Mitchell was running late, again.
It was one of the hardest lessons he’d had to learn about fatherhood. Time was no longer his own. He lived on Sara-time and was just going to have to deal with it.
Carrie hadn’t learned that lesson yet.
She still got pissed every time he was late to the drop-off.
Her words, not his.
He hated the idea of treating their daughter like a drug deal.
The light turned green, finally letting him off the congestion of National and onto the park road. He took the curve a little too quickly, causing Sara to come up from the backseat.
“Sorry, kiddo,” Mitchell said as he pulled into the parking lot in front of a police cruiser. He breathed a silent prayer of thanks as the cop pulled away. The last thing he needed was to fuel the fire by adding a ticket to Carrie’s arsenal.
Of course, his ex-wife was already waiting for them. She sat on the wooden benches, smoking a cheap cigarette and swearing loudly to her new boyfriend.
Mitchell didn’t like Carson.
He didn’t like Terry at first, either, and that worked out okay. But, there was something about this new guy. He just seemed skeevy.
And, Mitchell didn’t like the authoritative way the man spoke to his daughter. For all his faults, Terry had never struck him as a danger to Sara.
Carson was different.
He didn’t have any reason to suspect the man of impropriety, but Sara didn’t like him and he’d learned to trust her instincts.
“You’re late,” Carrie said. She didn’t even bother to put her cigarette out as their five-year-old ran up to her. “Noon means twelve, Mitch, not 12:05.”
Mitchell winced at the shortening of his name. She knew he hated that.
“I’m sorry.” He did his best to sound genuine. “The munchkin had a hard time getting going this morning. You know how it goes.”
“You should be firmer with her.” Carson’s voice was cold.
Mitchell fought down the urge to punch him in the throat. “Thanks, but I’ll raise my daughter my way.”
Mitchell didn’t know Carson’s story. He didn’t know if he was another Mage, that seemed to be Carrie’s new type, but he didn’t care. No one was going to tell him how to raise his daughter. He stared Carson down, gritting his teeth, willing the man to try something.
“Where’s Sara?” Carrie suddenly asked.
Mitchel looked around. She’d been right here a second ago, she couldn’t have gone far. “Sara! SARA!”
“Jesus Christ, you can’t even keep an eye on her for two minutes,” Carrie spat. “You’re the worst.”
Mitchell didn’t hear her. He was already searching the small clusters of children around the park. There wasn’t much of the way of playground here and the families gathered in small clusters didn’t seem to have any extra kids.
He scanned the small bodies, anyway, searching for the tell-tale red pigtails.
Panic tried to set in, but he pushed it away.
“Remember the birthday present,” he muttered to himself.
The little doll had served two functions. Mitchell knew one of them. As long as Sara had the doll with her–she almost always did–anyone with the right tools could find her.
Fortunately, Terry had actually given Mitchell one of those little plastic balls.
He didn’t know how it worked. He didn’t really care. He had one, and as far as he knew Carrie didn’t.
“We should split up. She couldn’t have gone far. You check by the playground, and I’ll head toward the french fries,” Mitchell said before turning and walking back toward the parking lot.
The french fries were a modern art sculpture on the far side of the park. Sara pretty much mentioned them every time they came here. They had been her favorite thing in the world for the last couple of months. It seemed like the more likely of the two places she would have gone.
Once he was on the other side of the parking lot and shielded by the cars, he pulled his keys out of his pocket and squeezed the plastic ball in his fist the way Terry showed him. It began to buzz in his hand, the same small vibrations that came from a cell phone set to vibrate. He swept his fist back and forth in front of him, feeling the buzz get stronger as he pointed his arm in the general direction of the sculpture.
He was right.
He let himself feel relief and began to sprint in that direction.
It wasn’t like Sara to take off on her own. He just hoped she hadn’t gotten into any trouble. She could do some things that a normal five-year-old couldn’t and hadn’t fully learned to control it.
Even on the freak side of the street, she stood out in a crowd. With the rumors going around, he didn’t like her deciding now was the time to become an explorer. He knew he shouldn’t have let her watch all of those Dora DVDs.
His stomach dropped into his feet when he saw the doll laying on the ground a few feet from the sculpture.
Sara was nowhere to be seen.
True panic set in.
He stood there, clutching the baby-doll with both hands and cursing himself for not paying more attention. Terry told him Sara was special. People might want to take her. She could be in danger at any time. He had to keep an eye on her and call him immediately if anything happened.
As much as he hated to admit it, Mitchell knew that he was no match for the kinds of threats Terry was talking about.
There was nothing he could do on his own. He was just a consultant. He did internet marketing in his underwear. He didn’t fight demons or killer robots, or evil witches, or anything like that.
His phone was out and already pulling up Terry’s number when he heard the most glorious sound in his life.
“No, that’s silly,” Sara squealed. “You can’t do that!”
“Yes, I can,” the woman told her. “It’s easy. Watch.” She hooked her thumb under her other hand and jerked it clear, wiggling it a few inches away from the base. “See! It comes off!”
“That’s not real magic,” Sara whined.
The woman got a frustrated look on her face, then dropped the thumb on the ground. It wiggled and bounced a few times. “See?”
“Sara! You shouldn’t have run off like that,” Mitchell said, coming to the woman’s rescue. “I was worried about you.”
“Ronda wanted to see the French Fries!”
Mitchell loosened his grip on the doll and handed it back to his daughter. “You should have asked. I would have come with you. You can’t run off on your own like that. You could have been hurt, or gotten lost, or worse.”
“She’s alright,” the woman said. Mitchell looked at her for the first time. She was short, and pretty in a girl-next-door way. Her eyes shone with mirth and her smile showed off perfect teeth. All but one canine, a little higher than the others. “I’m Maggie.”
“Mitchell. And this is my daughter, Sara.” He held out his hand. He noticed that Maggie wasn’t missing a thumb when she took it. “So, how did you do the thumb thing? I saw you drop it. That’s a whole new one on me. It wasn’t, like, real magic was it?”
“Is that your way of asking if I’m a practitioner?” Maggie’s smile tightened and one eyebrow arched higher than Mitchell would have thought possible.
“I guess. It’s not that I have anything against it, you know, but–”
“You’ve got enough crazy in your life.” Maggie smiled again. “I guessed that much. You’re daughter puts up a good front, but she was pretty upset.”
“Is that true, kiddo?” Mitchell asked. He knelt down and scooped his daughter into his arms. “You okay?”
“I don’t like Carson. He’s a jerk.”
“I know kiddo, but mommy likes him.” Mitchell squeezed her in his arm, then turned back to the woman in front of him.
“I’m sorry. Thank you for watching it for my daughter. The divorce has been hard on her.”
“I understand.” Maggie reached into her pants pocket and pulled out a business card. “I specialize in child psychology.”
Mitchell looked down at the card. It was simple–a white background with black, block text. Dr. Margaret Berry.
“You’re a shrink?”
Maggie shrugged. “I guess. I’ve been called worse. Look I’m not looking for new clients, but if you need someone to talk to, you should give me a call.”
“I don’t know,” Mitchell hedged, “there are a lot of things going on in our life right now.”
“I understand.” Maggie reached out and wrapped her hands around his. “But, if you change your mind, maybe we can go to dinner sometime.”
She smiled again, waved at Sara, and walked away.
Mitchell stood there, watching her walk away.
“I think she likes you, daddy,” Sara said. She looked up at him with bright eyes. “You should call her.”
Mitchell stuffed the card into his pocket and hefted his daughter again.
“Maybe I will, kiddo. Come on. Let’s go let mommy know I found you. She’s worried.”
I have a giant pile of stories to write about characters that are not Terry. I should do those more.