Part 1 - Chapter 1
Nate is utterly flabbergasted.
It doesn’t happen often, so when it does happen, it takes him a moment to gather his wits and come up with the appropriate plan of action to deal with the situation. The only thing is – and this is the thing – he’s been staring at this peacefully sleeping girl for at least a minute and a half, and nothing, absolutely nothing, is popping into his head.
No plan of attack, no insightful conclusions, nothing comes to mind except the incredibly curious, empty sensation of being well and truly flabbergasted.
Nestled in a pile of money siphoned from the previously-locked but now-open and empty briefcases, lies a little blond girl, her chest rising and falling gently with the steady, unflappable rhythm of a child’s deep sleep, arms wrapped tightly around a worn stuffed bunny.
That simple act of breathing has rendered Nate catatonic, his mind cruelly pulling him back to five years ago, when his son was still alive, still breathing, in much the same way. They’re the same age, he thinks to himself, his hand resting on the lip of the trunk door. The same age, and yet she is here and Sam, his son – his only son – is not.
The car is a very modest hatchback Honda, with a spacious trunk, but Nate couldn’t fathom when she managed to crawl into it. And how he hadn’t noticed. Of course, she’s familiar; she’d tried to pick his pocket on a street right outside Central Park, but he’d caught her.
Her fearful eyes stared up at him as he held her thin wrist, feeling just as surprised as she looked. It had been a gut feeling that made him reach out, not the feeling of her fingers in his pocket. He hadn’t felt a thing, and he was torn between being impressed and being incredibly concerned. Delicately, he’d plucked his wallet out of her fingers before releasing her, managing only to caution her to be more careful next time, before she ran off.
And now, it appeared that she hadn’t heeded his warning at all. He hadn’t meant ‘caution’ as a term for ‘run away’. And he certainly hadn’t meant it as ‘hitchhiking’.
Still… her face was white and pale against the clumped furs on the stuffed rabbit, almost sickly. Weak. Helpless. He could almost imagine her hooked up to an IV, a heart monitor beeping reassuringly by the wayside until that terrible moment when it spiked, then flat lined, the nurses rushing through the doors and pushing him aside, out, pushing him away, denying him the kindness of being with his boy as he slipped away from the world, a glass window separating him from that last second of connection, that last touch, that last shuddered breath as his world slipped away through the chaotic scrambling of doctors.
Nate could bear the burning in his eyes, but he couldn’t bear to wake her up.
And he couldn’t, in good conscience, leave her in the back of the car either.
With a sigh he looked around, eyeing the cars whizzing by on the freeway wistfully. The gas station he’d stopped at had an attached motel, and he stared at the girl for another second before making up his mind.
Leaving the trunk open, he went around the side of the car to retrieve his overnight bag, making sure the ID card and the credit card matched, and were at the ready. Then, putting inordinate amounts of faith in the extraordinary powers of a child’s sleep, he tentatively picked the girl, and her bunny up, picked off the cash that clung to her, and closed the trunk as quietly as he could.
The girl remained so still Nate had to pause to make sure she was still breathing.
What he was doing was reaching into the dubiously moral, rationalized only because she’d chosen to stow-away in his car, and he knew he had good intentions. Ignoring how poorly this could all turn out if, at this moment, she decided to wake, he plowed onwards into the motel, booking a room with the fake ID and no questions asked.
Still slumped against his shoulder, Nate opened the door of the room, backing into it and clicking on the lights. Two beds, a bathroom, a television set that looked as if it might fall down before the night was through, and a noisy mini-fridge perched on a rickety table. Dropping the bag to the floor, he pulled away the covers of one of the beds and gently lowered her down onto it. Placing the rabbit beside her, he pulled the covers up lightly, staring down for a moment, trying to see what was there, instead of what he wanted to be there.
He didn’t try too hard, and there were phone calls he had to make, so with one last look he fished out his phone, opened the door, and called Sophie to let her know he’d be staying the night and asking her to get the team together for tomorrow afternoon. Sophie, who knew him better than he cared to think, didn’t ask what had happened after the first time he reassured her all was well.
When he came back, the girl had turned into the stuffed toy, her hand curled around one of its arms possessively, breathing soft and gentle.
There was nothing to drink in the mini-fridge, and a journey outside offered no more than vending machine goods.
As Nate lay there that night, he pretended that it was because he didn’t want her to wake up while he was sleeping, and not the memories that plagued him each time he shut his eyes.