The photo she held in her hand spoke of simpler times, now long gone.
“We took the park path often, moving through the grass and trees from the subway station to our home on the far side of the city park. The kids loved the walk, and they loved that I would let them lead the way, staying behind just enough so they could feel like ‘big kids’.”
She passed the photo to me, and I looked at the retreating backs of a boy and girl walking up a path. “I had dozens of these on my phone, some from every season.” She reached for her treasure, and I returned it. “This is one of the last, and I had it printed only the day before…” She swallowed hard, and there was a long pause before she continued. “How could I know they’d be walking away from me?”
“Did you see what took them?” I asked. “I mean–“
She had already told me she never saw them again after the first explosion.
She worked a swing shift and then they’d spend the night at her mother’s–the wonderful, magical babysitting grandmother–before going home in the morning. Otherwise, she’d never get any sleep.
In the mornings they would catch the subway and go home for a few hours. Grandmothers need rest, too. And she liked her little place and the chance to have her kids to herself for a while each day.
She stared at me with empty eyes. It was a creepy thing, seeing eyes so devoid of light and life; she almost appeared to be dead. “I don’t know that they were taken,” she whispered. “I only know they were gone. I looked everywhere!”
The first explosion that hit the city tore through the park, lifting huge mounds of soil up through the sod, knocking down trees and uprooting bushes, leaving gaping holes here and new hillocks there.
I had been through there, too, coming from a different direction. We were pretty far apart when it happened, but what we saw and felt was comparable. By the time we met up, we had both been searching through rubble, running, climbing and crawling through the ruin of a once lovely park and looking for those we loved.
For me, it was my Great Dane, Maximus. His leash was jerked out of my hand, and I went flying through the air and landed in a tangle of tree roots and soil. By the time I had extricated myself, Max was nowhere to be found.
For her, it was the children, a boy just shy of his 3rd birthday, and a girl 21 months old.
We met among the debris and we searched together. The ground had opened up beneath her feet and she’d had to claw her way out of a 10-foot-deep crevasse, calling for the kids to stay back from the edge and praying that the next explosion wouldn’t bury her alive.
The cracked area was about 50 feet long, and we made our way from one end to the other multiple times, craning over the edge to see if they’d fallen in, or if Max had.
Oddly, the sidewalk was intact along the north side of that, and she insisted they were on the path, they were all on the path, and she’d stepped off to the side for just a moment to wipe horse manure off her shoe into the grass.
“Grass just works better, you know?”
I nodded. I wasn’t necessarily agreeing with her–I haven’t ever stepped in horse shit–but it seemed like the polite thing to do.
“The kids were just ahead of me. They weren’t running or anything. I had eyes on them until I just–dropped!” She looked at me, and I saw a flicker in her eyes. “What made you think they were taken?”
“I–” Well, how to answer that, I did not know. “I don’t know what to think,” I admitted. “Maybe it was wishful thinking. That someone took them to…to somewhere safe.”
Maybe. It was better than thinking they were in that fissure of earth, buried.
We’d found bodies. Bodies, plural; plenty. And a couple had been children, but they were older.
When we made it out of the park, finally, we were going to go to her house. It was a pile of rubbish, but we searched it was well as we could, hoping the kids might have gotten home.
No one was there, or anywhere nearby. I mean, no one. We knocked on doors, hollered in the street, ran to and fro. Nothing and no one.
I had given up on Max–if he was alive, he’d have headed back to my place. He wouldn’t be here, so far from home.
I was only there because of her. I was only there because of the photo, and those haunted words: “They were only walking in front of me. How could I know they’d be walking away from me?”
She believes that; they were walking away.
I don’t want to believe that. I want to believe we will find them. I want to believe someone took them to a safe place, and we will find them.
I see it in her empty eyes, though. She believes they are gone, and without them, she will be gone soon, too. In her empty eyes I see that they were the only reason she had to live.
There are so many questions: What caused the explosions? Where were all the people? Who is there to blame for this?
But none of those are as important as this one: where are the children?
Maximus, I hope you’re okay. But I have to go on with her now. You find us if you can, boy.
We have to find the kids.
Author’s note: The picture is a prompt from Writers Unite! and it called for a 300 word story. I don’t take instruction well, clearly.