My little brother’s hand grips mine as I scan our season passes. “I want to see the bears first,” he insists.
“Slow down, Harrison,” I say as he tries to pull my arm out of my socket.
“I want to see the bears,” he repeats.
“We’ll see them, I promise,” I say as I put the passes back in my pocket and let him pull me into the zoo. “But the bears are the other way.”
Harry lets go of my hand, does a 180 and heads the other way. “After the bears, I want to see the lions, and the tigers, and–”
“Remember that the Lions aren’t always outside,” I tell him.
“As long as the bears are outside I’ll be okay.”
Good. Last week the Lions weren’t outside and he threw a fit.
“Now listen, I don’t want you to be upset if the bears don’t come over to say hi,” I say, glancing at the flamingos as we walk past. “They might be grumpy like they were last week.”
It wasn’t a huge deal last week, since the bear obsession hadn’t kicked in until two days ago. I glance down at the zoo map in my hand, confirming that I’m going the right way.
“So don’t get grumpy if they’re being grumpy,” I continue. “Okay, Harrison?”
There’s no response.
“Harrison?” I say, my head snapping up. “Harrison!”
Damn it. Mom was never going to let me take him anywhere ever again. “Harrison Ford Walker, you’d better be playing with me. Time to come out now.”
The crowd shifted around me as parents and children made their way through the zoo, but my little brother didn’t appear. Shit.
Then the crowd split for a moment, long enough that I saw a woman in the official zoo uniform. A woman with a walkie talkie. I pushed my way through the crowd to reach her and grabbed her shirt sleeve. “Excuse me, ma’am?? My little brother just disappeared and I can’t find him.”
“Okay, honey, we’ll find him,” she said. “Where did you last see him?”
“By the flamingos,” I say, pointing to the birds who are only twenty feet away. “I looked down at my map and when I looked up, he was gone.”
“How old is he?”
“What’s his name?”
“His hair color?”
“What color was his shirt?”
“And your name?”
The zoo keeper pulled her walkie talkie from her belt and said “we have a missing child. Harrison Walker, four years old, red shirt, blond hair. Last seem by th flamingos, though I’m here and he’s nowhere to be seen. We’ll wait here for him in case he comes back.”
I pace for what seems like an hour while the zookeeper continues sweeping.
“They’ll find him, dear,” the zookeeper says.
“I can’t believe I lost him,” I say. “Mom trusted me to take care of him, and I didn’t. And my step-dad will flip out when he finds out.”
“Well, maybe your step-dad doesn’t have to find out,” the zookeeper suggests.
“Harrison will tell him,” I say with a sigh.
“Well, just think about how happy you’ll be to have him back, and I’m sure it will all work out,” the zookeeper said.
That wasn’t particularly helpful.
I go back to my pacing, counting my laps in front of the flamingo enclosure. I’m up to 30 laps when I hear “Emmy!”
I look up to see Harrison clinging to someone’s hand as they walk towards us. He let’s go when I look up at him and charges towards me. “Harrison,” I say, kneeling down and catching him in a big hug. “You scared me. Where did you go??”
I can hear the zookeeper behind me canceling the missing child alert as I look up at the stranger who brought him back to me. He’s a teenager, by the looks of him, and he has a little girl who looks about Harrison’s age clinging to his hand. “I went to see the otters,” Harrison says, “but Will said we had to come find you before we could go see them.” He wiggles out of my grasp and marches over to the guy, who I assume is Will, and grabs his hand. “Can we go now, Will?”
“Thank you,” I say, standing and smiling at Will. “I looked down at my map and when I looked up he was gone.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Will says with a smile. “My sister’s pulled a disappearing act on me a few times. I know what it’s like. When I saw him charging down the street by himself, I figured there was somebody worrying about him.”
“He grabbed his shirt and made him stop,” Will’s little sister said.
“Well, I’m very glad he did,” I say to the small girl. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Lucinda,” the girl says. “And this is Wilson. We’re named after our grandparents. Mom calls him Wilson, but they call me Lucy, because they liked Grandpa better than they liked Grandma.”
I glance up at Will – Wilson? – in amusement. “They liked Grandpa better, huh?”
“Thanks, Lu,” he says, patting her on the head as he blushes. “I usually go by Will, but you can call me Wilson if you want.”
“Well, I’m Emmy or Emeline,” I say, offering my hand.
He lets go of Lucy to shake my hand, then quickly grabs his sister’s hand again. “So, Emeline, I promised these two that we could go see the otters after we found you. Do you want to come with us?”
“Sure,” I say, looking at Harrison. So much for the bears. “Harrison, come hold my hand.”
“I want to hold Will’s hand,” he insists.
“I’ll hold your hand,” Lucy says. “Will holds too tightly.”
“That’s because you like to run away,” he says, glancing at me for confirmation. I nod and he lets her go, prodding her towards me.
I take her little hand and lace our fingers together. “Is that too tight?”
“No, that’s just right,” she says as we start walking towards the otters. I follow Wilson, watching Harrison as he chatters endlessly.
“Do you like the zoo?” I ask the little girl skipping by my side.
“I like it better now that Wilson isn’t making me hold his hand,” she says. “Wilson likes to pull my hair.”
“Does he?” I ask, glancing at Wilson, who is glancing back at me with a grin. Oh no. What is Harrison telling him?
“Yeah, he pulls my hair, and he won’t watch Dora with me – but he’ll watch My Little Pony, so that’s okay. And sometimes he’ll paint my nails, if Mom’s still at work. But his room is a mess and he won’t let me in there unless we’re watching My Little Pony.”
“I see,” I say, barely containing my laughter. “Who’s his favorite pony?”
“Twilight Sparkle. I don’t like Twilight Sparkle though. I like Rainbow Dash the best.”
“Rainbow Dash is a good one,” I say, though I’ve never seen an episode of My Little Pony in my life.
“Yeah, I know, but Wilson says Twilight Sparkle is better. He’s crazy.”
“It sounds like it,” I say.
“We should watch My Little Pony together,” she says. “I bet you’d like Rainbow Dash better. You’re a girl.”
“Do you have any other sisters?” I ask.
“No, just Wilson,” she says with a sigh. “And he doesn’t count. He’s definitely a boy.”
“No, I don’t think he does,” I say as I watch him lean down and pick up my little brother, settling him on his shoulders. The muscles under his sleeveless shirt rippled and I laughed. No, he was definitely a boy.
A really cute one, too.
He glanced back at me and his sister and I took in his light brown hair and eyes, and the easy smile on his face as he gripped my little brother’s legs. “You good, Lu?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “Emmy’s better at holding hands than you are. Her hands aren’t all sweaty like yours.”
“Sorry to offend you,” he said, pausing for a moment so we could catch up to him. He walked next to me, matching my pace as we continued marching towards the otters. “So, Emeline, your brother tells me that you Iike Bob the Tomato better than Larry the Cucumber.”
“Well I heard that Twilight Sparkle is your favorite,” I say.
His jaw drops and he stares down at his sister. “Luce, what did we say about that?”
“What? She’s a girl,” Lucy says. “You said I couldn’t tell any of your friends.”
“Well maybe she would have become my friend if you hadn’t told her that,” he says.
“She’s a girl,” Lucy repeats. “You don’t have a girlfriend.”
Wilson sighs. “Why don’t you just tell them everything about my life?”
“It’s okay,” I say. “You know I like Bob, I know you like Twilight Sparkle. You don’t have a girlfriend, I don’t have a boyfriend. I think we’re even now.”
“You really don’t have a boyfriend?” He asks.
“Uh, no,” I say. “Is that a problem?”
“No, I just would’ve thought, I mean… uh…”
Lucy pipes up. “Wilson’s not good at talking to girls.”
“Thanks, squirt,” Wilson says through his teeth.
“It’s fine, really,” I say, resting my hand on his arm for a moment. “For all I know, Harrison told you that the last time a guy asked me out on a date, I puked.”
“Oh, that was funny,” Harrison says. “She almost got it all over his shoes.”
“That’s disgusting,” Lucy says, wrinkling her nose.
“That’s… impressive,” Wilson says with a grin. “Was he really that revolting?”
“It turns out, I had a stomach bug, but no guy at school would ever come near me again,” I say with a shrug. “It’s fine. None of them were up to my standards anyway.”
“Well, someday you’ll find someone up to your standards,” Wilson says. “He’ll be a lucky fellow.”
I look down at the ground as I blush.
“Look, there are the otters,” Lucy says with a screech, nearly pulling my arm out of its socket.
“Easy there,” Wilson says as my brother tries to lunge off his shoulders. “Hang on.”
Soon enough, our siblings are pressed against the fence next to each other, watching the otters prance and frolic.
“I’m glad you’re here. Lucy gets tired of hanging out with her big brother all summer,” Wilson says.
“Harrison is probably thrilled to have a guy to hang out with,” I say. “Apparently I’m boring, and a terrible sister, since I lost him about five minutes after we got here.”
“Nah, four year old’s are just slippery little things,” Wilson says. “I’ve lost Lucy at least three times in the past week.”
“Do you watch her all the time?” I ask.
“In the summer, yeah. Mom works full time, so it’s me or daycare, and the daycare would cost more than I can bring in at a job.”
I don’t ask where his father is. I know what that question’s like.
“Well, she seems to like you,” I say. “She doesn’t like that you don’t let her in your room, but apparently the fact that you watch My Little Pony with her is pretty cool.”
“Oh my gosh,” he says, covering his face with his hands. “What else did she tell you?”
“Well, I think it’s adorable that you paint her nails for her.”
“Lucyyyy,” he groans.
“No, seriously, it’s really cute,” I say, touching his arm. “She obviously loves you and thinks you’re the best big brother ever.
“She’s a pain in my butt.”
“I’m sure Harrison was sharing plenty of embarrassing stories about me,” I say.
“Oh, he was,” Wilson says with a grin. “I wasn’t going to make you feel badly about it though.”
“Oh no,” I say. “Is it my turn to hide?”
“For instance, I know that when you wake up, your hair looks horrible,” Wilson says, and it’s my turn to cover my face. “And I know that you sound horrible when you’re singing in the shower.”
I laugh at that one. “I can’t sound any worse than Harrison.”
“I know,” Wilson says with a grin. “I also know that you have pink bunny slippers.”
“Oh, Harrison,” I say, grimacing.
“Hey, my sister has pink bunny slippers too,” Wilson says, raising his hands. “Who am I to judge?”
I groan. “Your sister is four. I’m seventeen.”
“Hey, bunny slippers are fun. Mine are blue, not pink.”
“You have bunny slippers too?” I ask, looking up at him.
“Heck yeah,” he said. “Lucy wanted us to match, but I refused to get the pink ones.”
We laugh together as our siblings squeal over the otters, who have started playing in their slide.
“Hey, Emmy, what are you doing here?” a voice I recognize says from behind me.
I turn around to find my friend Cassidy staring at me. “Oh, hey Cassidy,” I say as Wilson turns around too.
“Who’s this?” Cassidy asks, her ears perking up for a bit of gossip.
“This is my friend Will,” I say as Cassidy sticks her hand out. “He and I are here with our little siblings. Will, this is my friend from school, Cassidy.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Cassidy says, batting her eyelashes at him.
I should have introduced him as my boyfriend, if only to keep Cassidy from throwing herself at him. And maybe it would keep her older brother from nagging me to date him.
Speak of the Devil.
“Hi Cane,” I say with a sigh.
“How are you today?” he asks, speaking more to my cleavage than to me.
“I’m great,” I say.
“Hi there, I’m Will,” Wilson says, sticking his right hand forward as he takes mine with his left.
“I’m Cane,” he says, shaking Wilson’s hand. “I didn’t realize that Emmy had a boyfriend.”
“Yeah, it was kind of a surprise,” I say, smiling up at Wilson, extremely grateful for the help.
“It just worked out though,” Wilson says, grinning down at me.
Even if I never see him again, I don’t think I’ll ever forget this trip to the zoo.
Although, with the way Harrison was clinging to him earlier, maybe Harrison will insist on seeing him again, and I’ll just have to go along for the ride.
…I don’t hear Harrison and Lucy squealing anymore.
I whirl around and, surprise, our siblings are gone.
“Shit. They’re gone again, Wil–.” Just Will. Not Wilson.
“Damn it, of course they are. It was great to meet you,” Wilson says, looking around for his sister.
“We need leashes for the two of them,” I say as I scan the crowd for Harrison’s red shirt and Lucy’s purple skirt.
“There,” Wilson says, pointing one way. I follow his finger and sure enough, there they are, standing in front of the ice cream cart.
“At least they didn’t get far this time,” I say, waving bye to Cassidy as we run, hand in hand, towards our runaway siblings.
“I’m sorry, sweetie, I can’t just give it to you,” the lady behind the cart is saying to Lucy as we run up. “Where’s your mommy?”
“Mom’s not here,” Lucy says, and the lady frowns.
“I’m here,” Wilson says, letting go of my hand to grab his sister. “I thought I said to not run so far ahead,” he says, giving her the older brother stink-eye.
“I want ice cream, and so does Harrison,” Lucy says, crossing her arms.
“How do you ask?”
“Can you please get us ice cream?” she asks.
“Fine,” he says, pulling his wallet out of his back pocket.
“I’ll get ours,” I say, swinging my bag off my shoulder.
“Nah, I’ve got it,” he says, touching my arm.
“I’ve got it,” he says. “What do you want, Harrison?”
He squats down to confer with Lucy and Harrison and I smile down at them. The lady behind the counter catches my eye and she mouths, “he’s cute.”
I grin and nod my head. He really is. I thought he was cute before, but there’s nothing cuter than a guy interacting with little kids. Well, a guy holding a baby is cuter, but this is the next step up.
“Okay, what do you want, Emeline?”
“I’ll just steal a bite of Harrison’s,” I say. I don’t want him spending too much money on me.
“No you won’t,” Harrison says, glaring at me. “Get your own.”
“Seriously, Em, what do you want?” Wilson asks, looking me right in the eyes.
“I’ll take an ice cream sandwich” I say after studying the menu for a minute.
“Okay, that’s easy then,” Wilson says. “Four ice cream sandwiches, ma’am, thank you.”
Wilson trades money for four ice cream sandwiches and passes them out. His fingers brush mine as he hands me mine and I can’t ignore the sparks that fly. “Thank you,” I say, helping Harrison open his so it won’t drip everywhere. Wilson is helping Lucy do the same, and it’s a minute before we’re able to take a bite of our own.
“Oh, that’s good,” Wilson says around the bite of sandwich.
“It really is,” I say around my own bite.
“Let’s go see the tigers,” Lucy says to Harrison, and the two of them start running, ice cream sandwiches dripping as they run.
“Whoa,” Wilson and I say in unison. I grab Lucy’s shirt and he grabs Harrison, stopping them in their tracks. “You can’t leave without us,” I say.
“But you’re slow,” Harrison complains.
“Sorry, I don’t care,” I say with a shrug. “Let’s sit on this bench and eat our ice cream.”
Somehow I end up sandwiched between Lucy and Wilson, while Harrison’s on Wilson’s other side. We seem to have come to the unspoken agreement that we’re going to watch each other’s siblings. God knows it’s certainly easier that way.
“I’m hot,” Harrison complains, pointing to the water park across from us. “I want to go in the fountains.”
“Oh, can I go in the fountains too?” Lucy asks, leaning in front of me to look up at Wilson.
“I didn’t bring you a change of clothes,” Wilson says.
“I have two,” I whisper in Wilson’s ear.
He glances down at me. “Do we really want to let them in the fountains?”
“I think it would be easier than letting them run wherever they want,” I say.
Wilson shrugs. “Fine. Lucy, if you want to borrow some clothes from Emeline, you can go in the fountain.”
“I don’t think her clothes will fit me,” Lucy says, looking up at me.
“I have some extra clothes for Harrison. How does that sound?” I ask.
She wrinkles her nose at the thought of wearing boys’ clothes, but the pull of the fountain is too strong. “Okay,” she says. “Harrison, you go with Wilson in the boys room, and I’ll go with Emmy into the girls room.”
“Sounds like a plan, miss bossy-pants,” Wilson says, shaking his head at her. “Give me your wrapper.”
Wilson collects the wrappers and brings them to the trash while I open my bag and pull out a change of clothes for Lucy to wear. “Harrison, give me your shoes. You can get wet in that set, and we’ll change into another one at the end. Lucy, you need to change first.”
Harrison pulls off his shoes and hands them to me.
“Would you mind putting sunscreen on him?” I ask Wilson, who shakes his head and holds out his hand for the bottle. I pass it over before getting to my feet. “Lucy and I are gonna go get her changed. Can you watch my bag?”
“Absolutely,” he says.
I take Lucy and a change of clothes into the ladies room and we quickly get her out of her pink shirt and purple skirt and into a set of Harrison’s clothes. “I love going in the fountains,” she says with squeal of delight.
“I’m glad to hear it,” I say, rubbing my ear.
“I’m glad we met you and Harrison,” she says, throwing her arms around my waist. “Wilson likes you.”
“I’m sure he does,” I say with a smile as we head back out to the boys.
Wilson has sunscreen smeared across his face, and Harrison is doing his best to smear it in. “I hope you don’t mind me borrowing a bit of your sunscreen,” he says when he sees me.
“I don’t mind at all,” I say. “Lucy, let’s get you greased up.”
In less than two minutes, the kids are both greased and have been let into the gated water park. Harrison and I stay on the outside, leaning against the fence. “Thank God, they’re contained for a minute,” he says, sagging against the fence.
“Seriously,” I say, taking a deep breath.
“I’m glad you were here, because I would have had to tell her no when she saw the fountains and I probably would have lost her three times already.”
“Well, I did lose Harrison, so I’m glad you were here to find him,” I say, smiling up at him, laughing when I notice a big white spot on the side of his nose, where Harrison totally missed a glob of sunscreen. “You’ve got some sunscreen there.” I reach up and smear it into his skin. “That’s better.”
“Thank you,” he says, leaning in.
“You’re welcome,” I say, taking a small step closer.
“Wilson!” Lucy squeals. “This water is cold!”
I laugh when Wilson looks up at the sky and closes his eyes.
“Go run around,” I tell Lucy. “That will warm you up. Go find Harrison.”
Lucy runs off and Wilson shakes his head. “Oh, that girl.”
“We do have the rest of the summer before they go back to school,” I say. “Maybe we should get each other’s phone numbers. Harrison seems to like you two, and I know I’d rather not watch him by myself the entire summer.”
“That sounds like a perfect idea,” he says. “How about the free movie tomorrow?”
“Yes,” I say immediately. “Air conditioning.”
Wilson laughs as he pulls out his phone, messes around with it for a second, then hands it to me. “Plug yourself in.”
I write in my name and number and hit save as I hand it back. “Now smile,” he says, holding his phone out to take a picture of me.
“Was that good?” I ask as he lowers his phone.
“Perfect,” he says.
Harrison and Lucy come running out of the enclosure. “We wanna be in the picture too,” Harrison demands. “We were here too.”
Wilson and I laugh as the two of them squish their wet bodies between us. Wilson holds out his phone and snaps a selfie, and the second the camera clicks the kids are begging to see it. “Hang on, let me text it to Emeline,” he says.
It pops up on my phone and Lucy leans over me, getting my shoulder soaked as I pull it up. The four of us look like we’re having the time of our lives. “Hey Harrison, how would you like to go to the free movie tomorrow with Lucy?” I ask as I save the photo to my phone.
“Oh, please, can we?” Lucy asks, looking at Wilson.
“I think that sounds like fun,” he says, smiling at me.
I open the saved photo and hold down on it until the menu pops up. With a smile, I select “save as background and lock screen”.
“It’s a date, then,” I say.
The kids squeal as Wilson grins at me. “I like the sound of that.”
To be perfectly honest, so do I.