She’s sleeping now, her hand still resting over your jaw. It had wandered, in the dark of the bedroom, over your lips, into your nostrils, playing in your eyelashes so that you blink and recoil—little hands making sure you’re still there, not trusting the tenuous bridge of air molecules that vibrate between you.
This is where you’d slip out most nights, load the dishwasher, read a few chapters, respond to emails, or just zone out in front of Netflix. Tonight you stay, that hand lingering on your jaw, finally peaceful, until you feel a layer of sweat pool between your skin and hers. You stay and you breathe. You savor the whisper of her breath against your cheek, the miracle of its presence. It could have turned out differently.
Outside, another firework screams into the night. It’s only here, safe in the air conditioning, behind double-paned windows, that you begin to digest this story.
You had only looked down to send a text—Where are you?—and to read his reply—To the right of the stage, maybe 100 feet back. Blue blanket.
Ok, you wrote back, Parked. Heading over. That’s it. You didn’t even take the time to write full sentences.
Nearly the whole time, Ella was tugging at the hem of your shirt. “Let’s go! What’s taking so long?”
You feel a pang of guilt as you acknowledge, here in the air-conditioned quiet, that you were glad for just a second when the tugging stopped, in that little moment before you slid your phone into your back pocket and reached back down for her hand. It wasn’t there. She wasn’t there.
Ten seconds. This kind of thing happens. She could have been hiding behind your legs, just outside your field of vision. This was the most likely scenario. You scanned the crowd, looking among all of the bare knees and thighs for her messy brown ponytail.
You called her name—“Ella?”—as you wove through the waddling crowd, but casually, not too loud, like talking to someone beside you, not ready to admit that this was a time to panic. Because you didn’t want to call attention to your own mistake.
You wonder now, in the play-by-play analysis that unfolds in the shadows on the bedroom ceiling, if you wasted critical seconds protecting your own pride. She would have still been in ear shot.
One Minute. You scanned the world in every direction looking for her flowered mask, blue with daisies, hoping it wouldn’t muffle her calls for “Mommy!” You listened through the human din for the only voice that mattered. Nothing. Just shrill Piccolo Petes screaming in the distance, and a dizzying cacophony of voices on top of voices.
Three minutes. You assumed she would be carried along with the current of tennis shoes and sandals, toward the central stage. You pushed faster in that direction, turning your shoulder sideways to cut through the sea of people.
One purposeful voice rose above the dizzying hum. “Get your balloons! Get your sparklers!” A middle aged woman in a straw hat and star-spangled mask called out from behind her push cart. A big, round, transparent balloon outlined in LED lights floated above the cart like a full moon. Ella would have asked for this—bigger and brighter than the balloons at the grocery store check-out. You searched the space around the cart.
“Have you seen a little girl?” you asked the balloon woman, realizing how stupid that was, surrounded by thousands of little girls. And then, in case it helped, “Viste a una niña?” You paused, choking over the last word that cut your mouth on its way out: “Solo?” Alone.
“No, sorry.” Her kind frown, the rut it carved between her eyebrows, the way she drew out her oh’s so gently, as if coddling a wounded thing—confirmed for you how serious this was.
“La buscaré,” she promised. I'll look for her.
Your voice was brittle when you whispered, "Thank you."
For a while you stayed in the wake of the cart, hoping that between the two of you, with the light of that comically over-sized moon, you might spot her.
Five minutes. Your phone buzzed and, damnit, you slid the screen open, hating yourself even in that moment, wrestling between never again and what if. Because what if it was someone saying, I found her—a picture of Ella, tear-stained cheeks, bottom lip thrust out in a pout, brown eyes wide and still. Is this yours? You wouldn’t let yourself skip to the next part then—the second gray text box with the ransom request: For a thousand dollars we’ll meet you behind the cotton candy cart like people carried so much cash to a fireworks show. But now, in the silent, air conditioned bedroom, you play this scene on the ceiling and nuzzle your chin into the little fingers with chipped blue nails.
It was Alex. You were on your way to meet him. Remember him? The man on the blue blanket who seemed relevant a few minutes ago.
Are you getting close?
You paused for a few seconds and the balloon cart woman rolled on.
I can’t find Ella. She disappeared.
You did not have time to add while I was texting you. You remember how the sweat coating your thumb made it almost impossible to type.
I’m coming, he replied. Where are you?
No. Keep an eye on the stage area.
You didn’t wait for his thumbs up text. You shoved the phone back in your pocket and moved through the crowd as the sun sighed its last breath of lavender. In minutes the crowd would be swallowed in darkness.
Seven minutes. What if you and Ella were wandering in different directions? There were three hundred and sixty degrees of possibility, and your feet—arches starting to ache with the heaviness of panic, squeaking sweaty in your sandals—tried to cover as much ground as possible, dodging left to right, weaving through people carrying folding chairs and ice chests. Your burden was too heavy; you had no time for theirs. Ideas of “rude” and “pushy” were buried under the sound of your heartbeat and your footsteps.
Ten minutes. She could be in a car by now, driving away with someone, disappearing into a city of four million people.
What would she do, you wondered? It was hard to predict. You hadn’t been out in a crowd in so long, and she was a different person than she was a year ago. You hadn’t really had the stranger talk because strangers didn’t approach you on the street these days. You wonder if she remembers your phone number or your address—strings of numbers you would occasionally recite together ambling down empty sidewalks in a different world.
You were out of practice for this kind of outing. Unprepared. You’d forgotten water bottles, and now you lost your child.
A firecracker screamed somewhere across the park, giving voice to the scream simmering inside of you.
You reached the grass and ran frantically through the lanes between picnic blankets.
You called her name, with conviction now, but your voice felt tiny as it dissipated into the vast air and a band struck up the Star Spangled Banner.
Fifteen minutes. The first fireworks ripped the sky apart, bleeding red into the darkness. People—people together on their blankets, all accounted for, people with no idea—asked you to “excuse me please. Can you sit down or move?”
You glared at them and hoped the fire in the sky would reflect in your eyes, but instead the tears that had been collecting just spilled over. Your feet never stopped moving.
You saw Alex across the lawn and the distance between you felt interminable. You locked eyes for a second, and hated him for his impotent shrug.
Seventeen minutes. The longest seventeen minutes of your life. You remembered all the times you'd shooed her away ("Go play quietly with your Paw Patrol toys for a while. Let's put on another video...") all so your body had some room to breathe. With Ella gone it was hard to breathe and your body felt useless.
Then you turned another three hundred and sixty degrees and saw her holding that comically large LED balloon, up on some strange man's shoulders. Together—the man, the girl, the balloon—they were a tall totem that stood out on the edge of the sidewalk where it bordered the grass. The balloon cast a faint glow over her head. Your angel, unmistakably.
You relive that moment—your wordless thank you to the balloon woman and this man and whatever other strangers orchestrated this miracle; your panic flipping itself inside out as you ran across the lawn, stepping on corners of picnic blankets; the way she melted silently into your arms, burying her head in your chest and wrapping her legs around your waist. You merged back together, a complete puzzle.
"Baby," you whispered into her ear, and that's all that would come out, besides the river of tears.
"Baby," you whisper now into the air-conditioned quiet. Her body jerks, then relaxes into a deeper layer of sleep.
Things could have turned out so differently. You could be sitting in a police station, your arms aimless and aching. Thank goodness for happy endings.
When you write, you usually don't let your stories have happy endings, because life is complex and what's an ending, anyway? There are happy moments. It's all a matter of where you choose to cut something off.
Only, tonight you understand endings better, and you sigh one more silent thank you that this was not an end. Still, you must replay this story in the second person, because the personal pronouns—I, me, my—are too scary. I lost my daughter? No, you lost yours. Maybe you have. This is a common story. It's been written before in different settings with different words.
You still want to think of it as a story that happens to other people. You don't want to own it. That's irresponsible, you know.
You'll make amends. You promise the shadows on the ceiling you'll make pancakes for Ella, go back to Exposition Park and buy all of the left-over balloons and sparklers. Tomorrow you'll text Alex and tell him I can't do this anymore. She needs all of me. He'll try to convince you that you're a good mom and there's plenty of you to go around. You'll know better. This is still a happy ending.