The Horrible Child

by Richard Steigelman

            She could only hope that her parents would be able to find her again. And would want to. For not even her cat-loving mother had shown a lick of empathy, earlier that day, when, under the spell of the cutest orange tabby the girl had ever seen, she’d wandered away from her parents at the bookstalls along the Seine. And, on that occasion, the young American had ventured no further than the far side of the nearest tree. She hadn’t even been aware that she’d gotten ‘lost’.

            This time, she knew. And stood gape-jawed amid a swirling forest of unfamiliar faces babbling in mostly unfamiliar languages. But how did this happen? While making their way from the restaurant where they’d just dined to the church across the street, the girl, in taking her parents’ earlier lecture to heart, could not have been clinging more closely to their sides.

            At least until she ran into Robespierre on the corner. With the hulking gray frame of the ancient Church of Saint-Germain-des-Pres as its backdrop, a portable puppet theatre had sprung up to take advantage of the perennial scrum of tourists who swarmed the Left Bank of Paris. The girl could not help but stop, and she’d watched in fascination as Robespierre took the hunt to the Girondins, before having the whole messy affair of revolution turned, with great theatrical flair, back upon him.

            Her parents hadn’t paused for the execution. And were now vanished into the crowd. How could she ever hope to find them amongst all these people?      

            But, of course! They had been on their way to visit the church, she remembered quickly enough. And the church was right there! Heartened by the thought that she might catch up with her parents before they even knew she was gone (and thus avoid punishment), the girl weaved aggressively through the crowd, clearing the way with her shoulder when necessary. She sprang upon the gate that separated her from the front door of the church. And found it locked. But how could this be?

            “Fermée,” said a man nearby, while lighting a cigarette. Giving the match a quick shake to extinguish it, he threw it to the pavement. “Huit heures.” He tapped at his watch.

            Was he telling her that the church was closed? “But my parents are inside,” pleaded the girl, as though the man might be able to do something about it.

            But he was no longer paying her any attention and walked away.

            The girl tugged again at the gate and then, in frustration, swung her red backpack into the iron as though she might breach it that way. She sagged against the gate in defeat, with her backpack dropping to the ground beside her.

            But the church wouldn’t have locked anybody inside, it occurred to the girl. Which meant that her parents had been turned away, too. Then where were they? They certainly couldn’t have gone far. Why, they had only just gotten separated. She guessed that they must be retracing their steps back to the restaurant in search of her. She did not care that, at this point, she was surely in deep trouble with her parents. She just wanted to find them.

            From the church’s top step, and on her tippy-toes, the girl’s eyes yearned along the route she presumed for her parents. With no sign of them, she wondered whether it would be better to stay here atop the steps where she might be more visible to them, rather than to risk plunging back into the crowd in pursuit.

            But how long could she just stand there idly, counting on them to come to her? Especially with the evening shadows edging across the plaza before her and casting her visibility increasingly into question. Her eyes now flared in every direction, skipping across a muddle of indistinct figures. Would she even be able to distinguish her parents in the faltering daylight?

            She then detected, to her immediate right, the entrance to what appeared to be the church garden. Her mother loved gardens! As did she! Why, how often they had talked, in the preceding weeks, of seeing as many of the great gardens of Paris as they could possibly fit into their trip. Might her parents have looked for her here? It struck the girl as logical, and at least worth a quick peek.

            Hoisting her backpack into place, she scampered through the gate and out onto the circular pathway, her eyes flitting overtop every flower bed and snooping around every tree trunk and statue. She tracked down every bench and peered closely into the face of more than one discomfited stranger.

            But the garden was very small and its grounds quickly covered. Her parents were not there. 

            The girl drooped in despair. Her parents were nowhere to be found, and she hadn’t yet memorized the name of their hotel or its exact location. Her only recollection was that it had required a Metro ride for them to get to this neighborhood. But on which line and from which station, she couldn’t say.

            She supposed, without a glimmer of optimism, that she should return to the front steps of the church. She began trundling back towards the garden gate. And tripped to the ground almost immediately. Her tears were not for the scraped knee. With hardly the spirit to pick herself off the pavement and continue her seemingly futile quest for her parents, she placed the blame for this mishap on her two clumsy feet. Until she saw a third foot poking out from a row of shrubs. Attached to a man rolled upon his side.

            The girl leapt upon her heels. Was he dead? And had her foot really touched his? It stole her breath away. She had once stepped on a dead squirrel, which was bad enough. Looking round for someone to alert, she was relieved to see an older couple coming around a bend in the path. She moved to intercept them.

            “I think he might be dead,” she gasped, while directing their attention to the fallen figure.

            The couple did not seem to care.

            “Dead?” The Frenchman scoffed. “Mort,” he translated for his disapproving wife. “Non, Mademoiselle,” the man turned back to the girl. “Not dead. Drunk.” He nodded with satisfaction at his transition back into English. “Qui, drunk. Too many to drink.” His fingers fluttered before his mouth as if to signify a bottle.

            “Et sur la propriété de l’église,” muttered the woman with disdain. “Que le seigneur Jésus ait pitié.

            Her husband did not appear to be betting on the Lord’s good graces. “Go to leave,” he advised the girl with a rigid nod, while motioning towards the garden’s entrance. “Is no good to be here now.” Then taking his wife by the arm, he proceeded to take his own advice, leaving the astonished girl behind.

            But how could they just walk away? Though, perhaps, the man was right, she had to concede. This did not seem a good, or safe, place to be right now, alone with this figure, dead or drunk, in a garden settling towards dusk.

            The girl could not help but feel some shame as she began to shuffle after them. But who was this now coming towards her? A young man, it appeared. A church employee, most likely, coming to shoo the last stragglers from the garden so that he could lock the gate for the night. A man of the church would certainly come to this poor soul’s aid. And, perhaps, even assist her in locating her parents!

            “I thought he was dead at first,” she stepped forward to confide, as the young man, with a glance about, veered with purpose towards the figure on the ground. “But those people said he was just drunk.” She indicated the old couple whom he’d just passed.

            The young man seemed hardly to take the girl into account. With another, more focused glance all around, he reached down into the prone man’s pocket. Then he reached into another. He returned upright with a wallet in hand.

            It took the young girl a moment to process what she was witnessing. “Hey, you can’t do that—that’s his!”

            The young man, only now appearing to take notice of her, snarled something menacingly in French. Then lunged towards her!

            The girl reacted by swinging her backpack at him. He grabbed it and tried to tear it away. She yanked back on it. A strap broke, sending them stumbling in opposite directions.

            The girl landed squarely upon her backpack, with one sandal having come loose and hanging by a toe. Snatching it from her foot to use as a projectile, if he came at her again, she discovered attached to it the whistle her parents had given her in case they became separated. She’d forgotten all about it. She placed the sandal to her mouth and sounded the whistle with all her might. Shouts arose from the street just outside the garden.

            In breaking his own fall, the young man had lost hold of the wallet. He fled now, empty-handed.

            At first, the trembling girl hadn’t noticed the wallet left behind. Spotting it now, she seemed reluctant to even touch it. Yet, she supposed that she should return it to its rightful owner before some other would-be thief came along. Grasping the object between two trepid fingers, she pitched it almost instantly it towards the unconscious man, where it landed against his shoulder.       

            The man shuddered at the contact. Then rolled upon his back and opened his eyes towards her.

            The girl’s mouth fell open. Her scream never came.

            The man’s glassy eyes lolled momentarily, before closing again. He rolled partway back over and, clutching his sides, began suddenly to shiver. The tremors turned quickly into convulsions. He let out an agonizing grunt and vomited upon his arm, with his cheek coming to rest in the puddle.

            Was the man dying before her very eyes? The young girl didn’t know what to do. Until seeing the sandal she still held in her hand. Blowing into the whistle twice as hard as before, she charged towards the plaza to seek help.

            The help, having already been drawn by the initial blast from her whistle, began arriving before she had reached the gate. This included a police officer, who called for an ambulance first thing.

            The commotion of emergency vehicles pealing into the church plaza caused a stir. At the restaurant terrace across the way, patrons stood to observe. Behind a police cordon, the sick man was wheeled out on a gurney, retching from side to side.

            The girl, while bouncing between police interrogations, was nearly tackled to the pavement before she could even turn around at the shrieking of her name.

            “My God, where’ve you been?” The girl’s mother, having dropped to a knee, had the child swallowed up in an embrace. “We’ve been looking all over for you.” The embrace was brief and she now held the girl firmly by the shoulders. “You were supposed to be right next to us. What is going on here, anyway?” She gestured towards the chaotic scene.

            The young girl, with tears of relief flushing away the old tears of terror, collapsed back into her mother’s arms. She made no reply and simply held her mother close.

            “My God,” said the mother, sighing deeply and with a tear of her own wiped away, “I heard all these sirens and thought something might’ve happened to you. How many times have we told you that you need to stay with us—”

            “But I was with you,” the girl sobbed in her defense. “I only stopped for a second to watch the puppet show—”

            “Puppet show?” squawked her father, nearly out of breath, having just arrived from his search in another direction. “What puppet show?”

            “On the corner,” said the girl, pointing.

            Her father could see nothing through the crowd. Nor did he care to make much of an effort. “This morning a cat and, now, puppets,” he recited her offenses while throwing his arms into the air. “Well, I hope they’re selling leashes at this puppet show of yours. We could certainly use one.”

            The father’s words were not making the daughter feel any better. Her lip quivered.

            “Sweetheart,” said the mother as soothingly as her exasperation permitted, while rising back to her feet, “anything in the world could’ve happened to you tonight. Young girls should not be roaming the streets of a big city by themselves. Especially at night. There are pickpockets—and worse—all over Paris. Are we going to have to start leaving you with your grandparents whenever we go on vacation? They would love to have you and it’d sure make our life easier.”

            “And didn’t we give you a whistle for emergencies?” recalled her father. “It’s not going to do you any good if you don’t use it.”

            “But I did use—”

            “And, for God’s sake,” he exclaimed, “what happened to your backpack?` We just bought that for you.”

            The girl didn’t get the chance to answer.

            “Oh, honey,” her mother signaled her disappointment with a sigh as she examined the damaged article. “Well, I can tell you one thing, you’re not getting another one. If you can’t take care of it any better than that, what’s the point? You’ll just have to make do with this one. You’ve gotten lost twice and destroyed your backpack. All on our first day here. I swear to God, you’ll ruin Paris for us yet.” Then taking the girl by the hand, and with no regard for police procedure, she began conducting their star witness away through the crowd.

Richard Steigelman was born and raised in Muskegon, Michigan. He moved to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan, after which he descended into a life of bartending. He now lives a somewhat more responsible life there with his wife and daughter. In addition to publishing one novel (The Hope of Timothy Bean, Briarwood Publications), he has placed works of creative nonfiction in Superstition Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Smoking Poet, Hackwriters and Cosmoetica, and had a story earn second place in the Men’s Travel category of the Traveler’s Tales Solas Awards competition.