Instant Dad

by

Shirley Hailstock

Why today, Justin Reid thought as he negotiated the aisles of the mall store. Why did his mother have to send his here to pick up the Father’s Day gift she’d bought for his dad. The place was mobbed and everyone seemed to be out for the slow Sunday walk, even though it was Saturday. Each time he thought he could make headway, someone stepped in front of him or an unseen baby carriage would appear from the side, forcing him to stop or careen into it.

Taking a deep breath, Justin finally made it to the mall entrance, a large opening that offered a variety of stores, supplying every want or need and the promise of enough room to move around without jostling someone else. Justin headed left only to be detoured by a cordoned off section where workmen were repairing a window.

The jewelry store where he needed to pick up the pocket watch that had been in his family for several generations was along the next wing. He’d have parked in that section of the lot, but no spaces were available and it appeared they were giving something away on that side if he could judge by the huge number of people close to the door.

Weaving through shoppers as if he was on a surfboard, needing precise balancing techniques, Justin started for his destination. He’d just crested the right side of one of the anchor stores when he heard a question.

“Help me?”

The voice was small, high-pitched and scared. He turned around in the busy mall and saw the child sitting on a bench behind him. She swung her feet back and forth, not in a happy movement, but nervously. Her eyes were huge and misted as if they were ready to spill tears.

“Where is your mother?” he asked.

“Gone,” she sobbed. “I lost her.”

Justin stayed where he was, three feet from her, but squatted his six foot frame down to her level.

“You lost her?”

Her head bobbed up and down and she sniffed, then swallowed.

“It’s going to all right,” he said, not knowing if that was true, but he had to say something to make her feel better. “Where did you lose your mother?”

“Over there.” She pointed to an indistinct place on the other side of the escalator.

“In that store?” he asked.

Her head swung back and forth, huge side to side revolutions that reminded him of a slow motion movie.

“I lost her.” She repeated the comment as if it was important.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll find her.”

Her tears fell then. Justin offered his arms and the child scooted down from the bench, running trustingly into them. Brushing her blonde curls back, he whispered soothingly that everything would be all right.

And at that moment he believed it.

Justin waited for her crying to subside before asking, “What’s your mommy’s name?”

“Mo…Mommy,” she hiccuped.

He wanted to smile, but held it back. “What does your daddy call your mommy?”

“Daddy?” she questioned, using the word as if it was foreign to her.

“What is your name?”

“Chrissy.” She said it as if it was pronounced Krwissy.

“Chrissy, my name is Justin.”

“Yeston,” she repeated in her own language.

He smiled and nodded. “Now that we’re introduced, why don’t we find mall security and see if they can help you.”

Standing up, he took her hand and the two began a slow walk toward the other end of the mall. Justin had a vague idea where security was located, but he wasn’t sure. He’d never had the need to find them. He didn’t come to the mall often. Most of his shopping was done in specialty men’s shops. He was only here today doing an errand for him mother.

The security counter loomed before them. Justin approached it, but just before reaching it, Chrissy stopped, pulling back. Justin looked at her. Her expression was cast in fear. Looking over his shoulder, he understood why. Three cops in uniform walked toward them. Lifting her, he said, “It’s all right.”

She buried her face in his shoulder, as if she already knew better than to let them see her.

“They’re gone,” he whispered, when the two were no longer in sight.

“I want my mommy.” Her voice was muffled in his neck.

Justin knew they had to talk. He needed to take her to family services, but his instinct told him, something wasn’t right.

Pushing her back, he looked into her tear stained face. “Chrissy, is your mommy in the mall.”

“No,” she said, elongating the word.

“Do you know where she is?”

“I lost her,” she said for the third time.

It was a strange way for a child to respond. What did lost mean?

“Can you tell me what that means?”

“I lost her and they took her away.”

“Who took her?”

“They.”

She pointed behind him. Justin turned, but saw no one. Then he remembered the security guards, the uniforms. The guards were several yards away, their backs retreating.

“Was it men dressed like the ones we saw.”

“They took her away.”

Images of police handcuffing a woman and dragging her out of the mall came to his mind, but he pushed them away. They wouldn’t leave a child behind. Chrissy didn’t know how to explain it to him. She wasn’t old enough. He estimated her age at four or five years.

“Why didn’t they take you with your mommy?”

“She was sleeping.”

So she wasn’t kicking and screaming, Justin thought.

Then something else came to him. Turning around, he looked for a place to sit. Finding an empty bench, he took her to it. Sitting her next to him, he faced her.

“Are you hungry?” he asked.

Justin, a single man, had no children of his own, but he was uncle to two nieces and anytime they were with him, they were hungry.

“Yes,” Chrissy said clearly.

“Did you eat with your mommy?” he asked, trying to find out how long she’d been in the mall.

“We had pizza,” she volunteered.

He checked his watch. It was a little after one. She couldn’t have been here that long. Anyone seeing a child this age alone would have reported her.

“How about a pretzel?” he asked, not wanting to go for anything sugary. That his sister had drummed into him when he’d take his nieces for a drive.

Chrissy frowned.

“Ice cream?” he offered.

She smiled for the first time. Justin took her hand and they walked to the food court where he bought her a scoop of chocolate ice cream. Together they went back to the bench and Chrissy’s attempt at eating looked like she’d smeared the sweet treat over a large part of her face.

“Chrissy, I have to take you to the men who can find your mother.” He knew reasoning was not something she was capable of, but her mother was the goal and the child understood that.

“They took her.”

Justin wasn’t going to ask who they were. He knew she couldn’t answer that question.

“I want to ask someone if they know who took your mother and where we can find her. Is that all right?”

She nodded.

Cleaning the chocolate from her face, he stood up and reached for her hand. She gave it to him and they began walking. Justin reached the jewelry store. He needed to pick up the gift. It wouldn’t take that long. Then they could go to security.

Inside the store, he produced the claim ticket and handed it to the attractive woman spangled in the store’s rings, bracelets, pins, and necklaces. Looking up she smiled.

“Hello Chrissy. Is your mom all right?” she asked.

Justin was surprised. “You know Chrissy?”

The clerk shook her head. “She was here earlier with your wife. She is going to be all right, isn’t she?”

“All right?” Justin repeated like a parrot.

“The ambulance took her away. She was cut by the glass at the end of the mall.”

Justin remembered having to turn away from the window repair.

“What happened?”

“One of the workmen overbalanced on a ladder. He fell breaking a glass. He’s fine, but your wife was cut. The paramedics took her to the hospital.”

Wife, paramedics, broken window. It all came to Justin. Outside where the crowd was, there was an ambulance. He hadn’t really noticed it, thinking it was there because of the huge crowd of people.

“Chrissy isn’t my daughter. She’s lost. I need to find her mother. What hospital did they take her to?”

“I don’t know. You can ask security.”

“I will. Would you get that and I’ll go and find out?”

“Mercy Hospital,” a voice said from behind the woman. An older man, with gray hair and glasses on his forehead, stood up. “The ambulance was going to Mercy hospital. I know one of the paramedics and that’s where they were from.”

“Thank you,” Justin said. He looked down at Chrissy, whose large eyes were searching his for some sign. Dropping down to her level, he pulled her close. “We’ll find her,” he reassured the child.

Justin waited for his father’s repaired watch. The woman returned to the counter with his package. He examined it and saw that everything worked.

“You might want to take this too,” the woman said.

Stopping he looked at the second small package the woman held. “It was her mother’s. She dropped it as the paramedics wheeled her away. Her name is on it.”

Minutes later Justin was in his car and heading for the hospital. Asking for Helen Butler, the name on the package, and fudging that he was Chrissy’s uncle, he was given her room number. Luckily, the little girl did not contradict him.

Lifting Chrissy into his arms, he headed toward the room. Before getting there, he realized he didn’t know what condition Helen Butler might be in and he didn’t want to take Chrissy in without knowing. Stopping at the nurses station, Justin compounded the lie that he was related to Chrissy’s mother.

“She’s been asking for the little girl,” a nurse said. “I’m sure she’ll be glad to see her.”

“Is it all right to take her in?” He gestured about her mother’s condition.

“She lost a lot of blood, and is very weak, but she’ll be find. She has a bandage on her arm and needs to keep it steady, but otherwise she only needs rest.”

Smiling, Justin nodded and walked further down the hall. The room had a glass wall and a woman lay in one of the two beds staring out the window in a coma-like manner. The other bed was empty. A saline drip stood at the head of her bed. Several other instruments were on a shelf behind her, but none appeared connected to her. Deciding it was all right to enter, he slowly opened the door.

Helen Butler came to life when she saw her daughter. Chrissy nearly jumped out of his arms at the same time. He had to grab her to keep her from falling to the floor. Settling the child on her feet, he let her go. She ran to the bed, shouting mommy over and over again. Tears welled his her mother’s eyes and Justin stood back allowing the reunion to happen without interference.

Helen Butler was as blonde as her daughter. She was very pale, but Justin felt her skin was usually vibrant and glowing. He saw a hint of that color when Chrissy ran to her. He couldn’t tell how tall she was because of her position in the bed.

Chrissy climbed up the high bed with the agility of a goat and went into her mother’s arms, hugging her as if they’d been parted for years.

“Thank you,” the woman in the bed said. “I didn’t know what happened to her.” She squeezed Chrissy closer. “Thank you,” she said again and continued to whisper the words as if they were prayers.

“How are you?” Justin asked.

She glanced at her daughter. “Fine,” she said in a voice that was obviously weaker than normal. “Who are you?”

“I’m sorry. I’m Justin Reid. I found Chrissy in the mall and we tracked you down through a woman in a jewelry store. She save you dropped this.” He produced the package that fit in the palm of his hand bore her name. He approached the bed and set it on the rolling table within her reach.

“It’s a Father’s Day present,” she explained.

“Chrissy’s father?” Justin asked and was strangely relieved when she shook her head.

“Father,” Chrissy chirped.

“My uncle,” Helen said. “He’s coming to visit tomorrow.”

That reminded Justin of his lie. He explained it to her and told her it was how he got in to see her.

She smiled. “Thank you,” she said again.

Justin felt awkward. He couldn’t leave Chrissy with her mother and he couldn’t explain to the nurse that he wasn’t really her uncle.

“Is there anyone I can call or take her to?” He gestured toward the small head lying against her mother. Justin thought the child must be getting heavy by now.

Helen’s face fell and her eyes lowered to look at her daughter.

“Her father?” Justin prompted.

He barely saw the slight negative movement of Helen’s head.

Clenching his teeth, Justin knew before he said it, that he was going to do something irrational. Other than him, it appeared the only other option for Chrissy was child services and with only a slight acquaintance with Chrissy, he knew she would cry all night with another stranger.

“With your permission, I could take her to my mother’s until your uncle arrives.”

A small light perked Helen’s face.

“Give me a moment to call her. I know you’ll want to meet her before allowing Chrissy to go with her.”

“Will you be there, too?” Helen’s small voice asked.

Justin didn’t live with his parents, but for tonight he would stay. He nodded, then left the room and returned after speaking to his mother. She had a hundred questions, but he didn’t answer them. Twenty minutes later, both his parents came through the hospital door. Justin, holding onto Chrissy’s hand, met them on the ground floor.

His mother assessed the little girl and looked up at Justin.

“This is first,” she said to him. “Who would have believed that by sending you out to pick up a watch, you’d return with a child?” She smiled affectionately, looked down at the small girl clutching his hand and said, “Happy Father’s Day.”

The End