NEW YORK, NEW YORK
Jasmine scooped her toddler into her arms. “You do love your mama, don’t you?” She laughed.
Mae Frances rolled her eyes as Jasmine smothered her son’s cheeks with kisses.
“Don’t make no kind of sense, Jasmine Larson,” her best friend said. “Teaching that baby to say that.”
“What’s wrong with him loving his mama?” But before Mae Frances could answer, Jasmine stood straight up and scanned the crowd that packed the new mall. In just seconds, her gaze locked on her daughter, crouched in front of the pet store window. “Jacqueline!”
The girl’s brown curls bounced when she jumped up, startled, and skipped back to Jasmine and Mae Frances.
With a firm hand, Jasmine grasped her daughter’s wrist. “I told you to stay where Nama and I could see you.”
Jacqueline bowed her head. “But Mama,” she sighed, “I could see you.”
“Well, I couldn’t see you, so why don’t you sit down for a moment and cool off,” Jasmine said as she wiped the thin line of perspiration that dampened her daughter’s hairline.
“I’m not hot,” Jacqueline protested. It was the look on her mother’s face that made Jacqueline wiggle onto the bench next to Mae Frances. With her eyes on Jasmine, she buried her head on the shoulder of the woman who, years before, had been nothing more than a friend of the family, but was now so close to the Bushes that Jacqueline thought of her as her grandmother. When Mae Frances put her arms around Jacqueline, the girl glared at Jasmine as if she never planned to love her again.
Jasmine shook her head, then her eyes widened when her rambunctious daughter rolled her eyes.
No, she didn’t.
Jacqueline had never done that before, and Jasmine opened her mouth to scold her, then just as quickly changed her mind. When her daughter peeked back at her, Jasmine rolled her eyes. Jacqueline giggled, and Jasmine laughed, too. But when Jacqueline moved to get up again, Jasmine stared her back down.
Jacqueline pouted and bounced hard against the back of the bench, but the silent tantrum didn’t faze Jasmine. She planned to let her four-year-old (or fourteen-year-old, depending on the day) sit and think about how she’d run off.
“Are you ready to go home?” Mae Frances grumbled.
As Christmas Muzak piped through speakers above, Jasmine realized this trip to the mall wasn’t the best idea she’d ever had. But how could she have missed this day? The new Harlem mall had been open for only two weeks, and this was the first big shopping day of the season; she had to make her own contribution to Black Friday.
Now as she looked at Mae Frances and Jacqueline—a set of ornery twins, with their arms folded and their lips poked out—she wished she had thought this all the way through. Because if she had, she would have come alone.
“I wanna go home, too!” Jacqueline exclaimed, as if she was in charge of something.
Looking at her son, Jasmine shook her head. “You don’t want to go home, do you, Zaya?” she asked, calling him by the name that Jacqueline had given to him two years ago when he had been born. Hosea had been too difficult for her to say, and no one wanted to call him Junior.
“No, no, no!” Zaya followed his mother’s lead before he toddled over to his sister. “Yaki, Yaki, Yaki!” He called her by his own made-up name.
Mae Frances sucked her teeth and tightened the collar of the thirty-five-year-old mink that she loved. “Don’t make no kind of sense, the way you manipulate that boy.”
“He’s my baby. He’s supposed to be manipulated.”
“Get away from me, Zaya!” Jacqueline exclaimed, and pushed the toddler away.
“Don’t do that to your brother,” Jasmine scolded.
Jacqueline stood up, put one hand on her side as if she had hips, and, with the other, squeezed her nose. “He! Stinks!”
Jasmine sniffed, then hoisted her son up into her arms. “Your sister’s right.” She grabbed the diaper bag from the stroller and reached for Jacqueline’s hand. “Come on, we’ve got to change Zaya’s diaper.”
Jacqueline folded her arms and sat back down next to Mae Frances. “I don’t wanna go.” With a pout, she pointed toward the pet store. “I wanna see the puppies.”
“We’ll see the puppies after,” Jasmine said, still reaching for her daughter.
“Leave her with me.” Mae Frances put her arms around Jacqueline. “No need for her to have to go with you when I’m here.”
Jasmine’s hesitation waned after just a moment. “Stay right there next to Nama,” she demanded sternly. “And then we’ll go see the puppies, okay?”
Jacqueline nodded as she scooted back on the bench. With wide eyes and an even wider smile, she blew Jasmine a kiss. “I love you, Mama.”
Jasmine laughed. Her precious little girl—always the drama queen.
Inside the restroom, Jasmine twisted through the long line of waiting women, and as she made her way to the changing station, her cell phone rang. But just as she pulled her phone from her bag, it stopped.
She glanced at the screen. “That was your daddy,” she told her son as she laid him on his back.
He giggled and reached for her cell.
“No,” she said, taking it from his grasp.
His laughter stopped. His bottom lip trembled. His body began to shake. And before the first shriek came, the phone was back in Zaya’s hands.
“Love Mama,” Zaya cooed as he pushed buttons.
Jasmine laughed. God had blessed her with a drama queen and a drama king.
That thought made her pause in wonder. Who would have ever thought that she—Jasmine Cox Larson Bush—would end up in this place? She—the ex-stripper, ex–man stealer, ex-liar, cheater, thief. The jealous girl who’d done everything she could to sabotage the success of her best friend, Kyla. The unsatisfied wife who’d badgered her first husband until he’d finally left her. The lonely woman who lived to tear husbands away from their wives. There was hardly a sin that she hadn’t committed. But that life, those abominations, were far behind her.
Today, she was a proud wife and mother—the first lady of one of the most influential churches in the city. Today, her life was filled with leisure—it was difficult to call the work she did as first lady and the time she spent with the Young Adults Ministry a job. Today, each of her needs and every one of her desires were met. And she had a Central Park South apartment, a closet full of endless racks of designer clothes, and an upcoming New Year’s family vacation in Cannes to prove it.
This life was God’s reward for her having turned away from her transgressions. As she glanced at her reflection in the mirror, her lips spread into a slow smile. Bountiful blessings. All she could say was, “Thank you, Father.”
Seconds later, Zaya was back on her hip, her cell was back in her bag, and she was back in the mall. But then, her steps became measured as she moved toward Mae Frances. Her friend’s head was down as she pushed buttons on her cell.
Jasmine’s voice was as deep as her frown as she yelled, “Mae Frances?”
She looked up. “Did you just call me?”
Jasmine let the diaper bag slip down her arm. “Where’s Jacquie?”
Mae Frances waved her hands. “She’s right over there. With the puppies. Did you just call me?”
Before Mae Frances had finished, Jasmine’s eyes were searching the crowd. With Zaya still in her arms, she pushed through the mass of men and women, arms filled with packages, children close at their sides.
“Where’s Jacquie?” The question trembled from her lips to a young boy in front of the pet store. “The little girl who was here—where is she?”
His face was pressed against the glass as he answered, “She’s gone.”
There was no time to question him further. A woman, two giant steps away, grabbed the boy’s hand.
“Didn’t I tell you not to talk to strangers?” the woman admonished as she dragged the boy from the window.
Jasmine’s eyes were wide as she spun around, clutching Zaya to her chest, searching the space around her. It had been only a minute, but terror was already crawling up and down her skin.
“Jacquie!” she screamed through the holiday din.
She tried to keep herself in check as she gripped Zaya and barged through the pet store’s doors. The stench of the animals did nothing to cover the fear that was already surging from her pores.
“Jacquie!” she shouted. She kept telling herself that this was nothing: Jacqueline had just wandered off.
Pressing up one aisle, then rushing down the next, she hunted through the crowd.
“Jacquie!” she yelled.
Jasmine grabbed a pink-apron-wearing teenager who was crouched down in front of the cages. “Please,” she said to the young man, obviously one of the store’s employees. “Have you seen my daughter?”
The blond spiked-hair boy glanced at Jasmine and then looked around the store, his expression telling Jasmine that her question didn’t make much sense to him. “There’ve been a lot of kids here today,” he answered before he returned to feeding the kittens.
“Jacquie!” she screamed one last time as she rushed back through the doors.
Outside, in the middle of the passing crowd, Jasmine turned slowly, exploring each face, searching every space.
Her distress went unnoticed; the holiday shoppers were buried under their own cares.
“Jacquie!” Now her heart banged against her chest.
Both she and Zaya were crying by the time she hurried back to the bench. In the eyes of the woman she called her friend, Jasmine saw the same unadulterated horror that was in her heart.
“Where’s Jacquie?” she screamed at Mae Frances.
Mae Frances shook her head. “She . . . she was . . . right there,” she cried as she pointed back to the store.
But Jasmine didn’t bother to turn around. She didn’t need to look at the store or anywhere else in the mall. Because in the space inside of her where truth lay, she knew.
As “Joy to the World” squeaked out from the speakers above, Jasmine knew that her daughter was gone.
© 2010 Victoria Christopher Murray
PLEASE, GOD! PLEASE, GOD! PLEASE, God!
Jasmine clutched her now-sleeping son to her chest as she rocked back and forth on the bench.
Through eyes blurred with tears and terror, Jasmine glanced up and focused on the pair of blue-suited security guards.
“Your daughter is probably just lost,” the black security guard told her again. “Children wander off every day. We have officers searching the stores, but like I told you, it would be best if you came with us to the office.” His plea was the same as it had been just minutes ago. “It would be better to talk up there, away from this crowd.”
But just like the last time he’d said that, her head was shaking before he finished. “No,” Jasmine told him, her eyes still frantically scanning every passing face—as if the secret of her daughter’s disappearance was hidden inside someone’s expression. “I can’t . . . because when Jacquie comes back . . . this is where . . . she’ll look for me here.” She glanced at the store straight in front of her. “She’ll come back to see her mommy. And the puppies.”
Jasmine and the guards exchanged glances, but she was the first to turn away. She had to—she couldn’t bear to look into eyes that were filled with such sympathy.
A walkie-talkie crackled, and both of the guards turned away. Jasmine returned to her mantra, “Please, God! Please, God! Please, God!”
Over her shoulder, she heard soft sniffles, but she paid no attention to those cries. All she could think about were her babies—the one she held and the one that they had to find.
“Please, God. Please, God. Please, God.”
“Okay, roger that.” Looking at her with an even deeper sadness, the guard said, “Mrs. Bush . . .”
She squeezed her son tighter.
“It really would be best if we took you to the office.”
“Maybe that’s what we should do.”
For the first time since the guards had joined them, Jasmine turned to Mae Frances.
Tears had left streaks through the makeup that shellacked Mae Frances’s face. She said softly, “Let’s go upstairs, Jasmine. We have to do everything we can to help them find . . .”
The venom in Jasmine’s eyes pushed Mae Frances two steps back. But before Jasmine could spew the poison that was in her heart, she heard another voice.
She whipped around and collapsed right into the thick arms of her husband.
“Hosea,” she cried. “They took my baby!”
“I’m here now,” he whispered as he pulled her down onto the bench and held her as tight as he could with their son in between them. “So, tell me . . .” he said to his wife, but his eyes blinked between Mae Frances and the guards.
He spoke with the calm that Jasmine was used to, but in his eyes, she saw something she’d never seen before—not even when his father had been in a coma. Now she saw a new fear, a new horror. And that made her tremble more.
Placing his hands square on her shoulders, he asked, “What happened?”
The images scattered through her mind: Jacqueline in front of the store, Jacqueline blowing her a kiss, Jacqueline gone—and hysteria rose within her. All she wanted to do was scream, cry, pass out, and stay unconscious until her baby came home. But she had to stay strong to find her child.
“I went to the bathroom to change Zaya,” she began, giving Hosea more details now than when she’d called him twenty minutes before. “I left Jacquie with”—the name stuck in her throat—“Mae Frances. But when I came back—” Jasmine stopped. That was enough; he knew the rest.
“All right.” Hosea jumped up from the bench. “What’s being done to find my daughter?” he demanded of the guards.
“Everyone in security is on it, Mr. Bush.” This time, it was the white guard who spoke. “What we want to do now is take Mrs. Bush and Mrs. Van Dorn upstairs to our offices. To get a formal statement. But I want to assure you that lost children are always found.”
Hosea nodded. “What about tapes?” he asked. “The mall is filled with cameras, right? We’ll be able to see if she just wandered off.”
The guards nodded together. “The parking lots are covered, and we have a few throughout the mall. The stores are being contacted now, so that we can get their tapes.”
“Okay.” Hosea squared his shoulders and reached for Jasmine’s hand. Helping her up from the bench, he said, “Go to the security office. Give them everything they need.”
Again, she shook her head. “But suppose Jacquie comes back here?” she asked through fresh tears.
Hosea turned to the guards. “Can one of you stay?” It was a question that sounded more like a demand.
“Yeah, I can, but it doesn’t matter. We have guards throughout the whole mall. We’ll find her.”
Hosea added, “Okay, then can you call for someone to escort my wife to the office.” Before they responded, he explained, “I want to walk through the mall myself with one of you.”
For the first time since this began, Jasmine felt hope. Her husband was here, taking charge. He was such a man of God. Surely he was praying. And surely God heard his prayers doubly.
Hosea directed, “Nama, go with Jasmine.”
Jasmine opened her mouth to protest, but then she pressed her trembling lips together and willed herself not to say anything about cavorting with the enemy. She needed to help Hosea stay focused.
He lifted Zaya from her arms. The tears that came to her eyes were old and new as she watched her husband gently kiss their son’s forehead before he handed the little boy back to her. As a third guard joined them, Hosea hugged Jasmine.
In his arms, she didn’t notice the Christmas crowd, didn’t hear the Christmas music. Just imagined that in a few minutes, Hosea would come rushing into the security office carrying Jacqueline with him.
Then he pulled away and urged, “Go ahead. I’ll be back soon.”
She nodded and followed the security officer, keeping her eyes away from Mae Frances, who was several paces behind.
She held on to good thoughts: she and Zaya waiting—Hosea bursting through the door holding Jacqueline—the four Bushes reunited, never to think about these horrible minutes again.
Just before she stepped into the elevator, Jasmine looked over her shoulder to the place where she’d stood with Hosea just a minute ago. The last place where she’d seen her daughter.
He was gone.
Panic surged through her veins. But then she took a calming breath. Hosea was safe; he could take care of himself. And he would find Jacqueline.
As the elevator doors closed, she began her mantra again. This time, it was a duet. Because as she said, “Please, God. Please, God. Please, God,” behind her, Mae Frances joined her in that same song.
© 2010 Victoria Christopher Murray