Leaves in varied shades of red, orange, and yellow gently drifted to the ground, highlighted by the beautiful golden sunlight of a crisp autumn afternoon in New York. The air in the park was chilly but only pleasantly so, keeping him from overheating as he moved quickly along the paved path. He hadn’t meant to wander off from the others during their break. It was precious, having free time to wander in the city before the craziness that the next few hours would bring, but now he regretted having left his phone in the pocket of the jacket he’d left in the van. What had started out as “they can’t bother me” had turned into “they can’t find me” as he wandered through the lovely scenery of the park, failing to pay attention to how far he’d walked. Now he was hurrying to along in search of anything familiar to help him find his way back. He didn’t know what time it was without his phone to check but he knew it was late by the way the light was changing, that he was late.
Passing by a park bench something caught his eye and caused him to stop and step out of the flow of foot traffic on the path. She was small, about 4 years old, with a slightly chubby, slightly freckled face, her light brown hair in braids on either side of her head. She sat perfectly still on the bench, holding tight to a stuffed bunny and staring ahead of her in such a way as to avoid making eye contact with passersby. So far as he could tell, she was entirely alone. He knew he should keep going and yet he felt compelled to stay. He went over and sat down beside her on the bench. After sitting in silence for a few minutes he leaned closer to her and softly spoke.
“What are you doing?”
She didn’t respond. He leaned even closer and looked right into her frightened-looking green eyes, asking again.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers,” she said, immediately throwing a hand over her mouth and making her eyes wide.
“I see,” was his gentle reply.
She turned slowly to look at him, dropping her hand from her mouth and staring. For a moment she seemed to be considering something carefully and then the tenseness dropped from her posture. She said, matter-of-factly, “I don’t think you’re a stranger.”
He was puzzled as to why this child he’d never met before would say such a thing. “I’m not?”
“No, you must be mommy’s friend. She has a big picture of you with some of her other friends on her closet door.”
He smiled and stifled a laugh. The child’s mother had one of his band’s posters. That explained it.
“Since I’m not a stranger you can talk to me, right? So, can you tell me what you are doing?”
“I’m waiting for mommy. Mommy says that if I ever get lost I should be still and stay exactly where I am. What are YOU doing?”
He looked around, scanning the crowd but didn’t see anyone who looked like a mother searching for her child. He did not see any police officers, either, or anyone else he could ask to help her. Looking back at the little girl who was patiently waiting for a reply, he made a decision.
“I’m waiting, too. Is it okay if I wait with you?”
She nodded her head emphatically before smiling as big a smile as her little face would allow.
“It’s better to wait with a friend than to wait alone. Your hair is different. Why is it pink now?”
“What, you don’t like it?” He faked a frown, causing her to giggle.
“I DO like it! I like pink; it’s my favorite color. Can I touch it?”
He nodded and then tilted his head so she could reach. She petted his hair as if she was petting a puppy, making it stand up in several directions before smoothing it back down.
“Do you think my mommy will let me have pink hair?”
“No, I don’t think she will.”
The little girl scrunched up her nose and looked at her feet.
“When I’m as big as you I’m going to have pink hair.”
Some pigeons landed haphazardly around the park bench. Their sudden appearance startled him and caused him to flinch and tense up. She was not bothered by them at all.
“You don’t like the pigeons?,” she asked.
“No. They move too quickly,” he replied.
She sat up as tall as she could and stuck out her chin.
“I’ll protect you from the pigeons,” she stated before handing him her stuffed bunny, hopping off the bench, and stomping about to chase the birds away. She bowed a deep, dramatic bow, before climbing back up onto the bench. He returned the stuffed rabbit to her and clapped.
She laughed and started swinging her legs under the bench.
“You’re very brave… I don’t know your name. What is your name?”
“Caroline. What’s yours?”
“I’m Mins… um, Xiumin.”
“Shoooo Min! Shooo Min! That’s a funny name. I’m going to call you Minnie. Mr. Minnie.”
“Oooooh, I see.” He narrowed his eyes and nodded .
“Want to see what I can do?” Without waiting for a reply she crossed her eyes and sucked in her cheeks. “Or this, this is even better!” She flared her nostrils, made her eyes bulge, and pulled her mouth wide with her thumbs.
“Very good, I’m impressed.”
He nodded once and then puffed out his cheeks and batted his eyelashes at her until she began to giggle uncontrollably. Her giggle gave way to silence as she seemed to remember why she was sitting there with him. She inched closer until she was leaning against him.
“Do you think my mommy will be here soon?”
“Mhmm. I’m sure she’ll be here soon.” He looked at the slowly fading sunlight and felt much less sure about this than statement than he hoped he had sounded. They sat mostly in silence for a while, him occasionally humming a few cheerful little notes softly to reassure her.
“Caroline! Caaarooooliiiiine!” A woman’s voice called as she ran down the path.
“Mommy?,” the little girl whispered. She looked around until she could see her mother in the distance. “Mommy!” She hopped off the bench, starting to run, and then pausing just long enough to turn around and yell “bye Mr. Minnie!” before taking off at full speed in the direction of her mother.
“Caroline! Where were you?! You must have been so scared!” The woman scooped the little girl up in her arms and hugged her through tears of joy and relief.
“I did exactly what you told me and stayed right where I was. That was good, right?”
“Yes, that was good. You did just the right thing.” The woman sat her down and dried her eyes. “Let’s go home.”
The little girl took her mother’s hand and began to walk down the path, looking over her shoulder and waving. “I was really scared, mommy, and then Mr. Minnie came and sat with me and waited for you, too.”
“Mr. Minnie? What are you talking about?”
“Mr. Minnie! You know him! He has pink hair now and he doesn’t like pigeons and he can make really good faces and”
“What do you mean I know him? Pink hair?”
“Yes, pink hair, which is my favorite, and can I have pink hair, too? He said you wouldn’t let me.”
“I see. So you have an imaginary friend named Mr. Minnie and he has pink hair?”
“He’s not imaginary. Can I have pink hair?”
“No, you may not have pink hair.” Her mother laughed a little, still sniffling and teary-eyed.
“Ya! We’re looking everywhere for you and you’re sitting on a bench staring at nothing?”
He looked up from watching the little girl and her mother disappear from sight in the distance to find the annoyed faces of his bandmates staring at him.
“I got some very good advice that if you’re lost you should stay in one place and wait for someone to find you,” he replied.
The youngest rolled his eyes. “Come on, we’re late! We have to hurry. You’re supposed to be the oldest one but sometimes you’re like a little kid!”
He shrugged and grinned.