Chic-Fil-A's sweet tea is a titan amongst modern beverages. For whatever reason I can't stop drinking it. Perhaps it's the balance between the sugar and tea itself. It may be the type of tea leaves that they use (for all I know it's Lipton), or it could be a psychological thing brought about by the fact that everything else at Chic-Fil-A is amazing. I don't know, and I don't care. I love it.
It was this undying and ever encroaching love that compelled me to stay at the mall for an extra thirty minutes after getting off of work last week. My shift had ended, but I braved the battlefield that was the foot-traffic lanes and escalators in order to refill my Large-size cup at the food court.
"It's worth it," I told myself.
If you've ever been to the mall in December then I don't need to describe the atmosphere to you.
The line to see Santa was longer than any line should be allowed to be. The crowd was thick to the degree that actual walking was impossible. You instead shuffled along at a maddeningly slow pace, unnatural and dragging enough that a Zombie could out run you. And I don't mean the 28 Days Later, "HOLY, THEY'RE SO FAST," zombies, either. I'm talking Vincent Price in The Last Man On Earth zombies. Though, really, they were more like vampires, I guess. Anyway.
After retrieving my Holy Grail I retraced my steps. Made my way back through the crowds to the opposite end of the mall, towards the exit closest to my car.
As I was descending the escalator, unable to simply walk down it as I normally would, I heard what is quite possibly, in my mind, the most irritating sound in the world - a young child screaming. And I don't mean, "Mommy, I want [insert item]" screaming. I'm talking blood curdling, it's-the-end-of-the-world-and-this-kid-was-the-first-one-to-notice screaming.
Due to the view provided me by the escalator, and the slow pace at which I was moving towards the ground, I had plenty of time to locate the source of the noise. It wasn't hard, given the volume and its proximity to me.
It was a young boy, four, maybe five years old. He had stubbornly planted himself in the middle of the crowd, and sat down. Probably mad about something, I decided.
Now keep it mind, it's crowded as all get out. I could just barely see him from atop the escalator. Had I been on the ground, I wouldn't have been able to.
Next to him was a girl, probably ten or twelve years old. From the color of her hair and the look of her facial features, I assumed she was his sister. She had him by the hand, seemed to be trying to get him to stand up.
"Well that's good," I thought, "he'll be fine."
But then, as I neared the ground and the pair began to sink out of my view, she did something strange; she let go.
Not only did she let go, dropping his hand as if it were a hot iron, she also walked away. Turned her back on the little guy and took off. It wasn't so much that she seemed to be trying to get away from him - more that she had better things to due than ensure the safety of her little brother. At least, that's how it looked to me.
I was annoyed, but not surprised. I guess that's something that can be expected of a ten-to-twelve year old, in that situation. She was probably embarrassed, and the child WAS being obnoxious. Surely he'd have a parent or grandparent, or another sibling standing by waiting to pick him up. I mean, that's the way things are supposed to work, right?
Since I was going in that direction anyway, I made it a point to walk to where I had last seen the kid. Figured I'd make sure everything was cool. I expected to see him standing up, with a grownup by the hand.
He was still there. Still sitting down.
I looked around, sure that there must be a flustered parent standing next to him, or at least making their way back through the crowd to retrieve him. There was no one.
The crowd had begun to thin. As I came within arm's reach of the boy I could see that he was entirely, and utterly, alone. No one was standing near him, no one was coming back for him. Whoever was responsible for him, be it the little girl I'd seen moments before or some unseen entity yet to reveal theirself, they were no where to be found.
A number of options flashed through my mind as I took my final steps towards the kid. I could ask him where his parents were, and try to take him there. I could stand and wait and hope they came back. I could call mall security and let them handle it.
I settled on options two and three. Figured I'd wait with him until one of the Allied Barton personnel showed up and then be on my merry way. Before I even had a chance to retrieve my phone, however, something interesting happened.
Apparently I wasn't the only one who heard the kid scream. Three other people had stopped as well, and reached the child at roughly the same time I did. An elderly woman stooped down next to the boy, setting her shopping bags down and placing a hand on his shoulder. She asked where his mommy was, if he was okay. It was then that I noticed the bruise below the kid's right eye, and she asked him about that as well. Another woman stood just behind her, and was leaning forward, listening attentively.
A middle aged man, probably in his mid forties came up alongside me, saying that he had seen the boy's sister, and described her flight as I had witnessed it. He pointed in the direction she had gone, saying,
"She went in there," referencing one of the nearby storefronts. One of the women nodded and said,
"I saw her too."
I offered, "I have Mall Security's number." as I fished out my phone. One of the other three nodded in agreement with my implied course of action, continuing to express their outrage concerning the boy's sister.
As I began to scroll through my contacts, frantically trying to find the I's for, "Ingram Mall Security", the man beside me lost his cool and said, "I saw where they went, I'm going to get them." and began to stalk towards the storefront he'd indicated a few moments prior. This is something I want to elaborate upon.
I don't mean to be unkind or judgmental, but this guy wasn't exactly in the best shape. He was a bigger guy, and seemed to have some trouble walking. Perhaps due to an old injury, or maybe he was sore from enduring the mall all day. In either hand he clutched multiple shopping bags from several stores. He'd clearly been there for awhile, and had spent at least a few hours shopping. The store he was en route to was several meters away - a distance perhaps equivalent to the width of a street in your average suburban neighborhood.
He was halfway between our little group and the store, when from it emerged the girl I'd seen from atop the escalator. Behind her was an older woman, late fifties, early sixties, also armed with shopping bags, a black purse slung over her shoulder. It should be noted that she carried only two bags, and small ones at that.
By this point I'm thinking, "all right, this is okay. She's just realized, in utter shock and horror, that her grandchild is missing, and she's coming back for him. She's still no legal guardian of the year, but she's coming to get him."
But there's still something wrong, and all four of us see it.
She's laughing. She's not crying, not angry, frustrated, or worried. She's laughing. She thinks this is hilarious. When the gentlemen who took it upon himself to retrieve her says, "Ma'am, you left him all by himself. He has a bruise on his eye. It looks like someone hit him.", She laughs. Maybe she knew something I didn't, but this is the scenario as I saw it, and as my ad hoc companions saw it:
Little boy. Three, four, possibly five years old. Left sitting alone, on the floor, crying, in the middle of a crowd, in the middle of one of the busiest shopping days of the year, in a mall. No parent, grandparent, or sibling anywhere in sight. We witnessed him being abandoned, saw the casual manner with which his sister stranded him on the linoleum. Kids get abducted all the time, and this is the ideal scenario for anyone looking to snatch a child with brown hair and blue eyes. They could have picked him up and made for the exit, and nobody would have thought anything of the fact that he was crying and screaming bloody murder - he'd been doing that already. Add to that the fact that he had a fresh bruise on his face, and then when Granny finally shows up to reclaim him, she thinks it's all a big joke.
My point here is not to admonish the lack of responsibility that I'm sure we've all noticed in a lot of modern parents. I'm not here to complain about the fact that people don't look out for their kids like they should.
My point, and the thing that I really want to emphasize, is that four strangers took the time out of their busy, hectic, chaotic day at the mall to stop and form a protective cluster around a scared little boy. By the time we all stopped walking and began to assess the situation, the kid was surrounded on all sides. No one was going to snatch him or trip over him, and he wasn't going to panic and take off into the crowd. He was, at least at that moment, safe.
It's a trait I think we all share; the protector's instinct. The thing inside of you that makes you get out of bed in the middle of the night to investigate the noise you heard coming from the living room. The thing that compels you to stop and help someone change a flat tire. The urge you feel to verbally destroy someone who you know has been gossiping about your best friend.
The innate, ingrained desire to protect, to take care of the people you care about and, some times, people you don't even know. Have you ever seen that video of the guy standing outside the Whitehouse, shooting at it with an assault rifle or something, and then out of nowhere this guy in a cowboy hat tackles him to the ground? Ever thought about the fact that we have volunteer firefighters and paramedics in this country? Volunteers.
People like to - no, need to - take care of each other. At least, that's what I think.
As disappointing as it was to see someone so utterly unconcerned for their child's safety, the reassurance I felt from seeing four strangers wordlessly unite towards a common goal was overwhelming. There was no prior meeting, no plan of attack, no, "Hi, I'm Aaron, wanna help me watch out for this kid?". We just did it. And the thing that's really great about it, is that we're not saints. We're just regular people, and I like to believe that what happened that night is indicative of humanity as a species. A lot of us - say, four out of five, as was the case - give a damn about what happens to everybody else, and think about what could go wrong if nobody does anything about it.
I walked away, sweet tea in hand, with a phrase on my lips, and uttered it to myself as I exited the mall and was greeted by the cold night air,
"Maybe we do have a chance."