Lizzie swept away straggling hairs on her forehead. Most fell back. The fluorescent bar above the handicap stall washed out her face, made dim semicircles under her eyes. She sniffed, examining her own eyes in the mirror. Kids didn’t trust adults who were too bright-eyed. She seemed okay.
Lizzie discreetly licked the remnants of powder from her knuckle, grabbed up her purse, and left the bathroom.
The mall was crowded with weekend shoppers. Lizzie walked by several stores, pretending to window-shop as she looked at the people around her. There were a lot of kids here today. There was a Mexican family with the children all holding hands in a kite-tail. Too hard. A young woman sat absorbed by her phone while a toddler splashed in the fountain. Lizzie looked up for a moment too long and caught the young woman’s eye. She tried to smile wanly, as if sharing an unspoken alliance. The toddler fell in, crowing. Lizzie walked away as the pair convened. No good.
There was a little girl in a full-skirted dress sitting on the bench outside a shoe boutique. She was smiling placidly and swinging her feet. Lizzie sized her up while pretending to examine the sunglasses kiosk.
No parent in sight, yet she was relaxed. That meant mom was probably in the shoe store. The kid was sitting neatly, probably like mom told her to, which meant obedience.
Lizzie took a breath and constructed her smile. She descended.
“Hi!” she said, crouching down before the girl. Greetings were always tricky, where you could make or break it.
The little girl smiled back, unafraid. She had one of the chunky plastic bracelets that were in every mall nowadays. Lizzie pointed to it.
“Omigosh, that’s so pretty,” she gushed, “are you a for-real-life princess?”
The girl giggled and shook her head. She didn’t seem too talky. Good.
Lizzie crouched lower, putting her face closer to the girl’s wrist. In her periphery, no one stopped to look at the woman and child. Good. That was why they paid her, she wasn’t noticeable.
“Those are neato,” Lizzie said, “I sure would like to get one for myself.” She perked up. “Can you show me where you got that?”
The little girl nodded, slipping off the bench and holding her hand out.
They walked hand-in-hand down the mall. Lizzie said “wow, an escalator! Have you ever ridden one?” and suddenly they were on the lower level, walking to the west end of the mall. Lizzie knew not to look around to see if anyone was watching them. It had been a clean swoop. Now she just had to get the kid to her car.
The realization that they were not going to the store that sold chunky plastic bracelets slowly dawned on the girl. Her face went from puzzlement, to fear, then finally to outright panic. She started breathing fast. Shit. They were barely halfway to the exit. Lizzie looked around for a store that opened to the outside. The mall was sort of out in the sticks, she could find a quiet parking lot or a field to finish the job.
The girl started bawling. Shit, shit, shit. Lizzie tried to walk on, assuming the harried look of a parent, rolling her eyes when she attracted the odd look. The girl started tugging on her arm. God. There was the door. She only had to—
There was a security officer following them. Shit fuck fuck. How long had he been there? Lizzie had been too busy playing the overworked parent to spot. She made a calculated risk and scooped the kid up.
“I am never taking you anywhere again,” she hissed audibly, “when your father hears about this—”
Someone touched her elbow. Lizzie tried not to start.
“Are you all right ma’am?” The security guard seemed pleasant enough. Maybe suspicious, maybe not.
Lizzie made an embarrassed face. “Gosh, I’m sorry. It’s okay, we’ll be right out of here. I know it’s disruptive.”
The girl, face knotted redly with grief, howled: “I want my mommy!”
Lizzie tried to keep the color from draining out of her face. “I know you do, sweetie,” she said loudly for the child’s benefit.
The security guard frowned slightly. “You’re her…”
“Aunt,” Lizzie said, in a low enough voice that the kid wouldn’t hear it. “My brother’s little girl. She hasn’t seen her mommy lately.” She mouthed divorce.
Guard smiled. “Well, I guess you better see your mommy then, honey.”
Lizzie grinned as she tried to hang onto the squirming little bundle. She had a hand out and goodbye was in her throat when the officer said, “how would you like to use the office phone to call her?”
Lizzie’s smile was taxedermied into place. She musn’t show panic. She musn’t show panic. How could she refuse? Formulate a doctor’s appointment, or a pet that had to be taken care of—
The girl gave a full-body heave like a porpoise breaching and bellowed “mommy!”
The guard patted her on the back with one hand and slid the other around Lizzie’s, guiding her.
“You will, honey, you will.” He shot Lizzie a conspiratorial wink. She grinned weakly in return.
Protest would only build suspicion at this point. She saw the other shoppers looking curiously at them and tried to look embarrassed. She shushed the girl and regretted not getting her name before taking off. Shit. That mistake would probably cost her a lot.
The office was basically a desk next to the lost and found box. It had the same fluorescents as the bathroom, lighting they could never get away with in the stores because it washed the color out of everything. The little girl’s skirt went from cheerful peach to a sallow flesh tone.
The guard guided them down to a padded bench.
“Now, I’ll just get her some water,” he said, “and then we’ll call her mommy. What’s her name?”
Lizzie, thinking fast, stammered, “Suzy.”
The child had slipped into a sobbing fugue, she neither heard nor spoke from behind her misery.
The guard nodded. “Little Suzy. Just you calm down.”
The guard went out of sight. Lizzie let the girl slither out of her arms and onto the bench, where she kicked and flung her arms. Shit. She should probably cut her losses and run, but the guy had seen her face clearly. What if he caught up with her before the door? She probably couldn’t safely extract the girl at this point, but she’d settle for not getting arrested.
The door creaked open and the guard said, “just in here sir.”
Lizzie’s heart fell when a middle-aged man wearing half-frame glasses and a neat button-up shirt followed the guard in.
“Hi there,” he said in the soothing tones of a children’s author, “I’m Glen. I’m the manager. What’s all the fuss, little lady?”
Little lady? Shit, this was out in the sticks. Lizzie forced a laugh.
“Sorry, it’s just her daily meltdown, she always gets cranky around n-a-p time.”
The manager nodded, kneeling down in front of the bench. Great, he was one of those fatherly types. Probably didn’t even have kids.
“Now, Suzy,” Glen said in his tonic voice, “you gotta tell me what’s wrong. Take a deep breath.”
The girl took a deep breath and resumed screaming for her mommy. He was trying to say something else, half-words that weren’t quite getting through. Lizzie felt little fingers of cold in her arms and back. Shit. If the kid started talking while she was here, that would be it.
Glen faced the guard. “You get her the water, Mac?”
“I was on my way. Be right back.”
The guard left again and the manager looked to Lizzie and smiled, holding up one finger as he laboriously rose from his knees. Lizzie watched as he went to the desk and started rummaging in the drawers. Probably looking for crayons or some shit like that. And pretty soon he would hand her the phone. And pretty soon he would wonder why Lizzie didn’t know her own sister-in-law’s number. And pretty soon the guard would be back with that water, and the kid would talk and it would all go to hell.
Lizzie rummaged through her purse to give herself time to think. She had no cellphone, but maybe she could fake it…
No. Then they’d still probably escort her to the entrance. How long had it been? If the mom was any kind of mom, she was probably aware her kid was gone by now. If they moved too slow, the other woman would catch up to them.
Lizzie fingered a baggy of powder and had a sudden flash of inspiration. She slowly let the panic show on her face as her movements became more rapid and erratic. She mouthed no as her eyes widened. She could see the manager take notice in her peripheral vision.
“Oh god,” she whispered, barely loud enough to be heard over the kid. That was the trick. The manager dropped whatever was in the drawer and came over.
“Something wrong, ma’am?”
Lizzie looked up, eyes wide. “Her insulin.” She used her very real panic in her delivery, finally letting her heart race and her hands tremble. “I-I must have left it in the car.”
The manager looked from her to the girl. Anyone could tell she wasn’t in a diabetic coma. Lizzie put her hands over her mouth to draw the manager’s attention back to her.
“I swear, I thought I grabbed everything,” she babbled, letting the words run together so he had less chance of picking them apart and analyzing them. “I must have left it on the back seat and it’s going to be three o’clock soon, oh god, I am the worst aunt ever and I am never going to babysit again—”
The guard pushed the door open, red solo cup in one hand. Lizzie bolted up.
“Please,” she said, letting her voice crack, “please, you have to let me go get it. I swear, I’ll just be one second.”
“Now hold on, missy.” The guard held a hand out. Had he seen the woman looking for her child?
“Please,” she said again, “it’s faster if I just go, I’ll be there and back in no time at all—oh Suzy, don’t cry, it’s going to be all right,” she addressed the girl, who showed no signs of changing the subject of her misery.
The guard was looking between them, calculating. The manager stepped forward.
“Good god, Mac, stand aside and let her go get her medicine.” He turned to Lizzie. “We’ll take good care of her, ma’am.”
Lizzie gave little theater sobs. “Oh thank you,” she said, rushing out of the office, “thank you—”
It was easy to run like a desperate woman, blunder into things, bump into people while hurling apologies. She made for the central entrance, because it was closer. She noticed a woman in a similar state not too far off, pantomiming frantically to a gathering crowd of onlookers. Her dress was identical to the little girl’s. Ugh.
Lizzie breached the double glass doors and took a deep breath of freedom. She jogged down the line of cars. The Saturn they gave her was down by the west entrance, but she hadn’t reached her quota today. She’d never missed a day, and she didn’t want to find out what happened when she did.
There was a jeep idling in the shade of one of the lot trees. Lizzie shaded her eyes and squinted. A four-year-old was playing with a touch-screen device. A baby slumbered in the seat beside it. The AC was running and the window was cracked.
Lizzie stood on the sidewalk waiting, waiting.