I was halfway through my shopping list when I smelled smoke. A shrill alarm rang throughout the supermarket. “Fire!” a man's frightened voice yelled. I glanced up to see a burst of flames rising up to ignite the ceiling. A dark cloud of smoke began to envelop everything in its path.
My wide eyes remained on the fire as I reached for my three-year-old daughter's hand and felt only air. I looked down and felt as if I'd collided into a brick wall when I realized that she was no longer standing next to me.
“Sara!” I cried, but my voiced was drowned out by the chaos. A charred smell filled my nostrils as I dashed down the aisles, praying that Sara had wandered just a few steps away, but I saw only the fear-stricken faces of fleeing strangers. The flames continued to burn everything in their path and hungrily spread out to devour more as I raced past retreating shoppers and employees alike.
“Don't go that way!” a girl in a cashier's uniform yelled as I raced past her. “It's on fire!”
“I have to find my daughter!” I shouted back frantically. I continued to run through the market, calling Sara's name over and over again. I encountered a suffocating haze at every corner along with an overwhelming, merciless heat.
My panic was outweighed only by my guilt. If I'd paid closer attention and hadn't been thinking about bills or work or any of the other headaches life creates for us all, then I'd have noticed Sara's absence before the fire erupted. The self-hatred inside me boiled at a temperature that rivaled the surrounding inferno as I prayed that my daughter wouldn't pay the ultimate price for my own negligence.
After finding the restrooms empty I rushed towards the store entrance, stomping through broken eggs and puddles of spilled milk. All I had left was the hope that Sara had already made her way to safety; if she wasn't outside waiting for me, then nothing in the world could stop me from running back inside and searching until the fire consumed me.
I stumbled through the glass doors and into the sunlight, breathing in gulps of smokeless air as my eyes darted frantically about the crowd before me. “Sara!” I rasped, clutching my aching throat. “Are you here?”
And then I spotted her cradled in the arms of a woman, sobbing hysterically but unharmed. I rushed towards them and plucked Sara from the woman's gentle grasp before hugging my daughter tightly, tears of relief streaming down my face.
“I'm so sorry, Sara,” I wept. “Thank God you're okay.” I turned to thank the woman, but she was already gone.
I felt my fingers brush against something tucked into Sara's coat pocket. I reached inside and pulled out a small piece of paper. I unfolded it and read the scrawled message that still keeps me awake at night even a year after the fire and ensured that I've never made the grave mistake of letting my child wander out of my sight again.
I've been watching. Next time I won't give her back.
Written by CertainShadows