It started Thursday night. As we were walking to the car from school, the Kid said matter-of-factly, "Friend and I are going to run away. We're going to California to stay with Paw tonight."
This is a pretend we often enjoy, so I played along. How will you get there? What will you do when you arrive? And so on.
The next morning, I got up early to run, leaving my sleeping family behind. I did not close the baby gate at the top of the stairs because I didn't want the noise to wake Little Miss.
Three miles later, I trotted around the corner of our block to find the Kid walking, almost to the busy cross street.
"Hey, Man Cub, whatcha doing?" I asked jovially, assuming Sweet Husband was standing on our front porch watching and had sent him out to greet me.
"I'm running away!" he replied.
"OK," I told him, as I craned to look for Sweet Husband, "But don't you think you should get a good breakfast in your tummy first?" I joked, "Let's go have some eggs, then you can run away."
Thirty steps later, I discovered that Sweet Husband was not on the porch. He was in the house, upstairs, feeding Little Miss. The Kid had slipped out the front door, unbeknownst to anyone.
I fought to keep from laughing. (Because that's what I do when I'm completely freaked the F out.) I fought to keep from shaking him. And then, we sat down calmly on the front porch and I grasped for the worst punishment I could think of on the fly. "Buddy, I need you to remember that this was really bad, so you will have absolutely no TV all weekend."
Something in my tone must have told him that it was better not to protest, because--for once--my baby lawyer was quiet. We were in the car on the way to school before he finally worked up the nerve to argue.
"But I can watch train videos, right?"
"But I was just running away to meet Friend."
"No. You could have gotten hurt. Someone could have taken you."
"But I would get away."
"NO! You would not have. Someone could have taken you and they could have hurt you or killed you and you would NOT have been able to get away. You CANNOT leave the house without Mom or Dad."
I left a message for his teacher--mostly because I felt like the other little guy's parents should know what they were scheming--and talked to her later that morning. "I talked to them both," she told me, "I went a little dark, I hope that's OK."
And my head flashed to every photo of every dead child I've seen. Of all the photos of sexual assault examinations of three year olds. Of every dark bruise. Of every twisted child abuse case.
I didn't say it out loud, but all I could think was, "Dark? You don't know the half of it, sister."
I got home from work. I called my mom. I went to bed early. And, over the course of the weekend, I was able to swallow most of that initial panic down.
The Kid knows what he did was really wrong. I know that complete stranger abductions are really rare. We went to the farmer's market and the park and the grocery store and washed our little red wagon.
And I hugged the crap out of him. I hugged the crap out of them both.
Someday I know that this will all be a terribly funny story. But not yet.