Mark had wanted to get a jump on the day, but when he arrived at his girlfriend Julie’s place, the kids were eating cereal in front of the television. Julie fluttered about, filling water bottles, looking for sunscreen. There was a lengthy standoff during which three-year-old Ruby insisted she didn’t need to go potty and Julie insisted she needed to try.
And now at last they pull into the fairground parking area. Lanky teenaged Boy Scouts in orange vests wave Mark, at the helm of Julie’s dented old minivan, past the aisles filled with the cars of the early-arrivers, to a row that is one, maybe two, football fields away from the entrance of the fairgrounds. The parking lot is not really a parking lot. It is an ugly stretch of earth—bald expanses of dust sprinkled with tiny islands of grass. Mark noses the van into a spot, adding another patch to the quilt of cars.
It is too difficult to push the flimsy stroller across the uneven field with Ruby inside. Mark offers to carry the girl but she turns away from him with a grunt and reaches her arms toward her mother. Julie perches her daughter on her hip and pulls seven-year-old Wyatt along with her free hand. Mark pushes the empty stroller, which now, too light, bucks along the pock-marked field like a pony pestered by flies.
At the ticket window Mark pulls out his folded wad of cash while Julie tucks Ruby back into the stroller. For the second time today, Mark peels off the outermost twenty dollar bill. The first had been shed when they entered the parking area. He had been warned by a friend at work that a day at the fair with a family would easily set him back a couple hundred dollars. “You’d be surprised what that place costs,” he had said. Mark has come prepared. The wad of bills in his pocket has more layers than an onion. He is proud to treat his girlfriend and her children to what he imagines will be a wonderful day. Maybe next year they’ll come back, making it a tradition. Maybe by then Julie will be his wife. Maybe by then little Ruby will let him hold her. Maybe Wyatt will look up to him as a boy looks up to his father.
Once through the turnstile, they head straight to the animal barns, promising Wyatt they will return to the rides later. Wyatt looks longingly down the pathway that leads to the amusement area and asks how many rides he’ll be allowed to do.
“As many as you want, Buddy. I’m going to get us both a wristband so we can do all the rides we want,” Mark says.
“How about the Tilt-a-Whirl?”
“Sure thing. We can do them all twice if you want to.”
“What about me?” Julie joins in. “I want to go on the Ferris wheel.”
“I was thinking we could all do that together,” Mark says. “See how much of the world we can see from up there.”
“Do you think we’ll be able to see New York City?” Wyatt asks.
“Oh I bet we’ll see farther than that,” Mark says. Julie swats his arm for this lie, but smiles as she does so.
“I don’t think we’ll see quite that far, Honey,” Julie says.
“How about the car? Will we be able to see that?” Wyatt asks.
“We’ll look for it when we get up there, okay Buddy?” Mark says. He spreads his fingers wide and palms the crown of the boy’s head like a basketball. The kid needs to learn a sport or two. If he had more upper body strength, he might not walk around with his elbows bent and hands drooping in front of him like puppy dog paws. Sports might keep him from slouching so much, too. There’ll be time, Mark thinks. He’ll propose to Julie and buy a house and move them out of that dingy little apartment building, with its concrete patios filled with fat people sitting in cheap plastic chairs. Julie’s ex really was a scumbag, left her with nothing.
He wonders what it says about him that a woman who married such a creep the first time around could end up with him. Was something wrong with him too? Mark plunges his hand into his shorts pocket, checks that his money is still there. The thickness of the stash reassures him. He puts his arm around Julie, kisses the top of her head. Her hair is smooth. For once he wishes he knew the names of flowers so that he could tell her which one she smells like. Julie nestles her head on his shoulder for a moment, then lifts her face and presses her soft mouth to his. Her lips are parted just enough to tell him that she, too, is already thinking about what’s going to happen tonight after the children are asleep.
No, there’s nothing wrong with him. He’s just a lucky guy.
With the sunshade on her stroller pulled forward, the crowds of fairgoers are reduced to a tangle of legs moving in all directions. The road is made of packed dirt and the dust fills her nose and makes her want to pick it. The edge of the stroller cuts into the back of her knees. She straightens her legs. She is wearing sandals and can see her toes. She makes them wiggle before dropping her feet back down.
The stroller swerves into a long barn filled with stalls of animals. The air inside the barn is cool and dark and smells like the ground when it’s wet. Ruby, who had been squinting in the sun outside, feels her face go soft. Giant metal fans whir and hum and dampen all other sounds. Ruby slips her third and fourth fingers into her mouth and sucks them. She forgets that her mother is attached to the stroller, pushing it. That somewhere behind her must be Wyatt and Mark. It’s just as well that she has forgotten Mark because she doesn’t like him much. His teeth are pointy and his name sounds like shark. And today he is wearing a baseball hat that hides his face. She had just been getting used to his face and now his eyes are covered in shadow.
As the stroller moves down the aisle, Ruby looks through the slats of each pen. The first row is filled with pigs. Pig after pig. Most of them sleeping. They have eyelashes. One mama pig is lying on her side. The piglets attached to her teats look like fat wiggling fingers.
The next row has cows. Ruby’s mother leans forward to tell her that these cows are babies. Ruby takes her fingers out of her mouth long enough to push her mother’s face out of the way because it is blocking her view. They don’t look like baby cows. They’re too big. Kids, maybe, but not babies. They are standing up. Babies don’t stand up. Their eyes are big and look like they’re made of glass. They remind Ruby of Wyatt’s marble collection, especially the big marbles called aggies. When she is alone in the room she shares with Wyatt, she likes to reach into the drawer where the marbles are kept. He keeps them in a big black sock. She likes the sound it makes when she swings the sock and whacks the side of the dresser. She likes to reach her hand inside and pull out a handful of marbles and stuff them into her mouth. She is not allowed to do this. Mommy says she could choke. She doesn’t know what choke means. She likes to feel the weight of each marble as it drops through her lips back into the sock. Her spit makes the marbles even shinier. This is what the cows’ eyes look like. Aggies covered in spit.
At the end of the row is a big round metal pen with a cow inside. Not a kid cow, a grown up one. Rows of benches surround the pen on all sides. Mark-Shark reads a sign that says it’s a birthing corral. That when a birth is about to happen they will announce it on the loudspeaker. Her mother says she wouldn’t like that much, if crowds of people gathered around her while she was trying to have a baby.
It doesn’t seem like that poor mother cow is about to put on her show anytime soon, so they head to the next barn, which is filled with rabbits and guinea pigs. Julie had a rabbit as a child. A charcoal-grey Flemish Giant she named Lulu. She scans the stacked cages as if hunting for a box of Lucky Charms on the cereal aisle. Then she spots one. The rabbit is so like Lulu, that for a moment Julie is twelve again. She turns her index finger sideways to press the tip through a tiny opening in the cage. She can’t quite touch its fur. The animal’s whiskers pulse with its rapid breath. She can remember holding Lulu on her lap, her hands curved around her warm rib cage, feeling the impossibly fast ticking of her little heart. Julie had been warned that when rabbits get too frightened they are prone to heart attack. It had been her greatest fear that something would startle Lulu – a barking dog or a clap of thunder – and that would be the end of her. Instead she had died of a bacterial infection, a possibility Julie had never considered.
The Flemish’s cage is too high to show to Ruby without lifting her from the stroller. Ruby is settled and happy looking at things at her own eye level – little white rabbits with pink eyes – so Julie doesn’t bother. Instead she turns to Wyatt. She tells him about Lulu. His questions are mostly numerical in nature. How much did Lulu weigh? How many carrots could she eat in a day? How much did she poop? How long did she live? How old was Julie when she got Lulu? What age did he have to be before he could get a pet? How much longer would they live in their apartment where pets weren’t allowed?
Mark calls to them from the opposite side of the aisle. He has found another Flemish Giant. This one is a soft brown. Wyatt says it’s the color of chocolate milk. Julie releases her hands from the stroller handles and drifts over for a closer look. There is a sign on the rabbit’s cage that says it will be available for purchase at the end of the fair. Wyatt asks if they can buy it. Maybe they can keep it at Mark’s house, he says. Julie knows a pet is more than they can handle right now. Her relationship with Mark feels stable but they aren’t married. She has to be practical. She’s still a single mother. She knows that even if they could have a pet in their apartment, she would be the one who ended up cleaning the cage. Wyatt insists he would help. He is speaking in a mock whining voice, trying to be cute. She tells him he’s too old to talk like a baby.
Julie crosses back to the stroller and begins to push. It is too light. The stroller is empty. “Ruby?” she says, not too loud at first. She spins on her heel to look in all directions, says her little girl’s name louder. “Ruby?” she calls. She reaches her arms out, grazing the elbows of the people ambling down the corridor of cages. “Have you seen a little girl, about this high, three years old, brown curly hair?” Julie holds her hands, fingers straight, on either side of her face and moves them in frantic little circles to describe her daughter’s ringlets. “She was just here a minute ago. RUBY!”
She was just here. She cannot have gone far. Julie repeats these words to herself. She knows they are reasonable. Mark is enlisting the help of the 4-H kids who have raised many of the displayed animals. He shows them Ruby’s picture on his cellphone. Tells them what she is wearing. They will find her. She knows they will.
She also knows that they won’t. She feels it deep in her body. This same body where Ruby grew, not so long ago. She presses both hands against her abdomen, feels the still-soft skin where Ruby once nestled inside. Ruby is gone and it’s her fault, she thinks. How could she have turned away from her child to look at a stupid rabbit?
Fear has set her imagination free. It fans out in every direction like a startled flock of birds. She sees flashes of her daughter in different places. Hidden on the floor in the cab of a Mack truck. The trunk of a car. A dark closet. A wet basement. The bottom of a lake.
Julie loses track of time. She tells herself that not much time has passed. That what feels like an hour has only been a few minutes. But she knows that every minute counts.
One of the 4-H kids comes back with a security guard with a walkie talkie. He uses it to radio the other guards. They are all looking for a little girl with ringlet curls. Green tank top. Pink shorts. They are all looking. This is good, she tells herself. People are good. It will be okay. Someday this will be a story they will tell.
They have decided she is not in this barn. They step back into the sun. People amble by eating funnel cakes and cotton candy. Mark says maybe she went back to see the cows. He tells Wyatt to stay with his mother, he’ll be right back. He runs off.
A police cruiser is easing toward them, emitting short warning blasts of its siren to part the crowd. While the help of the 4-H kids and security guards had been a comfort, the arrival of the police amplifies Julie’s terror. The police are needed, everyone agrees. Her girl must be gone. An officer with fat hands and a digital wristwatch writes notes on a plastic clipboard. He asks for details she feels he should know already. What she is wearing, where she was last seen. They are wasting time.
Wyatt is hopping from foot to foot. Why can’t he ever hold still? He asks the cop if that’s a real gun. If he’s wearing a bullet proof vest. The cop doesn’t look up, keeps jotting notes onto the carbon paper attached to his clipboard. Wyatt asks if he’s ever shot anyone. Julie tells Wyatt to shut up. She has never told him to shut up before. It’s something her ex would have said.
Mark is back. No sign of her in the cow barn. He had looked on every aisle and under the benches surrounding the birthing corral. He gives Julie’s shoulder a squeeze. She shakes free of his touch. Each of her senses is on high alert and focused on finding her daughter. She wants no distraction.
The cop turns his head to the side and speaks into the radio strapped to his shoulder. Has them shut the gates of the fairground. Officers will see the face of every person who attempts to leave. They will stop anyone with a small child. The officer speaks in reassuring tones to Julie. Says in most cases like this they find the kid taking a nap under a table somewhere. The word “most” lingers in her mind after his other words fall away.
“What about the other cases?” Julie asks.
They’re doing everything they can, the officer says. They’ve called in more squad cars. He offers to have a security officer escort them to the first aid tent, where they could sit down and have some water. “I can’t sit,” Julie says, “I’d rather be looking.” Her hands are perched like sparrows on the handles of the stroller.
Wyatt suggests they go up in the Ferris wheel, and look for Ruby from there. “I don’t think that would help, Buddy,” Mark says. Julie doesn’t know how Mark can be so patient right now.
Wyatt curls his hands into circles and cups them over his eyes like binoculars. “Well it wouldn’t hurt to try,” he says. “It’s not like we’re finding her here. She could be far away by now.”
Julie looks at the boy. She hates him for these words, which she knows could be true. For a moment, she sees her son the way she knows the world must see him—gangly and loud-mouthed. And before she can push the idea away, she knows that if she could only keep one of her children, it would not be Wyatt. The thought skips across her mind like a stone on a dark lake, then sinks and settles in her heart.
Night is falling and the sunlight is replaced by the neon glow of the rides lit up at night. The air is filled with the jubilant screams of the thrill seekers as they are dropped from the sky, or spun in circles, or flown high overhead in the swings. These strangers are having the day that Mark had imagined he would give to Julie and the kids.
Wyatt, who long ago gave up on the rides, has collapsed into Ruby’s stroller and fallen asleep. The stroller handles bend inward under the boy’s weight. Julie is crouched in the corner of the first aid tent, where she eventually conceded they might wait—after they had scoured the barns and the bathrooms and the food stalls and everywhere else. After the search dogs arrived and sniffed the stroller and the cages of the terrified rabbits but failed to track the child’s scent. After she dialed her ex and choked on her words as she left him a voicemail. After she called her parents, who lived ten hours away, and asked them to get in the car immediately.
Mark is unsure how to talk to her about what comes next. About how they can’t spend the night at the fair. When Ruby had first gone missing, he had hoped that he could be the hero who would find her. He imagined carrying the little girl back to Julie. How she would throw her arms around them both. But as the minutes ticked past and he saw the terror in Julie’s face – the slack hole of her mouth, the pink and white blotches speckling her cheeks – he just prayed that anyone would find the child. Whether it was him or a cop or a 4-H kid with acne scars, he no longer cared.
He bends down beside Julie, puts a hand on her back. Through her rib cage, he feels her heart, beating faster than any human heart should. He reminds her that her parents should be getting close. Persuades her to stand, so they can go meet them at the apartment. She has the card of the detective in charge of Ruby’s search, he reminds her. They’ll call him first thing in the morning.
Mark tries to steer the stroller, with Wyatt still slumbering inside, but Julie pushes him aside. She needs something to lean on, he realizes, and it isn’t him. As they pass through the gate, a uniformed officer holds up a hand for them to stop, then shines a flashlight into the stroller. After verifying that the child sleeping within is not the one he is looking for, he waves them through.
Mark lays an arm around Julie’s slumped shoulders as they push through the gate. He plunges his free hand into his pocket. His fingers graze the cash. He still has that, but he has nothing else.