On Sunday, I brought J and two of her friends to Great Escape Fright Fest as part of her birthday celebration. She’d rejected the idea of a party this year because she is friendly with several different little crowds, and trying to do something with everyone would be way too awkward. So instead she planned a nature outing with one special friend (which didn’t quite work out, but that’s another story), and a trip to Great Escape with two others. M’s been doing an annual Great Escape Fright Fest outing with a group of friends for years now, and happily for me, the extent of my involvement in those trips has been pretty much just reminding her to wear a sweatshirt and pressing some cash on her as she heads outside to get into somebody else’s van. Honestly? That’s kinda the way I like it. But meanwhile, J had spent years watching M run off to have fun with her friends, and now that she’s in middle school, Her Time Has Come.
You know I don’t love driving or finding my way around anywhere, and I had the vague notion that Fright Fest would be, you know, scary, and I was a little worried that one of the girls was going to just find it too scary and we’d have to abort the mission and go out to an early dinner. It turns out the Fright Fest wasn’t super-scary. We went last Sunday, when it was open late before Columbus Day, so possibly it would have been a bit harsher on a Friday night. They make the park mild during the day, then turn up the scariness as it gets dark, but even though we stayed until closing, I think we only saw three different spooky characters roaming free. There were places we could have sought out more scariness, but the girls opted out of going through the haunted house, for example. Which I thought was a little baffling, but I didn’t want to peer-pressure anybody into something that was going to freak them out. So: not too scary.
What was terrifying is that I lost the children.
Oh, yes I did.
Here’s the deal: I knew J wanted a little space. She’s 12, yo. So the plan was that I would trail them about ten feet behind as they walked around, and when they’d settle on a ride, I’d plant myself near the ride’s exit to wait for them. I’d brought along a book and actually got some reading done. In return, the girls were supposed to check back for me periodically as they walked around and look for me when they exited each ride. In practice, I ended up stepping in a few times to help them navigate or decide something. Each time I did, I got the idea that J found it irritating and her two friends were happy to have the guidance. But perhaps that was just my impression. In any case, the system worked well for, oh, about three hours.
And then it didn’t.
At dusk, the girls headed to the Igloo, which tends to have one of the shorter lines in the park. We had just been talking, actually, and so I was with them when they said that they were going to ride the Igloo, and we arrived to see a not-too-terrible line, and the girls headed for it while I leaned against something and listlessly pulled out my phone. Almost immediately, the special-for-Halloween-atmosphere fog machine puffed out a big giant cloud of fog. Which I resented because it pretty much entirely blocked my view of the Igloo line. But I just stood there because they were in line and they weren’t going anywhere.
What I didn’t know is that the girls headed to the Igloo line and decided that it was too long and immediately turned away and headed to a different ride altogether. Did any of these children look back at me or, indeed, think about me in any way? No, they did not. In fact, they went to a ride and rode on it before realizing that their faithful shadow had disappeared.
Meanwhile, as the faux-fog cleared, I realized that I couldn’t see them. Had they gotten onto the ride already? It seemed pretty fast, but the line hadn’t been long, and a bunch of people had already exited. So I waited, but I was nervous. Then I walked over to the swings ride, which was really very close by. Here the line was practically non-existent, but the swings weren’t spinning. Instead, the ride operators were doing an endless seat belt check, and I could only see about half of the swings from outside the barriers. At this point I was pacing between the Igloo and the swings, but it wasn’t looking good.
Time passed. I would walk a little way in one or another direction, but I’d always circle back to the Igloo ride, because wouldn’t the girls remember that that’s where they’d last seen me? They were supposed to go back to where they last saw me. And meanwhile it was getting darker and darker.
And here’s the thing: I wasn’t afraid that they were in actual danger. I didn’t think that a band of abductors was hustling them out of the park grounds or that they’d wandered away and fallen into a well or something. But I was afraid that they were afraid. What if someone was crying or if J felt like the day was ruined or if a zombie scared one of them out of their wits or if the girls’ parents reported me to CPS? So it didn’t take long before I went into DEFCON Freakout mode and found someone from the park and got them to call a security guard.
When the security guard arrived I almost laughed, because he looked like he was probably still in high school. I was instantly thankful that this wasn’t an actual emergency. But he was pleasant enough and I pretty much bossed him around like I was his mother. I described the girls, especially one who was wearing a more distinctive and recognizable outfit, then gave him my cellphone number so that he or any of the other security guards could call me when they spotted their quarry. Then we split up to hunt.
My phone rang only about five minutes later. It was J. She described where she was and stayed on the phone while I confirmed and reconfirmed that I understood exactly where she was and could locate it on my now creased and stress-sweaty park map. Finally, I allowed her to hang up, and I raced over to them. Hooray! Everyone was pretty calm but glad to see each other. I think it helped that the girls hadn’t noticed that we were separated for most of the time that we were separated.
As we caught up with each other, I asked if the girls had been worried when the security guard stopped them. What security guard? they asked. Turns out that those smarty-pants girls had asked a mom with little kids if they could borrow her cell phone to call me. Of course they did. These are clever, grown-up girls. So then, of course, I had to make sure the park people told the security guards we were all set, and sure enough Eddie-Haskell-with-a-badge happened by just at that moment and seemed quite relieved to have the situation resolved. We headed to the girls’ next ride, where I waited until they were strapped into something to pull out my phone and text the anonymous mom a thank you for reuniting us.
By the time that ride was over it was full-on dark and drizzling and the park was closing. Not a minute too soon.