MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
I grip her hand. Dirt clings to her small palm and makes caked half-moons under her nails. I squeeze her against my side, a shield against the drizzle. Her red bow bobs as we move faster down the road. Even here, I can’t escape the rain.
Don’t stop moving.
My heart pirouettes and shoots a melodic thump to the center of my forehead—usually a precursor to a massive headache—but this, this is all nerves. My legs slice forward uncertainly, both of us moving toward our new destination.
She peers up at me, eyebrows pinched, her left cheek bloated and red. She opens her mouth, closes it. Without thinking, I adjust the umbrella and scoop her up, wrapping her spindly legs around my waist. Her shins dangle around my middle, which makes it difficult to walk.
A few more steps and we will be there. A few more steps and I can figure out what I’m doing, where I’m going, what I’ve just done.
We cross the threshold into the small, sparse, barren lobby. I lower the umbrella and tug her higher on my hip. I walk across the slick marble entryway, my shoes squeaking on the checked floor. My fingers hover over her red bow and her swollen cheek, concealing both in case anyone is bothering to look. I move to the bank of elevators, pressing a scratched, gold button. I tap my foot. I pull the girl higher. Her sour breath sweeps across my neck. With caution, I glance over my shoulder. My stomach roils—a warning.
The doors open. An elderly couple file out before we step in. I hit “4”—the top floor of this boutique hotel—and finally, carefully, ease the girl down.
It is only then that she looks at me—really looks at me—before shuffling back against the shiny, mirrored wall. I resist the urge to tell her to be careful against the glass.
“Where’s my mommy?” She whispers, so that I have to lean in to hear.
“She’s…” I hear the question and consider my answers. Her mother is at home. Her mother is searching. Her mother had her chance. I straighten. “She’s at your house, remember?” I can see the question on Emma’s face—shouldn’t I be with her, then?—but we reach the floor and exit. I fish my key card from my wallet, my eyes on Emma, who has the pace of a child who’s in no rush.
I tap the key to the lock, see the green light, and hear the soft click as I push the heavy door back on its hinges. We slip into darkness. It is humid, the air thick with the stench of cleaning products. I flip on the light and assess the tidy room. She stands a few feet from me, her breath punching the silence.
“Are you okay? Are you hungry?”
She turns. Her red bow quivers on top of her brown hair. She shakes her head no. Her eyes fill with tears. I need to shut this down, but I’m not sure what to say or how to handle this. We are practically strangers.
“Is Mommy looking for me?” She speaks louder than before, with more conviction.
I want to tell her to forget about her mother—that wherever that wretched woman looks, she won’t find us. “I’m not sure, sweetheart.”
I move past her and shove my clothes back into my bag, fighting the urge to run out of here as fast as I can. I probably have an hour, maybe more, before this town is turned upside down.
I walk over to her, unclip the red bow from her hair, and drop it into my bag.
The first piece of evidence.
“We have to go now,” I say. “Will you come with me?”
She nods and swipes the edge of her palm up and across her nostrils, wincing as her fingertips flick against her tender cheek. I already paid for the night—in cash—but we are leaving. The room will sit here, empty, hot, and scrubbed clean by housekeeping.
I grab her hand as we head for the door again. Emma walks a few steps behind and kicks at the carpet, dragging the fingers of her left hand across the floral wallpaper, as though she is combing through water. I press the elevator button and scan the hallway. A few doors open and close, but no one joins us. The elevator opens. Empty. A sign? A small gift? I call to her—easy now—and she steps on again.
“Do you want to push the button?” I motion to the “1,” but she shakes her head and shies away from me. I stab the button and wait for the doors to close. We lower, floor by floor, one step closer to freedom.
I drown the panic, tamp it down as best as I can. I don’t know what I’m doing or what I’ve done, but I have to keep moving. I have to get home. And I have to take Emma—sweet, unsuspecting Emma—with me. She is my responsibility now, and I will do everything I can to protect her. I am rewriting her story, altering her memories, shifting her shitty childhood into clean chunks: before, during, after. Then, now, someday.
I take a quaking breath and wait. The elevator bumps to the first floor. A beat. The doors slide open. We step through.
We move on.
Copyright © 2018 by Rea Frey