Chapter 1: How to lose your toddler in the woods
One decision to tie my shoe. That was all it took. One second, my day was great, and then one bow-knot later...totally fucked. It only took that long. And it’s a good thing I love the hell out of my dogs, otherwise I would have enjoyed, nay, relished murdering them when I found them. But, I assure you that everything turned out okay in the end.
The end? I guess I’m getting ahead of myself. There needs to be a beginning long before there’s an end to a story, and I guess I’m a little amped up still when I think about everything I went through. So, occasionally I might have to slow down, gather my thoughts, and stay on track while telling this story. I apologize in advance.
My name is Gregory Wang, and at the moment when this story begins, I was the proud father of Isabella, my 20 month-old daughter, and Maizie and Molly, my two crazy German Shepherds. My wife, Caroline, was pregnant to almost bursting at this time. We were expecting a baby boy in the next “any moment now” when I went and decided to complicate our world by trying to be a good husband and father.
It all began by me deciding to take Isabella and the dogs out for a run. It was a gorgeous autumn day, the dogs were restless, Isabella was repeating “SHIDE?” over and over, which was her way of asking to go outside, and my wife was trying her best not to act as though she could sleep standing up. I remember thinking that it would be good to go for a run. I could use it, the dogs could use it, it would appease my daughter’s need to go “shide,” and my wife could stay home and rest. It was a great plan. Caroline was happy and relieved when I told her what my plan was. I know she used what little energy she had to get up and hug me when I said I would take everyone out of the house for a while so she could rest. She even whispered “thank you” into my ear and I could hear little hormone-filled pregnant tears falling behind her words. I told Isabella that yes, as a matter of fact, we were going to go “shide,” and she ran over to her shoe basket excitedly, exclaiming “SHIDE? SHOO? SHIDE? SHOO?” The dogs started twirling in circles, panting happily as I grabbed their leashes. They knew that they were going to finally get some attention after losing so much during the course of early parenthood. I was happy that I was treating myself to a run, which I hadn’t done in quite some time.
Everybody was happy because of a decision I had made. That’s how this whole ordeal began. I had no clue whatsoever as to how exactly shitty things were about to get. I even remember driving to the Rocky River Reservation, looking in my rearview mirror at my daughter smiling and laughing at my dogs pacing and panting in the back of my station wagon, and then looking at a quick text message from my wife that simply said, “I love you.” I remember that moment. I remember feeling like no better decision could have been made. I remember feeling happy, relaxed, and almost carefree. When I had left, I told Caroline that we “wouldn’t be too long.” I was wrong.
I had Isabella in the jogging stroller, and I had tied one dog onto either side of the stroller’s handle. I had done this for what felt like a thousand times. It was a system I had devised shortly after Isabella was born. I kept Maizie, the good, attentive dog on the inside of the trail closer to oncoming walkers/runners/bikers because she wouldn’t disturb them at all. I put Molly on the outside because Molly is a sweet, loving, wonderful spazz, and her life’s ambition seemed to be licking the entire world, one person at a time. Molly tried to cross over to the middle in attempting her ambition, but it only took a couple of run-ins with the front of the stroller for her to learn to stay on the outside. Having a dog attached to either side of the stroller also helped pull the damned thing, which helped me enjoy my runs. I know this is quite a bit of a description of how I ran with a stroller, but I feel the need to explain my thinking behind my dogsled set-up, as it proved to be the ruin of my day.
The run went very well, actually. By the time I had finished, I had ran a 5k in about 32 minutes. Not too bad for me at the time. I never claimed to be an all-star athlete. In all honesty, I mostly ran to get rid of my belly; an effort that was usually undermined by my eating habits. At the time when everything went south, I was walking to cool down, and I remember taking in the autumn scent that floated in on every gust of wind. The sun was shining down on Isabella’s beautiful napping face as I peeked over the top of the stroller to check on her. Maizie and Molly seemed happy and panting; I knew that they would be napping after we got home. I remember deciding to take my time cooling down so I could give Caroline some more time to rest. Everything felt in its right place. I was enjoying the fall scenery, too. Despite the beauty of the day, there was no one else on the reservation’s jogging trail at that moment. At the time, I quite enjoyed being alone with my daughter and dogs. I looked around and soaked it all in. To my right, the trees lined the trail in the scarlets, maroons, golds, purples, tans, and yellows of the autumn leaves. They made a shimmering in the sun, accompanied by a maraca- like percussion in the breeze. The forest was beautiful. It was that one week in autumn when everything is perfect, as most of the leaves are still on the trees right before the big dump before winter. I was happy and unconsciously taking, big, deep, relaxing breaths. I thought of my unborn child rolling around inside his little womb. Everything was as perfect and still as it could possibly get.
I smiled wide and then something near my feet caught my eye. My right shoelace had come untied. What a metaphor for the rest of the day. My dogs were good girls. Shoelaces come untied often for runners, nay, everyone. It’s the nature of shoes. On all previous accounts of me running with my dogs tied to the stroller, I told them to sit, they did, I crouched down and tied my shoe, stood back up, and then we all moved on. It was almost procedural at the time this story truly begins.
I told Maizie and Molly to sit. They did. I crouched down and started tying my shoe. Then, I saw it. It was in the woods directly to my right, just at the edge. It couldn’t have been more than ten feet away. It was standing on two legs, eating something on the ground. That was how it caught my eye; it stood up after eating something on the forest floor, revealing itself, and I might not have noticed it, but it was bright red, almost the shade of red children in devil costumes would be wearing in the next couple of weeks for Halloween. That was kind of what it looked like, too. It was a little devil, standing about a foot high, eating something. I had enough time to process the fact that it was very fuzzy, red, had pointy black ears and a little black goatee before it made eye contact with me. I stayed still as our eyes met, and I’m sure my jaw fell open. Its little jaw did the same thing, and little bits of whatever it was eating fell to the ground. Then it spoke in the tiniest, cutest little voice.
“Oh shit!” spoke the fuzzy little devil.
On that, the devil and I agreed. the words that fell out of my mouth were the same, but entirely different.
“What the fuck?” were my words of choice.
This high-pitched cursing of the tiny devil creature was what finally undid my day, as it attracted the attention of Maizie and Molly. When Maizie saw it, I know that she saw what might have been a threat. She was always very protective of our family, especially after Isabella was born. Clueless Molly probably just saw something she was sure she hadn’t licked yet. Although each dog had an entirely different motivating reason, their action was the same, and I knew what they were going to do, but unfortunately entirely too late.
It was one of those moments in which all of time and space seems to slow down; not so you can do something superhuman and heroic, but so that you can take your time to process exactly how fucked you are. It’s as though God himself reaches down, makes your moment happen in slow motion, and chuckles as he watches the strange ways in which your face tries to perform an expression that properly interprets your inability to intervene and save yourself from your fate. In my moment, which was probably all of five seconds, I looked over at the jogging stroller jerking violently to the right toward the woods. I saw the little devil take off running into the woods at a speed that seemed impossible for a creature so small. I heard its high-pitched voice drift off into the distance, repeating its exclamations of “Oh shit!” one after another. I saw myself try and dive for the stroller as it was dragged off by my dogs into the woods as though my daughter was attempting to be the youngest person to win the Iditarod. I might have caught it, too, but I hadn’t finished tying my shoe. Naturally, my left foot stepped on my right foot’s shoelaces, and when I tried to launch myself with my right foot, all I could do was fall forward straight down onto my face and hands.
Time resumed its normal pace again. I watched from my hands and knees as my dogs raced off into the woods, pulling Isabella in her stroller behind them. In a split second, I got to my feet and started running off into the woods after them, yelling for Maizie and Molly to stop. They normally would have listened, but they got quite the head start after my fall, and the lure of a tiny fuzzy devil creature running off at incredible speed spouting out tiny “oh shit’s” over and over was more motivating than a mechanical rabbit to a greyhound. I had never seen my dogs run so fast. I had probably never run so fast in my life, either.
My heart was instantly aching with fear for my daughter’s safety. She was just a toddler with a tiny vocabulary. She didn’t know how to get Maizie and Molly to stop. My mind raced with all sorts of scenarios of what could possibly happen. There were tree limbs and bumps and hills and cliffs and streams...and the Rocky fucking River. It seemed as though the entire woods was a great threat to my daughter’s well being. At that moment I could give a fuck about the dogs, I’ll admit. I was cursing them, and cursing that little devil thing. I didn’t even have the time or lack of adrenaline to process or care about seeing the impossible creature. I just ran. I ran like hell to save my daughter, and it looked like she and my dogs were only drifting farther and farther away from me. I watched them disappear over a hill, and my stomach dropped. I would have yelled out some more, but I had to save my breath in order to keep up my running speed. Plus, I wanted to listen for my daughter’s voice. The pursuit had awoken her, and she was making noise. This was my only comfort in this situation. I was sprinting through the forest to save her life, and I could barely make out Isabella’s voice ahead of me. Her voice was my reason for being.
What was she saying? Well, she was saying the only appropriate thing any toddler could say after waking up to find that you’re careening through a forest at incredible speeds that might eventually hurt or maim you.
“WHEEEEEE!!!! YAY DADA!” she was yelling.
And there was much giggling, too.
After about ten minutes of running, I had to slow down. I had to stop. I had just finished running three miles for pleasure after all, and now I was almost completely out of breath. There was no more giggling, no more barking, no more sounds of the jogging stroller being thrown through the trees. It was just me and my heavy breathing. And tears. They were starting to fall, and without even trying. My child. Gone. Somewhere into the forest. Gone. My Isabella. Just gone.