IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE • by Rachael Kelly

“Please,” he says, and I hear the desperation in his voice before I turn around. “Please, can you help me? I’ve lost my granddaughter. Please, can you help…?”

I remember the day that Alice disappeared in the supermarket; I remember the sick lurch of terror, the way I suddenly knew just how big the world really was. His glasses are askew on his nose, and his pupils have contracted to a point. I know this feeling far too well. Alice turned up in the toy aisle five minutes later, but they were the longest five minutes of my life.

“Okay,” I say. My voice is calm. “What does she look like? Where did you last see her?”

“She likes to feed the ducks,” he says. His eyes are red-rimmed; his skin is grey. “We were on the swings; I just turned away for a moment….”

“We’ll find her,” I tell him firmly. “What’s her name?”

“Rebecca,” he says. “Becky. She likes to feed the ducks. I only turned away for a moment….”

Becky. I imagine a dark-haired, serious-faced child, with rosebud lips that curl abruptly into the sort of smile that transforms a face, before I realise that I’m thinking of another girl, a long-forgotten friend from school. He’s scrolling through the photo album on his phone with shaking hands, and the girl who aims a chocolate-smeared grin at us out of a sunny summer’s garden is freckled, red-headed, barely four years old.

“Becky,” he says. “Oh God. I only turned away for a moment. I need to find her….”

My eyes glance involuntarily towards the pond: sleet grey, this winter morning, and tangled in weeds. It’s deeper than it looks, and, when the weather is good, you can see the thick, treacly mud that lines the bottom like tar. I always used to tell Alice to keep away from it when she was little — dangerous! Not for little girls; come with Mummy, please — because I remember being a little girl, and I remember being a little girl around water, and I don’t trust this pool. I won’t even let the dog go in to chase the ducks for scraps of bread. I can imagine far too easily what might happen next.

“We’ll find her,” I tell him again, and I wonder who I’m trying to reassure: her grandfather, or myself.

She was wearing a red raincoat, he tells me; her favourite. It clashes with her hair, but she won’t wear anything else. My eyes scan the horizon for a flash of crimson, but the day is pale grey and brown, and the park is deserted but for me and the dog, a leisurely couple walking hand-in-hand in the middle distance, and a man who’s lost a little girl. I start to move. Becky! I call. Becky! Grandad’s looking for you!

“She likes the ducks,” he says. His face is so pale that I want to ask him to sit down, take a breath, look after himself while I search for his grandchild. He hasn’t shaved this morning, I think, and he smells musty, disregarded, like a man who’s forgotten himself. He turns his head to call for her, and his voice is hoarse and fractured. “She likes to wander up to them and make duck noises. She likes it when they make noises back at her….”

Dangerous! I always used to tell Alice. She loved the ducks, too. She’s at college now, studying French and Spanish, and she’s forgotten how she used to love this little park, but I remember that her first word was side, for slide; that I brought her here for her first birthday and she cried when it was time to go home. And I remember, suddenly, with a flash of crystal clarity, the wreaths that decorated the landing pad on the far side of the pond a few years back; the story in the newspaper and the hushed voices of the walkers that I met on the paths. I remember the way I went home and rang my daughter just to tell her that I loved her, and how her voice was warm, undercurrents of amusement beneath the sincerity of her I love you too, Mum. And I wanted to pull her close and hold her to me, in that way that never really goes away, no matter how big and brave she gets; to hold her close and breathe in the scent of her hair and thank whatever caprice of fate kept my little girl with me when somebody else lost theirs.

And I look at him now: grey-faced and panting, eyes red-rimmed and glasses askew, and I realise that his stare is glassy and his expression is fixed. He’s sagging like a man who used to be big and just melted away, and there’s an elderly stain on his collar and his cuffs are frayed. He’s a man who looks as though he’s been lost for years.

And that’s when I remember the plaque, black letters on brass, pinned to the bench on which I was sitting when he found me:

In loving memory of Rebecca, who loved to feed the ducks.

“I just turned away for a minute,” he says brokenly, and his eyes drift out across the pond.

A native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, Rachael Kelly has a PhD in Film Studies and is currently working as a freelance writer and film critic. She writes science fiction as RB Kelly and contemporary and non-fiction as Rachael Kelly, and her debut novel, The Edge of Heaven, will be published in 2016. She’s @Rachael_B_Kelly on Twitter.

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 average 4.2 stars • 40 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • sweetwillow86

    That was beautifully written. Because he already felt like a man crushed, rather than panicked (excellently done btw) I knew that the poor man had already lost his little granddaughter and it didn’t feel like guessing a twist ending rather seeing the man for what he was … broken.

    Really, really well done.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    A powerful piece of writing. Not quite what I’m used to on a Monday, though!

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    Well, sorry. I thought this went on far too long after we suspect the time arc of this story. It was a heart-wrenching encounter dragged out into a full feature…
    Which is a real pity here. The author had the capacity, I think, to have made something powerful from the aftermath of the initial tragedy. What happened to Grandpa? Did the shockwaves of the first loss estrange him from his family? Does he keep escaping the house where his equally-shattered but rational wife is trapped in a horrifying “Groundhog Day” with him? Is he homeless, the sort people avert their eyes from as though he carries the evil eye? All that potential, unused. Three stars.

    • Joseph Kaufman

      This was a case where leaving all of that up to the reader seems more appropriate (just my opinion). I don’t disagree that this goes on a bit long, but the point of the story is the twist, I think, not an in-depth analysis of what the old man’s life is like. I don’t usually go in for stories where the turn is the main impetus of the execution, but it works for me here because I like that everything you mention is unsaid. That means I end up thinking about (and dreading) those things in my own head as the day wears on…

      I feel the rest of the story is meant to display the narrator’s love for her daughter, but that’s where the repetition of “Dangerous!” and “safe” detracted for me. I wanted to feel more than just the protective side of her love — even if the story was primarily about danger and loss. Though, I do very much love some of the lines about parental angst, such as, “I remember the sick lurch of terror, the way I suddenly knew just how big the world really was.” Good stuff.

      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

        This gets into that tricky argument of vignette vs full story. We’re given so many hints (over and over and over…) that the twist loses its power. Had the author given us a moment of horror, awakening the MC’s primal terror because it links to that experience of time stopping during those awful five minutes when she thought her own daughter’d been lost, and the grim truth here, quickly discovered–it would have had a real punch.

        I didn’t think this circumstance was well-served by a dragged-out reveal that attentive readers saw half-way through the word count, because the story is just loss, loss, loss, sad sad sad.

        EDF has published some very very short stuff, so would the editors have objected to a much lower word-count here? Curious to know.

        • Joseph Kaufman

          That’s a tricky question (not that you are engaging in trickery, I’m just saying. Hard to say without seeing the new package as a whole.

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            Just confirming we’re still talking about today’s story–because I feel the wordcount was just padded out with the same thoughts expressed ten different ways. If the author had gotten to the point faster, would editors have objected the story felt too lean?

            As first principles I think there’s a profound difference between competent wordsmithing and gifted storytelling, and maybe that causes some of the ire when readers object to my comments on a well-written piece. Or why I’m one of two or three people admiring a story with a little clumsiness in the prose that to me doesn’t dim the luster of a magical tale.

  • S Conroy

    I got a kick in the stomach at the end despite already sensing where it was leading. I agree with Sarah that less could have been more, but even as it was it still choked me up.

  • Walter Giersbach

    This story bothers me. It wasn’t clear that the subject was an elderly man asking in person, but maybe I’ve been reading too much about telephonic requests. Then, the story segues into a rambling, repetitive flashback to a missing child who didn’t really go missing but is now in college. And we finally get to the reveal. I’m sorry, but I once lost my four-year-old on New York’s Orchard Street for 15 minutes that did seem an eternity. (We found him being quizzed by storeowners in Spanish, Yiddish and Chinese.) It’s become a family anecdote, not a fearful memory.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

      I’m willing to bet this author doesn’t yet have children…

      • Camille Gooderham Campbell

        Let’s not speculate about authors’ lives, please.

        • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

          Comment amended.

  • Well, you made me cry at work. That’s enough to get five stars out of me.

  • Michael Stang

    The redundant sentence “I only turned around …”, although I understand the reasoning, still was sticky particularly at the end.
    There are some great lines here: “undercurrents of amusement beneath the sincerity of …,” for example.
    Overall I feel the kingpin to the story is her Alice and how safe she is, and that the old man and his problems are put on hold until she gets back to him. The ending twist, in my opinion, is anemic against what I have just stated.

  • I think this story touches all parents in varying degrees of empathy. I’ve “lost” my child on several occasions, one of which utterly terrifying, so relating to either character in the story was fairly easy. I like stories I can relate to.

    I found the writing to be spot on, aside from a few tiny little things not important enough to mention because they don’t detract from the story. A few have commented that this went on too long. I disagree. The long paragraph towards the end is just the MC relating to the old man. And the repetition of the old man is just his (insanity?). For me, it all fits.

    And for the second time in a week, I’m giving 5 stars. I thought this was brilliant. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Paul A. Freeman

      Spot on – especially what you say in the first paragraph.

  • I found the repetition in this story very effective and I liked the way it was constructed.

  • Carl Steiger

    I can’t vote, as I didn’t read it, other than the beginning,
    and then skipping to the end. Any
    child-in-jeopardy story had better have a happy ending, or this reader isn’t
    going to be happy with it.

    • I can certainly understand that sentiment Carl. I have a very difficult time with stories/movies involving children in crisis. When I became a parent 18 years ago, what I could comfortably watch and even listen to changed dramatically.

      That said, I encourage you to give this story another chance. I found it to be well worth the read.

      • Carl Steiger

        That’s exactly it, Scott. Now that I have small children myself, I’m always on high alert, and I just want something else for recreational reading.

  • What a beautiful story. In all ways, it’s excellent: writing, language, concept. Really fine, from beginning to end.

  • Great use of words to convey urgency.

  • Beautiful writing– “…sagging like a man who used to be big….”

  • Chris Antenen

    I wouldn’t change a word–beauty and sadness so well expressed in so few. I did not guess the twist, so I cried, too. Having experienced this particular panic, as have some of you, the catch in my throat was real. Very well written. That particular panic is repetitious, even in a few minutes it attacks over and over, heart pounding even after the child is found. I thought this writer captured those moments so well. Easy 5.

  • I love this. I guessed the ending from the addled first description of the grandfather, but still told wonderfully. I love the interweaving of the two/three? stories.