Place: a crowded beach
Object: a fanny pack
And here is what I came up with:
“Help me! I can’t find mommy. Please!” squeaked someone into Lea’s ear.
She opened her eyes and saw a little girl, fair-skinned, with blond wavy hair reaching below her shoulders, leaning over her. The child was four or five years old, Lea estimated, and she wore a pink one-piece bathing suit. Around her waist hung an unzipped fanny pack, shaped as a khaki-colored dragon head with bloodshot eyes and a long protruding tongue.
Who would buy such an ugly thing for a child? Lea thought.
For a moment, it seemed to her that the dragon bared its teeth and winked at her.
I’ve spent too much time lying in the sun, Lea squinted, sitting up in her lounge chair.
“What does your mommy look like?” she asked the child. It was a hot July Saturday, and the Coney Island beach was flooded with people.
“She’s big. She went that way,” said the girl, pointing towards the ocean. “Come, help me find her. I’m scared alone.”
“Okay,” Lea nodded. The child grinned, revealing the gap between two of her front teeth.
Strangely, she reminded Lea of one of her own childhood pictures. There was something familiar in the shape of her nose and the mole on the side of her right cheek. Looking closely at the girl’s face, Lea could not help but shudder when she saw that one of the eyes was blue and the other was brown. Her right hand jerked instinctively, as though trying to push the child away, and she mentally reprimanded herself for the movement. What harm could a fragile little girl do to her, a grown woman?
“I see her!” the child yelled suddenly, pointing towards the shoreline. “Over there! Let’s go to her!”
Lea did not want to go, but refusing to help the kid felt wrong, so she stood up, wrapping the towel around her hips. The girl gripped her hand. The small palm felt cold like an icicle, which Lea found unusual for a 90-degree afternoon. She tried to free her hand, but the child wouldn’t let go. She quickened her pace, staring into the distance. Lea followed the girl’s gaze, hoping to single out a woman who could be the little stranger’s mother. She did not like the child and was anxious to get it over with.
They ran together in between the umbrellas, stepping over people’s towels, stirring up the sand with their heels. A tall cinnamon-skinned man cursed at them, shaking the sand off his towel. Passing by a group of toddlers, the girl kicked a plastic bucket they were playing with, causing all the toys to spill out. One of the boys burst out crying.
“Crybaby,” yelled the girl, sticking out her tongue.
If she were my child, I would spank her, Lea thought. But thank God, she is not.
Five and a half years ago Lea had an abortion, and the doctors told her she would never be able to have children, which neither troubled her nor made her feel defective or less womanly. David, her husband of three years, did not want kids either.
Moving quickly, the woman and the child soon reached the coastline. The wet sand sucked Lea’s feet in. She wanted to stop, but the girl kept running right into the ocean.
“Where is she? Where’s your mommy?” asked Lea.
“There! There!” the child kept pointing to the horizon. “We’re almost there!”
First the dragon head, then the child’s shoulders and head hid under the water. Lea soon felt her own head diving into the ocean. The salt water burst into her mouth, nose and ears. The girl’s hand coiled like a tentacle around the woman’s wrist. The little body dragged her deeper and deeper into the bowels of the ocean. Gathering the last of her strength, Lea squatted, intending to push herself towards the surface, but the child wrapped her bony legs around the woman’s waist and secured Lea’s shoulders in her lasso-like embrace. The girl sulked, seeing that the woman was trying to get away from her.
Even though they were under water, Lea could still hear the weeping notes in the child’s voice.
“Mommy, don’t go!” she cried. “Mommy, don’t go now that I found you!”
Lea opened her mouth to object but no sound, only bubbles, appeared out of it.
I am not your mother, the woman thought, and somehow the child understood that.
“But you were,” she said, “for ten weeks. Then you left me alone. You left me looking for you. And here you are with me now. Forever!”
It was not my fault, Lea wanted to say to her. I was too young. I haven’t graduated from college. I was not yet married and was not going to. I needed to live for myself. I couldn’t have offered you much.
But all of these were excuses. The girl shook her head in silence.
“I know what it is, mommy,” she sighed. “You just never loved me.”
And I never will, Lea thought. You are not my daughter. You’re just a strange child with funny eyes and an ugly dragon hanging around your waist.
The embrace only became tighter. Lea felt the girl’s little chest trembling, as the latter was trying hard to hold back her tears.
“Are you ok-k?” a low stuttering voice spoke into Lea’s ear. She opened her eyes. A short hairy-chested man with a black fanny pack around his waist leaned over her.
“Yes,” she sighed with relief, “I think I just fell asleep.”
“You gotta be careful, miss,” he said, picking his nose. “You can get a sunstroke this way.”
“Yes,” she said, wiping down her tears with her sandy finger. The funny-eyed girl was gone, but somehow Lea felt that she would be back.