December 27, 2007
By Stella Chen, San Diego, CA

I grip my mother's hand tighter as another wave looms toward us. It crashes hard. We are whirled and tossed about as the sea of shoppers swirls around us. My short height allows me to see only their bent knees and tireless legs, and occasionally, another child flitting around a shipwrecked shopping cart. With my free hand, I search for the surface, fumbling around for something, anything, that will keep me from being stepped on and sucked into the whirlpool of people. My palm grows sweaty as a sensation of perpetual claustrophobia sinks in. My hand slips, and I am instantly carried away by the heavy current. I scream out for help, but the sound of the sea is stronger, scores of footsteps stomping over my soft voice. I am six years old, and stranded at sea in Costco.

I know that I must keep moving. To stop is suicide: If not death by being stomped on, then death by suffocation. Or possibly worse, abduction by predatory strangers. So I just keep swimming, and push my way against the current of shoppers. I hang my head low, not in fear, but to search. I am not yet tall enough to see above the waistline, so I search for my mother's familiar feet. Yet none of the legs and ankles I trip over are hers, nor are any of the boots and sandals that tread on my toes. Suddenly, a figure stops. I see octopus-mauve shoes, shark-teal knee-high socks, and leech-black shorts pulled up much too high.

"Are you lost, little girl?"

Predatory stranger. My coral-red sneakers make a break for it. I dash off into the current, zip between legs, and finally dart into a revolving clothing rack. It is dark, it is stuffy, but it is safe. As soon as I regain my breath, I position myself on my stomach, knees bent to keep my feet from poking out of the rack. Peering under the garments, I scan for the beach-golden moccasin shoes my mother sports, but only blurs of black shoes and gray wheels surge past me.

Thoughts of being marooned in this dangerous, uncharted warehouse plague me, but are quickly disrupted by a hand that suddenly probes into the rack. I duck, narrowly dodging the hand, now rummaging through the clothing one by one. The rack revolves, and I shift to avoid being spun too. The hand teeters forward, I tilt to the left. The hand swerves to the left, I squirm to the right. The hand draws to the right, I drop to the ground. Hugging the floor, I steal a glance underneath the rack. Purple heels and painted toes. But wait! A golden speck shines in the distance, and as my eyes focus, the speck transforms into a familiar moccasin! I leap out of the rack, sending garments into the air and the purple-painted lady into shock, and sprint toward my mother. Our eyes meet and she shouts my name, which carries over the purple-painted lady's grumbles, over the swooshes of the shopping carts, and over the roar of the school of consumers. I hear it loud and clear.

Today, ten years later, things are much different. I don't clutch my mother's hand at the supermarket anymore, nor do I hide underneath racks of clothing. I dive headfirst into the water, and can see far above the waistline. But some things remain unchanged. My palms still sweat, and I still get scared sometimes. But I just keep swimming. Because even though both of my hands are now free, I know that, if I ever need them, there will always be two other free hands for me to hold.

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