Laura stood on one end of the park, a tiny speck in a sea of people. She kicked the lock on her stroller and held tightly to her daughter's hand. Brightly colored banners fluttered in the breeze. Tables manned by an army of moms offered carnival games, cotton candy and a tantalizing array of prizes. The annual school fair was the biggest fundraiser of the year and Cameron had begged to go all morning. “Please mom, please!" He’d pulled out all the four-year old stops. “All my friends will be there. Spider Man too! And princesses for my sister. Camille loves princesses.”
"Princess!" shouted Camille.
After fifteen minutes of whining, Laura acquiesced. Twenty more minutes of packing the baby in his car carrier; stuffing hats and sunscreen into the diaper bag, collecting shoes and jackets, forgetting the keys and arguing with Dan about how long they’d stay, and they had finally arrived. Laura watched the slow-moving river of humanity pass by. Moms with babies on their hips chatted with other moms pushing strollers. Scooters flew down a gently winding concrete path, followed by the whooshing of bikes and skateboards. Kids with faces painted like dinosaurs and princesses ran pell mell from one play structure to the next. Distracted dads on cell phones trailed behind. Someone was making kettle corn. Laura pushed her overloaded stroller onto the trampled grass.
“Cookie,” said Camille, turning her face upward, squinting in the sun.
“Hang on, baby,” Laura murmured. The bake sale table was three steps away; neatly arranged trays of bagged cookies lined up on a bright pink tablecloth, two for a dollar. A silver coffee urn, manned by an overly cheerful third grade mom, gleamed at one end.
Camille pointed her finger at the table, pursed her lips and stomped her foot. “Mama, cookie!” she said, a little louder this time.
Alexander burbled from beneath his nest of blankets, a beam of sunlight falling across his face. Laura pulled the hood up on the carrier, and tucked a pacifier between his rosebud lips. He smacked on it and drifted back to sleep. Of all the things in her carefully planned life, Laura had never expected motherhood to be so hard. With three kids under four, she was constantly juggling, catching up, catching her breath. Her life had been reduced to a series of meals linked together by diapers and tantrums. Exhaustion tugged at her raw edges, her brain screamed for a cup of coffee from that shiny urn.
“Mama!” Camille shouted. “Peeease!”
“Ok, ok,” Laura sing-songed, releasing Camille’s hand and placing her palm on the stroller. She gently wrapped her little fingers around the metal support, noticing the delicate chips of her fingernails. Still so tiny. “Don’t let go, ok?” She twisted away, searching for her wallet in the diaper bag. It was buried in here somewhere beneath the snacks and the sippy cups. “Gotcha,” she whispered, as her hand touched soft leather.
The next moment would be frozen in time for the rest of her life, creeping up while she washed the dishes or swiped water spots off the bathroom counter, stabbing her with a thin blade of fear. Camille. Gone.
Sounds muffled, faces turned to blurs, colors and sounds swirled then stopped around the blank space where her daughter had stood. “Camille?” Laura’s voice sounded like gravel.
How could she just vanish into thin air? Fear traveled up Laura’s neck, seeping into her veins like thick black oil. Her head swiveled on her body, feet rooted to the ground, eyes scanning frantically. Dan was across the grass, handing Cameron a giant pink puff of cotton candy. She pictured her little girl being led away by a stranger, big trusting brown eyes looking ahead, her blue princess dress bobbing with each footstep. She’d never liked pink. Panic bubbled in Laura's chest. She pulled out her phone, but her fingers were shaking too hard to punch in the code. Dammit. She has to be here. She was just here.
“Camille!” she shouted again. She willed her legs to move, pulling them out of the soft grass like stems with roots, thick balls of soil. She realized that she’d forgotten the stroller. Alexander. Oh God. She turned back, gripping the handle, tethering it to her.
Where are you, baby? Camille, her feisty, funny girl, so small and defenseless, swallowed up by the crowd. She would be walking in circles, looking at a forest of legs, clad in denim and spandex, looking for mama. A face came into focus. Marina. Thank God.
“Laura, are you ok?” she said, her face wreathed in concern.
“It’s Camille. She’s just...” Laura turned to her friend, tears beginning to blur. She shook them off, looking frantically past Marina to the basketball court, where three boys were shoving each other. Their basketball bounced, then rolled away. Please, baby. Please be here. “She just disappeared.”
“How long ago?” Marina’s voice was gentle.
“Just a couple of seconds,” Laura held up her wallet. “She wanted a cookie, the money...I took my eyes off her.”
“It’s ok, hon. We’ll find her.” Marina squeezed Laura’s shoulder. “I’ll get Dan. You stay put. She’s probably close by.” Marina flew into motion, flagging down two other moms from Cameron’s preschool class. Cindy and Jen, Laura barely knew them. Cindy made eye contact and headed towards the playground. Jen sprinted towards the parking lot. Laura felt a warm wave of gratitude. She would bake them some cookies when this was all over.
Oh God. The parking lot. Cars whooshed by on the street, slowing as minivans pulled in and out of the driveway. Nausea slammed into Laura’s belly, bitterness creeping into the back of her throat. A memory surfaced, a tiny boy standing in the middle of a busy street in blue footie pajamas. Alone, stock still, eyes wide. A stuffed animal dangling from his hand.
Laura had been rushing to work, putting mascara on at the red light. She didn’t notice him until she was almost upon him. He looked so delicate standing there as the cars bore down. Laura’s heart seized. She couldn’t breathe. Without even thinking about it, she swerved into oncoming traffic and stopped, creating a barrier between the boy and the approaching cars. Before she could even open her door, a woman in pajamas flew into the street, scooping the boy up and cradling him to her chest. For one split second, she turned her tear-stained face to Laura, mouthed “thank you” and ran back to the safety of the curb. With two lanes of cars bearing down, Laura flipped a quick U-turn. She headed back into the intersection, without a single ripple in the flow of traffic. The whole interaction took seconds. Laura didn’t stop shaking until halfway through her morning meeting.
The crowd thinned a little on the path and Laura moved the stroller in circles towards the bake sale, searching between the row of booths and under the tables. Moms handed cupcakes to kids clutching dollar bills. A popular song blasted from a Bluetooth speaker. Laura thought about the dinner she had put in the Crock Pot. Spaghetti sauce, the kids loved it. She could see their stained cheeks, the mess of their plates, their cluttered house, the toys strewn across the living room floor, the mounds of laundry. She thought about the all arguing and the whining and about how she would give anything to keep every single bit of her messy life intact, to have her baby girl back. She looked at Alexander, sleeping sweetly in his carrier. She thought about going home without Camille, walking through the door, turning on the lights, plunking the keys in the old ceramic bowl, living the rest of their lives. She thought about how just ten seconds could change the course of their lives forever. A sob formed in Laura’s throat. She took one more frantic look down the gently winding concrete path. Where are you Camille?
She spotted a head bobbing above the crowd, crowned by bright crimson hair, a color usually favored by teenagers and edgy moms. But this figure coming towards her was something else. A mermaid, her iridescent green tail shimmering in the bright sunshine. Red tendrils of hair bounced gently around her shoulders. Ariel. Camille's favorite princess.
With a rush of relief, Laura spotted her daughter’s little face, framed by her dark brown hair and straight bangs she cut “all by herself.” She clung to Ariel’s hand, looking up adoringly. As she moved the stroller clumsily off of the grass, Laura felt something breaking inside of her, a flood of emotion so strong that it carried her, floating, above the grass and the playground and the booths and the scooters, to Camille.
Laura knelt on the ground and gathered her daughter to her body, holding on for dear life. Camille smelled like baby shampoo and Cheerios. The most beautiful smell in the world. “Where were you?” she whispered.
“Mama, I found Ariel!” Camille laughed and wiggled out of Laura’s embrace. “She’s a princess, she’s real!”
“We were looking for you,” Ariel said in her musical voice. She bent at the waist, her falling like a curtain. She gave Camille’s hand a little squeeze and looked her right in the eyes. “Sometimes little fishes swim into the big sea.”
Camille nodded solemnly.
“But a princess,” Ariel continued, “can help them get home.”
“A princess,” Camille whispered.
Laura turned her tear-stained face to the teenage princess, with her bright red wig and her green lamé tail, her cakey makeup and her wobbly eyeliner, and from the bottom of her heart, she mouthed “thank you."