The little kids and I met my Dad (aka Pop-pop) for lunch at Burger King because Nora (age 5) insisted on going. It didn’t matter to her that it was 70 degrees outside and sunny nor that I routinely feel sick to my stomach after eating fast food. I had promised her two weeks ago (the girl has an elephant’s memory) that I would bring her “sometime” to the indoor playground there and a promise is a promise.
Nora and Henry had just scampered off when the crying began. I checked the playground: not a kid in sight. The wordless screams bounced off the hard surfaces of the room. I looked over at the other families seated near us. No one made eye contact. I checked the playground again. Still no kids in sight.
It sounds unbelievable now, but at the time, it hadn’t crossed my mind that it might be MY kid screaming. Someone is always running to tell me that so-and-so fell off his or her bike, bed, trampoline, etc. The kids are each others’ early notification system and I have come unconsciously to rely on them to tell me when one another is hurt.
My Dad quietly cut through my mind-fog: “I think yours are the only ones in there.”
It took less than a second for me to stop being shocked and to start sprinting for the playground. The first thing I saw was Nora lying face down on a mat. “Nora!” I fought the mesh to get at her. Too late, I noticed that her hands were clamped over her ears in an attempt to muffle the offensive noise.
“Henry! Where are you?!?” I stalled, trying to pinpoint his exact location within the structure because he still wasn’t in sight. “I’m coming!”
I wriggled my way up the sticky, smelly tunnel like a proctologist’s instrument. I suddenly thought: Were the hypodermic needles in the ball pits really an urban legend? My God, had Henry been poked with a used needle? “Henry! Henry! Answer me!”
And then I found him. He had tried to ease himself down from a raised platform but his legs weren’t long enough to reach the next step. He was on his stomach; his bottom half dangled a mere 12 inches from safety. I squeezed over to him and gathered his sweaty body to me. “Shh, it’s okay. Momma’s here.” His screams became whimpers. I rocked him in my arms and tried to breathe through my mouth. We looked out the red-domed window at Pop-pop who couldn’t see us but who looked relieved anyway.
With some difficulty, I carried Henry back through the tunnel. I put him down. His face was flushed.
“Buddy, are you okay?”
He didn’t look up as he ran away; his words floated between us.
“I go play now.”