“Mom, it’s a womble.”
“No, baby, it’s a platypus.” The cart’s wheels squeaked like a hatchling crying as we inched forward in line.
“The tag says womble and it has a nose like a duck.”
“That’s what platypuses have for noses: duck-bills.”
“No!” Krista's voice went up at the end in a whine.
“Yes, I promise.”
“Platypuses have wings. This one doesn’t have wings.”
“Platypuses have wings?”
Confused by an eight-year-old. She’d done it again. I had to get home to Google this creature, figure out what exactly I was talking about, because I honestly didn’t know anymore.
“Well, whatever it is,” I said, “stick it on the conveyor belt. Time to pay.”
Krista laid the womble down gingerly, then snatched it back. “I’ll hold her until it’s really time,” she said. “She’s scared up there.”
I unloaded groceries from the cart: cans of Friskies, tuna, Swiss cheese, two gallons of one-percent milk.
The checker smiled at me while she blipped my groceries over the scanner. Her name tag said Barbara. “How are you today?” She had a gold tooth, right in the front. Made me think of pirates.
“Fine, thanks. You?”
“Off in twenty minutes, thank God.”
I craned my neck to see the clock in the store’s play-land. I was probably pushing the one-hour time limit. The elderly play-land attendant with dyed red hair perched on a stool behind the counter, her hands folded in her lap. I tried to catch a glimpse of Chloe’s toe head through the floor-to-ceiling reinforced glass window.
Krista hugged the stuffed animal to her chest. It was pink with wiry fur sticking out. “Look, Mom, the fur matches the pink stripe in my tights.” She held the womble next to her leg so I could see.
“Spiffy,” I said.
She raised one eyebrow at me. “And that means…?”
Honestly, sometimes this child was eight going on fifteen.
“Spiffy just means … cool.” I reached out and pushed a strand of hair out of her face, tucked it behind her ear. “Happy with your womble?”
She squeezed it tighter. “This is exactly what I wanted.”
“So, does a womble live in the water or on land?”
Krista shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe both?” She looked down at the creature pensively. “Chloe’ll want one.”
“Chloe doesn’t have any birthday money to spend right now.” I set the last can of chicken soup on the conveyor belt. “She’ll get over it.”
I glanced back at the play area again. I could see empty chairs lined up in front of the television set behind the glass door. Finding Nemo blinked on the television screen with the closed captioning underneath.
“Eighty-four seventy-five,” Barbara said. The gold tooth flashed at me.
I swiped my card, typed in my pin, and looked back over my shoulder.
Chloe wasn’t playing with the Little People set either. I could see it all laid out in village-formation behind the window.
“Ma’am,” Barbara said. “You have to press the ‘yes’ button.”
“Oh,” I said. “Sorry.”
The elderly play land attendant with the red hair hadn’t moved. She smiled at something far away.
I grabbed one of the plastic bags to load in the cart as my receipt printed out.
“Run over there, baby,” I told Krista. “Tell Chloe to get ready to go.”
Krista jogged to the glass door, pressed her face against the glass. I grabbed a few more bags and my receipt at the same time, dropped everything in the cart, forgetting there were eggs in there.
I heard Krista’s voice, muffled by her mouth being so close to the glass. “Chlo-eee. Chlo-eee.”
I was turning, setting my hands on the cart handle when she said, “I don’t see her, Mom. She’s not in there.”
“Of course she is,” I said, compulsively tugging on the paper bracelet around my wrist. Chloe wore a matching one. I’d seen the attendant put it on her; you couldn’t get it off without scissors. I picked up speed, pushing the cart so hard it thumped against the play-land attendant’s counter.
She smiled at me. “Can I help you?”
I held up my arm, the identification band nipping my wrist. “My daughter,” I said, but my eyes were beyond the attendant’s face, scanning the playroom. Empty chairs. Empty playhouse. An empty Little People village. Two glass windows, floor-to-ceiling. A smiling attendant. And no children. No Chloe.
The attendant popped off her stool. I thrust my wrist at her the same time she made a grab for it. “Well, let me see here,” she said, a funny quake in her voice. My pulse pounded in my temples.
“Don’t tell me—”
“Mom, Mom!” Krista tugged insistently on my jeans.
My head jerked to look at her, but her face was a blur. Two Kristas hugging two wombles. “What?”
“You forgot this,” she said, holding up the pink toy. “You forgot to pay for my womble.”
Thank you to Krista V. who provided the inspiring words for this story: spiffy, platypus and reinforce. The stories will be coming fast and furiously over the next few weeks as I catch up after my month novel-writing sabbatical. If you'd like to leave three words of inspiration for a future original story, click here. And just for the record, I did not write this story to terrify my mother-in-law, but I do wonder if I'll be able to leave my kids in the Fred Meyer play land without qualms after this. Have you ever been frightened by a story that came out of your own brain?