By the time she reached her blue Ford Kuga, having maintained a three-year-old’s walking speed, Maeve was beginning to question her earlier decision of parking so far from the health centre. She pushed down on the buggy break with her foot.
“Maria hold onto Mommy’s leg while I tie your sister into her car seat, OK?” Maeve placed Maria’s hand around her leg as she undid the buggy straps with her other hand.
“Stay holding on now love,” she warned, lifting eleven-month-old Jenny into her car seat, mentally thanking the pushy sales assistant who had convinced her and Christopher to fork out the extra money for one that would rotate sideways. As she adjusted the shoulder straps over the baby while simultaneously making funny faces, in an effort to entertain her and avoid tears she felt the pressure of the small hand leave her leg.
“Hold on Maria! Don’t let go of Mommy, be a good girl now,” she said, but the pressure didn’t return.
“Maria?” Maeve called fumbling with the car seat buckles as she tried to crane her neck to look behind her and around the car door.
Maeve clicked the buckle into place and quickly pulled the strap to secure Jenny, scanning the area around her as she turned.
“Maria!” Panic pushed her voice louder.
The road was empty. No cars except the few that had been parked when they’d returned. Maeve scanned up and down the road – nothing.
“Maria, where are you?”
She was screaming now as she rounded the front of the car. “Maria, where are – ,” she began again but stopped when she saw the familiar pattern of daisies on purple boots peeking out from beneath a parked car, two spaces down from her own. She couldn’t breathe. She ran towards those small feet and threw herself down at them, terrified at what she might find. She grabbed the boots and instantly the sound of the most beautiful high-pitched giggle filled her ears. The boots pulled away from her and crawled out.
“Maria, Maria, my beautiful gorgeous girl.” Maeve wrapped her arms around her so tightly she couldn’t hear Maria’s mumbles pressed against her chest. She didn’t think she had ever been so thankful for anything in her entire life than seeing her little girl in front of her and holding her in her arms. After a few moments Maeve pushed Maria back from her chest, her hands clamped firmly on her arms, terrified she would disappear again.
“Why did you do that to me Maria? Why did you run off like that?” Maeve could hear that her voice was still verging on hysterical but reigning in all that emotion was proving difficult. She took a deep breath and rubbed her daughter’s cheek to reassure her that everything was OK.
“Don’t worry honey, I’m not angry. I just want to know why you ran off on Mommy like that?”
“I’m sorry Mommy,” Maria answered, dropping her eyes to the ground, “I was just playing hide and seek.” Ah, that explains it, Maeve thought, hide and seek had recently become the game of choice in their house. Christopher and Maria could play it for hours with Christopher selecting his hiding places strategically in view of the TV. She’d have to talk to him when he got back from his business trip about being clearer on the rules of the game with Maria. No doubt he’d think she was over reacting again but if he hadn’t taught her that damn game she wouldn’t have run off just then. What good could possibly come from teaching a child so young how to hide from her parents? Just thinking about what could have gone wrong today made her sick to her stomach.
“You can’t play hide and seek without telling someone sweetheart. It’s dangerous to hide when no-ones looking for you,” Maeve explained, relieved her voice had settled down to a more natural tone.
“But I wasn’t playing on my own,” Maria whined.
“I wasn’t playing Maria, you should have known that.”
“No Mommy, I wasn’t playing with you.” Here we go – another spontaneously named imaginary friend to take the blame.
“Oh, is that right?” Maeve smiles, “who were you playing with then missy?”
Maeve’s heart stuttered over a beat.
“What Man?” she asked, the short-lived smile gone from her face.
“The Man with the black coat Mommy,” Maria said, “he even told me where I should hide because it was such a good place,” she continued.
Maeve’s blood run cold, freezing her in place.
Maria leaned into her, “He said it’s your turn now Mommy.”
“What?” Maeve asked, her mouth suddenly painfully dry.
Maria answered, her happy innocent smile a complete contradiction to the words she spoke,
“To go seek!”