There a lot of things to be afraid of in life. Some things are good, healthy fears, like the fear of fire or speeding cars. Most of our fears are stupid though, and we know this. We are lied to, tricked, and manipulated every day by businesses, politicians, the media, and whomever else has something to gain by controlling us. This is because they know, like we do, that there is no fear like fear itself. Unknown, amorphous fear, that creeps over you as you realize that you have no idea what it is you should actually be afraid of, and all you know is that you are afraid, and it’s bad.
Now, that I feel I’ve set a properly gloomy and ominous tone, let get down to the fun stuff. Tuesday was National Pancake Day. Why on Earth they don’t hold National Pancake Day on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the traditional day for eating pancakes, is beyond me. But every year, a Tuesday or two after the correct pancake-eating Tuesday, IHOP, Waffle House, and probably other places that we do not have in Vermont, give out free pancakes. This means that, ummm, you know what? Nevermind. I had me at “free pancakes.” To IHOP!
So there we were, faced with a 40 minute wait because, as it turns out, other people also like free pancakes. My wife and daughter decide to go shoe shopping, leaving Edward and I to sit in a crowd of hungry cheapskates and listen for our name. Edward, being four, did not enjoy this. He did have a nice conversation with Miss Teen Vermont, but when it became clear that it wasn’t going anywhere he decided to turn his naughtiness switch up to 11. He ran out the door of IHOP and into the mall.
I tried to plow my way through the people while telling him to get back here this instant, but he just stood there grinning at me as if he had just discovered the best game in the world. When I finally approached the door, he took off again, running at top speed, to the spot where the mall turned the corner, and then stood there, 15 yards away from me, still smiling. I informed him that he had better get back to the IHOP immediately, or else I would be forced to do the unthinkable: count to 3. THREE! The scariest number of all time! And I meant it. I was going to do it.
Well, he forced my hand. One. Nothing. Two. Still nothing. Two and a half. Now he seemed giddy with excitement. Seriously, dude? Okay, fine. Three. I took a step forward and he took off around the corner. I ran up to where he had been standing, only to see him stopped at the next crook in the mall hallway. I was not going to give him the satisfaction of running after him. I demanded that he return to me, and he cackled wildly and took off again. I shouted his name. I told him I was not going to chase him. I stood where I was for about 5-10 seconds, and then began to trudge wearily towards the spot where I would be able to see him again. And when I got there, I couldn’t. He was gone.
“Edward,” I said loudly, “get over here right now please!” No response. No laughing or giggling. No noise at all. This is not like him. I figured he had gone into the Spencer’s where he had, earlier in the evening, pulled down an entire display of Minecraft toys when I refused to buy one for him. But he wasn’t in the Spencer’s. I supposed he could have been way in the back, near the profanity-laden mugs and edible panties, but I didn’t want to go too far into the store in case he was still out in the mall and I had missed him. I walked up and down the hallway, peering into each store until I had gone about as far as I was willing to go. Had I missed him? Had I passed him? I was sure that he was just hiding somewhere being a jerk, but what if he wasn’t?
Now the fears began to set in. Had someone taken him? I mean, obviously not, right? That’s ridiculous. But the news tells me that people are lurking around every corner to steal my children! So he had definitely been kidnapped. Wait, but the news is full of lies and half truths! So he’s fine. Or is he? And even though I promised not to write about this anymore, this is a relevant detail: Edward has seizures. He had another bad one less than a week ago. What if he is not answering me because he is on the floor seizing? What if no one knows what to do to help him? What if he hit his head? What if he is dead? Every possibility I imagined, each more terrible than the last, started flowing through my head like a whirlpool of worry and terror. I decided to text my wife for help.
She was at the other end of the mall, so I figured if she walked back, she might see him. And maybe he had gone to look for her too, so maybe they had found each other already. No, she hadn’t seen him, but with two more people to help we could start exploring further into the stores. My wife went all the way into Spencer’s, but no luck. Ruby checked out all of the toy stores, but he wasn’t there. It had now been more than 10 minutes since I had last had eyes on him. I started shouting his name and asking everyone in the mall if they had seen him, but no one had. I called the police.
I mean I called mall security. They are like the police, right? A woman met me at the food court and got on her radio to her elite squad of crack investigators. I showed her pictures of my son on my phone and told her what he was wearing. I felt like I was in one of those crime shows that I hate and never watch, and I was suddenly imagining never seeing my son again. It had now been 15 minutes.
At this point I was completely sure of so many things. I knew that he had been kidnapped. I knew that he had fallen and died. I knew that he was just hiding and that I was going to have to kill him myself later. I also knew that he could not have been kidnapped. The mall had just enough people in it that anyone would have been seen, but not so many that they could get away in a crowd. Plus, I would have heard it. He literally growls at every stranger that gets too close to him, and I was only around the corner when he disappeared. I also knew that he could not have fallen and had a seizure. Someone would have found him by now, and there would be doctors and an ambulance. Of course I also knew that he couldn’t be just hiding. Not for this long. Nothing made sense. Fear was swallowing up my whole body. I had no idea what to be afraid of, but I knew the fear.
I was walking back toward IHOP with the mall officer when I saw him, standing in line at the sporting goods store trying to buy flip flops. I ran over to Edward as tears of relief filled my eyes, and I grabbed him and hugged him tightly. According to the store manager he had been waiting in line, obscured from our sightlines by some displays, and his turn had finally come. The cashier had his phone out to call mall security when we showed up to collect the boy. I told Edward how scared we all were, and I started to take him back to find his mother and sister, when he started crying because I was not letting him buy the flip flops. Not knowing what else to say at this point, I furliously blurted out “How were you going to buy flip-flops?! You don’t have any money!”
For the rest of the evening I was struggling. The stress of those minutes had exhausted me, and I was very angry. I was angry at my son for running off, and then not answering me when I was shouting for him, but mostly I was angry at myself. I had been in charge of him. I should never have let him out of my sight. I would not have been able to live with myself if something had actually happened to him while I was supposed to be watching. And he didn’t get it. He didn’t understand (because he is 4) what a big deal it was for us. That made it even harder to deal with. What could I say to him to make him understand how upset I was? That I wanted an apology? That this was different from all of the other naughty things he does every day?
As an epilogue to this story, the next day I was at church, working with one of our youth on a solo that she is going to sing in an upcoming service, and Edward was in the other room watching Rescue Bots on my laptop. Normally we stay in the choir room to sing, but we decided to go upstairs to the sanctuary to run the song, and I didn’t think to mention this to Edward. In the few minutes that we were upstairs, my browser had an issue and Netflix crashed. When we came back downstairs we saw poor Edward in tears at the choir room door. He had probably been there for about three minutes, and he had been unable to find me. I felt terrible, and I ran to cuddle him, but I could not resist. “Were you really scared, because you couldn’t find me?” I asked him. He nodded sadly. “Well that’s how I felt last night.” There. Now we are both jerks.