(This was fun to write. It is a little gimmicky and I’m going to make you figure out what the prompt was on your own so as to not spoil the end of the story, which you also have to find on your own, but I had a good time pulling it together.)
They looked everywhere before admitting she was lost. It just didn’t seem possible. One minute, Mary was sitting in a child-sized rocker, blonde curls bent over “Click, Clack, Moo; Cows That Type” and the next she was gone.
Finally, after more time than should have been allowed, Mary’s mother insisted they call the police. The head librarian, unable to deny the truth any longer, dialed 9-1-1 with her heart beating wildly in her throat.
“Found her yet?” asked the first officer to arrive. At their wide eyes and negative head shakes, he flipped open his notepad and licked the tip of his pencil. “I’m going to need some information from her guardian …” He looked at the group expectantly until the head librarian nudged the girl’s mother where she stood frozen with panic.
The woman jumped, blinked several times, and raised a hand to her face. “That’s … that’s me. I’m her mother.”
Little drops of sweat stood out on her forehead and patches of damp spread from under her arms as she answered the officer’s questions about age, height, clothing, and more.
“Blonde.” Unable to endure any more, the woman’s voice broke and her knees buckled under her. The head librarian plied her with a damp rag and a paper cup of tepid water while the officer consulted with his collegues, more of whom were arriving with each minute.
“Girl. Blonde. Three years old. Pink top, green shorts. May be carrying a stuffed blue elephant.” He snapped the information out with machine-like efficiency and the others scribbled the details into their own notebooks without interruption.
Behind the check-out desk, the teenage girls who volunteered their time re-shelving books huddled together, phones out. They tapped out text messages and social media posts with lightning speed, each making herself the center of the drama unfolding in their sleepy town.
A crowd of patrons milled around the lobby. Parents held young, squirming children in their arms, unwilling to put them down. Those who arrived later for the scheduled Storybook Hour were turned away. Some left immediately, distancing themselves from a tragedy that could have too easily befallen their own family. The rest congregated in the parking lot, fanning themselves and trading gossip and parenting stories.
“Secret passwords!” preached Mrs. Villanova to anyone who would listen. “I don’t know how any parent who doesn’t set up a secret password with their child can sleep at night!”
“Panel, mommy.” Four-year-old Ricky tugged at he mother’s collar. He pointed at the corner of the Storybook Nook, but his mother, busy debating the merits of child leashes with another mom, just patted his hand.
In the head librarian’s office, Mary’s mother sobbed, clutching her phone to her ear. “ … my baby … just turned away … one second … missing … oh, god …” Her words hitched and caught on one another as she tried to explain the situation to her husband.
The officers, fully briefed, spread out over the sprawling length of the building. The search covered every square food at an achingly slow pace. Each man and woman searching carried the twin weights of urgency and thoroughness.
“Library, huh?” one officer said to another. “Is there no safe place left?” The second officer shook her head, but didn’t reply. They inched their way along the stacks, fear keeping them company.