In Queen's Park, Charles thinks he can tell the difference between mothers and au pairs by the tiny lines around the mothers' eyes. There's more to the difference than merely noticing that the au pairs are hardly out of childhood themselves. Some of the mums steering prams or pushchairs around the park are young, too. But the mums, he thinks, are marked.
If Charles couldn't see the lines, he'd still know. He grew up in another country, so he smiles at strangers. He says hello. The au pairs smile back at him sometimes. The mums, never. Someone might say, Well, an au pair is a foreigner, too, usually. She didn't grow up here in the historical soot and stones. Yes, someone might say that, missing the point.
Charles found a teddy bear on the pavement.
"Madame!" he called to the woman steering her child under the shade of the plane trees. "Is this...Did you drop this?"
She turned, eyes narrow with suspicion until she saw the toy.
Charles said, "Someone was going to miss this!"
The mother thanked him, still squinting a little though she and Charles both stood out of the sun. Then she turned away, all business.
Charles has seen the posters on shop windows or plastered on the back of vans. The little blonde girl, where and when last seen. This year's signs. There were different ones last year and the year before that.
Women with children on the circular paths stop now and then to look over their shoulders. When Charles walks in the park, a man alone, he feels their gazes, feels them memorizing the color of his shirt, the way he trims his beard, something about him, in case.
Author's Bio: Bruce Holland Rogers teaches at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA, a program of the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. His stories have won a Pushcart Prize and two World Fantasy Awards. For more of his fiction, please visit www.shortshortshort.com.