I open the glass door barring the outside world from the safety of our apartment building and brace against the deluge of cold air. Multi-colored leaves litter the concrete sidewalk ahead of us, their brittle autumn spines waiting to crumble under our feet. Beside me, Alex looks up and smiles.
He carries a tiny red truck, and I’ve been charged with toting his backpack, a blue shark with red fins and googly eyes that covers his whole back when he wears it but feels small and manageable looped over my left wrist. A blue hoodie, faded jeans and miniature Adidas Superstar sneakers shield his delicate two-year-old body from the late October morning chill.
We head towards the busy corner and I reach for his hand. He looks at me with his all-too-familiar mischievous grin and I feel my stomach lurch. We’re close to traffic – too close. Dear God, please don’t let him start running again.
It was exactly one week before, a routine Friday afternoon, when it happened. I arrived to pick Alex up from school just before 3pm. The halls were full of other parents and nannies scrambling to collect children along with all the backpacks, sheet bags, and artwork needing to go home for the weekend. Alex’s classroom was situated in the back right corner of the building, forcing me to sidestep the chaos outside all the other rooms before finally reaching his.
I waved to his teacher through the rectangular window in the door. Ms. Janet pulled back on the handle, and Alex came bounding out, full of pent up energy after a full day of holding himself together. I bent down to give him our traditional afternoon hug and tried desperately to hold onto his hand while Ms. Janet told me about the pumpkins they’d painted in class. All the tiny little would-be jack-o’-lanterns sat lined up in the hallway, resting on newspaper, waiting to go home.
As Ms. Janet lifted the first one to check the bottom for a name, I could feel Alex start to squirm, twisting his sweaty little hand around inside mine, which, of course, was also starting to sweat. No, the first one wasn’t his. She lifted the second while I forced my lips into some sort of contortion I hoped would pass for a casual smile. Alex’s hand started slipping slowly from my grip. No, this one wasn’t his either. As Ms. Janet went for number three, Alex broke free and made a run for it, down the hall and around the corner. Out of sight.
I forced myself to keep my cool. I’d been the parent frantically leaping over other preschoolers chasing after the kid I couldn’t control one too many times. He’d wait for me at the top of the stairs, I told myself. He knew I was talking to his teacher.
I stood firm, pretending to be totally calm while I waited for Ms. Janet to find that damn pumpkin. He’d wait for me. He’d be there at the top of the stairs when I got there in a few seconds. Just a few more seconds.
After what felt like about thirty minutes, we found Alex’s pumpkin – the last one. Of course. I thanked Ms. Janet, still trying to look relaxed.
Clutching the pumpkin to my chest without thinking about what the still-wet paint was doing to my shirt, I rushed down the hallway, making my way through as quickly as I could while still feigning a smile. A frenzied, rolling sea of parents and kids sloshed through the school, making passage nearly impossible.
As I turned the corner at the end of the hall, the top of the stairs floated on the horizon. Could I see him in the crowd? No, but he’s short, after all. My chest throbbed.
Finally, I reached the top of the stairs. No Alex. Okay. Deep breath. He’s probably down at the bottom, waiting just inside the door. Yes, that’s where he must be. I gave up trying to act casual, weaving between kids and parents as I clambered down the stairs in near panic.
Bottom of the stairs. No Alex.
My heart sank. I ran out the doors, which were constantly held open by the current of parents and kids flowing in and out on a busy Friday afternoon.
I looked left. No Alex.
Right. No Alex.
Frantic, I turned to the man standing behind me, holding the door open. “Have you seen a little blonde boy in a black and white stripped shirt come out this door?” My voice was high and panicked. I’d completely given up any version of trying to act cool.
“No,” he said. “I wouldn’t let a kid come out this door alone.” Smug. I knew it was nearly impossible to tell which kids were alone and which ones were with a parent. One child could easily slip in with another group, especially one as stealthy as Alex. But I desperately wanted to believe this man and think my baby was still inside the school, so I took one more look up and down the street and then ran back up the stairs.
I darted down the hallway back to his classroom. Maybe he went back there?
Next came the studio where they played on rainy days. Maybe here?
I made the full circle.
Back at the top of the stairs, I nearly knocked over the school director. “Mr. Brian!” I could barely breathe. “Have you seen Alex?” The look on his face told me he hadn’t. “I was talking to Ms. Janet. He ran down the hall. I can’t find him.” My eyes were getting hot.
“I’m sure none of the parents would let him go outside,” he said. Now he was the one trying to act cool. “But why don’t you go down by the door just in case he’s there now, and I’ll check the classrooms again. Don’t worry. We’ll find him.”
I ran back down the stairs, hoping with all my might to see his mischievous little smile at the bottom.
I busted through the doors – by now most of the parents and kids were dissipating – and ran a few strides to the right. No Alex. Then a few strides to the left.
A woman leaning against the wall near the intersection noticed my frantic back-and-forth.
“Are you looking for a little boy?” she asked.
“Yes! Yes! Have you seen him?” Please, tell me you’ve seen him and he’s safe.
“He crossed the street.” She pointed to the avenue a few steps away from us – a busy, four-lane road.
“He crossed the street!” An exclamation, not a question. I looked across the road and saw a group of concerned-looking adults standing on the corner, pointing down the block. I followed their gaze, terrified of what I was going to see at the end, and there I saw a little blonde boy in a black and white stripped t-shirt, talking to a man. He was a block away, nearing another intersection.
“Hey!” I yelled to anyone who could possibly hear me. “That’s my kid!” I flailed my arms around, gesturing towards Alex.
I couldn’t get across the busy street fast enough, dodging cars as I crossed against the light, desperate to get to my baby.
“We tried to stop him,” one of the concerned ladies on the corner said as I ran past.
Finally, I caught up to Alex.
“Oh! Hey, mama!” he said with a smile. I snatched him into my arms. He looked confused about my expression. “I waited for all the cars,” he said proudly.
“I saw a little boy by himself,” the man beside him said, “and I knew it didn’t seem right so I asked him where his mommy was, but all he said was, ‘cupcake.'”
Glancing down the street towards the bakery another block away, I got an inkling of where Alex had been headed. I thanked the man over and over, squeezing Alex to my chest, then marched the block back to the school with my baby in my arms.
“I found him!” I said breathlessly when I found Mr. Brian at the top of the stairs. “He was all the way across Vanderbilt and almost a block down.” I wasn’t sure if I was angry or vindicated or relieved or in awe of Alex’s self-reliance or all those things at once. The look on Mr. Brian’s face told me he was picturing how this might have ended very differently.
I didn’t stop shaking for at least five hours.
Today he holds my hand, not with complete contentment, but with agreement. We cross one street, then another, and we are on one of the two long blocks to his school. The scene, a quiet street flanked with stately brownstones, brilliant sunlight pouring through bright orange trees and spilling onto the warming sidewalk, is idyllic. I start to rush forward, but Alex stops. I resist the inclination to tell him to “hurry up, we’re going to be late for school,” and I stop, too. People swerve around us as we stand still and look.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I say to Alex. He smiles.
After a moment, we carry on. Halfway down the block, he looks up at me again. The mischievous grin is back. “I run, Mama,” he says. Uh-oh.
He starts to back up a little and gestures for me to walk ahead. He hunches down like a runner getting ready for his race. This time I concede and tell him to come on.
“One! Two! Free!” he yells. And he’s off. Running towards me on the sidewalk, all giggles and clumsy feet. As he reaches my side, he doesn’t slow down but yells, “Come, Mama! Come! Run!”
Ah, what the hell. I start jogging along beside him. His joy is contagious, and we both clop down the street, giggling and waving our arms around and making funny faces.
The bright blue googly-eyed shark thumps at my side as we run, weaving past other, more dignified parents with their kids in strollers and smartly dressed men and women on their way to work.
At the corner, we stop for a moment, but only a moment. We turn right and another block lines up in front of us. Alex looks at me and crouches again, “One! Two! Free!” And again, we’re off.
By this point, we’re creating quite a spectacle of ourselves and getting a few dirty looks, but we don’t care. We run and laugh and make a scene the whole way to school, stopping every once in a while to catch our breath for just a few moments before Alex signals it’s time to go again.
As I leave the school building after dropping Alex off in his classroom, I smile. Walking back through the streets we’ve just run down, still slightly out of breath and a little sweaty, I think about all the other mornings I’ve tried to reel him in, told him to walk right with mommy, gotten annoyed when he stopped too long to look at a stick on the ground or insisted on running ahead.
I think about that afternoon a week ago when he did run ahead, way too far ahead, and while I still feel fear yanking at the inside of my stomach when I let my mind wander to what might have happened that day, today I continue to smile. Today, he’s shown me the beauty in the run.
A writer and journalist, Kelley Vick has worked as a producer for national news networks and published reported pieces in a wide range of magazines and newspapers. “Run” is her first foray into creative nonfiction. Kelley holds an MSJ in Journalism from Northwestern University and lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and 3-year-old son.