“Kill ‘em!” Carrie shouted at the top of her lungs as she plunged her stick into the steaming tar.
“Die! Die!” I retaliated.
My older sister and I fought the black monster waging war on every house on the block. The tar on the sides of the road seemed ready to bubble and burst. I pictured it creeping up the sidewalk in splats and splatters. This could not be. Carrie and I stabbed the living tar with our sticks and moved its brains around like peanut butter.
“All right, everyone in the car. We’re ready to go.”
We dropped our sticks and ran to the car. Dad buckled me up so the seat belt wouldn’t burn me. We drove from our green neighborhood into a more crowded part of town. A myriad of billboards couldn’t distract from the lush green trees, grass and colorful flowers.
“When we get to the mall, if you girls are really good, we’ll get you a treat. Fair enough?” Mom called.
“Yeah!” Carrie and I shouted in chorus. Really, I didn’t have to answer. Carrie always responded for me. Talking didn’t frighten Carrie, my brave older sister. I recalled how Carrie came to my defense and confronted an angry adult when I rode another kid’s tricycle. She did a good job as my spokeswoman, so I happily let her talk for me.
We arrived at the mall, a massive building in my mind. Carrie took my hand as we walked inside. Being only four-years-old, I simply followed with no expectations or places I wanted to go. The stores soon became monotonous as we passed by them, went inside this one, and thought about coming back to that one. I began to daydream to pass the time. I smelled caramel popcorn and that got my attention. We stopped to look at a candy store window, brightened by lights and full of chocolates and colorful sweets. I was fascinated. I placed my hands against the cool glass hoping, somehow, to get a little closer to what was inside. How wonderful it would be to eat as much candy as I wanted. Why didn’t we open a candy store? I will one day, I thought.
I looked away to ask for a treat. Gazing around for a minute, I had no luck spotting Mom, Dad or Carrie. A thought crept into my mind slowly, taking it’s time to form and sink in. They lost me. I got lost. I tried it out in my mind. As the thought solidified, an odd sensation began. Something lodged in my throat but still plummeted to my stomach. I swallowed. I circled back to the cheery window display. The lights, now surrounded by watery hazy balls, confused me. I squinted then blinked hard, wiping my eyes with my fists. Forgetting the candy, I frowned, searching my mind for important safety rules. Stay where you are. That was one of them. I could do that. Tell a police officer or adult. I counted up as high as I could, then turned to study the rush of people.
In the arched entrance of the mall, his silhouette looming from the bright sun behind him, towered a policeman. I watched him cautiously. I pondered walking over to tell him my predicament. I could imagine him looking down, far down, to see me tapping his leg, a scowl on his face, hands on his waist next to the gun belt. The thought stopped me short and I shivered. Maybe Carrie could look a giant in the eye, but not me. Besides, I’m sure I did something wrong today and he would know. He would put me in jail. No, I was a big girl and could handle this myself. I resolved to stay and wait.
My family would notice they left me. They would eventually notice I was missing, I nodded my head. I couldn’t be lost – forever. Surely they didn’t plan to leave me. On purpose. Did they? I began to feel weak and panicked. I froze as stiff as a Popsicle. Two boys walked out of the candy store, one holding a bag of sweets up high while his brother jumped to grab it. I recalled Carrie snickering, “You weren’t born into our family. We found you on the doorstep!”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Uh huh! That’s why you have red hair and the rest of us don’t!”
What if that was true and I followed along until they decided they didn’t want me anymore? Why did I have red hair? What if Mom and Dad kept it a secret about finding me? Carrie probably knew what really happened, she’s so much older than I am. Carrie looked honest. She didn’t hit me much, played with me, and Mom says she even potty trained me. So a part of me believed her, not knowing who to trust, my sister or my parents. I also hated my red hair. The boys dodged into another store and out of sight.
Across the hall stood a slender woman with short brown hair and a handbag slung over her shoulder. My mom! I took a deep breath but before I could let it out she moved farther into the store. I hurried across the hall that stretched on forever between safety and me. I caught up to her in a small aisle of breakable objects and crossed my arms so I wouldn’t bump the shelves. Treading behind her, relief washed over me. I felt shielded again, and safe, and began to relax as we looked at polished glass objects. The store smelled of candles and potpourri. The music playing softly above soothed me. I reached for my mother’s arm.
“Well, hello there sugar.” The voice hit me like a water gun attack. I leapt a few steps away from the perpetrator. Embarrassment and shock, along with frustration from not knowing where I was supposed to be, overwhelmed me.
“What’s a matter? Where’s your momma and daddy?”
I shrugged my shoulders and released my hands from their tight grasp to show open palms.
“Well, bless your heart. What’s your name sweetie?” Her voice softened.
I narrowed my eyes but responded. “Sawa.”
“What is it?”
“Well, honey, let’s see if we can find your momma and daddy, okay?”
I nodded my head up and down and took her extended hand. We walked a little ways outside the store. I tightened my grip.
She crouched down. “Where do you live now, Sara?”
“Do you know where in Knoxville you live?”
“Okay. Okay, good. Can you remember your address – the number – of where you live? No? That’s all right.”
I somehow sensed this woman felt as lost as me. We kept dragging our feet back and forth in front of the same stores. After a few times doing this she took me to go buy a drink. The pretty woman then gave me a big piece of purple bubble gum. In between asking me questions, most of which I answered by shaking my head, she showed me how to blow bubbles. I desperately wanted my family. The mall was crowded and as noisy as a highway, and I feared they wouldn’t find me.
I thought back to the baby bird we found dead under the big tree in our backyard. I felt grief-stricken that the baby had fallen so far from the shimmering leaves and branches of his home. Did the momma bird try looking for her baby? I wanted my dad. We buried that baby bird in the moist soil.
Suddenly hands encompassed my shoulders.
“Sara. Oh, sweetie!” Dad’s voice rang. “We didn’t mean to leave you. Are you okay? Were you scared? Give me a hug.” My dad’s voice played like music to my heart. I leapt up in my seat and gave him a bear hug.
“Sara has been really brave. We sat here talking and looking for you folks. I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t take her to someone. This mall is so small and I thought surely you’d have no problem spotting her, what with her beautiful red hair and all.”
“She is our special little girl.” Dad said as he stroked my head pressed deeply against his chest.
Maybe red hair was not so bad after all.
© 2017 Sara Cardon ALL RIGHTS RESERVED