“Make sure to keep the money out of sight and be careful, Ivy,” mother reminded.
“I know, mom!” I shouted as I stuffed the cash in my pocket with one hand and dragged Mina through the front door with my other. We ran down the dark street without looking back, jumping over rain puddles, and weaving around trashcans like an obstacle course.
“How far is the market?” Mina asked, tugging on my sweater.
“We’re almost there, see?” I leaned down to her and pointed at the few glowing lanterns in the distance.
This would be Mina’s first time going to see the Mid-Autumn lanterns. Mother has always been too tired and frail to take her, but this year she decided I was finally old enough to take her on my own. At first, the street grew brighter and brighter as we skipped further down the hill towards the floating lanterns. Then, suddenly the glow of the lanterns ceased like a switch was flipped as we turned into an alleyway that I knew would be a shortcut. Despite mother’s instructions, we carelessly let our eagerness guide us through whatever path would get us there quickest.
“Excuse me miss…” a voice mumbled from the corner of the dark alleyway as we cut through. “Where are you two headed at this hour without any grownups?” the raspy voice teased, clearly drunk.
I looked back to find an old man leaning up against one of the big dumpsters. He waved as if he was reaching for us, and then finally grabbed onto the handles of the dumpster and pulled himself up. His sweater, which was probably once grey, was now brown and stained from the waist to the hood with God knows what. He stumbled around and tugged at the ragged sweater, or what was left of it, obsessively as it kept slipping off his shoulder. During events as busy as the lantern festival, the streets are always crawling with pick-pocketers and crooks. I grabbed Mina by the shoulder and pulled her closer to me, worried that the man would prey on us.
“Ignore him,” I instructed. I could feel her resisting, trying to turn back to catch a glimpse of the old man, but I tightened my grip on her shoulder and accelerated my walking pace.
“Don’t be shy!” his voice echoed as he dissipated into the dark void behind us. A wave of relief washed over us as the eerie silence turned into the chatter buzzing from the crowd in the night market, and the music from the different stands clashing. I loosened my grip from Mina’s shoulder and held her hand instead, giving her more autonomy to explore the market’s wonders. In every direction we turned, there was a warm smile and lanterns, red, orange, pink, yellow, plastered with stars, dragons, cherry blossoms, and koi fish.
“Look, look at that one Ivy!” Mina shouted as she slipped her little hands out of mine, and ran towards one of the stands, jumping and pointing. Mina’s size and agility allowed her to slip through the crowd with ease, while I took a bit longer.
“Excuse me, ‘scuse me,” I gently pushed my way through clusters of couples, children, and workers. “How much for this one?” I asked the small, grey-haired woman running the stand which captivated my sister’s attention. She raised her fist and stretched open five fingers. “I’ll take two,” I smiled and dug into my pocket for the cash mother gave me earlier. The woman began lighting the lanterns as I straightened out my crumpled-up fives and ones. I handed her the bills and she stuffed them in the pocket of her apron before grabbing my hand and carefully placing a lantern in it, and then the second in my other hand. “Thank you!” I smiled and carefully headed back into the crowd with Mina.
“Can I hold one?” she asked reaching for one of the lit lanterns.
“It’s too dangerous, Mina”, I explained “you can hold it once we get to the water, okay? Just hold on.” I led mina through the crowd, balancing our lanterns in either hand, and we admired the glowing dragon boats that slowly grew larger as we got closer. As we approached the lake, I turned back to make sure that Mina was by my side and was mesmerized by the glimmer I caught in her eyes. The warm, glowing lanterns illuminated the night sky like stars and reflected their light off the surface of the lake. I could see the entire horizon in Mina’s doll-like eyes as she stared at all the colors floating over the lake.
“Let’s go Mina!” I held our lanterns up high and ran down towards the pier where everyone was releasing theirs, letting my excitement get the best of me. I scanned the crowd for an opening along the pier and scooted in where there was a small gap. “Here Mina, like I promised.” I turned around and held out one of the lanterns to Mina who had been glued to my side, but there was nobody there. “Mina!” I shouted as I felt my heart plummet. I dropped both lanterns on the pier and sprinted back towards the market.
The chatter and laughter from the crowd muffled in my ears, but I could barely hear it over the pounding of my heart. How could the sound that brought me so much joy just minutes ago be the same sound that’s now twisting my stomach and throat into knots? I crouched into every crevasse that Mina could fit into and approached every stand that could possibly catch her attention. I retraced our steps all the way back to the now empty alleyway. I shouted her name until my voice gave out and searched until I could no longer see past my tears, but Mina was nowhere to be found.