The primary choice of transportation entertainment for most malls is a choo-choo train. The Riverbend Galleria had a trolley. Bright red. Green roof. Thin black track embedded in the marble tile floor. Riverbend Galleria painted on the side in yellow. It didn’t chugga-chugga; it clicked like a card threaded through bicycle spokes. It didn’t blow a horn; it rang a cheery, tinkling bell.
Marina Dowry sat on a bench next to a giant mushroom house in the kids’ play area, watching the trolley as it reached the furthest point on its track over by the food court. She squinted to catch a glimpse of her daughter’s black corkscrew curls, so like her own, but the car was too far. She lost sight of it completely as it wrapped around a large free-standing booth selling cellphone covers. Anxiety, like a low frequency humming, invaded her brainwaves. She stood up, craning her neck to see the green top of the car. What if Daria fell out? The trolley was unsupervised. What if that hulking little boy who looked like a sixth grader was pulling her hair and calling her names? He could shove her out of the trolley! The trolley car came into view, and Marina sat down.
Stop it. She’s fine. You’re overreacting. She took calming breaths, and the buzz in her brain subsided to a low drone. The trolley was halfway down the long hall. Marina scowled, then leapt to her feet, heart pounding. Her flip flops smacked the marble tile with a sound like a hand on bare skin.
“Daria!” She raced to meet the trolley.
Empty. Cold, shiny red seats.
The world was fuzzy. She forgot to breathe. She could hear her blood rushing through her veins, crashing in her ears. Nothing. No children. No little shoes forgotten in a hurry to find the next adventure. No sign of the red bow that had adorned Daria’s frizzy ponytail. No drips of the strawberry ice cream cone she’d been clenching in one chubby baby hand. No trace.
Snatched! How else could six children go missing all at once? A trafficking ring. Marina staggered back, the breath she’d held in whooshing from her lungs in a sob. She began to hyperventilate as the ugly thoughts bombarded her. Should have ridden with her, crammed my fat butt into the tiny seat, pulled my knees to my chest. Should have walked along beside. Bad mother. Bad mother! Helicopter parent, ha! Should have hovered like a helicopter. Damn anyone who says otherwise. Oh God, my baby!
“My baby! The children! My baby is gone! Help!”
She whirled to face the silence. Where were the other parents? Hadn’t they seen? Hadn’t they realized?
There was only one woman in the play area, and her eyes were glued to a boy in a striped shirt who was climbing up the fat plastic steps to the short, yellow slide.
Marina spun on her heels, searching. The teen boy who collected the $0.50 trolley fare and switched the ride on and off had deserted his post. The mall was unusually vacant for a Saturday. A couple walked hand-in-hand toward the pretzel stand. Two girls swung shopping bags as they headed into Victoria’s Secret. A few elderly women chatted inside the nail salon across the way. Lightheaded, Marina put a hand to her temple and tried to focus.
Am I going crazy? Where is everyone? Where’s Daria?
Marina snapped her head around to see the young blond woman who’d spoken. She wore a look of panic—eyes wide, hand outstretched.
“Tucker!” she screamed, startling Marina.
“Was your boy on the trolley?” said Marina, running to the woman, who looked twenty-one, maybe younger. She looked small, terrified, and alone. Just like Marina felt. “My daughter Daria was—”
“Let him go!” shrieked the woman, and Marina squeaked in alarm. “Somebody help! He’s got my boy!”
“Who? Where?” Marina followed the woman’s pointing finger… and saw nothing but the gossiping old ladies with their feet in mini, bubbling spas.
She turned back to the blonde, perplexed, her panic still bubbling at the surface, ready to spill over.
“Who has your boy? Was he on the trolley?” she asked, fighting to keep her voice even.
“Tucker!” the blonde screamed, putting her hands to her face like a victim in a black and white horror movie. “Let him go!” She pointed at the old ladies. “Somebody help! He’s got my boy!”
“What?” said Marina, her breathing quick and shallow. Her brain felt clogged with cotton. She waved her hand in front of the blonde’s eyes. “Hello? Where’s your boy? I don’t see anything. My daughter is missing.”
“Tucker!” the blonde screamed, her eyes never moving from the nail salon. “Let him go! Somebody help! He’s got my boy!”
With a wild cry of frustration and fear, Marina grabbed the blonde’s arm and shook her. “Listen! We can help each other!”
The woman looked forward and repeated her cry for help, as if God kept clicking rewind on his TV remote, watching her desperate plea again and again.
Marina shook her harder, making her golden head sway on her slim neck.
“My daughter is missing. Maybe the same person took her. What are you looking at?” Now Marina was screeching loud enough to make her throat raw. “Talk to me, you bitch!”
The panic burst open like a raincloud, showering her in a cold, torrential downpour of anxiety and terror. She’d had panic attacks before, felt her throat begin to close up. Everything was too sharp; it hurt to look at. Thinking was too much. Too many awful things to consider. Bad mother. Crazy bitch. Lost your daughter. Somebody took her. You’ll never see her again. She wanted to curl up on the floor and forget.
But she couldn’t. Daria’s face blasted through the wall of panic threatening to crush her. Large round green eyes, like Marina’s. Even with her baby fat plumping her face, it was obvious she’d inherited her father’s thin nose and high cheekbones. She’d been wearing her favorite red dress. The one that belled out when she twirled. The one that matched her favorite bow.
“Please help me!” she said, waving at the mother in the play pen. The woman’s eyes flicked away from her boy for a second, and then returned.
Marina rounded on a middle-aged gentleman walking with a jewelry store bag in one hand.
“Please, have you seen a little girl? She’s about this tall,” she said, walking beside him. “She’s four years old. She’s in a red dress. She has black, curly hair like mine.”
The man looked over at her, puzzlement creasing his brow. He walked on, and Marina’s shoulders slumped.
“What is wrong with you people?” she cried, her voice echoing off the tile. “Six children are missing!”
“Let him go!” said the blonde.
Marina whipped her head in every direction, searching for a friendly face. A concerned face. For Daria, for Tucker, for anyone.
“Somebody help!” said the blonde.
“What is going on?” said Marina, her fingernails digging into her arms, tears burning her eyes and soaking her collar.
“He’s got my boy!” the blonde replied.
“Please,” said Marina with a whimper. She took a wavering step back, feeling woozy, blinded by tears.
“Freeze!” A man’s voice. “Put down the knife!”
Marina turned to see a broad, freckled man in a black and navy security uniform aiming a gun at her face. She leapt back, tripped, smacked her back on the tile. Her chest hurt.
A face appeared above her. A man with a dark, smooth face and kind eyes. He was older than Marina, nearing his thirties. A sudden feeling of relief swept over her, pushing back some of the terror pricking at her mind like hot needles. A friendly face. But… he looked scared.
“My God, she’s in trouble,” he said.
“No, my daughter. My daughter’s in trouble. You have to help me find her. Please.”
She tried to get up, but he put a hand on her chest.
“Don’t try to move.”
“What? Get off me!” She pulled at his wrist, but the hand didn’t budge.
“Freeze! Put down the knife!” said the security guard.
“Who’s got a knife?” said Marina, struggling beneath the Samaritan’s hand. She strained her neck to see the security guard, gun raised at someone in front of the nail salon. Marina couldn’t see who he was aiming at; the Samaritan was blocking her view.
“You!” said the Samaritan, looking at someone behind Marina. “Call 911! Somebody give me a jacket or a T-shirt—something to stanch the wound. She’s losing too much blood.”
“Let him go!”
“Blood?” said Marina, her hand falling away from the Samaritan’s wrist in shock.
“Put down the knife!”
“I just tripped, fell down,” said Marina. “There’s not any…” Her words faded as she looked down at her chest where the Samaritan’s large hand pushed on her breastbone. Her navy T-shirt was dark with blood. A searing pain raced through her body, radiating from her chest.
“He’s got my boy!”
“You! Call 911!”
As the Samaritan, the blonde, and the guard replayed like broken records, it all came back with awful clarity, the memory slamming into her senses like a blistering, blinding explosion.
She was sitting on the bench by the mushroom house. The trolley was almost back. The mall reverberated with the delighted squeals and sudden tearful outbursts of children. The place was packed for the grand opening of the play area; the largest of any mall for fifty miles around. To celebrate, they had a free ice cream stand and planned activities for kids 2 to 12. Moms and dads took turns shopping and watching the kids. Marina’s husband, Dennis, was upstairs in the Oakley store looking for new sunglasses.
Marina waved at Daria as she rode toward the play pen, sitting tall in the trolley seat, free strawberry ice cream clenched in one fist. Half of it was on her face. The trolley would stop in front of the nail salon and ring a bell, signaling the kids to get out and parents to retrieve them. Marina dug into her purse for a wet wipe. She’d disinfected the trolley seat before Daria took her ride, and it was taking everything in her not to disinfect the plastic mushroom while she sat waiting. Any one of these kids could have some funky virus. She’d have to wipe Daria down when the ride was over.
The uncertain tremble in the woman’s voice made Marina look up just in time to see confusion turn to terror. The young blonde mother put her hands to her face in helpless shock.
Marina searched for the source of distress just as the blonde yelled, “Let him go!” Marina’s anxiety spiked. This was not typical danger. Not a bad tumble or a medical issue. The panic threatened to overwhelm, but one word sliced through it, keeping it at bay: Daria. She had to find Daria.
“Somebody help! He’s got my boy!”
Marina’s neck turned in slow motion. Everything was too bright. She could hardly hear over the pounding in her ears. The worst of the ugly words banged around in her brain like crashing cymbals: pedophile.
Marina’s heart stopped. White man. Middle-aged. Hollow eyes. Comb over. Sweater vest. Khakis. Taped glasses. Three-year-old boy on his hip.
He froze as the crowd looked his way. His eyes darted in all directions. No room to run. His eyes fixed on a large man in a sweat-wicking muscle shirt—a father taking part in the festivities—whose face was changing from confusion to fury.
As Marina located Daria, clicking around the last curve of the trolley ride, and rose from her seat to snatch her baby away to safety, the father took a step toward Tucker and his kidnapper. The pedophile’s eyes bulged. His hand reached out. Daria, unaware and searching for Mommy, exited the trolley. The man’s hand enclosed her whole arm and yanked her toward him. The ice cream cone hit the tile. Daria’s back hit the man’s leg. Her lip quivered, eyes on her ice cream. Marina’s scream caught in her throat as the blade of the knife slipped from the man’s pocket. His arm looped around Daria, pushing her against him, and the blade went flat against her red dress, aimed up at her throat. He pressed Tucker to his chest like a shield. The father stopped dead. Gasps and shrieks rose from the crowd. Parents dove for their children.
Alarm bells in Marina’s head. Too loud. Her heart galloped. The knife. All she could see was the knife and her baby’s soft skin. Her fingernails dug deep into her palms. She might faint.
“Nobody come any closer!” screamed the man in the sweater vest. “I’ll do it! Back away!”
Those closest took tentative steps back, eyes on the knife. The muscular father raised his hands in a non-threatening gesture, eyes searching for his own child.
What was happening? Why were they letting him go? Marina tried to focus. She searched for help. Nothing but a pudgy, unarmed mall cop in a white uniform. He was muttering into his walkie-talkie, eyes urgent, but he wasn’t moving.
The pedophile was taking slow, backward steps, head swiveling behind to locate the fire exit, then forward to ward off the petrified parents with his empty eyes.
The knife demanded Marina’s focus. The knife. Red dress. Black curls. Daria. Daria. Daria. The name cut through the racing thoughts, pounded into her head with the rhythm of her heart. It ripped from her throat, making heads turn. Daria’s eyes found hers, frightened, helpless.
Marina charged. Wild. Furious. A mother panther. She swerved around the mushroom house, shoved through bodies. Slammed into the beast that had her baby. Grabbed his arm and forced it open. Jammed her shoulder into his diaphragm. They tangled together on the way to the floor. Tucker rolled free of the man’s splayed arm and was grabbed by friendly hands. Marina struggled onto her knees, pushing off the man’s chest, soft cotton under her palm.
“Daria?” She tried to look behind, find her baby, and then there was pain. Horrible and burning. A crack deep in her chest. A sensation of warmth, terrifying in its suddenness. She sagged. She stared at the upper floor balcony, the ceiling. A kind face appeared above her.
“My god, she’s in trouble.”
“Freeze!” Her eyes found the security guard, summoned by the mall cop’s walkie.
“Where’s Daria?” She spoke the words, but she didn’t hear them. She could see Tucker nestled into his mother’s arms, being covered with frantic kisses—both oblivious to the standoff. But where was Daria?
She lifted her head. A strong hand pressed down on her chest.
“Don’t try to move,” said the Samaritan.
“Put down the knife!”
The Samaritan rattled on about jackets and T-shirts, but Marina could only think about her child. Where was she?
The memory and her present reality merged. The crowd vanished. No one left but the blonde, the guard, and the Samaritan. They shouted their looped lines.
She closed her eyes. “Shut up!” The noise stopped. She opened her eyes. No one. She jumped to her feet.
The nearly vacant mall suddenly looked like a cold and clinical prison. She looked down at her shirt, covered in crusted blood. How long had she been here? How many times has she relived this? Was this hell? Surely this was hell. Stuck in a loop, never knowing. She was dead; she was sure of that. But what about Daria? Had she saved her?
Of course you didn’t, sneered the villain in her head. You slammed into a man with a knife to your daughter’s throat. What do you think happened?
But it was too terrible. It couldn’t be true. Could it? She imagined the knife, jostled by her crazed act of desperation. Imagined it…
Marina sucked in an astonished breath. A woman was walking toward the trolley, kitten heels clicking on the tile, pushing a boy in a stroller. A year old at most. He cooed around the tiny fist shoved in his mouth. She extracted him from his seat, and he reached for the dark curls on her shoulders.
She does have Dennis’ cheekbones.
There was a girl manning the trolley station now, and she popped bubblegum as she held out her hand for the quarters. The curly haired woman said a soft thank you and headed for the ride.
“Daria! Is it really you?” Tears streaming down her cheeks, Marina ran to her, reached out a hand… and passed through her.
Daria shivered. Her eyes flicked to Marina, but returned to her boy. Marina watched, dumbfounded, as Daria clambered into the trolley, pulling her knees toward her chest. She sat the boy next to her, propping him upright in the crook of her elbow, and waited for the drawn out bell that announced the trolley was preparing to start its slow journey around the track. Marina climbed in the seat in front and turned to gaze into those green eyes so like her own. The boy smiled and cooed, fixing Marina with green eyes.
He pulled his fist from his mouth and said, “Mama.”
“Mm-hmm,” said Daria softly, eyes uplifted. “Mama.”
The bell sounded, and the trolley clicked to life.