“Rachel! Now please.”
That morning, my mother had stood at my bedroom door, arms folded. “I’m going to start counting.”
Leaving my motley crew of stuffed animals stranded on my bed, I darted to the hall closet, pulled my coat off the hanger, jammed my feet into my boots and quietly slipped under her arm towards the sidewalk.
A late November wind ripped the few remaining leaves from the trees to mingle with the garbage that coasted along the curb in front of our house. Realizing that I’d forgotten my mittens, I shoved my hands into my pockets and hoped she wouldn’t notice.
We stopped at the park on the way, sitting on the cold, hard bench while she drank her coffee, watching as the squirrels scurried across the ground, foraging the last scraps of the harvest while the weather held.
My mother and I filled in the long hours until my father came home as best as we could. Like toys discarded in the playroom, we only truly came to life when my father walked through the door at the end of the day. Busying ourselves with household tasks, we allowed the minutiae of ordinary life to distract us for as long as possible, until – with the banking done and the dry cleaning dropped off – we would wander over to the park to wait. And watch.
That day, the first time I saw him, we hadn’t stayed at the park for very long. My mother had grudgingly begun her overseas Christmas shopping that afternoon, hoping to package up and ship off the gifts for her Scottish in-laws ahead of the holiday rush. Thoroughly uninterested in helping her pick out pyjamas for my cousin Dawn, I trailed behind her as she impartially flipped through racks of polyester nightgowns. With my eyes squeezed tightly shut and one hand stretched out in front of me, I used the belt of my mother’s winter coat like a lifeline. Fumbling along cheerfully, I was pretending I was blind.
Eventually growing tired of my game – mostly because my mother had stood in one place for so long – but also because my arm was starting to ache from holding it out in front of me, I let my eyes slide open and turning my head slightly, was stunned into stillness.
Past the racks of children’s clothes, near the entrance of the department store, lay a Christmas village built completely out of gingerbread. Almost as tall as I was, the walls of the houses were stacked upon cotton candy snowdrifts – the crystallized sugar a fair mimic of ice warmed by the sun. The warm smell of cinnamon wafted under my nose as I gazed in wonder at the chocolate wafer streets that had been patterned like cobblestones and lined with candystick light posts. At the end of the street, a licorice car was stopped at a cherry red lollipop stop sign.
Captivated, I drifted towards the village, staring at the snow-capped peaks on the roof. Was it icing? Tentatively, I reached out with one finger to touch the outer edge of the sugary wall and stopped, suddenly aware of the slack in my other hand. Looking back, I stared uncomprehending at the tan belt that lay on the floor like a sick snake, no longer attached to my mother’s coat. No longer attached to my mother. She was gone.
Looking around wildly, stomach clenched and eyes stinging with soon- to be- shed-tears, my hands fluttered up from my sides like two startled birds from a hedge. With a sickening lurch, I realized I was alone. I caught a glimpse that day, understood the fragile wall that stands between our sense of security and anonymity. Between being loved and being annihilated by loneliness.
Seconds before I melted down into a hysterical, I want-my-mommy kind of panic that only young children are capable of, I felt a hand rest comfortingly on my head. Gazing up, I saw a man with kind grey eyes staring down at me. He wore leather gloves that were soft on my hair and he smelled really good, like new wool and musk.
Looking back, I realize I should have been scared. Instead, I’d admired the long tartan scarf he wore loosely wrapped around his neck, underneath his long dark coat. I had almost reached out to touch it as he knelt down beside me, wondering if it was as soft as it looked. The man with the grey eyes that smiled, even though his mouth did not, said, “Don’t be afraid,” and I realized I wasn’t.
Something about his deep, warm voice was familiar and I thought maybe he knew me, or maybe he was a teacher at my school, because I wasn’t really feeling shy, like I usually did. Instead, it felt like he liked me. I think it was because he looked right at me, and not through me, like most adults do with kids.
As I looked silently back at him, he reached for my hand and placed it firmly in his own. We walked to the counter of the department store together, this tall man with the nice-smelling leather gloves and kind eyes. He waited his turn in line and then smiled at the clerk and inquired politely if she might make an announcement.
Glancing up at him, I’d felt completely safe, as if nothing had ever been more natural than to be hand in hand with a stranger in the mall. I would have left with him, if he’d asked me to.
Instead, he had leaned down to me and whispered, “Stay safe, Rachel, I’ll be watching for you,” and then he walked away, leaving me with the department store clerk. She looked very disappointed that he didn’t stay.
But the reason I remember that day so clearly, the reason I think I remember this at all, is because I am sure, certain in fact, that I never said a word.
I never told him my name.