Little Secrets – Jennifer Hillier

Pike Place Market is a tourist trap on a regular day. Combine it with last-minute holiday shopping and an extremely mild, sunny weekend—almost unheard of in December—and you are in the busiest nine acres on a Saturday afternoon in Seattle. Sebastian’s jacket is shoved into one of Marin’s shopping totes, but still, he’s sweaty. His little hand keeps slipping out of hers every time he yanks too hard, trying to pull them in the direction he’s determined to go. “Mommy, I want a lollipop,” he says for the second time. He’s tired, and getting cranky, and what he really needs is a nap. But Marin has one final present to buy. She prides herself on giving thoughtful, personal gifts. Her four-year-old son couldn’t care less about Christmas shopping. Sebastian believes Santa is going to bring all his presents, so in this moment, sugar is the only thing he’s interested in. “Bash, please, five more minutes,” she says, exasperated. “And then we’ll get your treat. But you have to be good. Deal?” It’s a fair negotiation, and he stops whining. There’s a candy store in the market.

They know it well; they’ve been many times. It’s unapologetically high-brow, and while the store makes all kinds of sweet things, it’s best known for its “bean-to-chocolate handmade artisanal French crème truffles.” The storefront is painted Tiffany blue, its pretentious name stenciled in elegant gold cursive across the windows: La Douceur Parisienne. No item inside costs less than four bucks, and the oversize lollipop Sebastian wants—the one with the rainbow swirls—is five dollars. Yes, five whole dollars for a lollipop. Marin is well aware of how insane that is. In Sebastian’s defense, he wouldn’t even know such a thing existed if on previous trips she hadn’t dragged him into the candy store for the chocolates, which, in all honesty, are a goddamned delight. She tells herself that it’s okay to spoil him once in a while, and anyway, everything at La Douceur Parisienne is made with pure organic cane sugar and locally sourced honey. Derek, on the other hand, refuses to buy into his wife’s reasoning. He thinks she’s trying to justify turning their little boy into an uppity eater, same as she is.

But Derek’s not here. Derek’s somewhere on First Avenue, enjoying a beer in a sports pub and watching the Huskies play, while Marin handles the last of the shopping with their rapidly tiring fouryear-old. Her pocket vibrates. The market is too loud for her to hear her phone, but she can feel it, and she lets go of her son’s hand to reach for it. Maybe it’s Derek and the game’s over already. She checks the call display; it’s not her husband. The last thing she wants to do is chat, but it’s Sal. She can’t not pick up. “Bash, stay close,” she tells her son as she hits Accept on her phone. “Hey there.

” She cradles the phone between her shoulder and ear, thinking about how great it would be to have AirPods for moments like this, then remembers she doesn’t want to be one of those asshole moms walking around wearing AirPods. “Everything okay? How’s your mother?” She grabs Sebastian’s hand again, listening as her oldest friend recounts his stressful morning. Sal’s mother is recovering from hip surgery. Someone bumps into her, knocking her purse and tote bag off her shoulder. She gives their back a dirty look as they pass without apologizing. Tourists. “Mommy, stop talking.” Sebastian tugs her hand, his voice whiny again. “You said lollipop. The big one.

With the swirls.” “Bash, what did I say? You have to wait. We have other things to do first.” To her phone, Marin says, “Sal, sorry, can I call you back a bit later? We’re at the market and it’s insane in here.” She sticks the phone back her in pocket and reminds Sebastian again of their deal. The deal thing is relatively new for both of them, having begun when he started refusing baths a couple of months ago. “If you take a bath, we’ll read an extra book at bedtime,” she’d said, and the negotiation worked like a charm. It ended up being a win for both of them. Bath times now go more smoothly, and afterward, with his sweet-scented hair resting against her cheek, she reads aloud favorites from her own childhood. Curious George and Goodnight Moon are always in the rotation.

The bedtime ritual is her favorite, and she’s dreading the day when cuddles will be refused and her son will prefer to read his own books in bed by himself. For now, though, Sebastian is quiet when she suggests he might not get a lollipop at all if he whines one more time. She’s as tired and hot as Bash is, and also hungry and severely undercaffeinated. Sugar—and coffee—will have to wait. They’re meeting Derek at the world’s oldest Starbucks, which is right beside the candy store, but there are no treats for either of them until the last of the shopping is done. The last gift on her list is for Sadie, the manager of Marin’s downtown salon. She’s six months pregnant and hinting that she might quit work to be a stay-at-home mom. While Marin respects any woman’s choice to do what’s best for herself and her family, she would really hate to lose her. Sadie had mentioned seeing a first edition of Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Benjamin Bunny in the vintage bookstore on the market’s lower level. If it’s still there, Marin will buy it for her.

She’s been a valuable employee for ten years, and she deserves something extra special. Also, maybe it will remind Sadie how much she loves her boss—and her job—and she’ll choose to come back after her maternity leave. Sebastian yanks again, but Marin holds on firmly to his hand and directs him into the bookstore, where she’s relieved to learn they still have the Potter first edition. She manages to slip a couple of Franklin the Turtle books onto the counter as she’s paying. As they head back to the upper level, her phone vibrates again. A text, this time. Game’s over. It’s Derek, thank God. She could use the extra hands. Heading your way.

Where you guys at? She feels Sebastian’s sticky little hand slip out of hers. It’s okay; she needs both hands to text back. In any case, her little boy is right beside her, keeping up with her brisk stride for once, his arm pressing against her leg as they head at a decidedly quicker pace out onto the street toward the candy store. A promise is a promise, though she can admit that the thought of a chocolate raspberry truffle melting in her mouth makes it easier to make good on her word. Heading to the fancy candy store, she texts back. And then Starbucks. Want anything? Tacos, her husband replies. I’m starving. Meet you at the food trucks instead? Marin grimaces. She’s not a fan of those food truck tacos, or street food of any kind.

Last time she ate a taco here, she got sick. No bueno, she types. Why don’t we stop at Fénix and grab a couple of pulled pork sandwiches on the way home? Much better meat. Hungry NOW, Derek replies. Need something to tide me over. And baby, I’ll give you better meat later tonight, if you’re good. She rolls her eyes. She has friends who complain their husbands never flirt with them anymore. Hers never stops. Fine.

Get your greasy taco, but you owe me, big guy. Okay good because I’m already in line. His reply comes with a winking emoji. Meet you in a few. I’ll get Bash a churro. She’s about to veto the fried dessert when it occurs to her that she can no longer feel Sebastian against her leg. She looks up from her phone, adjusting the bag that’s getting heavier by the minute. Then she looks down again, and around. “Bash? Sebastian?” He’s nowhere near her. On reflex she stops walking, causing someone to run into her from behind.

“I hate it when people just stop,” the man mutters to his companion, making his way around her with a huff louder than it needs to be. She doesn’t care. She can’t see her son anymore, and she’s entering panic mode. Craning her neck, she peers through the throngs of locals and tourists, who all seem to be moving through the market in packs. Sebastian can’t have gone far. Her eyes dart everywhere, searching for any glimpse of her little boy with his dark hair, so similar in color and texture to her own. He’s wearing a brownand-white reindeer sweater, a handknit gift from a longtime client of the salon, which Sebastian loves so much he’s insisted on wearing it nearly every day this past week. It looks adorable on him, with cute little ears made of faux fur that stick out above the buttons for the eyes and nose. She can’t spot him anywhere. No reindeer.

No Sebastian. She pushes more aggressively through the crowd, spinning in different directions, feeling weighed down by her purse and their coats and the overstuffed shopping tote. She calls out his name. “Sebastian! Sebastian!” Other market patrons are beginning to notice, but most don’t do anything other than offer a quick glance in her direction as they continue on their way. The market is extra crowded, so loud she can barely hear herself think. She unwittingly migrates toward the seafood counter, where three burly fishermen dressed in bloodstained overalls are bantering back and forth to the delight of the crowd gathered to watch them toss fresh salmon at each other like footballs. “Sebastian!” She’s reached full-blown panic. In her hand, her phone vibrates. It’s Derek with another text; he’s about to order at the food truck, and he wants to know one final time if she wants anything. The text is unreasonably annoying.

She doesn’t want a fucking taco, she wants her son. “Sebastian!” she shrieks at the top of her lungs. She’s gone way past panic mode and is nearing hysteria, and she’s sure she’s starting to look crazy because people are now watching her with equal parts concern and fear. An older woman with coiffed silver hair approaches her. “Ma’am, can I help you? Did you lose your child?” “Yes, he’s four and he’s this tall with brown hair wearing a reindeer sweater his name is Sebastian.” It all comes out in one breathy gasp, and Marin needs to calm down, to breathe, because hysteria isn’t going to help. It’s probably silly to be panicking at all. They’re in a fancy, touristy farmers’ market, with security guards, and it’s nearly Christmas, and certainly nobody would take a child right before Christmas. Sebastian’s just wandered a bit, and in a minute someone will bring him back to her and she’ll sheepishly say thank you and then fiercely hug her kid. And then she’ll bend down and lecture him sternly about always staying where he can see her, because if she can’t see him then he can’t see her, and his little round face will crumple, because he always gets upset whenever she’s upset, no matter the reason.

Then she’ll pepper his face with kisses and explain that he always needs to stay close to her in public places, because it’s important to stay safe. She’ll reassure him again that everything’s fine, and there’ll be more kisses, and of course the lollipop, because she promised. And then later, when she recounts the story to Derek in the safety of their home, with Sebastian tucked into bed and sleeping, she’ll tell Derek how terrified—how utterly fucking terrified—she was for the few minutes she didn’t know where their son was. And then it will be her husband’s turn to reassure her, and he’ll remind her that everything turned out okay. Because it will be okay. Because they’ll find him. Of course they will. She punches her phone and calls Derek. The minute her husband picks up, she loses it. “Sebastian’s gone.

” Her voice is three times louder and a half octave higher than it normally is. “I’ve lost him.” Derek knows all her volumes, and he knows immediately that she isn’t joking. “What?” “I can’t find Sebastian!” “Where are you?” he asks, and she looks around, only to realize she’s migrated again, all the way past the fishermen. She’s now standing near the main entrance under the iconic neon-lit Public Market sign. “I’m by the pig,” she says, knowing he’ll understand her reference to the popular sculpture. “Don’t move, I’ll be right there.” The older lady who’s helping her has turned into three concerned ladies of various ages, along with a man—someone’s husband—who’s been sent to notify security. Derek shows up a couple of minutes later, out of breath because he ran all the way from the other side of the market. He takes one look at his wife, sans Sebastian, and his face freezes.

It’s almost as if he expected that everything would be resolved by the time he got there, and that his only job would be to comfort a scared, relieved wife and a scared, crying child, because comforting is something Derek is good at. But there’s no crying kid, and no relieved wife, and he’s momentarily paralyzed as to how to handle it. “What the hell, Marin?” her husband blurts. “What did you do?” It’s a poor choice of words that comes out sounding more accusing than he probably meant. His voice jabs, and she winces; she knows that question will haunt her forever. What did she do? She lost their son, that’s what she did. And she’s prepared to take all the blame and apologize to everyone a thousand times once they find him, because they will find him, they have to find him, and once they do, once he’s back and safe in her arms, she’ll feel like a prize idiot. She is desperately looking forward to feeling like an idiot. “He was just here, I let go of his hand to text you, and the next thing I know, he’s gone.” She’s all the way hysterical now, and people aren’t just staring, they’re stopping, offering help, asking for a description of the little boy who’s wandered away from his mother.

Two security guards dressed in dark gray uniforms approach with the helpful husband, who’s already explained that they’re looking for a small boy in a fox sweater. “Not fox,” Marin snaps angrily, but nobody seems to mind. “Reindeer. It’s a reindeer sweater, brown and white, with black buttons for the eyes—” “Do you have a picture of your son wearing it?” one of the security guards asks, and it’s all she can do not to shriek at him, because the question is so stupid. One, how many four-year-olds can there be in this market right now with the exact same handknit sweater? And two, of course she has a picture of her son, because it’s her son, and her phone is filled with them. They take the picture, forward it around. But they don’t find him. Ten minutes later, the police show up. The cops don’t find him, either. Two hours later, after Seattle PD has combed through all the security footage, she and Derek watch a computer monitor in shock and disbelief as a little boy dressed in a reindeer sweater is shown exiting the market holding the hand of somebody whose face is obscured.

They disappear through the doors closest to the underground parking lot, but that doesn’t mean they went to the parking lot. Their son is holding a lollipop in his free hand, and it’s swirly and colorful, the exact same lollipop his mother would have bought for him if she’d had the chance. The person who gave it to him is dressed head to toe in a Santa Claus costume, right down to the black boots, bushy eyebrows, and white beard. The camera angle makes it impossible to get a clear glimpse of the face. Nor is it possible to tell if it’s a man or a woman. Marin can’t process what she’s looking at, and she asks them to replay it, over and over again, squinting at the monitor as if by doing so she’ll be able to see more than what is actually there. The playback is jerky, staccato, more like a series of grainy stills playing in sequence than a video recording. Each time she sees it, the moment Sebastian disappears from view is terrifying. One second he’s there, his foot crossing over the threshold of the doorway. And then, in the very next frame, he’s gone.

There. Gone. Rewind. There. Gone. Behind her, Derek paces, speaking in heated tones to the security guards and the police, but she only catches certain words—kidnapped, stolen, AMBER Alert, FBI—above the noise of her own internal screaming. She can’t seem to accept that this really happened. It seems like it’s happening to someone else. It seems like something out of a movie. Someone dressed as Santa Claus took her son.

Deliberately. Purposefully. While the security footage is black-and-white and fuzzy, it’s clear Sebastian wasn’t coerced. He didn’t seem frightened. His face was just fine, because he had a five-dollar lollipop in one hand and Santa in the other. The ladies working at La Douceur Parisienne checked their computer and confirmed they’d sold seven lollipops that day, but they don’t remember any customers dressed as Santa, and there are no security cameras inside their tiny store. There’s only one CCTV camera across the street from the underground parking garage that Sebastian and his captor are thought to have entered, but because of the angle, the camera only catches a distant side view of the cars exiting the garage; no license plates are visible. Fifty-four vehicles exited in the hour after Sebastian was taken, and the police can’t trace any of them. The time stamp on the video footage they do have shows that Sebastian and his kidnapper exited the market a mere four minutes after his mother realized he was no longer with her. The Pike Place security guards hadn’t even been notified at that point.

Four minutes. That’s all it took to steal a child. A lollipop, a Santa suit, and two hundred forty seconds.

.

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