The TSA line in Orlando snakes through mazed partitions, people tacking onto the back of the line in droves. That’s where we need to be, but Aubrey won’t abandon her Mickey Mouse balloon. On a bench in the atrium I suggest, ask, beg. But: No, Mama! Cheeks scarlet despite sunscreen globbed on hourly all three days we tromped around the most magical place on earth, Florida sun searing the near translucence she inherited from her father. Father I brought us here to learn how to live without after he made it clear he’s gone gone.
We’re dangerously close to missing our flight. I ask her for the balloon again, but she crosses her arms. I say, I’m gonna have to count to three. Her lip quivers. I don’t want to take anything from her, not right now. So I breathe and say, One more minute baby but then we gotta get on this plane and go home. She looks up at me, brown eyes wide and dark lashes slick with early tears, then pats my thigh three times slow. So she won’t see my face crumple, I hook my arm around her tiny shoulders and slide her across the bench, hold her against me. Her body feels so fragile, such a breakable little thing. I don’t want to go home either. Empty house, new life stretching unknown before us.
An older boy wails sharp and high into the huge bright space. Aubrey stares at him, then at the yellow smiley-face balloon above him drifting up up up until it bumps to a halt against the glass of the ceiling. She looks back at her own balloon, breathes slow three times like I’ve been teaching her. Between thumb and forefinger she pinches the silver ribbon looped loose around her wrist, slides it over her fist. She releases and watches Mickey float float float. Says: Byebye, Mickeyboy. Then, like nothing: Come on, Mama. Hurryhurry. Chin up, she marches forward. Does not wait for Mickey to nestle into an elbow of steel beams, third side of a grinning triangular huddle with Ariel and Elsa.
It’s becoming a pattern, apparently—my baby girl refusing to watch a man go. Angling away instead. Just like when he walked out, Aubrey slipping from the room before he could get out the front door. A coolness to her I’d not seen before. This time, again: Mama hurry. I follow her lead, fumbling our bags and boarding passes, daunted by my mystery child but not slipping into praise, not saying: So brave, babygirl.
Annie Frazier lives in North Carolina and works as a freelance editor and Fiction faculty member for Great Smokies Writing Program at UNC Asheville. Her fiction and poetry can be found in Appalachian Review, Paper Darts, Hypertrophic Literary, Longleaf Review, CHEAP POP, and elsewhere. Find her at anniefrazier.com and say hey on Twitter @anniefrazzr.