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."
You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.
Now I can’t relate to Laura—but I’ve been that lost child before. More than once. :) This story tangles you in its words. It’s fascinating and sad and beautiful at the same time. My breath quickened when Camille wandered away. I agree with Laura Clark, though, you might’ve wanted to add some indication that the seconds were ticking by, but it was otherwise a lovely read. I hope this isn’t based off real experiences. ;)
Thank you, Scout! My daughter was a runner when she was little, so this is based on real experiences - especially the thought process I went through when I'd lose sight of her, even for a second. I actually did see a toddler walk out into the middle of a very busy street once, early in the morning. I was in the far lane, and a guy in a truck next to me did that U-turn maneuver as the mom ran out into the street. It unfolded over a fraction of a second and it was terrifying.
Hi Julie, I haven't reviewed a story by you for a while, so here goes. You chose a really difficult prompt (and that is sometimes why I don't write, or I'm not inspired). This had to come all out of you, and you had a lot there, didn't you? I think that this probably was much more than ten seconds duration in your story, but who is counting? You did a great job all in all. that said, since you haven't been a mother it is difficult for you to imagine all the feelings quite right. For instance, she wouldn't be bitter while looking for her chi...
Hi Roger! Thanks for stopping by - I'm so glad you did. And thank you for leaving me such detailed comments. Your feedback is thought provoking and I value it! You're right-this was a difficult prompt. I started writing three different stories, tossed them in the trash and ended up on this one. (Wads of yellow legal paper sailing into the wastebasket! Ha!) I wrote it at the last minute, got it in under the wire, and it was approved before I could really edit it. You are right, I do have a lot of words floating around in my brain. Some...
It happens to everybody who just bangs out a piece, Julie. The stories I've written here have all been banged out, more or less, but I've had a lot more practice at it. You'll get there. But again, better to have too much content than not enough. You can always edit a piece you like. I have self-published 5 books, three being a trilogy. That first one I had an editor and went through it thoroughly. He died, and I edited five more times before publishing. Also, waited a couple of years to gestate in my brain--a good strategy if you have the ...
First of all, great name choice. Second of all, this was excellent. My heart rate ticked up a few notches when Camille went missing and I actually had a tear rolling down my cheek when she was brought back. I’m not usually so affected by stories. Fantastic manipulating of emotions - very well done. I would’ve loved to have seen some kind of keeping track of the seconds just to increase the tension a little more but I’m not sure I could’ve survived that, so perhaps not. Very good piece of writing that I thoroughly enjoyed, well done!
Thank you Laura! She was Melanie at first, but Laura fit her. It's a good name! : ) I'm so glad you felt the tension - I really wrestled with how to kick it up a notch. I actually started writing this prompt with romantic comedy in mind, but it just wasn't working. This felt more real.
It definitely felt real to me! I’ve got a new one out as well. If you have time and are interested, feel free to check it out.!
Heading over right now!!
This is great, Julie - you captured Laura's terror so vividly. I actually felt my heartrate increase. I've never lost a kid.....but I've been a kid who was lost and made my mother panic. I don't think I've ever been squeezed as hard as I was when she found me and I didn't have the foggiest idea that anything was wrong. Another great piece of writing!
Thank you, Kristin! I'm so glad it gave you that feeling! I was really trying to infuse the story with emotion and I'm happy that it came through. I had a hard time with this prompt, but not because I had a lack of ideas...I came up with and started writing three different stories before I landed on this one!
Not a parent but I've got little sisters and man oh man did I relate to Laura's panic. This is very well-written, and the use of flashback to accentuate the feeling you were going for while saving a precious fraction of that ten seconds was smart. Good work overall!
Thank you so much, A.g.! It's amazing how just a few seconds can stretch out in your own mind and feel like an eternity, right?
Okay, Julie, so I read some of the comments and see that you are a mother, after all. Going by your bio, I assumed you were a student. Nevertheless, the correct words are important, as moderated by the context. And something that is clear. But experience is the best thing to write from, and like I said, you did well at that.
Wow that was a great read! It really captures the wave of emotions that you can feel in only 10 seconds, and how much parents have to deal with that kids won't realize. I'm sure when Camille grows up she'll look back and kick herself for scaring her mum so much.
Thank you, JC! I wish my kids could understand how often they terrified me like that! When they have kids of their own, they'll get it. : )
Show them this story when they get older - I'm sure they'll be very apologetic!
Ha! We shall see...
Hi, Julie. I got your story as part of the Critique Circle. It's wonderfully done. The opening imagine beautifully captures the smallness of an individual in the crowd and you did a wonderful job capturing the weariness of a busy parent. Using Laura's realtime experience as a frame for her memory was clever and you pulled it off well. While I tend to favor stories with darker twists, I like the happy ending for both parents and children. Nice piece and I look forward to reading more of you r work!
Honestly Julie, this was wonderful. It was so realistic. I could literally feel Laura's fear and finally relief when she found Camille. Your writings are just beautiful. Please do you mind could you read and comment on my story, '11:59'
I love this. A few typos, but nothing major. As a mom of four little ones I could completely relate to the chaos and the emotions. I wasn't sure where the ten seconds were, was it the ten seconds she searched for her wallet? Or was Camille missing for only ten seconds? My son went missing outside when he was 18 months old for about 15 minutes and it was terrifying. In the end he was just toddling around the stairwell of our apartment, but I thought he could be anywhere...stolen, up on the highway, drown in the nearby pond. You captured that ...
Thank you Rachel! I had a big plans for this prompt...I started two other stories throughout the week and landed on this one on Friday. I wrote it in little spurts throughout the day and turned it in at the last minute. I think it benefits from feeling rushed and a little ragged, but it needs more editing for sure. And you're right, I think it might be better suited for the ten minutes prompt...I was trying to go for that feeling of suspension of time, when just a few seconds feels like an eternity, when everything can completely change ...
Now I'm even more impressed, I write a story early and edit it to death before posting...or abandon it and try again another week. 🙂 I'd love it if you read and commented on my work, if you feel so inclined.
I will be happy to!! Heading over now...