Friday, November 30, 2012

Chapter 30 (part 1)

Using the line of light allowed by the open door, I scanned the basement room.  Empty.  I closed the door as quietly as I could with the surrounding furniture, wincing at the scraping of the wood on wood and the click of the latch.  All was quiet inside.  Pulling the pistol from my waist, I slunk through the room toward the stairs.  

I was terrified to round the corner.  My fear paralyzed me for endless seconds before I snapped out of it.  Dominic was somewhere in this inky gloom where just minutes earlier a gun had sounded.  He could be injured.  Or worse.

I took a chance and stole a peek around the wall, but all I could see was blackness.  I didn’t know what to do.  Should I use the flashlight and check the other room, or should I just get up the stairs?  I was torn.

If Dominic was all right, why wasn’t he waiting for me here?  Then again, if he was the victim, why wasn’t the bad guy waiting for me here?  The unmitigated stillness was baffling.  

After an eternity, I made my move.  Peeking around the corner, I squeezed past the wall and tiptoed up the stairs, my .44 leading the way.  

I was met with more silence.  I checked under the beds first before grabbing the rifle from where I stashed it under the mattress.  Another peek through the curtain revealed the two snipers still at their posts.  Scanning the trees in the distance, I noticed what looked like Bill Jennings’s car parked way off down the entrance road.  

If the guy in the basement was Jennings, then all three of the men we had seen were accounted for.  If not. . .  Well, I didn’t want to think about how many men could be out there.  

I checked the side window.  Perhaps I was a bit careless with moving the curtain.  Just as I saw the flash of another sniper’s scope, the window shattered and fire lit up my left arm.  The report came a second later.

I couldn’t help the cry that escaped my throat as I twisted back on the bed.  Pistol still in my right hand, I clutched my arm just below the wound.  The bullet had torn through the flesh and muscle below my shoulder.  It wasn’t a through-and-through shot, but it wasn’t a grazing either.  

I laid there on my back, lower lip clenched between my teeth in an effort to take away from the pain searing my arm.  It did no good.  I tried to remain still and quiet, but it was difficult not to rock with the pain.  I risked rolling on my right side, and curled into a ball.  

Blood was soaking my clothing and the comforter at a rapid pace.  I needed a tourniquet, but I didn’t think I could make one myself.  Blackness began to swim into my vision as I looked around for an adequate strip of cloth.

Pounding behind me.  Where did it come from?  I struggled to hold onto consciousness.  

“Ella?  Oh my God.  Ella!”  The voice was distant, foggy.  Heaviness sank the world at my back.  I sank with it until a pinching pressure squeezed my shoulder.

“Ahh!”  The cry tore from my lungs, the pain bringing me fully awake again, though my vision was foggy at the edges.  I looked up to see Dominic’s face hovering above me, his eyes darting from mine to the wound in my arm.

“Stay with me, baby,” he said.

Baby?  He never called me that.  Maybe it was the stress of the situation.  But that simple word turned my thoughts to my baby.  

“Allison.”  It was a creaky plea meant to implore Dominic to take care of her if anything happened to me.  But I wasn’t going to give in easily.

“I need to wrap the wound, Ella,” he said, ignoring my one word appeal.  He bunched up the comforter and held it to my mouth.  “Here.  Bite down on this.”  

Obliging, I opened my mouth and let him stuff the blanket in.  I bit.  Using a strip torn from a sheet, he bandaged my shredded flesh while I howled into my gag.  When it was done and the tourniquet was doing its job, the pain began to ebb.

Dominic wiped the sheen of sweat from my face.  As he stared down at me, his eyes pooled.  He wiped the tears away and helped me sit.  “We need to get out of here,” he said, his voice husky.

I shook my head.  “These men aren’t gonna let us leave alive, Dominic.  I need to get to Allison, and that means we have to fight.”

“Can we go the way you sent her?”

I looked at the shattered window and shook my head.  “If that guy had been there before, he would’ve seen us.  He would’ve had a clear shot as soon as we stepped out the door.”

“The guy in the basement is dead.  It wasn’t Jennings.”

I sighed, both for Dominic having to kill a man and for the knowledge his information provided.  “I saw Jennings’s car out on the road.  The other two men are still at their posts.  That means there’s at least one more than we knew.  Probably more.”  I looked at him.  “Who is Jennings?”

Dominic rubbed his scruffy face with his hands.  Hands that were covered in my blood.  When he pulled them away, he looked to be painted for war.  How appropriate. 

“Jennings is the agent I’ve been working with all along.  I guess he’s on Ritter’s payroll, too.”  He sounded defeated.  He had a right to be.  The man he’d been working with to take down Luke Ritter, ultimate drug lord, had been batting for the other team.  Dominic had been duped.  Nothing more than a pawn in the chess game between Ritter and the FBI.  Hell, the DEA and ATF were probably hot for the scumbag, too.

I squeezed his knee gently.  “It’s not your fault, Dominic.” 

He looked at me.  “If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t be here,” he said.  “It’s my fault your family’s been torn apart.”

I didn’t argue with him because he was right.  His presence brought this turmoil back into my quiet life and shattered it from the inside.  I didn’t want him to beat himself up over it, but this was not the time to point that out.

I changed the subject back to the current situation.  “We need to pick off the men we can see from inside.  They have no idea who’s alive and who’s dead in here.”

“But we don’t have the firepower to snipe them if they’re far away,” he interjected.  “The .22 is the most accurate gun we have for distance, and it won’t go as far as that guy out by the road.”

“Well, maybe if we can get the guy right out front, and the bastard that shot me, we can slip out the back.  Maybe shooting his buddies will draw him closer.”  There was a chance.  But first we had to get the other two. 

I didn’t want to go near the blown-out window.  I thought about how to get a shot at the guy on the side.  My gaze lifted to the ceiling.  “Is there an attic?”

The roof peaked side to side, so a vent would give access to the side of cabin.  The same side as the window I was shot through.  It was worth a try.

In the corner of the kitchen we found a hatch in the ceiling.  It took some effort, but we were able to pull it down.  Dominic stood on the counter and poked his through the opening, using the flashlight to cut through the dark.

“It’s empty,” he said looking down at me.  “And it looks like there’s a vent on each side.”

“Good.”  I handed him the rifle.  “Slide this up, then you can give me a boost.”

He took the gun.  “There’s no way you’re going up there, Ella.”  His tone left no room for negotiation.  But I wasn’t negotiating.  In order to do this right, we both had to go up.  Besides, I wanted to take out the son of a bitch that shot me.  Payback. . . It’s a bitch.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Chapter 29 (part 3)

Dominic thought for a few seconds.  “I think there might be a small door.  More like a crawl space or root cellar.  Let’s check it out.”

I opened the basement door, and Dominic turned on a flashlight.  “Allison?” I called in a loud whisper.  “Sweetie, it’s mommy.”  

She didn’t answer, but I heard a shuffling noise off to the right.  Dominic swung the beam of light toward the sound.  More shuffling, but no visual.  My heart started racing.  Something wasn’t right.

I grabbed Dominic’s hand and moved the light along the floor.  In the back corner, behind a floor shelf, the toe of a large boot peeked out.  That was not my little girl.  I kept the light moving so the intruder wouldn’t know we’d seen him.  There was no sign of Allison.  I hoped she was on the other side of the stairs, and not in the hands of the enemy.

Tugging his sleeve, I pulled Dominic’s ear next to my mouth.  My voice was no louder than a breath as I whispered, “I’ll look for Allison on the other side.”  He nodded.  Handing me the flashlight, he used the beam to illuminate his hands as he gestured that he would go after the man hiding in the back.  While I didn’t want him to risk the danger that surely waited in the dark corner, Allison came first.  I did not intend to leave her alone and terrified.

I left Dominic standing in the dark and crept to the other side of the basement with the flashlight.  I didn’t call her name.  She wouldn’t answer, and I couldn’t be sure there wasn’t yet another man on this side of the stairs.

I moved slow, letting the flashlight trace the perimeter of the room.  I looked under the decrepit furniture that had been stored for who knew how long.  In my search, I discovered the small door Dominic had mentioned.  I was blocked by the edge of a dresser, but I thought I’d be able to wriggle it open enough to squeeze Allison and myself through without making too much noise.

If I found her.

Then, way back in the farthest corner, I saw her small hand on the floor.  It disappeared when the light hit it.  Creeping closer, I acknowledged that I still couldn’t talk to her, so I used the light to let her know I was coming.  I stopped in front of her hiding place, crouched down, and put my hand where she could see it.  

When she grabbed my fingers and squeezed, my heart about burst.  I tucked my head into the tight spot she had found and smiled at her.  Indicating she should keep quiet, I gestured for her to come out.  

Once she was free, I wrapped her in my arms and shed silent tears of joy and gratitude.  My little angel was safe.  Losing Michael had been hard.  Both times.  But when I thought my baby might be in the hands of my enemy. . .  I couldn’t live without her.  She was what I lived for everyday.  

Loud shuffling sounds came from the other side, and I paused, listening.  I heard a grunt, then the sounds of struggling.  It was time to leave.  Using the sounds of the skirmish to hide our escape, I opened the door and Allison and I squeezed through.

We were under a small overhang that shielded us from the view of anyone hiding nearby.  Of course, it would also hide them from us.

“Are you okay?” I whispered to her.

She nodded in response.  “Someone came through the outside door,” she whispered back.

I squeezed her to me.  “I know, baby.”  

The crack of gunfire from inside the basement spooked us.  Allison yelped, and my hand flew to her mouth to mute her cry.

“Okay, Allison.  Listen carefully.  I want you to crawl as fast as you can through the woods.  Go over that rise, and stay on the other side of that boulder.”  I pointed to the hill that ran alongside the cabin and a massive boulder embedded in it.  “Once you get over, head to the cave.  Stay low, and zig zag.  Hide behind whatever you can.  Use the gun if you have to.”  I hugged her to me again.  “I’ll come find you.  I promise.”  Pressing a hard kiss on her forehead, I said, “Now go.  I love you.”

She took off through the trees, low to the ground like she’d been playing army her whole life.  She did well with using small shrubs and fat trees to hide her body from the view of the cabin.  Once she disappeared behind the boulder, I knew I wouldn’t be able to see her anymore.  

I waited for a couple minutes after she slipped behind the rock, then I turned to reenter the cabin and whatever waited in the dark of the basement.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Chapter 29 (part 2)

Throwing off the blankets, we moved through the cabin in silence.  Through a small slit between the curtains we spied two figures moving in different directions through the trees.  A car began bumping its way down the drive toward the cabin.  As it approached I thought it looked remarkably like the Chevy that had given chase back in Ohio, and my heart began racing.

Dominic and I moved away form the curtains so the driver wouldn’t see us.  I headed to the bedroom and woke Allison, urging her to be silent and quick in dressing.  I had slept in my clothes, and so went to arm myself.  I made a quick holster for the nine using a scrap of a torn sheet and slipped it through Allison’s belt loops.  

Her eyes shone with fear as I tied the gun securely to her hip.  Whispering, I told her, “Someone’s here.  I don’t know who it is, so I want you to hide in the basement until I come get you.  Find a good hiding place that’ll be hard to find.  Don’t make a sound.  Don’t come out, no matter what.  If you need the gun, just pull this,” I indicated an end of the fabric strip tucked into her front pocket.  “It will untie the belt and you can use the gun.  You remember how to, right?”  

She nodded.  “Red means fire.  Both eyes open.  Squeeze, don’t pull.  Aim for the body.”

Her matter of fact repetition of the basic rules broke my heart.  My little angel was again taking a huge step in the growing up process.  And once again she was taking a step she should never have to take at her tender age.  A step I wished she never would’ve had to take.

I handed her a flashlight.  “Only turn this on if you need it.”  My eyes searched hers before I wrapped her in my arms and squeezed.  “I love you, baby.”

“I love you too, Mommy,” she whispered back with tears in her voice.  

Leading her down the stairs to the basement, I opened the wooden plank door.  Bending down, I gave her another tight squeeze.  “Remember,” I whispered, “Only come out for me.”

“Okay.  Mommy?  I’m scared.”

“I know, baby.  I’m scared, too.”  I kissed her.  “Now, use the light to find a good spot.  Then shut it off until I come for you.”  

When the flashlight switched on, an exterior door was illuminated.  I stayed her hand with the light shining on the door.  “If anyone comes in through there, don’t move or make make a sound.  If you feel in danger, leave through there.  Go to the little cave we found and hide there.”  

I hugged and kissed her again.  “Don’t worry, baby.  We’ll be okay.”

She just nodded and swallowed visibly before moving into the dank basement.

I closed the door, climbed the stairs, and slid Dominic’s .44 into my waistband.  He pointed to the rifle by the window in the bedroom.  There I wouldn’t be visible from the living area, but I’d be able to see both the front and side of the cabin.  

I watched through the window as a man climbed out of the car.  He was short, but beefy, with a slight paunch at his middle.  His head was bald, but whether it was nature’s doing or clippers, I couldn’t tell.  The black long-sleeve shirt and blue jeans were nondescript.  He could be anybody.

The confidence in his step as he approached the cabin, however, indicated that he knew exactly where he was and what he was doing.  Maybe he was part of the FBI team that put us here.  If so, what was up with the men sneaking through the woods?

When he stepped onto the porch, he disappeared from my line of sight.  Seconds later, a knock sounded on the door.  

“Yeah?”  Dominic’s voice was hard, less of a question than a demand for the knocker to identify himself.

The answer from the other side of the door was muffled to my ears, but Dominic answered with another question.  “What’s the password?” he demanded.

Password?  There was a password?  Why wasn’t I aware of this password?  I listened as the muffled voice answered, the click of the door opening indicated he got the answer right.  

“Bill,” Dominic said in a low voice.  “What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to make sure you got here and had everything you needed.  The tank for the generator was full?”  He sounded young, but there was something in his voice that didn’t quite mesh with his nonchalant words.  He sounded tense.  

Dominic’s tone changed to match Bill’s.  “Yeah.  Everything’s fine.  Still doesn’t explain why you’re here, though.  You’re not supposed to be here.  That’s the point of a safe house, Agent Jennings.”

The edge in Dominic’s voice screamed trouble.  If this Agent Jennings wasn’t supposed to be here, why was he?  

“Where’s Mrs. Boothe?” the agent asked.

Dominic didn’t answer right away.  I listened to his foot steps track around the other room.  As he approached the doorway, he spoke.  “I’m not ready to have her come out yet.  I still want to know why you’re here.”

That was my indication to stay put.  I stole a look out both windows, trying to see if I could identify the other men’s locations.  It was a futile effort.  Unless they were wearing hunter orange, I’d never be able to pick them out of the trees.  They could’ve been anywhere by that point.

I sat on the floor beneath the window, pistol at my back, rifle across my lap.  There was nothing for me to do but wait and listen.  I hoped that Allison was okay down in the darkness of the basement.

Jennings’s voice floated through the doorway in a soothing wave.  “It’s okay, Sterling.  We got Ritter, so you guys can come out and head home.”

Silence from Dominic.

“Why do you look like you don’t believe me?” Jennings asked.

Dominic’s voice was stiff, edged with doubt and distrust.  “This wasn’t how we agreed you’d notify me.  You’re not supposed to be here.”

“Yes, well. . .”  Jennings didn’t finish the thought.

After a long, strained silence the door opened, and Dominic said, “I think you’d better leave, Bill.”

A gruff humf preceded the closing of the door.  

I watched through the curtain as Bill Jennings walked to his car.  Pausing at his door, he looked through the trees to his right.  Following his gaze, I found the first of the two men hiding in the woods.  The guy wasn’t far from the front door, but he perched in a tree so that a quick glance around leaving the cabin wouldn’t reveal him.  He was armed with a sniper rifle, and didn’t acknowledge Jennings’s glance.

When the agent looked off in another direction, I did the same.  The second of the men was off in the distance with a clear sight of the cabin door.  The scope on his rifle flashed in the morning light as he sighted Jennings.  Both men were in full camo.

When the agent drove off down the drive, Dominic returned to the bedroom.  “There’s at least two snipers out there,” he murmured in my ear.

“I know.  They’re both out front.  Is there a back door in the basement?”  My heart was racing.  If there wasn’t a back door, we’d have to sneak out a window.  And that was counting on just two men watching.  If there were more scattered around the back, we were done for.  

Monday, November 19, 2012

Chapter 29 (part 1)

Chapter 28 (completion)

After emptying two clips between the two of us, it was clear that Allison was a natural with a gun.  Our designated target tree was riddled with bullet holes.  All within an area the size of a man’s chest.  That was all that mattered.  If she was using this gun in the near future, she’d hit her target.  But I prayed she wouldn’t have to.

Chapter 29

We were tramping around in the woods and shooting at trees for an hour and a half, and when we returned Dominic glanced at me before turning his attention to Allison.  “So?  How was it?”

She gazed up at him, her eyes glittering with exhilaration.  “It was awesome!  Mom said I’m a natural.  Did you know she was six when Gampy taught her how to shoot?  But she shot a rifle.  I only got to shoot a hand gun.  But I hope she’ll teach me to shoot a rifle, too.”  It all tumbled out of her mouth so fast I could barely understand her.  

My hand fell to her shoulder and squeezed.  “Allison.  Stop.  Let’s not forget the other lesson we learned.”

Her excitement fell a few levels, and she dropped her eyes to the ground.  “Yes, Mom.”

Dominic looked up at me, his expression solemn.  Then he stooped down to be at eye level with Allison.  “And what was the other lesson?” he asked her.

Her blue eyes found his, the twinkle diminished but still sparking.  “Mommy taught me how to shoot in case the bad guys come.  I need to know how to protect myself if I have to.”  She stared at her fidgeting hands.  “If I have to shoot someone, I aim at his body.”  Her voice dropped as she said it, the hope that she would never have to commit the act pushing through.

Dominic gave her a smile meant to boost her up.  “Well, let’s hope that never happens.  Now, who’s hungry?  I’ll cook.”

We ate a substantial meal of white rice smothered in beef stew.  The stew was from a can since we didn’t want to spend excess time cooking, but it was fabulous to sit down and eat as a family considering we’d been eating in restaurants for several days.  Even though Dominic wasn’t part of my dwindling family.  But he fit nicely into the gap that had been widening since Michael’s accident.  

Allison was the first to head into the bedroom.  “Mom?” she called through the open doorway.  “Can I sleep by myself tonight?”

I looked at Dominic who gazed back with amusement.  Walking to stand in the doorway, I asked her, “Why do you want to sleep alone, honey?”

The mischief in her grin was not lost on me.  “Well, I just thought that you might want to talk to Mr. Dominic for a while after I go to bed.  If you sleep in the other bed, you won’t have to worry about waking me up.”

“Well, Mr. Dominic is sleeping in that bed, but I can sleep on the sofa if you want to sleep alone.”  

A little air leaked out of her bubble.  “But it’s a big bed.  You could share it.”

Unable to hide my smile at her matchmaking attempt, I shook my head at her.  “Get ready for bed, Allison.  I’ll handle the sleeping arrangements.”  

I went back and sat next to Dominic on the sofa.  “She wants us to share the other bed so she can have that one to herself.”

He was all Cheshire cat as he grinned at me.  “I’m okay with that.  In fact, I’d enjoy that very much.”

“I bet you would.”

“I bet you would, too,” he whispered in my ear.  

An electric pulse shot through my body from where his breath kissed my skin.  I leaned away just enough to turn my face to him, my eyes finding his smirking lips before tracing the planes of his face to drown in the green oceans of his eyes.  He was so close.  Just a breath away.  My mouth hungered for a taste of his.  Just a wee little tidbit of the sweet nectar.

The look in his eyes told me he wanted the same thing.  But I wouldn’t do that with Allison still awake in the next room.

It bothered me that she was so accepting of the romantic role Dominic could play in my life.  I was glad that she accepted him, but her father had just been killed.  Why would she push me toward another man?  Why wasn’t she angry and upset over this whole situation?  

It occurred to me that maybe my little girl was just much more resilient than I knew.  Life had handed her one hell of a lemon basket, and most of them were rotten when she got them.  Yet, here she was, picking through basket, tossing the lemons beyond salvation, and cutting the bad spots out of the others to make the flavorful lemonade she could fashion.

She came out of the bedroom in her pajamas and gave me hug and kiss.  “Goodnight, Mom.”

“Goodnight, baby.  Sweet dreams,” I said hugging her back.

To my surprise, she then gave Dominic a hug.  “Good night, Mr. Dominic.”

He chuckled as he returned her embrace.  “Good night, Allison.”

We sat on the sofa for about an hour after Allison went to bed.  We didn’t talk, just cuddled against each other.  His fingers combed through my hair, calming me.  When they began to skim my sensitive neck and throat, I sighed and stretched for more.

I felt his breath against my ear.  “Lie on the floor, Ella.  On your stomach.”  Understanding his intent, I complied.  His weight settled just below my rear as he straddled my hips.  The strength of his hands massaged my shoulders, working out the tension of the last few days.  He worked down my back, up again.  Down my arms.  

When he returned to my back, the breadth of his hands spread wide, his finger tips reaching around to my sides.  The touch became tender, a sensual brush over the cotton of my shirt as he grazed the curve of my breasts.  Drawing lower, he tugged the hem of my shirt up to expose bare skin.

Heat flared where his skin scraped my own.  My muscled clenched in response, but as he skimmed over my back in a lazy caress a different sort of tension took over.  I felt his weight shift.  Then his mouth was at my neck, kissing just below my hairline.  He worked his way to my ear, flicking his tongue before sucking the lobe between his hot lips.

I rolled beneath him, catching his mouth with mine.  The kiss was leisurely.  I was in no hurry to jump in the sack with Dominic.  It was exquisite just to be kissed, touched by a man.  And this man ken precisely what I needed.

A hand found my breast and massaged tenderly, teasing the silk of my bra under my shirt.  A leg moved between my own, pressing against my body.  I pulled my free leg up and around his waist, pulling him into me, forcing his need to press against my body.  The fire between us raged, turing sweet desire into hungry need.  We rolled together, groping, trying to get more contact through the barrier of clothing between us.

Dominic pulled his shirt off, and I traced the hard lines of his body.  Needing to taste, I sat up and flicked my tongue over him, my lips joining in as I suckled.  He pulled my shirt over my head, leaving it as a blindfold and pinning my arms behind my head.  The moist heat of his mouth surged through me as it fell on the top of my breast. 

But when he reached around to free them of the restraining bra, I flipped my shirt back down.  However much my body screamed at me for stopping him, my mind wasn’t quite ready for the intensity.  

An understanding pain filled his eyes as he gazed at me.  Then he pulled me into him, wrapping me in a bear hug and groaning into my hair.  “You’re killing me, Ella.”

“I know.  I’m sorry.”  I busied myself with straightening my clothes.  “Maybe we should just go to bed.”

A heavy sigh escaped him.  “Okay.  Will you at least sleep in the bed with me?”

Turmoil tugged me in two directions, but my need to be comforted through that turmoil was stronger than the desire to remain distant and the lust.  “Yes,” I said in a tired voice, and I walked into the bedroom.  

In a gesture that was pure compassion, Dominic wrapped himself against me in the bed.  I fell asleep in his arms.  

As the glow of dawn was just beginning to push through the inky night, a thump outside woke me.  Dominic sat up at the sound.  He looked down at me, fear sparking in his fully awake eyes.  

I propped myself on an elbow and listened.  In the distance another low thud sounded.  Dominic and I stared at each other.  Those were car doors.  

Friday, November 9, 2012

Chapter 28 (part 3)

After exploring the growth of pines for a few minutes, I realized it wasn’t particularly protective should we need to hide.  The trunks were bare from the ground to about twenty feet, and because they were ever greens, nothing grew beneath them.  

We followed the stream toward the rocky outcroppings I had seen from the hill where I gathered sticks.  We were heading upstream.  The water was cold, and the stream was a few feet wide in most places.  We had crossed at a spot where the water diverged onto two paths before meeting again farther downstream, forming a small island in the middle and making it easier to cross.  

But the bank got rocky as we started into the hilly area.  Allison and I picked our way along slowly and carefully.  The last thing we needed was an injury.  Once we were deeper into the small valley carved by the running water, I started examining the rocky outcrops.  I chose two to start our exploration.

“Allison, we’re going to climb up to those rocks.”  I pointed at our first target.  

“Ok,” she answered, hopping from a shaking rock onto stable terra firma.  Her eyes followed the direction I was pointing.  From this angle it looked like quite a climb, but my little girl was active and agile.  I had no doubt she could do it.  I wasn’t so confident about my own ability, however.

We started up the hill, forging a trail through the trees and craggy rocks.  Half way there we encountered what appeared to be a sheer cliff, though it was still a leaf-littered forest floor and devoid of rocks.  Scanning around, I headed for the far side of the verticality at an angle.  I put Allison in front of me as we turned to climb straight up the rise.  Using the small trees growing on the lesser slope for hand and foot holds, we made it to the top. 

We were now above the boulders that I wanted to explore.  “Stay back there,” I told Allison as I walked out onto the outcropping.  I moved slowly, testing the rock beneath my feet as I placed them.  To my right was a slight step down.  I took it, and kept climbing so my path twisted back to lead me into a small cave formed by the huge boulders.  

It was just big enough for two people to stay hidden.  If I poked my head up, I could see the roof of the cabin not so far away.  

“Allison?” I called.


“I want you to come down here just as I did.  You’ll see the path if you move slowly.”  

“Okay, Mom.”  I heard her first footfall on the boulder above.

“And be careful,” I added as pebbles tumbled down to my right.  I listened to the sounds of her feet scraping on the rocks, her breaths huffing out as she worked to get around to the entrance.  

At last she was there with me.  It was snug with the two of us in the small cave, but we were able to make it work so we could both be hidden and poke our heads up to see.

I pulled the Baby Eagle out of my waistband and unloaded it.  I looked Allison in the eyes.  “I’m going to teach you how to use this.  You need to pay attention.  It’s not a toy, it’s a deadly weapon.”

“I know what it is, Mom.”  Her voice was tight with fear and apprehension.

I blew our a heavy breath, puffed cheeks and all.  “Okay.  This is the safety.”  I showed her the small bar that moved up and down.  “If you can see red, the safety is off, and the gun will fire.”  

She watched intently.  “Okay.  Red means fire,” she said almost to herself as a way of committing the information to memory.

“This is how you load it.”  I pulled back the slide and released it.  “It’s a semi-automatic, so you only have to do that once.  Once you’ve done it, all you have to do is pull the trigger.”  Aiming the gun at the stream, I pulled the trigger.  It clicked to expel the nonexistent round.  “Here.  You try,” I said, handing her the gun.

She took with reluctant confidence turning the weapon over in her hands to examine it.  I let her take her time.  She had to comfortable with it, or she wouldn’t be able to use it if she had to.  After a minute of looking it over, she flipped the safety on and off again.  Then she pulled the slide back and let it go.

“Make sure you aim it in front of you and at the ground a little bit away before pulling the trigger.”  She did so, jumping a bit when the gun clicked.  “Good.  Now try it a few more times before we put bullets in it.  I want you to be comfortable.”

Her eyes betrayed her excitement as she familiarized herself with the pistol.  There was a power that guns offered, and even a ten year old girl could feel it vibrating through the metal.  Hell, I had felt it when I was four years younger than Allison when my father first let me shoot a rifle. 

She clicked the sequence over and over, until it was clear that she felt at ease.  Her blue eyes met mine, sparking with anticipation.  “Okay.  I’ve got it,” she said in a matter of fact way.

“All right.”  I took the gun back and slid the clip home.  “I’ll shoot first.  Hold your ears and watch.”

I loaded the chamber and took aim at the stream.  Allison’s gaze was glued to me as I flicked the safety off and squeezed the trigger.  

The blast was deafening as it rocked our small hiding place, leaving my ears with a terrible ringing.  But I squeezed again to show her that it would fire without reloading.  Instant headache.  

I put the safety back on and waited for the ringing to subside a bit so I could hear Allison when she spoke.  Her eyes were huge circles of black-fringed white with pools of blue in the center.  I smiled at her.

“Okay,” I said after a minute or so.  “Your turn.”  She took the gun with trepidation.  “Don’t be afraid of it now.  Respect it.  Don’t fear it.  If you fear it, you won’t be able to shoot.”

She took a deep breath and blew it out.  “Okaaay.”

I positioned myself behind her so I could cover her ears.  “Keep both eyes open.  Take a breath and blow it out, then squeeze the trigger.  Don’t pull.  Squeeze.  Rest your arms on the rock in front of you, and aim at the stream.”

I could feel the tension in her small body, but I knew telling her to relax was a waste.  She would only relax with experience.  I pressed my fingers over her ears.  The pistol floated in the air in front of us.  Turning it slightly, she flicked the safety.  “Red means fire,” she muttered.  Righting the gun into position, she aimed at the stream.  I felt her take a breath and blow it out.  

An ear-splitting BOOM resounded through the woods.  Water splashed far below where the bullet hit the water.  I lifted my finger from her right ear.  “Again,” I told her before closing off her hearing.

I relived the deafening roar of the pistol’s report for the fourth time in the tiny cave.  It was all I could take.

“Flip the safety on, and let’s get out of here.  We’ll practice somewhere where my head won’t explode every time you shoot.”

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Chapter 28 (part 2)

The woods encroached on the back corner of the cabin, so I went there to start my collecting.  I wandered in a few yards before crossing a deer trail.  My gaze followed the trail to where it disappeared over a small hill.  It’d probably be a good idea to know these woods a little better.  Just in case, I thought as I picked my way along the trail.  

At the top of the hill, the forest stretched in front of me.  A maze of hardwood trunks and shrubs.  Off to the left, in a small gully, looked to be a stream.  A patch of tall pines lined the opposite bank and extended along the side of a much taller hill beyond.  Boulders dotted the hills, creating what appeared to be cave-like holes in some places.  

I mentally mapped the area and committed it to memory.  Once Dominic had a fire going, I’d bring Allison with me to explore further.  After our run in with the other car, I wanted to know our options for hiding.  We may have been in the middle of nowhere, but nerves were still on edge.  My intuition kept poking me in the ribs to keep alert.  I didn’t feel completely safe.

There was something else I wanted to go over with my daughter, too.  It frightened me to even think that it might be necessary, but I would feel better once it was done.  I would feel that she was safer, too.

With a pile of sticks in various sizes bundled under my arm, and a handful of tiny tinder, I headed back to the cabin.  

A few hours later, we had a blazing fire heating the thick iron of the stove and radiating warmth through the room.  We had eaten grilled ham and cheese sandwiches and were lounging on the sofas.  Allison stretched out on one, playing her video games.  Dominic and I occupied the other, sitting at opposite ends with our stockinged feet mingling on the middle of the three cushions.

“I cooked,” I said, and pointed at him.  “You get to wash.”

“Okay.  That’s fair,” he replied with a stretch.  “I’l do it in a little while.”

“I want to keep this place clean and ready to leave at a moment’s notice, so wait too long.”  I looked at Allison engrossed in her game.  “I want to take Allison out to explore the woods soon.”  My gaze fell on Dominic’s green eyes again.  “I want to know the land as best as we can.  Just in case.”

His look sobered from the relaxed glaze that he had taken on.  “I get that.  Maybe we should all go together.”

With a shake of my head, I said, “No.  I just want the two of us to go.  I need to go over some other things with her, too.  If you want to explore, go right ahead.  But not with us.  Not this time, at least.”

His eyes swam with concern and a touch of sadness.  He stood and reached for my hand.  “Come talk to me a minute.”

I slid my feet to the floor, and took his hand.  He pulled me to my feet and led me into the sleeping quarters, never relinquishing my hand.

Sitting side by side on the worn patchwork quilt Allison had spread over one bed, Dominic turned to me.  “You still don’t trust me, Ella?”

I sighed, looking at my hands in my lap instead of meeting his intense stare.  “It’s not that I don’t trust you, Dominic.  But, there’s still a lot we need to discuss.”  Hesitating, I lifted my eyes to his.  I thought I was prepared for his wrath at my lack of trust.  I wasn’t prepared for the look of utter betrayal that filled those green depths.  Maybe I was wrong to doubt him?  But it wasn’t just for me.  Allison came first.  That meant I had to question everyone and everything.  

And something still didn’t feel right with this whole situation.  A piece of the puzzle was in the wrong place, or turned so it didn’t fit right.  And, because I couldn’t figure it out, it was me and Allison against the world.  For now. 

We didn’t say anything to each other for a long minute.  Then, at the same time, we both spoke the other’s name.  We half smiled, and Dominic said, “Go ahead.”

I took a deep breath and let it out, ruffling my hair.  “I want to go over some things with Allison in case something happens and she has to defend herself.  That’s all, really.”

Concern flooded his features as my intentions dawned on him.  “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” I said with conviction.  “I need to know she will have the best chance if anything happens to me.  Or you.”

“Okay.  You better get going then.  It’ll start getting dark soon, and it’ll get darker faster up here.”

I stood to leave him.  “Thanks for understanding.  Will you be going out, too?”

“Probably.”  He shrugged.  “Hey, there’s a flash light on the table.  Take it incase it gets dark on you.”

“Okay.”  I left him sitting on the bed.

Tapping Allison on the shoulder pulled her out of her video game daze.  She twisted her head around to look up at me as I stood behind her.  “What’s up, Mom?”

“Let’s go for a walk,” I said. 

Ever the obedient child, she sat and put her shoes on right away.  “Where are we going?” she asked.

I had collected the flashlight from the table and was putting my own shoes on.  “Just a walk through the woods.  I want to make sure we know the land in case one of the bad guys finds us here.”

The immediate tension in her body revealed what I had feared.  She felt safe here.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want her to feel safe.  It was just that I wanted her to know that the possibility of being found was still there.

She followed me out the door, but I stopped her on the porch.  “Wait here a minute.  I need to get something.”  I went to the car and reached under my seat.

Sliding the gun into my waistband at my back, I pulled my shirt over the weapon and signaled to Allison.  She bounced off the porch and skipped to me as I walked toward the deer trail I had followed earlier.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Chapter 28 (part 1)

The road twisted back on itself like a snake coiled to strike as we climbed through the mountains.  Asphalt gave way to gravel, gravel gave way to rocky dirt as we went deeper into the forest, the trees wrapping their protective branches over top of us as we drove.  

Dominic was reading handwritten directions while I kept track of the distance we traveled after each turn off.  He peered through the windshield, scanning the left bank of trees.  “How far have we gone?” he asked.

Glancing at the odometer, I told him, “Three point seven miles on this road.”

“Okay.  The driveway should be coming up on the left. . .”  Suddenly his hand snapped to the window, pointing.  “There.  It’s gotta be that little road right there.”

Looking in the direction he pointed, I saw what looked to be no more than a wide deer trail.  “That little road?”

“Gotta be.”

I made the left turn onto a road that wasn’t quite wide enough for a car.  It was pock marked with pot holes, and the side was washed away in one spot, forcing me to drive the car into the brush on the other side.  My eyes flicked to Dominic.  “Good thing we ditched the Mustang,” I said as we hit another divot. 

“No kidding.  I’d be in tears by now,” he replied.  “The cottage is the only house on this road.  The directions say it’s half a mile in.”

“Great.”  I knew my tone lacked enthusiasm. Driving fifty feet on this road was wretched.  I wasn’t looking forward to a full half-mile.

Not soon enough a building came into view.  It was small, and looked to have been built by hand out of trees cut from the surrounding forest.  It had a porch reaching the entire front width of the cabin.  A fieldstone chimney climbed one side.

We climbed out of the car, and Allison and I gathered groceries and luggage from the trunk while Dominic went to unlock the door.  We met on the porch.

“I need to go fire up the generator and turn the power on,” Dominic told me.  

I was confused.  “Generator?”  I looked to the roof of the cabin.  No power lines.  I looked to Dominic.  “But we didn’t get any gas for a generator.”

He started walking around to the back.  “I was told this one runs on diesel, and that there’s a large tank that should have fuel in it.  The agent I work with said he would make sure we had fuel.”  He disappeared around the corner of the cabin.

A minute later, the sounds of a motor trying to start polluted the quiet of the woods.  After four tries, the generator’s motor roared to life, decimating the tranquility completely.  So much for a quiet getaway.  Surely that thing was loud enough to be heard from the road.

We walked into a large common room of sorts.  Just left of the door was a beat up oak dining table and chairs.  Dated, yellow metal cabinets and appliances lined the left wall to form a galley kitchen.  To the right, two sofas formed an L shape with a coffee table in front.  The horrid olive green color was checked with a dirty white, giving the fabric the look and feel of a colorful burlap sack.  An ancient console television graced the right wall, and lurking in the far corner was the black iron hulk of a wood stove.

It was freezing inside, and I assumed it wouldn’t get any warmer.  The trees overhead blocked all but trickles of sunlight, and we were at a high elevation.  This place would probably feel air conditioned in the sweltering heat of summer.

I nodded in the direction of the stove.  “Is that our heat?”

“Apparently,” Dominic answered.  “I didn’t see a furnace in the cellar.”

“Great,” I said with a roll of my eyes.  “Well, why don’t you go find the wood pile and start a fire.  Allison and I will put the groceries away and check out the sleeping area.”

“Sounds good,” he said, and walked outside.

Allison and I got to work hauling the groceries inside and finding a place for everything.  The fridge wasn’t cold, yet, but we had bought two bags of ice to help chill it faster.  Allison found the flatware in a drawer and pots and pans in the cabinet below.  I found dishes in the cabinet just above her discovery.

Groceries stored and essentials found, we took our duffel bags and headed through the small opening at the back that lead into what I assumed was sleeping quarters.  A small landing revealed stairs leading down to the cellar and three steps up to a raised bedroom of sorts.  There was a queen bed on each side of the short stairway, both stripped bare.

“I hope there are sheets and blankets,” I said more to myself.

Allison answered.  “What about that chest?”  She pointed to a worn cedar chest tucked into the corner of the room.  

I smiled at her.  “Good eye, sweetie.”  

Opening the chest immersed us in the musty cedar odor of bed linens and pillows that had been stored for a long time.  We began pulling out sheets and blankets, searching for something that didn’t smell quite so bad and felt soft enough to sleep on.  After about ten minutes we had picked what we thought were the best options and made the beds.

By then, Dominic had trundled a small stack of wood to the stove a was attempting to start a fire.  He looked up at us as we came back into the room.  “I’ve got a bunch stacked out on the porch so I won’t have to go so far next time.  There’s a huge pile out behind the cabin.”  He turned back to the open stove.  “Now, if only I could get a fire started.”

“Have you tried paper?” I asked.  

“I couldn’t find any,” he confessed.

Glancing around the room, I didn’t see any either.  “I’ll go get some kindling.  We’ll start one the old-fashioned way.”  And I headed out to the woods to gather small sticks.