own fears.

Her task is infinitely more difficult because her daughter's attacker has not been caught.

Had she known at the time that the man would escape detection, the mother is not sure she would have reported the incident and put her daughter through the ordeal of the investigation.

"He got his kicks and he got away scot-free," she said.

The girl was one victim of 137 rape cases reported to Montgomery County police last year and one of 84,233 reported nationally. About half of those cases were closed locally and nationally, crime statistics show.

Often in unsolved rape cases, police officials say, they are able eventually to identify the rapists if they commit their crime several times using similar means. But in this case, the man was a stranger who assaulted maybe one other girl, then this one, and then vanished without leaving a trail. But Montgomery County police said it is unusual for a child to be raped by a stranger, because many child sexual abuse cases occur within a family.

"I have worked with 52 children," said Ginger Ebner-Fitzpatrick, a Montgomery County Sexual Assault Service counselor who has worked with this girl and her mother, "and this is the only one in which the man's identity is unknown.

"The attacker is a very powerful figure," Ebner-Fitzpatrick continued. The girl "doesn't feel safe because he hasn't been caught. It is still fresh in her mind that if the man found her once, he may be able to find her again."

The mother believes that publicity and a reward could elicit information that will lead to the man who left their lives clouded with fear and uncertainty.

"She doesn't wake up in the night screaming anymore," the mother said. "But she is still frightened of strange men and she has lost her trust in people, men and women. She stays very close to me."

For her part, the mother no longer cries and punches her pillow at night in frustration.

"At first, after it happened, I wanted to cut off [my daughter's] hair, and make her ugly so this could never happen again," the mother said. "Even though I knew that it wouldn't have made any difference what she looked like . . . he still would have gotten her."

The daughter, too, blamed herself for a while.

"She did think, 'If I had had my hood up, then he wouldn't have seen that I was a girl,' " Ebner-Fitzpatrick recalled.

The mother said her daughter still believes that people can look at her and tell that she has been raped, despite repeated assurances that they cannot. The girl has said she is afraid of having children when she grows up because she associates the pain of the rape with the pain of childbirth. Her mother fears that as the girl gets older, there may be additional ramifications.

The mother, a data processing clerk who has been separated from the girl's father for two years, said that on last Thanksgiving, the day after the incident, "when the three of us sat down for our Thanksgiving dinner, we had a prayer. I said, 'Thank God that even though something bad has happened, she is alive and with us.' "

That weekend, the mother sat her daughter down to assure her that the rape was not the girl's fault and that the man who raped her was "sick in the head."

At the time, the mother said, she herself "couldn't cry, couldn't release anything, couldn't fall apart."

But after her daughter returned to school on Monday, the mother said she "cried a lot, cursed a lot and beat the pillows."

The rape occurred two weeks before the family was scheduled to move to another part of Montgomery County. "I told her she had the option of staying home until we moved," the mother said, "but she wanted to go back to school anyway."

The girl stuck to her decision, her mother said, even though it meant she would have to face teachers and students who knew she had been raped. "It was in the news, and even though they didn't name her, it didn't take much for [teachers and students] to put two and two together."

The mother said that when the girl got on the school bus that first morning after Thanksgiving, one of the boys announced in a loud voice that she had been raped.

Not long after the attack, the girl began to have temper tantrums that had not been a part of her earlier behavior, the mother said. The girl refused to share any of her feelings with her mother. "She wouldn't talk to me about anything," the mother said.

Then, there were the nightmares and screams of terror.

"That is when we began to go for counseling," the mother said.

Montgomery County police say they have no leads that would help them find the man who they say forced the girl at knifepoint into the woods and made her submit to intercourse.

The rapist may have been the same man who had attacked a 6-year-old girl several months earlier, on Aug. 10, in nearby Takoma Park, police investigator Barry Litsky said.

But it is unlikely now that the rapist will be caught, he said. "In any major crime, if you can't close the case immediately, you can figure that the guy will do it again, and when he does, then you may be able to connect him to the earlier cases," Litsky said.

"But there haven't been any more cases like this."

Litsky remembers his frustration in trying to solve this case.

"I don't think I had ever gotten emotionally involved in a case before," he said. "But when I saw the little girl -- she is very pretty -- I looked at her and I saw my daughter's face."

Litsky, the father of a 13-year-old girl, said he had to leave the room to smoke a cigarette in an effort to collect himself. He remembers thinking, "Oh, God, there are a lot of sick people out there."

As part of his investigation, Litsky checked with Takoma Park police and found that they were holding a man who seemed to match the description that the 8-year-old girl had provided.

The man also had a knife at the time he was picked up.

"I thought I had him," Litsky said.

But when he showed a photograph of the man to the girl, she was unable to identify him as the attacker, Litsky said.

The mother, sitting at the dining room table in her town house in upper Montgomery County, lit a cigarette and talked about how she has managed this past year.

Growing up in a large family of modest means, she said, provided her with important survival skills: "We were poor, and that means you learn to handle whatever comes your way."

During the interview, her daughter, now 9, divided her time between the living room, where she watched television with her sister, and the dining room, where she took a chair close to her mother, clinging to her arm.

The mother said she regrets that she did not go after the man as soon as her daughter came home and told her what had happened.

"If I had found him I would have done something to him so he couldn't leave until the police arrived," she said. "But I didn't go after him, because my daughter screamed and begged me not to leave her . . . not to go into the woods after him because she was afraid for me."

The mother reported the rape at 8:32 a.m., and two uniformed officers were at her house within minutes.

"One of them took me aside and told me to calm down," the mother said.

"He said, 'Lady, get your act together. Your kid doesn't need this.' He was right. From then on, I was the Rock of Gibraltar."

She needed to be, during the seven-hour ordeal that followed the rape, as the mother and daughter cooperated in the legal procedures that are part of a rape investigation. That included taking the child to the Washington Adventist Hospital for a physical examination and then to Silver Spring police headquarters to answer questions for the written report.

"We finally got back home about 4 p.m.," the mother said.

At police headquarters, investigator Litsky borrowed a captain's office for the interview, because he thought that it would be more private and comfortable. "And I think we got her a soft drink," he recalled.

But despite his best efforts, the girl had trouble answering the questions.

"She was pretty calm until she had to describe the act," Litsky said.

"And then tears bubbled up in her eyes."

Litsky found it difficult to question the girl, because she was so young and because of the sensitive nature of what had happened to her. "I kept thinking, 'Oh, why do I have to do this?' " Litsky said.

The mother remembers that her daughter could not bring herself to use the words necessary to answer their questions. "She kept saying to me, 'I don't want to say that, Mommy.' "

Now when the child talks about the incident, counselor Ebner-Fitzpatrick said, "she still covers her eyes and turns away."