When my son and husband channel their inner 70-year-old and head to the golf course, my daughters and I use our girls’ only time to do fun stuff. We go to the movies, visit with friends, and enjoy shopping sprees at Target.
To my husband who’s reading this: calm down–I used our Red Card so it’s like we got everything for free…basically.
Anyway, the girls and I have been to Target many times without incident, unless you count obscene overspending an incident, but hadn’t ventured out since I’d learned of terrifying attempted child lurings in our area. Apparently, some sick assholes were following children in random stores, taking their pictures, and then sending said pictures to other sick assholes who want to BUY THE CHILDREN. This was happening right under parents’ noses! I cannot. I won’t even get into the rest, but let’s just say I was extra super hyper vigilant during our last Target trip.
I forced my four-year-old and her chunky thighs into the cart for which she is clearly too big, and demanded my seven-year-old keep one hand on the cart at all times. I, of course, would be pushing the cart, so in my mind, we were all connected. That was Plan A; Plan B was shoving both girls back inside my uterus. MOMMY WILL KEEP YOU SAFE!
We were trying on crazy sunglasses when I smelled her.
Wearing huge white frames a la old Hollywood, I turned to face a woman who probably wasn’t more than sixty-years-old, but life had weathered her pretty good. Her wrinkles were deep, eyes tired, and 100-proof liquor seemed to be oozing from her pores. Instinctively, I backed away.
“Are ya’ll school shopping?” she slurred.
“Just some fun shopping today,” I answered as she took a step toward us.
I replaced all the sunglasses, gave my older daughter the “put your hand on the cart” look, and we began rolling away.
“Alrighty,” I waved over my shoulder, “Have a great day!”
But she followed us. Closely.
No more than three steps behind me, her breath was on my back. She was waaaaay too close for comfort, and while I mentally prepared myself to fight this woman (that’s normal, right?!), I noticed she was still talking.
“I’m from Texas. We love pink in Texas! It’s hot, but so nice. Are you Steelers fans? I love the Steelers even though I’m from Texas.”
Completely oblivious we were attempting to lose her in the underwear aisle, she quickened her pace to keep up.
The aisle became more narrow which forced my older daughter to walk in front of our cart rather than beside it, putting her out of arm’s length for me. It freaked me out more than it should have, but I just kept replaying the scary luring stories in my head. Surely, Drunky McDrunkerson from Texas wasn’t capable of snatching up my 65-pound kid, but what if she were merely the decoy?
Thank you, America, for forcing parents to think these thoughts.
I felt like a wild animal being backed into a corner, scared and panicked. I abruptly stopped walking, pulled my seven-year-old to my side, and stomped one foot on the wheel of my cart as though bravado were a shield. I turned to face the woman who was, no joke, mere inches from my face. As I readied myself to take her down, she began complimenting my girls.
“Look at these beauties! Enjoy them while you can–they don’t stay this young!”
Blahblahblah. My eyes darted around, searching out something I could use to defend ourselves against an impending attack. “That mannequin will do,” I decided.
At no point did I feel like I was being unreasonable. The terror was real. I was sweating. My armpits were drenched, my girls silently watching me.
Then Texas reached into her purse.
“This is it,” I wiped the sweat from my upper lip. “This is how we die.”
“Okay,” I said aloud, “Have a great day and enjoy Pittsburgh!” I yanked my older daughter’s arm and began pushing the cart at about 55 MPH, aiming to get into the main aisle of the store then make a run for it.
At one point she was so close she stepped on the back of my flip-flop. She reached out and touched my arm, willing me to turn to her. My brain stopped working and I gave her what she wanted: I came face to face with her to find her arm outstretched, fist full of cash.
“Take this,” she urged.
Still in unreasonable panic mode, my initial reaction wasn’t that of gratitude or even confusion: I was furious, certain she was setting us up. She was going to force money on us under the guise of kind old lady generosity, and then tell store security I robbed her. That would be the big decoy and how her thugs waiting outside in the parking lot would steal my children.
So…not my finest moment?
I absolutely refused what appeared to be at least $300 in cash.
“I cannot take that. Thank you, but no.”
She tried pushing the crumbled paper bills into my hands, which were still tightly grasping the cart. I wouldn’t let go and again declined the offer. “I appreciate it, but no thank you.” She was looking right at me. Without taking her eyes off me, she put some of the bills back into her purse, assuming if she offered less, I would take it. My eyes locked with hers. It was a staring contest now. Still, I said no.
Without breaking eye contact, she took a single bill and, in what felt like slow motion, stuffed it into my four-year-old’s tiny hand, mumbling, “Buy yourself some toys.”
I lost the staring contest, turning attention to my pre-schooler who was waving a fifty dollar bill around like she had just won the lottery. “You will not keep that!” I scolded. Texas covered my child’s hand with her own in a paper-covers-rock kind of way, her thin, crepe skin and rigid fingers a stark contrast to my daughter’s soft, supple hands.
Still looking at me intently, I noticed her tears. “You enjoy them,” she instructed, lip quivering, nodding at my girls. “Enjoy them.”
It was in that moment I finally realized she meant us no harm. There was a pain about her that spoke volumes and though I can venture a guess, I won’t presume to know her story.
She backed away, never breaking eye contact with me, seemingly afraid I would ruin the moment. She zipped her purse without looking at it and made her way into the open aisle before turning from us, and then disappeared into the crowd of other shoppers.
I tried like crazy to find her in the store, to return her money, but didn’t succeed. I told my girls we should pay it forward and give someone else the money, but then felt guilty for not using it in the way Texas intended: “Enjoy them.”
I looked at my girls, over the moon excited because THAT LADY JUST GAVE US MONEY FOR TOYS!!!, so I let them each pick out something small, still wrestling with the right thing to do. When we got to the check-out, I fully expected someone to start yelling and pointing, accusing me of stealing from the older woman, so I left the fifty dollar bill in my back pocket and paid for our purchases with a credit card.
I didn’t exhale until we were belted in our car, pulling away from the store.
It was, by far, one of the strangest experiences of my life, and though I was beyond grateful it had a happy ending, I couldn’t shake a feeling of sadness. Maybe Texas was once fortunate to have had two daughters with whom she’d tried on silly sunglasses. Maybe she wasn’t. But one thing was clear: I was meant to enjoy my girls that day, so I asked them what we should do with the money. They wanted chocolate milk for lunch, and asked if they could open their toys at a restaurant. Easy enough.
We stopped at a little local place, ordered three chocolate milks, and I watched as they fawned over their new things. I watched them for a long time. We chatted about our favorite songs from The Greatest Showman, how we miss our dog, Bella, and how Daddy’s almond milk is “so gross, it shouldn’t even be called milk because everybody knows milk comes from cows, not NUTS!” It was a heart-filling afternoon, one I don’t know I would’ve taken the time to enjoy had it not been for Texas.
Our waitress got a really nice tip, too.
Wow, I feel like I went through every emotion you went through in this story; your writing is superb! It’s so hard – that warring in your heart between wanting to keep yourself and your family safe from the weird and scary people that are out there but also to show compassion and believe the best about people too. I definitely know I don’t have it figured out, but I’m glad that Texas was able to give you that sweet time with your children. <3
Wow I wasn’t expecting that; pulled my heart strings a bit!