My brother and I were given to flights of fancy growing up: One time, he calmly explained to my Mom how he got a ride home from school in a police car, with help from a very nice officer, after being chased by guys on horses dressed as cowboys; while I was very late to school one day after spending a bit too much time talking with the animals on the way, a sort-of pint sized Dr. Doolittle. Kim and I have been lucky so far, though, as Kate leans much more to the literal -- we can usually tell when it's a story, as she's ready to run away with Dora and Diego, or when Captain Hook's pirates are about.
That all changed last night, when -- about 14-1/2 hours into a white-knuckle 16-hour drive, Kate told us about the cookie.
We had just gotten done with dinner, our only prolonged stop of the trip. Until then, we had hit rest stops and gas stations, quick in-and-outs, and Kate had been nursing a McDonald's cheeseburger from somewhere near Indianapolis. By Knoxville, though, we needed a break - Daniel had been screaming for what seemed like hours, Kim was contorted backwards on her seat trying to soothe him, Kate was getting loopy on only a 1-hour nap, and I had just finished a 2-1/2 hour stretch that included a long section of freezing fog with driving sleet and rain through the Cumberland Mountains.
So we stopped for a meal, grabbing a bite at a halfway-decent BBQ place attached to a gas station. Kate had been so good throughout the drive that I treated her to a bit of soft-serve frozen yogurt -- in pink, her favorite flavor. We took our time, making multiple trips to the potty, refilling the car, feeding Daniel, and just generally relaxing before our last big push home. We had 130 or so miles to go, some of it on very narrow, winding, wet roadway, and I wanted to make it all without stopping.
We pull out of the parking lot and climb back up onto I-75. By now it was pitch black outside, and though the rain had passed, it was still misting and wet. Daniel starts fussing, so Kim turns in her seat to calm him down. She looks at Kate.
"Kate, what is that in your hand?"
"It's a cookie!" she says.
"A cookie? How did you get a cookie?"
"From the store."
I interrupt. "What store? Did you take it from the gas station?" Pause for a second while we try to figure it out. "Is there a wrapper on the cookie? Where did you get it?" Panic rising.
"I got it from the store. The lady gave it to me."
Panic gives way to fear: Instead of petty larceny, our daughter may have accepted food from a complete stranger, and could eat it at any time. My stomach drops. "Kate, does it have a wrapper on it? Give Mommy the cookie." My mind is racing through all the possibilities.
Kim tries to help. "Kate, give Mommy the cookie."
"Kate, don't make me stop the car. If I have to stop the car, I will be very upset. Please give Mommy the cookie."
At this point, I'm freaking out. I don't like the obstinence, but I'm more scared than anything. Our voices rise. "We are pulling over at the next exit if you don't give us the cookie, and that will make us very angry. Give us the cookie."
"OK, that's it. We're pulling over."
The car goes silent. "Don't think we're not mad," Kim says. "Daddy is just looking for a safe place to stop. You are in trouble, and there will be consequences."
It's dark. I move over into the right lane as we approach a remote exit on the outskirts of town. I slide in behind a semi and ease onto the ramp. We cross through the intersection and I pull to the shoulder. I stop, turn off my lights, and practically jump out of the car. I whip open her door, half expecting to find that she had gobbled it up. "Give Mommy the cookie. Now." There was no room for negotiation in my voice.
With a pout on her lip, Kate hands Kim the cookie. We look at it in the dimness of the dome light. We're confused, and it takes a moment to process. One beat. Two. Then, "What the hell?"
It's a bun. Or rather, a part of a bun. From a McDonald's cheesburger. That must have fallen into her car seat. Hours ago.
But to an imaginative 3-year-old Cookie Monster, it's a treat she got from the store.
And the nice lady gave it to her.
In her purple pajamas -- which she lived in for much of the trip -- Kate looked every bit like a cute, blonde Cookie Monster!