by John Mahoney
My iPhone buzzed in my pocket, the alert I’d programmed into its memory. Barnes & Noble captivates me, but Wyler wouldn’t want to hear that. I shelved the manga neatly with its siblings. My left hand was at my side, and I looked down, feeling a tug of its pinkie.
The girl wore a Dora the Explorer shirt beneath blue jean overalls. Her black hair was elegantly braided, barely level with my thigh. When I turned, her hand fell away from mine, but she stood her ground, staring up at me. “I can’t find my Mom,” she announced, her voice pitched to reach me above the chatter of the other customers and overhead muzak. Her angular face seemed calm but two green eyes glistened enough to prompt a retraction of the Weather Channel’s sunny forecast.
“Okay,” I said, gently as I could, sinking to one knee. I’d read that distressed children were reassured by meeting them at their level; at six feet, six inches I was far from most people’s comfort zones. “What’s your – hey!” Before I could finish the first mandatory adult question, she placed her left foot upon my raised knee, grabbed the collar of my gray unzipped windbreaker with her left hand and swung herself up and around my back. In an instant she was perched on my shoulders, her little pink sneakers briefly clamping hard against my chest while she secured her balance; I nearly lost mine. Both my palms thumped painfully to the carpeted floor to prevent an ignoble collapse. “What are you doing?” I demanded.
“Up, please,” she requested, as if she’d entered an ancient elevator operated by a dim-witted bellhop.
“Kid, I’m not a horse,” I objected, steadying myself. “Off.”
“Up,” she repeated, her voice closer to my ear, as though I hadn’t heard. “So I can see my Mom.”
With a grunt that was definitely more acquiescence than effort, I lurched to my feet. The girl murmured “Whoa,” finding herself taller than Shaquille O’Neal; her arms encircled my forehead. Even bowed under the unwelcome weight of my passenger, I over topped the rows of bookshelves, so the entirety of Barnes & Noble was her visual dominion. A convex mirror positioned above the literary maze reflected the girl’s head swiveling in every direction. Beneath her stood me, the human cherry picker, glasses askew, going nowhere, yet closer to an unwanted voyage with each passing minute.
A whine was building in the throat near my brown curly hair. “So, you do gymnastics?” I asked, keeping my voice light.
The mirror showed her glance down at the top of my head. “How’d you know?”
“Magic,” I replied. A moment went by and she released a sheepish giggle, surely recalling how she’d reduced me to stilts. “So what’s your name?”
“KAYLA!” a woman shrieked. The store’s patrons quieted enough for me to detect frantic footsteps drawing near.
“Nope,” the girl said, giggling again.
My puzzled question was cut off by the panting woman’s arrival in our aisle. A raven-haired beauty in her thirties, her light blue skirt and white blouse were rumpled from sprinting, yet far more composed than her face. I’d have thought a mother would look pleased to find her missing offspring, even if mounted atop a large stranger, but the woman was panicked. “Oh, God,” she groaned, approaching at a trot. “Kayla –”
“Mom,” the girl interrupted. “I’m Kelly.”
I murmured ‘Uh-oh” as the woman half-screeched: “Where’s your sister?” People were gathering at both ends of the aisle now, preventing my escape; a dozen camera phone lenses ensured my notoriety. Clad in a green shirt and tan khakis, a red haired employee appeared, and the woman rounded on him so swiftly his acne should have fled his chinless face. “My daughter – please, my other daughter! Her name’s Kayla – help me find her!”
The youth blinked stupidly, then left the aisle with the crowd’s blessing, though they closed ranks once he’d gone. Spinning, arms raising, the mother said, “Kelly, come here. Come down right now.”
I saw Kelly’s reflection shake its head, resuming surveillance of the store. “I’ll find Kayla, Mom. I can see everything. She’ll go high up.”
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“’Cause that’s what I did,” Kelly replied, her tone suggesting I was the child. “There she is,” she said after a few tense seconds, lifting an arm to point to our right. “Kayla!”
I followed her finger to see Kelly’s doppelganger, clambering to the top of a bookshelf, puffing with exertion. Books tumbled as she crested the self-help summit. She waved. I bent myself so Kelly’s mother could heft her from my shoulders. “Want me to – ”
“Get her, yes,” the woman cut in, holding Kelly tight. She was too short to see Kayla, and her eyes shone, with fear or relief or both. “Please, don’t let her fall.”
Someone gave my shoulder an amiable pat as the crowd, my erstwhile captors, let me pass. Six aisles later, I reached Kayla. It was as if Kelly had teleported to beat me here, the final ploy in a disorienting prank. The trusting way Kayla extended her arms toward me, as if she knew me, only reinforced the illusion. “Your Mom’s worried about you,” I said, setting her to the floor.
As if those words had summoned her, the woman hustled into the aisle, tugging a chastened Kelly. “– times have I told you to stay with me?” she was scolding. Kayla rejoined her family, and was snatched into a fierce embrace. “My girls,” the woman whimpered. A useless announcement requesting Kayla’s presence at the aisle we’d left overrode the music. “I can’t thank you enough,” she told me. “I’m so grateful – ” Her throat hitched. “They always wander off, and they don’t get that not everybody’s their friend. There are criminals out there, you know?”
“This should teach them,” I said, extracting my phone and tapping “Wyler” in my contacts list. “I’m a criminal, and I’m late meeting my parole officer.” Three pairs of green eyes widened. I couldn’t help smiling. “He won’t believe this story, coming from me. I’d appreciate it if you tell him what happened, so he doesn’t lock me up for helping you.”
My heart sank when I heard the tinny voice of Wyler yelling through my cell; the woman stood poleaxed, making no move to take the device. The twins glanced up at her, then at one another, and plucked the phone from me together as if they’d rehearsed it. Kelly said, “We got your back.”
(Bio: John Mahoney is a writer from New Jersey.)
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