By: Maureen A. Miller


South Africa 1982

Mandy Newton clutched her stuffed bear, Alvin, to her chest and tipped her nose up to the two-inch gap in the back seat window. She wanted to climb up and poke her fingers out, but the safety belt restricted her. In this rental car she had the rare liberation of no car seat. Car seats were for babies. She was six years old now. Of course, her mother had cinched her so tight she could barely see out the window.

Scents of wild grass and musky animals slipped through that gap. She inched her head up to glimpse a sea of rolling yellow fields. South Africa. Bah, she wanted to see a zebra. Her parents promised to take her to the zoo before they returned to New York. In the front seat they were talking, and she heard her Daddy mention that they would be going home in two days. That was about all she heard. Their voices were low and the crunch of rocks beneath the car was loud. Like popcorn.

Something about her parent’s conversation made her uneasy, though. Their tone was deep, secretive. Big people talk, her Mommy would say.

Mandy looked at Alvin’s silly black nose and smiled. He always knew how to cheer her up. She lifted his head up to the window so he could get a better view. If he saw a zebra, he’d let her know.

The voices up front grew agitated, but she still couldn’t make out what they were saying. Her Mommy’s chin appeared, but she wasn’t looking down into the back seat, she was searching the rear window. Mandy tried to wrench her head in that direction, but she couldn’t budge. When the car rolled to a stop, she wriggled in her confines and managed another peek out the side window.

More grass.

No buildings.

No zoo.

No zebras.

The front doors opened and her parents each got out. As her mother turned to her door, Mandy couldn’t wait to get loose from the safety belt. She wanted to run in the fluffy sea outside. Her door opened and there was her Mommy−long blonde hair, pretty blue eyes−but the smile that Mandy knew so well didn’t seem genuine. There was something off.

“Hey sweetie,” her Mommy said as she reached in and unfastened the belt.

Mommy popped her head back out to look behind the vehicle, lines of worry wrapped around pink lips. On that beautiful face, Mandy could see shadows encroaching. The sun was going down. Outside, the grass didn’t look like a blanket of gold anymore. It was changing colors. Turning purple−and the sky had blushed.

“Do you want to get out for a few minutes?” Mommy asked in a tight voice.

“Yeah!” Mandy bounced out of the car before her mother could change her mind.

The dirt road crunched under her pink-bowed sandals. She turned to follow her Mommy’s gaze and saw a long stretch of road fading into the sunset. In the distance a plume of smoke snaked into the sky. That view was eclipsed by the tall form of her Daddy rounding the back of the car. He crouched on the edge of the grass and reached for her shoulders. His eyes were blue too, but much darker than Mommy’s. They looked like the sky when it was about to storm.

Those eyes were searching her face now.

Uh-oh. Did I do something wrong?

Mandy clutched Alvin tight against her chest, but her Daddy cracked his familiar grin.

“Munchkin, Mommy and Daddy need a few minutes alone. You know−” he wiggled his dark eyebrows, “−Mom and Dad time.”

Mandy scrunched her nose. Mommy and Daddy time meant they wanted to kiss each other. They kissed a lot. She supposed that was a good thing. They seemed really happy when they kissed each other.

“Why don’t you go check out the grass back there and see if you can find any zebras,” he suggested, pointing to a reedy knoll a few yards away. “Don’t go much further than that. We’ll be leaving in a few minutes.”

Mandy didn’t need to be told twice. She was already running before the few minutes warning even registered. In a few feet she was ensconced in tufted grass that tickled her ears. Hefting Alvin onto her shoulders, she clenched his stuffed feet and asked him to be her eyes on this adventure. After a few minutes she grew frustrated.

“Daddy, I don’t see any zebras!” she yelled in no particular direction.

When there was no answer, she swirled in a circle, sneezing as a frond of grass scratched her nose. “Daddy?” she called out.