GRACE IS GONE.
The last time I saw her, she was in the Nursery Room, feeding one of the baby dolls the museum staff keep there with a plastic bottle of simulated milk. She kept slapping the baby against the floor, pressing the bottle to its face. Waterboarding it, in other words.
I went into the hallway. It was loud in the nursery room, and I wanted to read the magazine I’d brought with me. It featured an article about the health benefits of long-distance empathy. A few sentences in, I was absorbed.
It must have been then that Grace left me, her mother, and walked out of the Nursery Room. When I went to check on her, she was gone.
I know she is still in the building. Children can’t leave the children’s museum without the adults they arrived with. There is a wristband system in place, to prevent abductions and runaways. The kids can’t take the wristbands off, only the staff can take them off, and the door that leads outside won’t open for a child unless she is accompanied by her corresponding grownup. Both of them have to have their wristbands on.
No one says out loud that the wristbands are worn to prevent abductions. No one says the word “abduction” to a parent—not until or unless one takes place, I imagine.
It must be a word that’s used often, then. Once it happens, the abduction must be the only thing anyone wants to talk about.
❧ ❧ ❧
When I didn’t see Grace in the Nursery Room, I thought at first that I might be the problem.
I am often the problem. I’ll be looking for Grace in a crowd of children. I won’t see her, and I will panic.
“She’s gone,” I’ll think. “Oh no.”
But she’s right there, I’ll realize a few seconds later. She is sitting with a crayon or a block in her hand. I don’t see her, somehow, until I’m half-blind with fear.
I go wading through the children, only to find her right there, where she has been all along. How did I not see her?
I spend half of every week with Grace, but somehow she blends in among other kids like I don’t know her, like I have never seen a child before and can’t tell them apart. It’s not as if she doesn’t have the same nose and ears I’ve been looking at in the mirror for 31 years.
But there wasn’t a crowd in the fake nursery. There were two kids only, neither of them anything like Grace. I would have asked if they had seen Grace, but I knew they didn’t know her. I wasn’t confident they could speak clearly to an adult. Maybe they weren’t confident, either. I turned away.
❧ ❧ ❧
Shade Children’s Museum, its name written in big letters along the hallway, is Grace’s favorite place.
I often want to take her to a real museum, an art or history museum, one with minerals and dinosaur bones, or sculptures behind glass. Grace isn’t old enough for that, so we have to settle for this other sort of museum, which is more of a playground for indoor kids. It was once an elementary school, but there was a gas leak. Some children didn’t survive. They built another school, fixed the leak at this one, I imagine, and converted every classroom to an activity room. It is meant to be an educational place, as well as someplace fun.
“Your intestines would be 25 feet long if they were stretched out,” read the writing on the wall in the hallway. “And that’s how long this wall is!”
I thought I might see Grace there, in the hallway. On our way in, she had spent ten minutes catcalling the guinea pigs they keep there in a waist-high cage. But she wasn’t there.
Two women on a bench in the hallway were talking. I didn’t look at their faces, saw only the pale legs their skirts left bare. I heard one say, “The last time I saw a little boy piss himself? Yesterday. The playground. No one cleaned him up. No one noticed.”
I went into the Art Room, where a lone boy’s arms were covered with blue paint. Some of it was on his face. Maybe he belonged to one of the women on
the bench. Maybe he belonged to no one at all. He appeared to be painting a mountain made of too many colors to exist in the natural world.
He looked up at me and smiled. I didn’t smile.
I left him to his mountain. I continued my search for Grace.
❧ ❧ ❧
I didn’t shout Grace’s name. I wasn’t there yet.
It would have been effective, or so I thought at the time. But it would have been abrupt. It would have drawn attention to me, which I try to avoid doing. Shouting Grace’s name in a crowd is bound to make people frown at me and assume I’m a bad mother. They might talk about me later as an example of what not to do. Shouting for a child, anywhere but inside a house, is the last resort of all last resorts.
In the Farm-to-Table Room, children rummaged through groceries in the grocery store simulator, pulling fake produce off of shelves, stuffing empty boxes that once held Trix and Life into miniature shopping carts, pushing past one another and the blasted parents who stood watching them, desperate to reach the checkout.
At the checkout, a boy with black hair had cast himself in the role of Cashier. He rang up every item the other kids piled on his belt, which he had to advance by turning a crank. He did his work with great severity, punching numbers into the toy register like it was his real job, as if there were a kid supervisor looking over his shoulder.
I went into the adjoining room, with its artificial cow full of fake milk the children can coax out with their hands.
There were rubber chickens, plastic oranges, and stuffed bees that fit over the children’s wrists. Two boys Grace’s age were hard at work stinging one another with the bees, using the bees’ heads for stinging, making no progress.
Grace wasn’t with them. She wasn’t in the alcove between the cow and the white plastic fence. She likes to lodge herself in just such places, where I must go in search of her.
I turned to see that a woman was watching me search. When I looked at her, she looked away. I carried on.
❧ ❧ ❧
I don’t want it to sound as if the whole of me were not in a state of mounting panic at the apparent, sudden absence of Grace from a place where she had been just minutes prior.
But I had no reason to worry. The wristband system is foolproof. An alarm would have gone off, if Grace had tried to leave without me, or if she had been carried away.
I kept telling myself that. It helped.
The children’s museum would close soon, anyway. Grace would have to show herself. The only way for us to leave was to go together, and we had to leave. As much as Grace would like to abandon me and our life together, and live out her childhood at the children’s museum, it isn’t an option. The food at the fake grocery story isn’t even real. There is water, sure.
❧ ❧ ❧
In the Water Room there were wet children, gathered by a fountain that stood a few feet off the ground. It rose out of a pool that had rubber ducks in it and other floating rubber things. There appeared to be an aqueduct running from one end of the room to another, made for the children but not by them.
Of the four elements water is the one Grace is most drawn to, but she wasn’t in the Water Room. I walked across it to peer behind a misplaced easel and saw there was another room, the size of a walk-in closet. A curtain hung in its entrance, like a darkroom.
I parted the curtain, stepped through, and in the dim light saw instructions in black letters on the wall.
I was to stand against the wall and press the red button. A bright light would flash, and if I was very still in the moment it flashed I would step away to see my shadow burned into the white wall where I had stood.
When I looked I saw, or thought I saw, still impressed upon the wall, the shadow of a girl the size and shape of Grace, standing with her head turned to one side with her arm stretched out, reaching up to catch I knew not what as before my eyes the shadow faded from sight.
❧ ❧ ❧
I passed the women on the bench again. One eyed me with alarm, the other with what I took to be disapproval. They were talking to one another while they looked at me. I didn’t hear what they said, this time.
It must have been the sweat dampening my hair that made them look at me so. Or else it was the look I wore on my face, the way I kept clenching and opening my fists as I walked.
If Grace chose this to be the place, I thought, where she turned to dust and scattered, I would not be surprised. It would be her way of evading me at last and for good, she who runs from me in public places, every chance she gets, who doesn’t listen, who seems to see in me an enemy, at least half the time.
She has both relied on and fought me since the day she was born. She has clung to me and pushed me away, and when she was born I felt something awake in me for the first time just as something else in me died.
It could be that Grace is more than merely out of sight. It could be she is really gone, not only not here but nowhere, having sublimated in a last-ditch effort to evade me once and for all.
Like the unlikely feat she performed by getting born, she became another form of matter, one I cannot see or smell, and the only way I can be with her again is to breathe her in the air where she resides, now, drawing her back into my body by inhaling the ether she diffracted into.
❧ ❧ ❧
The Lego Room was crowded with children. One of them had blonde hair, another wore a dress identical to the one Grace had on. None of the children was Grace.
She came into my room that morning, before I woke up. She looked into my eyes as I opened my eyes, grinning with a full diaper, comb stuck in her hair.
Another girl in the Lego Room looked just like Grace, for a moment, until she turned her head to look my way.
A boy beside her held up a Lego man and said something no one could understand. He tore the man apart and scattered him across the table.
❧ ❧ ❧
I heard an announcement on the intercom that in ten minutes the museum would close.
I made my way to the hallway again, past the children again. I was looking for someone who worked there. I hadn’t seen one in a long time.
I could see down the hall, past the guinea pigs, that no one was at the front desk. Grace had not returned to see the guinea pigs again, as I thought she might, as I hoped she had. In their cage there were toys, food, shit, and shreds of newspaper.
The guinea pigs were gone. I didn’t know where they had gone.
I had checked all the rooms, even both of the restrooms, but maybe Grace went slinking from one room to another while I searched them. It could be she is playing a game, that she initiated hide and seek without telling me first.
By the time I returned to them, the women on the bench had become one woman. She looked at me half-smiling like Grace was sneaking up on me, like she knew something I did not.
“What is it?” asked the woman, still with her half-smile.
“I haven’t seen Grace,” I said. “My daughter.”
“She was here?”
“She was with you?”
“How long has it been?”
I shrugged. “Too long.”
“What does she look like?”
“Like me,” I said. “Smaller, though. Younger.”
The woman laughed. I didn’t laugh. Parents filed past us with their children, some in strollers. They nodded at me, and smiled as I didn’t move out of their way, so that they had to find their way around.
“Where is your child?” I asked the woman on the bench.
“I don’t have one,” she said, smiling.
❧ ❧ ❧
I left the woman’s half-smile and checked the Lego Room again, and the Water Room, the grocery store and the farm.
There was no one left in any of the rooms.
As I hurried, someone said on the intercom that the museum was closing in five minutes. I would have to leave. So, I guessed, would Grace.
She hadn’t reappeared in the Nursery Room. She wasn’t with the shadow I thought she had left in the closet.
Even the shadow, now, is long gone.
❧ ❧ ❧
I returned to the front desk, where the woman is sitting even now. I made up my mind to wait by the desk for Grace to appear, or for someone to show up who could tell me where she might have gone.
If I could find someone who works here, I could ask if she has seen Grace. I don’t see anyone but the woman.
Grace must know that when the museum closes she has to come to the front desk. But then I can never really tell what Grace knows or doesn’t know. She doesn’t ever give me straight answers.
There are no children in the building, now, that I can see, not Grace nor anyone. The place is silent. There are only me and the woman who eyes me from the bench. She isn’t smiling, now.
The emergency exits won’t open for Grace alone. They will open for me, but I won’t leave without her.
I am standing by the front desk, looking down the hallway at the woman on the bench, who is squinting back at me in the dim light.
I am watching to see if Grace will come out of one of the rooms. She may be hiding. I may have missed her.
I don’t know what the woman is watching, unless she is watching me.
She can watch all she wants. I can wait for a day, or a month. I will not leave this spot by the door until I see Grace again.