Donna studied the two packages in her hands, weighing the pros and cons of their Nutrition Facts, which at the moment seemed equally non-nutritutional, leaving her feeling meloncholy at best.
As she let the winner fall gently to the cart, bouncing off the 48-count feminine pads and landing on the super value-pack of beef, she noticed something was missing. Not anything from the cart though. She looked up and down the aisle for CJ. Hadn't he been looking at that sugary cereal (Captain Whats-his-face?) that he loved so much? He had been, she remembered this vividly in her mind, hearing his voice so clearly say, "Mom! Mom look, you get a free DVD!"
"CJ?" she called, and when no answer came she increased her volume, "CJ?"
She gazed the length of the aisle again, sure that he would peek around the corner and give her his usual "I'm sick of shopping can we go home now" look. She dropped the box and it hit the ground as she first walked briskly and then ran to the end of the aisle, forgetting she left her purse unattended in the cart seat.
A cart rammed into her stomach.
"Oh my God!" the college student barely balancing a cell phone shrieked, "I didn't see you there! Just a sec -- nearly ran someone down."
"No. My bad," Donna said, shaking not just from the impact. She felt dizzy too. "Have you seen a little boy? He's about this tall and he's wearing a Yankees cap."
The student stood with her mouth half open. She faltered and then replied quickly, "No, no I don't think so. Is he lost?"
Lost? Donna choked down a squeal of fright. Of course he wasn't lost! Only irresponsible parents lost their children in a grocery store. Bad mothers let their children run wild in the store, knocking down everything. CJ would never do that. "No," she said automatically and the girl turned and continued on her way, continuing to talk on her phone.
The moment disoriented her until panic bubbled up again and she looked up and down the end-caps of the aisles. She didn't spot him. "CJ?"
Spinning, she peered back down her aisle, spotting her cart and her purse on it. Running back she snatched it and slipped it on her shoulder, twisting the zipper pull nervously between her fingers, digging it under her nails until they pinched painfully. She held it tightly, her eyes darting everywhere. "CJ?"
This time she ran to the opposite end. Again she saw no sign of her son. Even so, she waited for a moment, lingering. Her heart ran on ahead of her, speeding up. "CJ?"
Another man passed and she asked him. The man continued walking as if he hadn't heard. She hadn't noticed his ear-buds, running down through his jacket to a player clipped to his belt.
Within minutes her plea became robotic. The words sounded foreign even to her own ears, feeling like a homeless person begging for change. This wasn't happening. I'm a good mother. I always keep CJ close by. He's probably just looking at the toys or looking at those musical cards he likes so much. Yes, she could recall him asking if he could buy one for Kyle's birthday. "It's his favorite song, Mom, please?" She ran there next.
Too many carts littered the aisle, some stuck out and blocking the way as people picked and replaced cards almost at random, stopping only briefly to open and chuckle or sniff and give them a glare. Most of them simply shook their heads at her question. A few of them gave her the look. The one that said what she feared, "She's a bad mother."
A teenage boy was addressing her. She always hated the whole ma'am thing but supposed she was old enough for that now. "Ask an associate," he suggested as she turned his way, "They'll page him for you."
Why hadn't I thought of that? She continued running, her groceries long forgotten. Where were they? Wasn't it just like that? You could never find a store clerk when you needed one and when you didn't there they were right in your face. The pharmacy counter was ahead and she ran to it, explaining her situation for at least the thirtieth time in the last ten minutes. The woman behind the counter stopped her halfway, "I'm sorry but you'll have to ask up front, we don't do pages back here."
"But you're the pharmacy counter for Christ-sake! You announce when the prescriptions are ready don't you!?" Her voice snapped on the last note.
"I'm sorry ma'am, but you'll have to go--" But Donna was already gone, her cheeks bright red, lips pursed. A good parent wouldn't have yelled. Good parents don't curse. Good parents don't lose their children. She began to cry.
By the time Donna reached customer service she was holding back sobs, and could barely be understood before the young man running the PA switched it on and said, "Attention all associates. Code Adam. African-american boy, wearing Yankees cap and black shirt, jean shorts. Repeat. Code Adam..."
Donna could feel their stares. Every whisper at the registers aimed at her. It had all happened so fast. It had only been for a moment, maybe only an aisle away at most. He had always kept up before. She held her fists to her eyes. Don't lose it here. She could see associates moving to cover the exits. A hand on her shoulder guided her towards the back. The store manager? His words, although meaning to be comforting buzzed over her head. She choked on a sob.
"I'm not a bad mother," she insisted to everyone and yet no one since she was standing alone in the manager's office. How much time had passed? Did it matter? "CJ is a good boy. He would never run off."
The waiting dragged on. She paced the office.
When the squad cars pulled up outside the supermarket, their sirens shrieking, she glared at the people gathering around to watch. How could they? They let a child wander around and no one said anything! No one did anything! It was their fault, not hers. How could they be so uncaring! If someone would have helped... would have looked with her instead of just turning away...
No... I am a bad mother. She drowned in her own thoughts.
"Ma'am?" She turned slowly. A police officer. He had introduced himself but she couldn't remember his name.
"We think we may have found him."
The words didn't register at first. "What?"
"Come with me."
She followed him into the parking lot, dazed. He bobbed through the lines of cars and it wasn't until he stopped in front of one that she realized vaguely this was her car, a blue sedan, old and clunky, but still working. Two officers were near the front passenger door. She stepped towards them carefully and saw through the open door, her son sitting on the seat, his feet dangling out.
Her arms were around him in a second, squeezing him to her. "CJ! Oh my God, CJ! What are you doing out here!?"
"I couldn't find you so I went back to the car to wait for you, cause I knew you would come out." When he saw her expression change he added quickly, "I locked the door too."
She wanted to scold him, wanted to spank him, but could do neither. She was so tired, and so thankful he was alive and in her arms. "Baby you should have found a store employee..."
"I'm sorry, I was scared."
"He wouldn't open the door for us until we showed him our badges," one of the officers said, "Kid's got a good head on his shoulders."
So he had been listening to all her lectures about strangers after all.
"Mom taught me," he said proudly.
"Then you're one lucky little man," the officer said with a smile.
She couldn't help but smile secretly as she nuzzled CJ's worn Yankee's cap, its familiar scent calming her nerves as her tears dampened its surface.
Author's Note: This is actually based on a true story of what happened to me when I was a little girl. I was one of the lucky ones.