One day, when I was still very little; maybe three or four? Old enough to have vague memories of the incident in question but young enough to be really, really stupid... Mom and Dad took me to Walmart.
(Much of this story comes from what I've been told by Mom and Dad. I'll add in the bits I remember, which are vague and mostly include how cool circular racks of clothing were.)
This wasn't particularly unusual; I generally accompanied Mom on trips "to town" (IE, usually to Bloomington-Normal, the closest place with both grocery stores AND restaurants to grab lunch at) and honestly kind of enjoyed it, especially those days the Big Kids (my brother and sister) didn't come and I had Mom all to myself.
The only unusual bit was this kind of ramped-up level of excitement involved because my dad went with us this time, which didn't happen all that often. Considering our grocery shopping trips could take an insanely long amount of time (to a four-year-old's brain, at least), I didn't blame him.
It was still pretty cool to have him along for this one, because my dad is just about my favorite person in the whole world, and this was especially true when I was really little and convinced he was some kind of Superdad. I was pretty sure, at the time, that my dad was better than everybody else's dads.
I'm actually still pretty sure about that.
According to my mother, Dad was supposed to be holding my hand while we were in the main aisle, Mom pushing the cart. Dad tells the story slightly differently, but we'll just gloss over that.
In any case, I saw something interesting; a circular rack of clothing, completely full, the perfect place for a game of hide and seek. I have an incredibly clear memory of this rack of clothing, which I suppose goes to show you what my priorities were.
I ducked away from my parents, into the dark circle of clothes, and I hid.
I hid... and hid... and hid.
When it wasn't fun anymore I peeked my head out, expecting to find them standing there with the expressions of loving exasperation and vague bafflement that I had come to see as the definition of familial love, there was nobody there. Well, there were people there, giving me funny looks.
Just... not my people, and not the funny looks I was expecting.
At first I just wandered aimlessly away. I remember working very hard to look like I was very busy. Since I was still pretty much a toddler, I'm sure this consisted of singing some kind of song that I had been taught so I would look like I was practicing.
My little brain raced and raced and raced to figure out what to do now, because my parents were lost somewhere in the store and I didn't know where.
Then, it came to me!
Mom always went to the crafts section when we came to this Walmart, and I knew exactly where that was! Walmarts are huge and confusing, especially to small children with no sense of direction, but we always went the same square around the store, and I knew exactly where to go.
I just had to head into the very, very back corner, farthest from the entrance we had come in, and that would be where crafts was, and she would be there, and she'd be mad a little bit but not too much and everything would be okay.
Full of optimism, I found my way back there. A few people looked at me, but nobody seemed to know anything was wrong. I figured I must look like a little girl who knew what she was doing, which it turned out was exactly what I was trying to look like. I was winning at life.
Meanwhile, my parents continued on, unaware of my little game.
Because of my dad tagging along, this was the one time Mom decided not to head to the Crafts section, so they turned away and continued to a different part of the store.
At which point Mom realized my incessant rambling can't-you-just-tell-she's-the-baby babble-voice had stopped, that she had not had to say, "Katie, don't touch everything Katie don't pick that up Katie that does not go in your nose," at all in at least four minutes, which meant something was very wrong.
She looked around.
No child elbow-deep in whatever she's not supposed to be touching right now, or running in little circles, or randomly turning a couple of shoes into dinosaurs and bashing them into each other. No sign at all of a little blond head, little green eyes.
No sign of her youngest child, the one most likely to go off and do something dumb.
She asked Dad where I was. He looked around.
They couldn't find me.
There is a very special panic in the heart of every parent who loses their toddler child in a busy store full of people coming and going. It happens to parents everywhere every single day. Those of you who have gone through this panic are probably nodding your heads along, feeling your own hearts beat a little faster just remembering how it felt.
For some people, these stories don't end well. For us, they did, I imagine mostly because anyone who had picked me up would probably have tried to give me back very quickly, after about five minutes of listening to my latest "story".
Readers, I am proud to say that I am the only child in our family to make my parents feel that particular fear. Bryan and Christina were apparently born with some sort of innate instinct that told them not to do stupid things.
Whereas everything seemed like a good idea to little-kid Katie! Especially wandering away from your parents!
Mom and Dad, trying to keep calm, headed back the way they had come from. It was a good plan, except for one thing; I had, in my quest to make sure I went to the craft section, headed to the back of the store first, then walked along the very back wall.
My parents and I probably passed each other, just far enough apart and behind enough shelves that we couldn't see each other.
With no sign of me, Mom and Dad gave up and went to the front of the store. I think this was before there was an official Code Adam, but kidnappings were all over the news in the 80's and early 90's and things like the Adam Walsh case had to be at the back of their minds. Walmart did have some kind of regulation in place, because I remember there being voice from the ceiling saying something that seemed important that I couldn't quite understand, and that just afterward the people wearing blue and khaki in the store were moving around much more quickly.
I sat myself happily on a bench (Walmart used to have benches in the aisles here and there), swinging my little legs, waiting for my parents to get done shopping so they would come back to the crafts section and find me. I was beginning to get impatient, though, because it seemed like it was taking forever!
Here's another point of pride in my own memory-priorities; I have another very clear memory of this incident, which is that I really liked some light-up shoes a different kid had on as they walked past me. I remember those shoes the way some people remember a romantic wedding proposal.
I imagine that the calmness on my face, the way I didn't look lost - because I wasn't - meant that at least a few workers went right past me, assuming that I wasn't the kid in question, maybe my mom was just an aisle away and I'd gotten tired of standing.
My vague sense of I-did-something-wrong worry was starting to ramp up into real fear. It had been way too long; she should have come to the Crafts by now. I began to wonder if, somehow, they had simply forgotten they had a third child and left without me. I had nightmares about this sort of thing as a little kid, surprisingly often, despite the fact that my parents were insanely loving people who never in any way gave me any cause to have such nightmares.
In retrospect, my anxiety disorder isn't terribly surprising.
Then, just as I remember starting to get scared enough to try and look for them myself, one of the women wearing blue and khaki walked up to me.
I was vaguely aware I wasn't supposed to talk to strangers, but that had never stopped me before and it wasn't going to stop me now. Besides, she had a nametag. She had to be safe.
She leaned over, hand on the bench, and asked if I was lost.
"No," I replied, a little offended. "I'm in the crafts. I'm waiting for my Mom. We always come here." I paused. "My Dad came this time, too," I added.
She told me that they were looking for me up at the front of the store, and could I come with her? With no sense that she could have been lying, trusting wholeheartedly in the promise of that nametag, I put my hand in hers and happily followed her up to find them.
I was pretty certain I couldn't get in trouble for this; after all, they were the ones who were lost.
I knew exactly where I was the whole time.