For a second, it felt like I was in the middle of some cliché Lifetime movie, only I’m no Meredith Baxter-Birney. I’ve lost stuff before — car keys, remote controls, an aquatic frog — and generally found them under the couch and in the case of the frog … fossilized. But I’ve never lost a person, and certainly never my child.
I was terrified. All I could think was how was I going to tell My Lovely Wife, knowing that every time I heard Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” I’d remember standing in a Chick-Fil-A, the room spinning, clutching a couple of straws and those stupid packets of Heinz ketchup packets and trying not to scream.
The place was pure chaos. Two days before Halloween and Chick-Fil-A decided to have a fall festival, complete with pumpkin patch, ring-toss, bouncy house and petting zoo. Jellybean was in heaven, running before realizing, “I’m starving.” Inside, her mood plummeted faster than the yodeling mountain climber in that “Price is Right” game.
I knew she needed to eat, so we placed our order, picked out a booth and waited for my name to be called. In such situations, I always want to use my rock star name, the one that would let me check into hotels without being harassed by the throng of girls who worshipped me.
Some dreams die hard.
Plus, it’d be funny to hear someone shouting, “Shasta! Shasta McNasty!” But this time I went with plain “Brett.” When I got back from with the tray, Jellybean was gone.
The panic set in the second I saw that empty booth. I thought about faces on milk cartons. I thought about missing posters at Walmart. I thought about “Unsolved Mysteries.” I thought about John Walsh and his son, Adam, playing videos games in Sears before vanishing.
I thought, “I knew I wasn’t ready for this. I knew I’d do something stupid like taking my eye off of her for one second.”
I thought about the bathroom. Jellybean loves going to the bathroom in a restaurant to see if she can reach the sink, to hear her voice echo and squeal when the hand dryer roars to life. She likes being a “big girl” going into the bathroom by herself and getting annoyed because I insist on waiting by the door.
“I need some help,” I told the girl at the counter, asking her to go look for my daughter in the bathroom. As soon as she walked out, I knew Jellybean wasn’t in there. I thought, “this can’t be happening.”
We need to call the police. We need to review the surveillance footage. We need to set up roadblocks. We need to start questioning everyone. That dude in the cow costume handing out candy looks creepy, suspicious.
This is what terror feels like.
“Maybe she’s in the playground,” the Chick-fil-A lady said.
“But she would’ve asked … would’ve told me … we’ve been over this a million times,” I try and say but am too busy pushing through the crowd.
There she was, grinning and pulling off her high-tops. I wanted to hug her. I wanted to spank her. I wanted to yell. I wanted to cry. I never wanted to let go of her again.
“I wanted to play,” Jellybean said, sensing that something was wrong. “I’m sorry.”
After that, we had a long talk about wandering off — a talk that didn’t last nearly as long those two or three minutes felt when I thought Jellybean was gone. Those few minutes were the longest of my life.
Contact Brett Buckner at email@example.com.