It happened at a super Target attached to the mall. Son (8), Daughter (6) and I had finished browsing the baseball cards and toys on the lower level, taken a quick tour of the shoe department on the upper level, and were about to check out. Son was buying basketball cards with his savings and as we approached an open cashier, Daughter looked at the eye-catching candy and magazines in another empty checkout aisle. It was early afternoon on a Sunday and the store was pretty empty. While Son retrieved a $20 bill from his wallet and struggled to fit the change back in, I asked the young cashier for directions to the Foot Locker in the mall.
“Turn right when you get into the mall,” he explained. “Then you’ll see a place that looks like a – no, it has a – oh, wait, it’s a hair place, turn left and it’s on the left before the food court.”
I turned around to get Daughter from the empty cashier lane where I’d just seen her. She was gone. I scanned the other checkout lanes, nothing. I walked down towards the big doors to the parking lot, nothing. We were next to Ladies clothing, handbags, and eyeglasses. I checked them quickly; no Daughter. There weren’t any toys or “girlie things” on the floor to beckon her. Where had she gone?
Son and I quickly walked back to the top of the escalators. No Daughter.
“You stay here and keep your eye out for her. If she comes, keep her with you,” I said and hurried off.
I walked around the big red bank of elevators and checked the cashier lanes again. Nothing. I kept glancing at the big doors to the parking lot. It was freezing outside and we were parked downstairs so I couldn’t imagine her going outside. Unless… I rushed up to the Information Desk. If she wasn’t lost, time was of the essence.
“My daughter’s missing,” I said to the red shirted lady at the desk. “She’s six years old. Will you please page her?”
“Oh, we don’t do that. Here, write down a description.”
“Her name is – “
“We don’t use names for children,” she interrupted me.
I quickly wrote down that she was six years old, with blond hair, and wearing a black dress.
The woman radioed the floor and summoned another woman who acted as our point person. “All associates are now checking for her,” she told me.
“I’m going to go get my son and I’ll be right back.” I raced to get him at the escalators and returned. We kept scanning the checkout lanes, thinking she’d appear at any moment.
“I don’t like where this is going,” Son said and took my hand.
“It will be alright,” I said robotically as I glanced back at the parking lot. My worst fear: a stolen child.
Within minutes Point Person’s radio crackled. “Clothing, clear. Domestics, clear.”
Until then, I thought Daughter would appear from under a rack of clothes or behind a counter. Now my eyes filled.
“They’ve cleared the floor,” Point Person said. “Should we check downstairs?”
Panic started to set in. I couldn’t imagine Daughter taking the escalator down to Level One on her own or without telling me. And we’d already been there.
“Yes, but I’m worried about the parking lot. Let me check outside.”
“I’ll go with you,” Point Person said. “And I’m alerting Mall Security.”
The parking lot was quiet and cold.
“Let’s check the mall,” I said next.
As we hurried around the corner to the wide opening that led to hundreds of stores – and people – Point Person’s radio sounded.
“Mall Security thinks they’ve found her.”
We rounded the corner and there she was, sitting in one of the big leather armchairs grouped near the entrance to Target. I thanked Point Person and ran to her.
“You said we were going to the mall —” she said with wild fear in her eyes – probably brought on by the wild fear in mine.
“You’re too young to go into the mall on your own. Especially without telling me. Please don’t leave my side. I was so worried.”
She nodded and later I would explain how most people in the world are good but there are some who are bad and she was too little to be on her own in Target or the mall. It was one thing if she was right near me and I could see her out of the corner of my eye. But she could not go off on her own like that again.
And she would tell me how we had planned to go to the mall so that’s where she went and she had headed down the hallway until she hit a fork and decided to turn around. My God!
And I would realize that her natural independence and self-confidence will serve her well in many things in life yet might also invite some threats to her well-being (and my peace of mind).
The truth is, sometimes I forget how explicit I need to be with my children even as they grow older. I remind them pretty regularly what to do if they get lost, not to go with strangers or swim in the water without me. But this time, I forgot the basic: Don’t wander off on your own. For a girl who relishes the freedom of wandering around virtual animal worlds online; the restrictions of the real world are necessary and important.
I’m thankful my fear yesterday was brief and nothing worse happened. We eventually made our way to Foot Locker though I was still shaking. Daughter insisted on showing us a sports store she’d found on her walkabout and I was aghast at how far she’d ventured into the mall on her own.
As we walked to the car, she firmly grasped my hand and said, “I’m still mad at you for losing me.” It was her way of channeling fear and processing what happened. And a gentle reminder to me to help her keep from losing me again.
Note: I’d like to commend Target for handling the search for my daughter quickly and professionally. They clearly have a well-rehearsed process that is implemented speedily without alarm. The woman they assigned to my side was calm and accompanied me the entire time. When they were sure that my daughter was not in the store, they alerted Mall security, who spotted her immediately.