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Downtown Atlanta, Friday, 11:55 p.m.
Exhausted, Kennedy St. James stared out the city-bus window and into the night. Her vision never focused on anything in particular as she allowed her mind to wander endlessly on everything and nothing. She shifted in her seat and once again felt the painful throb in her feet. Lord, how she hated waiting tables.
She pulled her gaze from the passing trees and looked around the MARTA bus just as Mrs. Russell pulled the thin, wired cord above her head. A bell dinged and the elderly woman rose from her seat. Their eyes met seconds before they shared a smile.
"You have a nice night," Mrs. Russell said kindly before shuffling down the narrow aisle.
"You, too," Kennedy responded. She watched as the woman exchanged pleasantries with Leroy, the bus driver, then stepped off the bus.
"God bless that sweet woman," Leroy said, shaking his head as he pulled the bus away from the curb. He looked up into his rearview mirror and locked gazes with Kennedy. "I've never met anyone with such a kind spirit. You know what I mean?"
She nodded and smiled. "I know exactly what you mean."
"Why God saw fit to take her husband, then turn around and take both her children in the same year just escapes me."
Kennedy remembered her father's funeral and absently quoted what her grandmother had told her. "Some things aren't for us to understand."
"I suppose you're right," he agreed, nodding. "It just breaks my heart to see her in such bad shape."
The subtle smile curved across Kennedy's face suddenly heavy and forced. In fact, lately all her smiles seemed that way. Her grandmother once said that life should be viewed like a roller-coaster ride. Everyone has a share of ups and downs. But, for years now, Kennedy's life seemed like one fast dip into oblivion. When was her ride going to climb back up?
The slow, gentle rocking of the MARTA bus as it traveled down Martin Luther King Boulevard reminded her of her grandmother's old rocking chair, which had lulled her into more than her fair share of catnaps. She glanced at her watch. It wouldn't be long before she could climb into bed to get as close to eight hours of sleep as she possibly could—which would probably be her usual four hours.
Working long hours, plus attending night school, was definitely taking its toll. The sad fact was that she still had a good two years to go before she received her bachelor's degree. She expelled a long sigh. Did she really have what it would take to get through another two years?
She would be nearly thirty years old by the time she finished. But it was better to be thirty with a degree, than to be that age without one, she reminded herself. Had she not started her family young, she would have been finished with school by now. "Better late than never," she reaffirmed softly.
When her stop came into view, she pulled the cord, and then stood to slip her bookbag across her shoulders.
"You have a good weekend, Leroy," she said, offering another heavy smile.
The older man's dark eyes twinkled as his lips widened. "You do the same, Kennedy. But make sure you get yourself some rest. You look like you're about to pass out."
The doors jerked open.
"Trust me. The moment my head hits the pillow it's lights out. But I'll see you Monday night." She waved and then stepped off the bus.
The engine roared as the bus pulled away from the curb and off. The night's cool breeze picked up velocity and the trees lining the walkway rustled in protest.
Kennedy glanced around the deserted street, accustomed to its eerie feel. Zipping up her faded denim jacket, she hoped that she wouldn't turn into a Popsicle by the time she made it home.
She noted a pack of stray dogs patrolling the area and watched in amazement as they actually waited until the traffic light changed before crossing. Kennedy shook her head and picked up her pace. With each step, her feet throbbed harder, but she'd promised Eve that she'd make it home no later than a quarter after. The last thing she needed was to lose another babysitter.
From the corner of her eye, she spotted a small break in a row of bushes and remembered a shortcut through the woods. That way, she would make it home with a few minutes to spare. Impulsively, she took the shortcut.
A bed of leaves crinkled beneath her feet as she marched onward. The lights from the road disappeared as she moved through a thicket of trees. Strange noises surrounded her and fear slowed her footsteps.
With only a sliver of moonlight to guide her, and an accelerated heartbeat distracting her, she paused, suddenly unsure that she was headed in the right direction. Kennedy squinted at the worn trail. Yes, she was going the right way.
Harsh sounds disturbed her and raised the tiny hairs on the back of her neck. She stopped again and tried to listen. It was hard at first, but then it became clear that what she was hearing wasn't animals or birds, but voices—angry voices.
She thought about turning around, but only briefly. Her curiosity, which had often been her undoing, rose and urged her onward, like a red flag in front of a bull's nose. It wouldn't hurt to go and check it out. She'd often heard that the local teenagers sneaked out here to do God knows what, with God knows whom. Wanda, her best friend, suspected that her thirteen-year-old son came out here to drink with the older teenagers.
"He better not be," Kennedy mumbled under her breath as she turned toward the voices.
St. Jameses' Residence 12:20 a.m.
Four-year-old Thomas St. James's eyes flew open. Disoriented, he stared into the black void that enveloped him. Why had he insisted that he didn't need his night-light? Big boys don't use nightlights, he reminded himself. Of course he didn't know whether he really believed that. But since his best friend, Jimmy, said it, then it must be true.
Tommy swallowed his fear and threw back the covers. If he ran to the door, then maybe the monster under the bed wouldn't catch him. He shook his head. Mommy said there were no such things as monsters. He frowned, he wasn't too sure that he believed that, either.
He climbed out of bed and, the minute his feet touched the floor, sprinted across the room. When he pulled the door open, lights flickering from the television sprayed funny pictures across the walls of the hallway. He knew immediately that his mother hadn't made it home.
Disappointment creased his brows and his shoulders slumped. Slowly, he headed toward the living room to see if Eve was still awake. She had only been babysitting him for a week, but he'd already made up his mind that he liked her. He'd never met a girl before who loved baseball and chocolate pudding as much as he did.
"Eve?" he called when he didn't immediately see her.
Almost instantly he saw her head pop up above the back of the sofa as she sat up and turned around to face him. "Tommy," she said, rubbing her eyes. She glanced at her watch. "What are you doing up? Is something wrong?" She jumped to her feet and rushed toward him.
He blushed when she gathered him close and kissed his brow.
"Did you have a bad dream?"
He shook his head. "Where's Mommy?"
Eve frowned as she looked at her watch. "I don't know, but I'm sure she'll be home soon. Do you want me to read you another bedtime story?"
He considered it for a moment, and then shook his head. "Can I wait up for her with you? I don't have to go to school tomorrow. I'm sure she won't mind."
"I don't know. A growing boy needs his sleep."
"Please? I'll be quiet and stay out of your way."
"Sweetheart, you don't have to make such promises. I don't mind if you wait up with me. Now, you're sure your mother won't mind?"
He nodded eagerly.
"Well, all right then." She offered him her hand, and then led him to the sofa.
He helped clear her books away, then bounced up to sit next to her. She smelled like flowers. "I wish that you will always be my babysitter," he gushed.
"Oh, really?" She smiled. "Why is that?"
He shrugged and blushed again. "Because you're nice."
"Aw. That's sweet." She pinched his cheek. "I think you're nice, too."
They shared another smile before she looked at her watch again.
"I wonder what's keeping your mother?"
Kennedy had made a terrible mistake.
No sooner had she rounded a giant oak tree than her incredulous stare focused on a horrific scene— not Wanda's wayward son, but four men clothed in black, with crossbones stitched across their jackets. The men stood menacingly around an impeccably clad, older man with nervous eyes. From what she could see, he had every right to be nervous.
She glanced around, wanting desperately to retrace her steps and forget that she'd seen anything. However, there was one problem with that plan. Her feet seemed rooted to the ground. She prayed, yet no sooner had she whispered the Lord's name than she caught a glimpse of a gun.
Instinctively, she ducked back behind the tree, surprised that she'd managed to move at all. Run. But she couldn't. Instead, she closed her eyes and tried to calm down. When she reopened her eyes, she could still hear the men arguing.
She pushed away from the tree, then hesitated to take the first step. There were dry leaves everywhere. Surely, if she made any attempt to get away, she would draw attention to herself. The mere fact that they hadn't heard her approach was a miracle.
She squeezed her eyes shut and prayed again. The men's angry voices shattered the woods' stillness. Her heartbeat accelerated. Despite her decision not to get involved, Kennedy found herself listening.
"Tell your boss I was coming to talk to him."
Kennedy assumed the new voice belonged to the well-dressed businessman. Despite his efforts to sound aloof, or to retain some type of control, she heard fear in his voice. She absorbed his emotions as her own.
"You're not listening, old man. Now, turn around."
Kennedy's eyes flew open. She knew that voice. Carefully, she shifted her weight and peeked around the tree, squinting for a better view of the armed man. Her heart sank as she confirmed the man's identity. Then, slowly, her gaze drifted to the businessman.
The moonlight illuminated the tears streaking down his face. He knew as well as she did that they were going to kill him.
"I said turn around!"
"Just call your boss," he pleaded. "I swear, I can clear this whole mess up." Desperation made the man's voice quake.
Another member of the gang physically forced the man to turn around.
Fear squeezed Kennedy's heart. She had to do something, but what—scream? Hell, that would just mean there would be two corpses instead of one. It wasn't as if she could attack with her bookbag and actually hope to save the day.
"Please, I swear, I can clear this all up." The man continued to plead. His entire body trembled.
Kennedy quaked with an overwhelming sense of helplessness as tears blurred her vision.