by Chris Bohjalian
HE LEANED AGAINST THE cement wall, a father who was no longer young with a daughter who was, and listened briefly to the sounds of the toilets flushing. He stared for a long moment at the impeccable streams of Christmas lights and a wreath awash in bulbs the size of chili peppers. He was relieved that at the moment there were no carolers, but he feared the respite would be brief.
He checked his watch, noting the speed with which the second hand was traveling around the small clock’s face – the black line was moving in tiny fits and starts, and he wondered if it had always moved like that and he had simply never noticed, or whether the battery was about to go – and memorized the exact time.
It was 5:17. Five-seventeen in the afternoon.
His daughter had ventured alone into the ladies’ room at 5:17 – 5:17 and seven seconds, if he was going to be precise (and he was) – in the afternoon, the sky just starting to darken as the sun fell somewhere far to the west of Frontierland.
It was December and the days were short, and the fake snow and glass icicles had been draped upon the scenery with precision. He realized that if they stayed for the fireworks at seven p.m. (and it was inevitable, they would), he would have to hold on tight to his daughter’s hand as they tumbled into the roiling stream of people leaving the park at one time for their cars. He’d never witnessed the exodus firsthand, but he’d heard, he’d heard: virutally the entire human contents of Disney World converging on Main Street at once – a horde tens of thousands strong being funneled together toward the turnstiles and the trams and that ridiculous, retro metro monorail.
It was like a fight for the lifeboats, he’d been told, in which a man’s most noble instincts would be subsumed completely by the urge to flee. . .and live.
Yes, he decided, he would insist that his daughter hold his hand. Or allow herself to be carried. Or accept the fact that he was going to tie her to his back like a 38-pound, three and one half foot tall papoose. But he would not lose her.
She had just turned six, and – though she still believed that Snow White was precisely who she said she was, and Cinderella really did live in that phantasmagorically garish castle that served as the capital of the Magic Kingdom, and Santa Claus was as real as her friends in school – these days she was feigning the walk, the distance, and the incredulity that marked an adolescent.
She was an only child, the youngest girl in her first-grade class, as well as the smallest. And though there were other girls and boys who lived with only a mother or a father, she was the only one who lived with a single parent because half the equation had died.
The two of them had been in the park since 10:15 a.m., and this was the first time the girl had expressed any interest in going to the bathroom. After a lengthy discussion before leaving Burlington the day before, they had agreed that she would be allowed to enter the ladies’ rooms alone when she had to pee, and he would wait outside. He had wanted her to use the men’s room so he could keep her – or, at least, her ankles beneath a stall door – in plain sight, but she had fought hard against this indignity.
And, in truth, he wasn’t sure that he wanted her in the men’s room with him anyway. How in the world do you explain a urinal to six-year-old girl? Why in hell would you want to?
But this was their first trip alone, just the two of them, the first time, in fact, that they had ventured together beyond Vermont – beyond their street in Essex, practically – since the girl’s mother had died in October. They were still figuring things out, and bathrooms were a part of the puzzle. Christmas was a part of the puzzle, which was why they had come to Orlando. They’d be home for the holiday, but not in the days leading up to it.
“And what’ll I do when you have to go to the bathroom?” she had asked, once they had agreed that she would be allowed to venture alone into ladies’ rooms. “I don’t want to wait around inside the men’s room!”
He didn’t want that, either. The truth was they had never been one of those peace-love-and-tie-dye Vermont families in which parents and children bathed together or swam naked together or – God forbid – went to the bathroom with anything like visual or aural proximity. She hadn’t seen him naked since she was seven or eight months old and he would take her into the bath with him when he’d come home from work, and bounce her around in the shallow water in the tub. He hadn’t seen her naked since she’d been in preschool – and, he imagined, she would be appalled if she understood that as recently as two years ago she hadn’t cared if he walked into the bathroom to hand her a towel before she started the long climb over the porcelain side of the tub.
“I won’t go to the bathroom until we return to our hotel, I promise,” he’d said, convinced that this was the only workable solution. After all, what was he going to do, hand her off to some stranger while he disappeared inside the men’s room? Leave her standing alone in the open air in the midst of Disney World’s crowds and chaos and rides? Not a prayer. He’d sooner cause permanent kidney damage than lose his little girl because he’d had a second cup of coffee at breakfast.
He glanced at his watch. Five-eighteen.
She’d been alone in the ladies’ room for just under a minute. Perhaps half a dozen women – old and young, some with gray hair, one with a stud in her nose and lines of steel balls along the cartilage of both ears – had come and gone through the arching entrance in the time that he’d stood there.
He wished he’d been able to find a family bathroom like the one they’d discovered at the airport. It was as big as a studio apartment, but housed a single stall, which meant that he could be there with his daughter while giving her the privacy she demanded.
A pair of elves passed by. They grinned and waved. He waved back.
He wondered suddenly if he looked like a pervert. Here he was, a slightly plump 41-year-old in khaki shorts, standing outside one of the ladies’ room in Tomorrowland. A balding guy whose thinning, straw-colored hair was largely hidden by an aging Red Sox cap. He realized he was wearing sunglasses and quickly removed them. He didn’t need them at this time of the day, unless he had something to hide.
Which, of course, he didn’t.
He wished a mother with a little girl – one child, just one, so it wouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience – would approach the bathroom so he could ask her if his daughter was okay. Someone like his own wife, perhaps. But there didn’t seem to be a doppelganger present right then.
A thought crossed his mind, and the vague unease he’d been feeling about allowing his daughter to leave his sight abruptly became more pronounced: somewhere in this world there were bathrooms with two entrances. It was inevitable. And, perhaps, he had inadvertently stumbled upon one. He had escorted his little girl, that single person on the planet he cherished above all others, to a bathroom that was a Fast Pass ticket to separation or abduction or (it was possible) something far worse.
He felt his skin growing clammy, because he understood with certainty that one of two things was about to happen: Either his daughter was going to emerge from that second entrance, wherever it was, and become lost forever in the massive amusement park as she searched for her father in the chaos before Christmas. Or a child molester or serial killer was waiting just outside that other entrance for a child exactly like his, because child molesters had known all along what he had just discovered: This rare, dual-entranced bathroom was a playground for perverts. A rec room for psychos.
Either way, unless he went into the ladies’ room that very second and rescued his daughter, she would be gone from him forever. Unless he took a deep breath that moment and ventured inside the concrete-and-stucco inner sanctum, he would never see his little girl again. This reality was obvious.
He shook his head as the loudspeakers began blaring “Winter Wonderland” and reminded himself there was no reason to believe there was a second entrance. He was being ridiculous. It was barely 5:19. His daughter had been inside the bathroom a mere two minutes. Any second now, she would shuffle out in her sandals and shorts, pushing her hair behind her ears exactly the way her teenage babysitters did back home. The two of them would find a place in the park for dinner and then settle in for the fireworks.
His daughter was fine. Yes, indeed.
Unless there was a window.
Maybe that was how she would be taken from him. Through a window. He realized that he had seen lots of women exiting the bathroom, but he wasn’t sure he had seen any go in who hadn’t already come out, meaning his daughter might be alone in there with no one to protect her from – How could he have missed it? – that kidnapper with the rolling bucket and mop. That kidnapper who had been pretending to be a park employee all day, just waiting for the moment when he’d be alone in the bathroom with a small child. In an instant he’d have her gagged and they’d be gone, the two of them disappearing forever into the December twilight while Mickey and Minnie danced in their holiday finest and Chip and Dale wore faux garlands like scarves.
He saw an older woman with bluish hair and a sweater awash with dancing reindeer approaching the bathroom, her mouth working hard on what had to be an apple-fritter-sized piece of chewing gum. She wasn’t a young mom with a child in tow, but she would do, and he was about to ask her to check on his little girl, make sure she was all right – Good God, simply make sure she was even still inside the damn bathroom! – but before he could make his own mouth open, she was through the archway and gone.
But that was good, too. It meant that the criminally insane, incompetent-to-stand-trial sociopath who had spent his day in the bathroom just waiting for a small child on whom to prey could no longer operate with impunity. There was a third person inside there. Did it matter that his daughter’s protector was a gum-chewing senior citizen in a garish sweater with dancing reindeer? Certainly not.
Unless this woman happened to be dangerous. He knew from an article he had read a year ago that 43 women were on death row, and some of them were senior citizens. Child murderers.
And, clearly, the woman with bluish hair was strong enough to steal or murder his child, if that was something she wanted to do.
But why would anyone do that, ever? Why would anyone want to hurt a child, especially his? Yet bad things happened all the time, and they happened to kids every bit as adorable as his. Look at what she was already having to endure.
The epilogue to the Christmas story itself was rife with the slaughter of children: Herod’s massacre of the little boys of Bethlehem.
He could make no mistake about this: a bad thing – a very bad thing – could happen at any moment, and there was no way he could even begin to explain or justify or rationalize the grotesque bits of tragedy that appeared in this world out of nowhere. A physical exam with something unexpected in the blood work. That was all it had taken to begin the slide – and slide was precisely the right word, he decided, with its connotations of a quick and slippery and out-of-control descent – that had done in his wife. Five months, start to finish. Five months.
Every single day, children disappeared in a positively incalculable fraction of that amount of time. A blink. They disappeared on their way home from school, they disappeared as they played on their front lawns, they disappeared from grocery stores while their parents pressed their thumbs into melons in the extra-wide aisles of fruit.
And, he had to assume, they disappeared from Disney World. The only reason you never heard about those kids or saw them on milk cartons or the TV news was because the Disney empire controlled the world. Didn’t they own ABC? Of course they did. And ESPN and the Disney Channel and Lifetime and who knew what else. They probably owned all 500 channels on the satellite dish that sat outside the guest-bedroom window back home.
It was 5:19 and 55 seconds. Almost 5:20. She’d been in there three minutes.
Her bladder couldn’t possibly hold three minutes of pee. Something clearly had happened, and that’s when it hit him: No one was interested in abducting her from the bathroom, because that wasn’t possible. There was no second entrance; there weren’t even any windows. Instead, someone had hurt her and left her bleeding or unconscious in a far corner stall. It had been one of the last women he’d seen leave the bathroom. The tall woman in the sunglasses and the leather jacket. The one with the neck tattoo of a skull.
He knew firsthand there was no need for sunglasses at this time of day, unless your intentions were suspect. (Hadn’t he taken his off?) That woman had done something; she had done something awful.
He resolved firmly that if his daughter wasn’t outside in 60 seconds, he would go in after her. Four minutes was his limit; it was all he could endure.
But what if four minutes was too long and he lost her – lost her forever? Then what? He couldn’t imagine. He just couldn’t imagine. He tried to slow his breathing while wiping his forehead under his cap with his handkerchief. He was sweating, sweating profusely – a human fountain oozing fluids from every pore – even though it was the end of the day and he was in the shade. The cotton square in his hand was now the color of oatmeal from his perspiration, and it was as damp as a used beach towel.
Inside, he heard another great whoosh of water, and a moment later the woman in the reindeer sweater strolled through the arch, applying a coat of burgundy-colored lipstick across her mouth as she walked. She had eyeglasses the size of coffee cup saucers, and he decided to ask her if she had seen a little girl in the bathroom, a charming first-grader in a gray denim baseball cap with what looked like a fish on the front but was in actuality a whale – a souvenir from the summer trip to Cape Cod, their last as a family of three.
He lunged toward the woman, one hand before him, and stumbled, recovering awkwardly.
“Harold!” she cried, moving quickly away from him, her eyes wide behind the goggles that passed for eyeglasses. An older man appeared out of nowhere, wide-shouldered and robust, with a mound of hair on his head the color of ash from a woodstove. He took the woman by the elbow and led her away, where they disappeared quickly into the crowds that milled by the souvenir stands and ice cream carts, and the conga lines that snaked around almost every ride.
He wondered if they were going to report him to security, and he was about to meet the Disney World Secret Police. But he didn’t care about that, all he wanted was to see his daughter – all he wanted was to see that little person with eyes as green as her mother’s, scuffing her sandal-clad feet through the ladies’ room arch.
He turned, oblivious to his resolution to wait a full four minutes, uncaring that he still had a solid 15 seconds to go, and started into the ladies’ room – was he crying out her name as he walked? He hoped not, but he thought he might be, when he realized he could see the line of white sinks opposite the stalls, and she was standing on her toes, whipping the last drops of water from her small fingers.
In his head he murmured thank you, thank you, and it was all he could do not to fall on his knees or, perhaps, spread wide his arms in a giant V. Victory. Hallelujah. Amen. He turned, hoping to retreat before she would know he was there, but it was too late. She’d seen him.
She folded her arms across her chest and shook her head. He sensed that she was about to chastise him for checking on her, for worrying, but she saw his tears and she paused. She looked up at him, then straight at him, because he was kneeling before her, and understanding everything she touched her palm to his cheek. He lifted her and stood, and held her against him for a long time, trying to make light of his panic but not really caring that his jokes must have sounded pathetic and lame.
He promised her that he would try not to worry next time, though he was quite sure that he would.
“I keep thinking about Santa in the parade today,” she murmured as they emerged from the ladies room just inside Tomorrowland.
“How will he get everything done by Christmas next week if he’s in parades here?”
“He always does, Sweetie. Always. It’s part of his magic.”
“Absolutely,” he told her. “I’m as sure of that as I am of anything in the whole world.”
He felt her nodding before she buried his head in the small pillow of flesh where his shoulder met his neck, her chin a pear against his collarbone, and then her body relaxed completely in his arms.
* * *
A slightly different version of this story appeared originally in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine in the year 2000. The artwork that accompanies it here is the original artwork from the Magazine. Chris’s next novel, “The Flight Attendant,” lands on March 13, 2018 from Doubleday Books. You can learn more about it here.