I just got off work, sweating in my Cheesecake Factory whites. It was a good, long day. My wallet, now thick with cash, sits heavily in my back pocket.
As the clock hits 10:30pm, figure I’ll drop by Walmart to pick up a few things before heading home to bed.
I loosen my tie as the first set of automatic doors slide away.
In the distance are familiar register beeps and carts rolling around. Bleached bright light welcomes me from the hot darkness outside. The second set of doors open their arms, when I feel something watching me. So I turn to face it.
There’s a little girl standing to the right of me, alone, with crud on her chubby cheeks. She looks away quickly, like she made a huge mistake getting my attention.
She’s Hispanic, about six or seven years old. She should probably be in bed- it’s a school night.
I scan the area around us, through the glass doors behind and in front of us. No one. There’s no one else nearby. Where are her parents?
I slowly select a cart, watching her from the corner of my eye.
Families pass by her, they don’t notice or care about her. She won’t take her eyes off the entrance doors. I hope to see a matching Hispanic set of parents appear, but they never do.
“Hey, are you okay?”
She holds herself tightly, staring straight ahead. Stranger danger.
“Where are your parents?”
No movement, not a word. She’s hiding in plain sight. Maybe if she doesn’t move, I’ll lose sight of her.
I don’t get closer, instead I step towards the stuffed toy crane machine behind her.
“I can see you, you know,” I say to the machine.
Her bottom lip starts to wiggle a bit, she’s scared. Her eyes beg the doors to open and reveal someone she knows. Maybe her mom or dad, or an older sibling or someone to save her. But there is only me.
I wonder how long she’s been waiting here. There’s an outline on her cheeks of tears that fell but were then dried away in a hurry. Now that someone is watching her, she’d better look tough.
“Do you want me to get you some help? I could have an employee call for your parents. Are they inside the store somewhere?”
She bites her lip to stop its trembling, and her eyes start to glisten.
“Don’t worry, it’s all right. You don’t have to say or do anything. How about I get us some ice creams and we can wait for them together?”
Her eyes shot towards me, then back at the door. Just that bit of hesitation is all I needed.
“Good. Well you stay here for a second. I’ll be just inside there where I can see you okay? That first register right there,” I point at it, “there’s ice creams near it, I’ll be at that one.”
Still no movement, but her eyes aren't tearing up any longer. That’s a start.
I walk inside, the second doors open.
I buy us each a fudge ice cream cone, keeping an eye on her and the entrance doors.
“Here’s yours,” I say, holding it out to her, while eating my own.
She tightens her hug around herself.
“Still scared of me, are you? Well I suppose I could eat both of these…”
She snatches it from my hand and opens it. She doesn’t move away from me, finally deciding I was safe.
Thirty minutes pass.
By now I’ve asked an employee to call for her parents. But she won’t tell me their names. She won’t say a word.
The Walmart employee seems more concerned about clocking out, and gives up on us without much effort.
Then we played the crane game a little bit, and she got a Spongebob. She won’t tell me her name but says she’s starting 1st grade and she doesn’t know anyone.
I check my phone, it’s 11:30pm. I’ve been here nearly an hour with her.
The night crew arrives, sloppy and apathetic. It’s closing time soon.
I’m not sure what to do with this girl.
“Listen sweetheart, you have to help me. Do you know your parent’s phone number at least? I could get them to come here if I had that number.”
She hugs her Spongebob, sitting on the floor beside me.
The doors open, two chunky Hispanics walk in.
“Tessa GET AWAY FROM HIM!”
Ah, good. Her parents.
The woman grabs the girl’s arm and yanks her up.
“Don’t touch my daughter you sicko!” she screams.
I stood up, brushing off my pants. “Right. And where have you two been?”
“None a yer business, faggot,” Dad says.
“We were teaching her a lesson. Never fuckin wander off ever when we’re shoppin,” Mom yanks at Tessa’s arm at the last word. Tessa drops Spongebob then gathers him up quickly.
“So you abandon her at Walmart in the middle of the night. She was smart enough to wait for you here at the entrance. What if she did wander off, or got taken by som-“
“Some sick motherfucker like you? I’m callin’ the COPS on you!”
“Well make it quick, I have some shopping to do before they close,” I say, thumbing to the Hours of Operation sign.
"Mama. Mama, he was nice to m-"
Mom yanks Tessa to stifle her words. Both parents give me a scowl, then the three of them leave out the front doors.
I purchase some cleaning agents for the truck and a couple frozen dinners, then drive home.