When disaster strikes, one’s first instinct is to run from unforeseen dangers that soon may follow. Self-preservation makes us human. To cast it aside for those less able makes us brave.
“What a sweet boy you are…”
A familiar sound followed the softly spoken words. Her son’s velvet sigh was familiar to her, but the other voice was not. Slowly, Melanie opened her eyes to an unfamiliar scene. Once the blur cleared, she was able to make out the small shape of her toddler as he teetered toward the edge of the rough mattress she laid upon.
It happened in slow motion under the artificial light of a nearby lantern. As the boy tipped past the point of balance, Melanie rolled, reached for the back of her son’s overalls. Soft denim barely grazed her fingertips before he slipped from sight. Her gasp was stifled when he reappeared, held between two feminine hands in a flying hover. Laughter ensued.
With less strength than normal, Melanie scrambled to the edge of the bed to visually confirm the owner of those hands.
Raven hair fanned over floorboards like wings around a pale, haunting face. The woman who held little DJ by the middle could have been a ghost, but her full lips, stretched in an adoring smile, shone pink with life. Set against translucent skin in shocking contrast were large sapphire eyes that widened crazily when they focused on her.
“Well, hello, Momma.”
Melanie’s first instinct was to scream. Her second was to grab the nearest weapon and beat the crap out of the escaped lunatic on the floor. But that lunatic had her precious son and now held him tightly to her ample bosom.
“I…I know who you are,” Melanie stammered while slowly moving to her knees. DJ wiggled under the firm hold and the fear in her voice was poorly masked. “Please don’t hurt him.”
Rena Hellberg – certifiable killer – rolled her eyes in answer. “You think I’m going to boil him up for stew? Get real.”
When the woman rose from the floor, Melanie stumbled off the bed in order to keep the close proximity. “I just want you to give him back to me.”
“Ma,” the toddler said through cheeks squished between hand and breast.
“He’s doing just fine,” Rena assured, eyes wary beneath thick, black lashes. “You can barely stand up straight. I’ll take care of him until you’re right again.”
Anger mingled with panic. “Until I’m right? That’s rich coming from you!” Melanie took a steadying breath under the heat of Rena’s gaze. “He wants me. Please…”
Rena cocked her head. Slowly, she said, “Come and get him.”
It sounded like a challenge. Chills zinged down her spine. Melanie took a step and the room instantly began to sway beneath her feet. The lunatic laughed.
“Rena, that’s enough.”
The gravelly command came from behind and Melanie’s attempt to spin around finally brought her down. She caught herself on the bed avoiding an impact with the floor. Her eyes came up, barely caught the shadow of a man in the doorway of the large windowless room she occupied.
“Lay down,” he whispered, “and she’ll give him back.”
His words were meant for her. When it struck, Melanie sat down heavily on the bare mattress and struggled not to pass out from fear. “Who are you? Why did you take us?” Instead of answering, the figure disappeared. “Wait! Come back!”
“I’m not sure you want to know, sweetheart,” Rena answered. The woman approached the bed. “Come on. Lay down and I’ll give him back, just like he said.”
It was hard to trust a single word that escaped those lips, but Melanie obeyed and Rena transferred the wiggly toddler into her outstretched arms.
The reunion was tumultuous. Never before had Melanie experienced this kind of fear for her child, not even when he was caught downing a bottle of scented bath oil six months prior. “Oh, baby, Mommy’s got you…”
He was warm and soft, safe and sound, and he snuggled deeply within her fierce embrace.
The worn mattress dipped when Rena sat down beside them. “He’s so cute,” she said. “Such a chubby little face. It makes me want one all over again.” She retrieved a familiar pink blanket from the floor and put it in his pudgy hand. “But I’d highly recommend blue if we don’t want to confuse the kid later on.”
The woman almost sounded normal. Far from the crazy bitch who’d shot bullets at her and Danny two years ago.
Fatigue washed over Melanie now that her child was back in her arms. “Please, Rena. I don’t know what you have planned for us, but you need to let us go. DJ needs to be home, not in this…” she glanced around the room which was half cast in shadow from the white glow of the lantern, “this moldy old place, whatever it is. A classroom?”
Rena stretched out beside them, smiled at the baby who smiled back. “Chalkboard gave it away, huh? Don’t worry, I cleaned up once I heard we were getting this precious little guy. Talk about surprise! You got busy after our last encounter!”
“That last encounter almost killed me, and here you are chit-chatting like we’re girlfriends!” When the woman’s head reared back, Melanie checked her tone. “Sorry… I’m sorry.” A deep breath and a pressing kiss to DJ’s silky blonde hair restored her calm. “I’m just trying to make sense of things. You’re obviously behind this and I can’t help but think…”
“What? That I might be using you as bait to lure the happy Cahill couple into my evil trap?”
Melanie swallowed. “Something like that.”
“Ha!” Rena, dressed like a cat burglar in a black athletic ensemble, rolled from the bed and retrieved DJ’s diaper bag. “To be honest, I can’t figure out what Austin sees in her. I never thought he’d be into the tomboy slut type, but whatever.” She shrugged as she opened a plastic tub of Cheerios. DJ accepted the miniature “O” and immediately stuffed it into his mouth, held out his hand for another. “It’s history. Plus, I want to forget that part of my life…the parts I can remember, anyway.”
“Don’t bother trying to convince me you’re reformed, Rena. We wouldn’t be here if you were.”
Leaving the cereal within reach, the woman stood and turned her back. Shoulders stiff, she walked to the black rectangle at the far end of the room and chose a small white stick. The slow whisper-click of chalk gliding over slate gave eerie new life to the peeling paint and falling plaster surrounding them. When Rena finished, she put the chalk down, moved out of the way and headed for the door. It closed, locking behind her, leaving mother and child in the abandoned classroom alone.
In the ensuing silence, Melanie squinted until the printed words came into focus. When they did, goose bumps washed over her skin.
It’s not all about me.
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