By Erica Mosley
Shel was half way to the car before she realized she had the wrong kid.
Half way! Of course when she told her husband about it later she did not say “half way.” She told him she was just gathering her bags and yelling goodbye to the other moms when she looked down and saw she was holding Ethan Penderton’s hand and not Milo’s. She did not tell him she’d gotten through the door, into the parking lot, and half way to the car with a boy who was not their child. She did not tell him about how she ran back, red-faced, clutching this doppelgÃ¤nger, or about how shocked she was when she slinked into the gym and saw Ethan’s mother, stooped over her phone, oblivious to the error. Nor did she tell him about the look Ethan Penderton gave her when she released his small hand, the way he stood there, at the free-throw line, calm and grinning. He hadn’t spoken or pulled away, and she wondered how far he would have allowed himself to be taken.
She told Nathan none of this. Instead she presented it as a joke, after Milo was in bed and after Nathan emptied into her glass the bottle of Cabernet they’d started two nights before. It was too cold because it had been in the refrigerator, and it was beginning to turn. She drank it anyway. She said: “Hey, so I almost brought the wrong kid home today.”
Nathan snorted. “I believe it. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened before, all those peewees running around in matching uniforms.”
And then it was over. Just a laugh, an amusing anecdote told over a bottle of wine. Nathan moved on to the dumb thing his boss said about turkey bacon and they never spoke of Ethan Penderton again.
Shel would never tell him how frightened she’d been, how ashamed that she’d been unable to recognize her own child. Yes, the gymnasium was a dizzying jumble of five-year-olds, one big blur of red and white jerseys. And yes, Ethan’s hair was similar to Milo’s: sandy blond with the faintest hint of curl on top, where it was longest. And yes, she’d been on her phone with the chiropractor’s office when she grabbed Ethan’s hand by mistake, and yes, she’d been in a hurry because the post office closed in fifteen minutes.
And yet, she told herself, not really listening to Nathan’s story about the turkey bacon, none of her excuses cut it because at the most crucial moment she had failed. She had grabbed the wrong child.
Nathan turned on the TV to check the weather. Shel carried her glass to the computer room and lingered over the last sip while scrolling her news feed.
There it was: the viral video she’d shared that morning, the body wash commercial. A row of mothers—each with perfect hair, white teeth, wedge heels—stood side by side in a sunny meadow. One by one their blindfolded children, arms outstretched, wandered toward them and felt the hands, the hair, the noses of the mothers until each found his own. The bond a child has with his mother is so strong, touted the body wash company, that he can pick her out of a crowd using only touch and smell.
Shel had cried at the video earlier, had tagged each of her mommy friends, had stirred the oatmeal feeling inspired, had dressed Milo slowly, savoring the milky-sweet skin of his wrists and his gangly toes and his fresh-from-sleep smell: fabric softener laced with sourness, like a lemon turning to vinegar.
Now she hit “refresh” and watched the video again. And again. Watched each boy and girl stagger down the row, sniffing ponytails, feeling for familiar fabrics. Did she see something, on that fifth, sixth, seventh viewing? Just the hint of doubt in the eye of the mother on the end of the row, the fear that her child would not be able to find her?
Shel thought back to the gymnasium.
After releasing Ethan she had found Milo on the bleachers, stooped giggling over his friend’s iPad. “Time to go,” she’d said, and he’d hopped up, still giggling, oblivious that he’d almost been left behind.
He never noticed she was gone.
On the screen in front of her, five blindfolded children sought out their mothers. And hers hadn’t even missed her.
Shel sat her glass on the computer desk and tiptoed into Milo’s room. He slept. He wasn’t a snorer, not yet, not like Nathan, but he tittered with every other exhalation. She sat gently on the bed, careful not to wake him. She bent her head over his, buried her nose in his sandy blond hair, breathed him in. Deeper and deeper, breathed him in.
Erica Mosley lives in the Missouri Ozarks. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Austin Review’s Spotlight, and elsewhere. Check out her website at ericamosley.com or follow her on Twitter: @ericamaymosley.