I got home as early as I could to relieve Jill. The boys were sound asleep. I felt a little bit guilty, because I had not been able to spend much time with them all week. Most days I was either late for work or held up in some other way, and each time Mrs. Jennings made me pay for it by over loading my work schedule or forcing me to work extra hours. Jaden, the eldest, was fourteen.
He was smart and emotionally strong for his age. I could always depend on him to look after his younger brother Joseph Junior after school until I got home. To them, the sitter was just an unnecessary accessory and if it was up to Jaden, they would not even have a sitter. Feeling the burden of my guilt I went to the kitchen, and re-heated some overnight casserole. It’s no Bobby Flay cooking but, it wasn’t the worst. I sat down still wearing my uniform, then the phone rang and filled my small two bedroom apartment with noise. Excitedly I ran to it. Helen was calling to check up on me, (as she did every night). I’d always been secretly happy to receive Helen’s frequent calls. She’d say comforting things that forced me to think I’d be okay.
I’ve never really let her know that I liked her calling me like an over bearing mother every night but it was comforting to feel like someone actually understood what I was going through and cared enough to check up on me. Helen had been in a battered relationship, and could sympathize with me.
We went on about our day and past until she was too tired to speak. I tried to stall so that she wouldn’t hang up the phone, but she insisted on getting her rest. And she deserved it. No one I knew worked as hard as Helen. And after five years in a relationship that left her deeply scared emotionally and physically, she was the epitome of strength.
I admire her dearly. She is a warrior. Always ready with sword drawn for any battle. Me, I’m a coward. I run when I think the pressure is too much and hide when the battle gets too fierce. I even dread the nights. Because I knew that no matter what I tried, sleeping pills, therapeutic oils, workout out regimens that were to calm the body and mind it was all to no avail. I would not sleep. Most nights I tossed and turned and woke up screaming out in terror, from my emotionally crippling nightmares. But this time morning came quickly, and the screams of the alarm woke me up just before sunrise.
The snooze button was never my friend, so I got out of bed and made coffee. It was my day off, and I intended to enjoy it and make up for what that aggravating man from the cab did. He had ruined my coffee break the day before. I was going to get back what I’d lost no matter the cost. I relaxed on the sofa and put my feet up, intent on enjoying the day. I had even planned a picnic with the boys for the afternoon.
They haven’t been out much, since Joseph attempted that daring kidnapping a year ago. The boys were on their way home from school, when someone tried to drag them into a van.
If it were not for Peggy, a sucker for our then neighborhood watch, I would not have my sons here with me today. The perpetrator only got Jaden in the van. According to Peggy who was always at her bedroom window it seems, Jaden sacrificed himself and that helped Junior to run away. They abandoned the van along with Jaden in it a few blocks down the road.
That was what trigged our last move. We ended up here, in Northridge. This secluded, almost forgettable with its mom and pop businesses, low rise apartment buildings, narrow streets and small population.
There’s not much tourism or special attractions, which made the little town even more forgettable. There is not much to remember about Northridge, so I thought no one, especially Joseph would even think to look for us here.
After the attempted abduction of the boys, I had and still have no doubt that Joseph orchestrated it. He was clever and knew how to get his dirty work done from where he was. And now he was even spoiling my day, there I was getting ready to enjoy a delightful afternoon with my kids and he had to come up in my mind.
I threw myself back into the couch and kicked up my feet again, grabbed my coffee and the remote, and turned on the TV to catch a part of the early morning news. Cindy Matthews was sitting behind her news desk, looking quite elegant as usual. Her sandy blonde hair tumbled over her rose pink blazer in mesmerizing barrel curls. Her professionally done makeup made her face glow with confidence. She was poised and looked like someone who’s accomplished a lot in life and was proud of their university degrees, convertible BMW and pent house suite.
Her perfectly contoured cheeks made a gorgeous frame for her immaculate straight white teeth. She began the morning report, her voice was soothing. The kind you’d enjoy listening to on your favorite radio talk show. She began with a breaking story and suddenly she became the most grotesque monster I ever saw. My glee turned to bitter anguish. I jolted up from the couch, the remote fell and split open.
My favorite mug fell from my hand and shattered to pieces I stood there with my jaw on the floor staring at the television as she read the news.
“A patient at the Horizon Mental Facility pulled of a daring escaped yesterday. According to our sources, the 42 year old man, Joseph Tanner, attacked and beat an employee then disguised himself in the man’s uniform, and managed to escape the facility...”
Heat flooded my face and a slew of incomprehensible emotions dropped to my abdomen like ten thousand tons of brick. My thoughts filled with dark depressing clouds and my mind rained down horrifying flashbacks. I felt the warmth of tiny familiar drops sliding slowly down my cheeks. Jaden came to the living room. Immediately I turn away to hide the tears and wiped my eyes before he suspected that I’d been crying.
“What’s going on mom? I heard noises.”
I rushed over to the set, and turned off the news.
“Nothing honey, it’s just a little accident.” I let out a breath and nailed a smile to my face.
“My coffee mug fell. I got it don’t worry, go wake up your brother and get ready for school.” My charade wasn’t very effective, because I sensed anxiety in his eyes.
That was the last thing I wanted. After all that they had been through in the past few years, having them worry about us moving again would devastate them.
“Honey I have to run out for a little while, help Junior get ready for school and make him something to eat. I’ll be back in a little while.”
“You’re leaving? I thought you had the day off, and you promised to take us to the park today. Mom you promised.”
“I do have they day off, but I have to go out for a while something has come up. I will take you guys out for dinner I promise.”
“You’ve been saying that a lot these days, what’s going on?”
The phone rang and interrupted him, I ran to it before he could get it.
“Are you watching the news?” Helen’s alarmed voice entered my ear.
“Yes I saw it. I’ll have to call you back Helen I’m in the middle of something right now.” I said quickly and hang up the phone.
“Was that aunty Helen mom?”
“Yes it was. Go and start getting ready for school.” He walked away hesitantly while glancing back at me.
I went down to the sidewalk trying to plot out my next move when Richard came up behind me decked out in running gear.
“Good morning Karen, you’re here. I thought you wouldn’t show up this morning, it’s quite early though” he said smiling, “you got an early shift today?”
I had completely forgotten about him. I turned and stared at him in astonishment.
“Are you all right?” he questioned.
“Y-yeah I’m fine, can you give me a ride to a friend’s house?”
“Well sure, but I need to go get the car. I’ll only be a few minutes.” His voice echoed a hint of urgency. Maybe because he sensed the urgency in mine sure enough, he was back a few minutes later in a black GMC Terrain still wearing his running gear. He looked puzzled and suspicious at the same time.
“Early shift today huh?” realizing that he’d repeated that question confirmed the feeling that I had. He was trying to figure out what was going on, at the same time he somehow suspected that I was not going to work today. Guilt burned in my abdomen and I didn’t have the guts to look him the eyes. The question hung in the air, waiting for an answer that just could not come. He sensed that something was wrong and said nothing more until we got to Helen’s house.
“I wanted to ask you to lunch today but it seems like this would be a bad time to ask.” I paused for a moment, and marveled at this man’s confidence.
“Yeah this would be kind of a bad time for me.” I offered a rain check, and he agreed to meet at another time.
I got out of the car and made my way up the stairs to Helens place. She opened the door before I could knock.
“I can’t believe this, he’s going to find us. He always does. What will I do now? I don’t want to move it would be too hard on the boys but we can’t stay here and wait for him to make a move.”
“I know you’re worried Karen, and you have every right to be, but we need to get all the facts before you make any big decisions.”
“The news said that he escaped. That’s the only fact I need. What am I going to do?”
“We’ll figure this out. Don’t worry I’ve got your back?”
I sat on the couch with my face in my palms, my brain was on double time trying to figure a way out of the tar pit that I was once again stuck in.
“He wasn’t always like this Helen, he was once a gentle man. We met at a party when I was in college. He swept me off my feet and said and did all the right things. We used to have so much fun together; six months after we started dating he asked me to marry him.”
“Do you still have feelings for him Karen?”
I looked up at her with a stunned look covering my face.
“No. That’s absurd. I can never love Joseph again, not after how he treated me. We were married for 16 years and almost all of them were like a horror film. You know after we got engaged, our friends threw us a party. Joseph got so drunk; he started a fight with a guest.”
“That seemed like a red flag girl why you go thru with the wedding?”
“I thought I was in love. That’s the truth. Anyway I tried to break up the fight but he just took out his anger on me. He slapped me so hard I had a bruise for a week.”
Helen got up and went to the kitchen for a bottle of Merlot even though it was early, I needed a glass. Coffee could not calm the storm that was brewing in my mind.
“Karen I hate to sound negative, and I’m not saying that it’s your fault he’s an ass. But why did you marry this guy if he started abusing you even before you were married? That slap alone was merit enough for me to run and never look back. Am just saying.”
“His apology seemed sincere at the time, and my mother was always going on about how we would never get married and give her grand kids. It seemed popping out babies was more important than a career. That sort of gave me push. I thought we would be fine. I was wrong so wrong.”
“Don’t beat yourself up Hun, It’s not your fault. We’ll figure this out together.”