Worst Nightmare

by Brigitte Brkic

Michelle shrugged off an impulse to flee as her eyes traveled up the long escalator, its end curving out of sight. Adjusting the diaper bag on her shoulder and hanging the curved handles of the umbrella stroller over her right forearm, she hoisted two-year-old Nicholas onto her hip. With her free left hand, she gripped Cassie, almost five, by the arm and stepped onto the up escalator. So far this first solo-parent excursion to the Smithsonian was going well.

She had found parking right on the Mall, not too far from the Natural History Museum, and made her way to the Constitution Avenue entrance, where she knew she would find the Discovery Room. They had spent almost an hour going through the various themed boxes of bird songs, seashells, fossils, reptile skins, and animal pelts. Cassie, impatient with her brother’s questions and sorting of objects, soon requested her own selections from the accommodating women behind the desk.

As noon approached, Michelle helped her children put everything back and returned the last boxes.

“We’ll go up to the Explorer’s Hall next and have some lunch in the restaurant there. Would you like that?”

Her daughter skipped to the door in excitement. “That’s where the dinosaurs are,” she said, remembering a previous visit. Michelle told her to wait.

The escalator going up seemed endless. Michelle stood to one side to allow others to pass, though there was no one ahead or behind them. She shifted Nicholas to her other arm. Cassie held onto the rail and moved up one step.

Michelle, enjoying her newfound freedom, foresaw the years ahead with many more such outings. Her forays out into the world with the children had been limited to walks to the park between naps. She usually made her trips to the mall, the library, or the grocery store when Scott was home with Cassie and Nicholas. He would be surprised when they told him about their museum adventure.

When they had moved, three months earlier, to a house closer to the city, she had not yet considered the possibility of broadening their world. But that had changed with Cassie’s enrollment in nursery school. On the third day of school, while she waited in the hallway, one of the other mothers had introduced herself.

“Hi, you must be Cassie’s mother,” she said, extending her hand. “My name is Suzanne. And my daughter Annie has fallen in love with Cassie. She’d like to bring her home to play.”

Michelle was too taken aback to respond right away. Was she being overprotective if she did not allow Cassie to go to this stranger’s house? And yet this woman was pleasant and acted as if she was proposing the most normal thing in the world—which, of course, she probably was.

Suzanne continued, “So I was wondering if I could pick up both girls next Tuesday from school, and you and your little boy could join us for lunch. Or, if you prefer, you could bring Cassie with you. We live nearby.”

Michelle smiled to herself as she thought of how her friendship with Suzanne had developed. The girls had played well together, and Suzanne had looked after Nicholas several times so Michelle could shop unencumbered for items for the new house. They had joined together for outings to the zoo, to parks with trains and carousels, and to the Discovery Room. Suzanne, who was relatively new to the area, had researched the city’s offerings for children and was familiar with them all.

Michelle looked at Cassie, who had moved up a few more steps. “Cassie, stay on that step and don’t go any further,” she instructed.

Cassie turned around and moved sideways, first down and then up, like a game. Nicholas was so much more dependent than Cassie had ever been. It felt good to be able to expose Cassie to different experiences.

Cassie began stomping up the steps.

“Cassie,” she shouted. “Stay where you are.”

Michelle tried to hurry up the steps, but the stroller slowed her down. She was little more than halfway up. Stay calm, she told herself as she tried to close the gap between her and Cassie. At that point Cassie passed over the curve at the top and out of sight.

“Cassie, wait there,” she yelled. Michelle could not see any of the floor beyond the curve. The din from that next level seemed to throw her words back at her.

At last the massive elephant in the center of the Rotunda loomed into view. Michelle lumbered up over the last steps, willing Cassie to be standing there at the top. The Rotunda was filled with people but Cassie was not there. Michelle ran to each of the numerous passages that radiated out like the spokes of a wheel. Cassie was gone.

“Did you see a little girl go out by herself just now?” she asked, running up to a guard standing near an exit.

“No, ma’am.” He shook his head. “But groups of people come through all the time.”

Michelle could no longer hold back her tears. She was about to dash off to start searching any one of the hallways, but the guard stopped her with his hand on her arm.

“You should stay put,” he said. “I’ll call for help. They’ll want a description from you. How old is your daughter and what’s her name?”

He opened a folding chair, took the stroller and diaper bag from her, placing them on the floor, and insisted she sit down. Nicholas was squirming to get down, but Michelle held onto him, sharply telling him to stop. He whimpered, then wailed, and she tried to comfort him.

All she wanted was to search for her daughter. What if Cassie had already left the building? What if someone had taken her?

“You must be the mother missing a child.”

Michelle looked up to see a woman with identification tags hanging from her neck. She caught her breath, thinking Cassie had been found.

“Hi, we’ve alerted the guards at each exit, and we’re going to search the building. Don’t worry, we’ll find her.”

The woman patted Michelle’s shoulder and asked for a detailed description of what Cassie was wearing, down to the color of her shoes. She asked about the color and length of her hair and the color of her eyes.

Michelle’s frustration as she bounced Nicholas on her knee to keep him quiet was becoming unbearable.

“You don’t need any more information,” she said, wanting to scream out the words. “Why don’t you just start looking?”

“We’re almost done,” the woman answered. “Where were you when you last saw Cassie?”

“On that escalator. I already told you she disappeared over the top.” Michelle started to cry again.

The woman led the way into a small office, then left, closing the door behind her. Michelle was relieved to be able to let Nicholas walk around but soon found it oppressive to be shut in. Each time someone opened the door to look in on her, her hopes soared and fell. She looked at her watch. Cassie had been missing for almost forty-five minutes. She should phone Scott.

The door opened and the woman who had asked for Cassie’s description entered. She was smiling.

“We think we’ve found your daughter,” she said as Michelle’s eyes searched the hallway outside the door. “She’s in the Discovery Room. She told me she couldn’t come with me because she’s not allowed to go with strangers.”

Michelle swept up Nicholas but stopped at the door, unsure which way to turn.

“This way,” the woman said. “By the way, my name is Janet. We can take the elevator.”

Janet pressed the button to summon the elevator. As they waited, she said, “Your daughter is remarkable.”

She described to Michelle what she understood to have happened. When Cassie ran out into the Rotunda to see the elephant and realized she was alone, she tried to return to the escalator. She found herself going down. Remembering the way to the Discovery Room, she returned to it, confident that her mother would return there. She had gone to the desk several times, each time requesting a specific box: bird sounds, birds’ eggs, seashells, fossils. Once she was done examining the contents, she returned the box in exchange for another. The attendants were busy as the room was filled to capacity with children and parents. It was only as it emptied for lunch that one of the women behind the desk realized that the little girl who kept returning for new boxes was alone. She had missed hearing about the missing child, having gone to the bathroom when the information was announced.

“Your daughter is a very resourceful and independent young lady,” Janet said, smiling at Michelle.

Michelle, too filled with emotions, could only nod. When she entered the Discovery Room, Cassie turned and ran to her.

“Mommy, Mommy, where have you been?”


Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing