Thank Goodness for Happy Endings

Submitted into Contest #93 in response to: Write a story about a character who gets lost at a carnival or festival.... view prompt

34 comments

Fiction Suspense Contemporary

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. 


Nothing.


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.


Nothing.


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.

May 15, 2021 03:56

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34 comments

Carmen Hart
15:29 May 17, 2021

You did such a good job expressing emotion here that, even as a woman without children, I empathized with this character and felt her panic. This was beautifully done!

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A.Dot Ram
16:40 May 17, 2021

Thank you. Lost kids need as many empathetic people in the crowd as possible.

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Shea West
17:34 May 16, 2021

Oh man, who hasn't "lost" their kid at some point and had that suffocating feeling of "WHERE DID THEY GO?!" I had to remind myself to breathe a few times in this, because as a mom I felt this in my bones. That terrifying feeling when you explain how she goes through all the things that could have happened to her kid. You always keep it real, and the last paragraph drives it home. When we overcorrect as parents to do better/do it right, the next time, that is a universal course correct. "I will spend more time with them." "I'll yell less." ...

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A.Dot Ram
18:08 May 16, 2021

You just helped me understand what was going on in my story--what happened with Alex (besides me trying to layer some nuance into a story that followed the prompt very literally). Of course she was over-correcting. It made me uneasy, this implication that a mom's entire life should be her child, because there's totally room for more. We know that, logically. But this is a distortion born of guilt. It happened without me understanding it, it's so innate. Thanks. Yes, that's exactly what I meant, and I'm glad you paid attention to the end.

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Shea West
19:09 May 16, 2021

If you don't course correct at the end of the day, are you even a parent? HHAHAHAH. A distortion of guilt indeed!

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David Gottfried
13:07 May 17, 2021

I like the reflections on how the story is written, especially the use of pronouns. It’s definitely a writer’s voice coming through.

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A.Dot Ram
14:59 May 17, 2021

Yup. This one started coming to me in second person and was easier to write that way and i had to ask myself why, because i personally think if you're going to write in second person there needs to be a specific reason, and we need to know who the "you" is-- in this case the narrator's own internal monologue, at a more comfortable distance. This is the one where i "wrote the scene" (putting the kid to bed...it veered other places from there).

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K. Antonio
00:05 May 16, 2021

As someone who teaches children, every field trip this person is me (though probably not the same as being a mother/father). My youngest sister at four, is so curious that I can't walk with her on the street without holding her hand. The suspense in this was real, your main character seemed real. Her wandering the grounds, asking people in Spanish for help, but also her "telling" of the before and after the incident, was well done. I enjoyed the prose, though I do think that the first sentences seemed a bit wordy, for some reason I enjoy...

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A.Dot Ram
06:40 May 16, 2021

Yes, I think being a teacher counts. The girl in my story is probably around 3-4, much like your sister. I'll take another look at the opening paragraph as I revise this (it's too late to change anything on Reedsy, but I'm actually thinking of deleting it early this week and using it for something else...)

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Kelly Dennison
12:30 May 15, 2021

As a mother of a small child myself, I can’t even tell you how hard my heart was beating. Because yeah...it only takes one second of unintentional inattention... Wow. You really captured something here. It was somehow even more powerful in the somber retelling of her panic. This felt very real...super well done!!!

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A.Dot Ram
15:28 May 15, 2021

Thank you. Yup, started this story in my head while in bed with a small child. I saw a little boy lost at a huge fireworks show once-- some other seemingly kind adults were helping him, but it still haunts me.

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Kelly Dennison
16:03 May 15, 2021

Yeah. Yeah...

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Alison Brewis
19:02 May 17, 2021

You did really well to capture the tension and the mum guilt! Been there!

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A.Dot Ram
20:06 May 17, 2021

Thanks. Seems like the human condition.

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Niveeidha Palani
02:03 May 17, 2021

Now, this is pretty relatable to a lot of mothers. No comments here. This was a perfect piece.

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A.Dot Ram
05:45 May 17, 2021

Thank you! I'm sorry you found it relatable.

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Niveeidha Palani
23:31 May 17, 2021

😂🤗 Now, don't we all go through the same thing?

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Angela Guthrie
22:26 May 16, 2021

This is very well done. I would like you to read my story “The Social Butterfly “ and give me your opinion.

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H L Mc Quaid
11:13 May 16, 2021

Great storytelling and writing. I was completely immersed, and you managed to build the tension even though we knew (from the start) that everything turned out alright. Amazing.

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Beth Connor
15:29 May 15, 2021

You captured a moment to many of us have had at one point or another so well, I almost had to stop reading- Thank you for the ending. I need to take the time a read through more of your writing- I have loved everything of your I’ve read.

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A.Dot Ram
16:42 May 17, 2021

Thank you, Beth. I'm deeply flattered.

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A.Dot Ram
07:44 May 15, 2021

I got this one in under the wire and it probably needs work. Tell me all the ways.

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Nina Chyll
19:36 May 18, 2021

When my mother lost my brother once in a country foreign to both of them, and he was thirteen so no spring chicken, I swear to god I could see her skull through her skin when she'd finally found him and they got home together. She looked like she'd fallen to pieces and then scrambled back into one, a very scary image. I was so tense all the way through, and without any cheap thrills, just pure emotion. Little to say apart from that this is again beautiful and tasteful. I was wondering all the way through who the narrator was and the clarifi...

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A.Dot Ram
20:29 May 18, 2021

Your description of your mom! You are a writer, that's all there is to it. Thank you. I was worried that the second person narration could be a cheap trick. I think you mean "tasteful" as a complement, but I'm taking it as a challenge. Eventually I'll develop the skill to pull off less tasteful things.

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Nina Chyll
20:54 May 18, 2021

Oh no, please don’t take it as a challenge on my account! I meant this in the best way possible: you picked one of the most difficult feelings to approach. Like the panic most of us know from when we can’t feel house keys in our pockets when we stand in front of the door, but multiplied by a million, and you made it work in a poignant but still incredibly palatable way. Just very, very classy. That’s probably a more accurate adjective.

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A.Dot Ram
21:01 May 18, 2021

Or feeling your empty pocket for a phone and remembering your little jog across the street a few blocks back (oops--thank goodness it's just technology). I still mean it about having the skill to pull off less tasteful things--just ruffling people's expectations more. It's not a mean challenge; it's a good one.

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Nina Chyll
21:05 May 18, 2021

Haha exactly, I was wondering whether to write keys or phone there. I’ll be looking forward to it!

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Rayhan Hidayat
05:06 May 18, 2021

The way you always mention air conditioning when jumping back to the present is very clever, makes it easy to keep track of where the story is at the moment I don’t know what it’s like to lose a kid because I don’t have any, but I imagine it is a despair unlike any other. However, I have been a lost child myself, and it makes me wonder what sort of distress Ella was feeling in the same situation. A story from her perspective leading up to being found would be very interesting! Good stuff as always!!

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A.Dot Ram
05:41 May 18, 2021

My other idea was from the point of view of view of a lost child who wasn't able to communicate with others to help herself be found. My older daughter, who's gotten lost for a couple of minutes at a time, gets so terrified. I would sometimes write my phone number big on her forearm when we went out crowded places.

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Rayhan Hidayat
11:19 May 19, 2021

Oh that would be an interesting (if highly distressing) tale. Were you thinking language barrier, or the child is literally mute? Oh wow, that precaution seems silly at first, but if it works, it works! I wish my parents thought to do that, they just made me memorize it, which I never could because of my terrific memory

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A.Dot Ram
18:21 May 19, 2021

Mute, or at least very shy. Haha, artistic writer type is not an archetype from any quiz or anything, though i guess it has that sound. I meant it as opposed to (say) artistic wood worker type 😆, or a practical problem solver type. I've been starting to describe my style as hyper realism: Realist-ish content for the storyline with feeling heightened through setting, description, and subtext.

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Rayhan Hidayat
19:25 May 19, 2021

Ah yes, I’ve heard shyness can be so crippling that it turns you effectively mute. On a related note, one of the characters in my (planned) epic fantasy series is mute, and instead communicates by playing her lute Oh lol, forget I said anything. Hyperrealism sounds about right, especially with your more recent stories. My favorites by you will always be the ones with a biology theme running through them, making them somewhat educational/allegorical while still maintaining realism. I’m honestly not sure how I’d describe my own work. I’ve wr...

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20:53 May 17, 2021

This was a well crafted story. You did a fantastic job getting us to feel what that poor mom felt.

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Elizabeth Day
06:50 May 19, 2021

Thank you so much for this story! It is absolutely beautiful. You are an incredible writer.

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