As Pippi strolled past me with her miniature grocery cart, I waved to her and she tossed me a big flirty grin. Then I turned back to Junius, who was fixing a plastic breakfast of eggs, bacon and spaghetti with meatballs.
After a moment, I noticed that Pippi hadn't circled back to us when she got to the corner, so I stood up to check on her. That's when I realized there was no corner, just another opening that connected to the rest of the play area. And Pippi was nowhere to be seen.
It was a busy Saturday morning at Marbles Kids Museum, the kind of day when I would have preferred to go to the pool and avoid the crowds. But Junius had asked so nicely and I was tired of always saying no. So we went, just the three of us.
My eyes darted around the chaotic space, searching for her shaggy little head among all the other toddlers -- how do you find someone so short in a crowd? I raced around the loop twice before grabbing Junius by the hand for fear that he might disappear, too. After a third frantic circle, Juni struggling to keep up with me, I could feel myself starting to panic.
Surely she was in here somewhere, I tried to rationalize. But what if she'd followed someone out of the gate and they hadn't noticed? How far could she wander without being stopped? What if someone had taken her?
We dashed to the information desk, telling the woman there that I'd lost my child. I started spouting out details, which she relayed through her earpiece to the other staff members -- 18 months old, sandy hair, pink shoes, flowered dress. As I described her, she sounded like any one of a million little people playing in the museum. I wrestled with my lungs to make my breathing stay at a normal rate.
After making Junius promise he would stay at the desk, I darted back into the play area to search again. Another staffer met me there, saying, "I think someone found her." I looked up, expecting to see her crying for me, searching as desperately for her mommy as I had been for her.
But she was playing happily at the little cash register, just a few feet from where I'd been sitting for our pretend meal. She must have been two steps behind me the whole time I was searching for her, not even knowing that she was lost.
When I scooped her up, thanking the staff and heading to the desk to retrieve Junius, it felt like she'd been missing for hours. In reality, it had been less than five minutes -- but it was the longest one of my children had been lost, and it was more than enough time to leave me shaking and exhausted.