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"Megan Hoffman, you're under arrest."
Raising her gaze from the latest you're-over-the-hill-at thirty birthday card from her colleagues, Megan met the unyielding stare of the police officer standing beside her chair in a private room of an upscale coffee shop. Her fellow teachers had convinced her to join them for lattes and birthday cake on their way home from school, and, though tired, Megan had accepted the thoughtful offer.
But the policeman staring down at her quickly put a damper on any fun she'd been having. "E-excuse me?"
The sight of the uniform prodded a memory that lurked daily at the corners of her thoughts, and a shiver crept down her spine. Shock rendered her mind blank and her jaw slack.
"I have a warrant here for your arrest, Miss Megan," he said, arching a black eyebrow.
"What on earth for?" She realized too late how loud and panicked her voice sounded. Casting a nervous glance around the table at the other teachers, she found all eyes on her. Even Principal Wilkins witnessed the unfolding drama with a peculiar, amused expression on his face.
Clearing her throat, Megan repeated the question more calmly.
A smile touched the corner of the officer's lips, and that hint of a grin, along with his informal use of "Miss Megan," rang warning bells in her head.
The young police officer unfolded a sheet of paper and gave it a once-over. "According to this, you turned thirty today."
Megan blinked, confused. "Yes, but"
The officer reached behind his back and whipped out his handcuffs.
The loud whoosh of rushing blood filled her ears and drowned out his reply. Numbly, she watched the bright flash of silver swim before her eyes. He tugged her arm up and snapped the cold metal shackle to her wrist. She froze in shock as he quickly threaded the cuffs under the armrest then shackled her other wrist as well. Her panicked yelp rang mutely in her ears, as if from under water. She fought the imprisoning cuffs, jerking her hands back to free them. No use. The cuffs fettered her to the chair. No! Not again! Please, God, not again!
The blare of music, reverberating from the white plaster walls, snatched her from her dazed struggle. Galled by the turn of events, she searched the faces of her fellow teachers and sought an ally.
The usually stoic third-grade teacher smiled and sipped her Coca-Cola. Propped next to the creams and sugars on the condiment counter, the physical education instructor laughed. At the end of the table, the principal's secretary bit her lip to cover a giggle. "It'd been so long since you had a date, we figured you could use a man for your birthday!"
The secretary's comment brought a murmur of chuckles from the rest of the table, but the swirl of panic spinning through Megan's brain muddled her thoughts and made it difficult to comprehend what was happening.
The police officer turned her chair and stepped into her line of vision, his broad chest obscuring her view of her colleagues. The pounding beat of music echoed her heart's frantic rhythm. An all-too-familiar sense of terror washed through her, paralyzing her limbs. Megan fought for a calming breath.
On some level, she realized this was a birthday prank. But the raw memories of other handcuffs, another fake policeman, and a desperate battle for her life erased any humor in her colleagues' ploy.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to shake off the haunting images that flickered through her mind. Just as she drew a reinforcing breath and peeked up at the faux officer, he ripped his shirt open and leaned dangerously close to her.
Her attacker pinned her wrists with one hand while he tore at her shirt with the other. Her scream tangled with the sound of ripping fabric.
Megan flinched and kept her eyes shut. Her anxiety snowballed, choking the air from her lungs. A fresh surge of the anguish she'd spent the past five years subduing swept through her, immobilizing her.
"Stop!" The desperate, strangled quality of her voice surprised even Megan. Past and present twined around each other.
An insistent voice in her head impelled her to move her frozen arms. She fought the hard shackles binding her until her wrists stung. "Come on, Megan. Be a sport! It's all in fun!" the science teacher called over the thumping music.
Drawn back from the memories that taunted her, Megan heard the giggles around her fade to curious whispers.
"Please stop! Just let me go!" She knew her behavior, her pleas, would raise questionsquestions she wasn't ready to answer. If she'd thought she'd outrun the past, she'd been wrong. A bitter brew of emotions swirled in her gut, biting, clawing. But one ever-present emotion reigned over them all.
For five years, fear had been her constant companion. She'd battled it, bargained with it and analyzed it. Yet no matter how she hated it and prayed to be free of it, fear ruled her life.
The stripper grabbed the buckle on his pants, and she wailed, "No! Stop!"
Tears streamed down her cheeks and dripped from the tip of her nose. With her hands cuffed to the chair, she couldn't even wipe the drops of moisture, the visible evidence of her agony.
"All right, hotshot. That's enough. Joke's over. She's obviously not amused."
Megan recognized Principal Wilkins's voice but kept her head down until the music stopped and the shadow of the stripper moved away from her. How did she face the other teachers? How could she explain her reaction to their prank? She couldn't. Wouldn't. Not after the response she got to the truth last time.
Sucking in a deep breath, she searched for the strength to fight down the demons again. Somehow she had to find a way to put the horror of that night, five years before, behind her. So much of her life had been put on hold because of that tragic nighther master's degree, her impending marriage, children.
How could she think of a future until he was locked up for good? For her own sake, for every woman in Lagniappe Parish, Louisiana, she wouldn't rest easy until he was permanently behind bars. Maybe then she could rebuild her life and rid herself of the debilitating fear.
"Megan? Are you okay?" Principal Wilkins asked. When he laid a soothing hand on her shoulder, Megan flinched away.
"Chill out, lady. It was all in fun. Geez!" The stripper crouched beside her and unlocked the handcuffs.
Rubbing her sore wrists, she glared at the nearly naked man. "You have a warped idea of fun."
She glanced at Mr. Wilkins. "If it's all the same to you I'd like to go h-home now."
He nodded and put a hand under her elbow. "I'm sorry, Megan. When the ladies approached me with the idea, I had misgivings. I only agreed to this gag because it was off campus and after school hours, I"
"I'll be all right. Really." Despite her noble attempt to stand alone, Megan wobbled as she rose. Remnant adrenaline left her door. She avoided eye contact with her coworkers, but she felt the weight of their confused and concerned stares following her.
The heels of her navy pumps pounded a resonating cadence as she hurried down the sidewalk to her car. Her resentment for the man who'd ruined her life flared, and latte and cake soured in her stomach.
The drive home, past fields of cotton and Spanish mossdraped cypress trees rising from muddy bayous, calmed her. The serene beauty of north Louisiana always soothed her after a difficult day, but she craved a serenity that could last longer than her twenty-minute drive home. More than anything, she needed a peace that could permeate her heart and soul and push the ugliness of her attack out once and for all. She was tired of being a prisoner of her fear, ready to put the past behind her and move on. But how?
When she pulled onto the quiet, residential street where she lived, she sighed in relief. Soon this horrible day would be over. No more birthday cards from well-meaning friends, teasing her about being "over the hill." No more reminders that, at thirty, she was still alone and her childbearing years were disappearing. And no more policeman strippers.
Huffing her frustration, she climbed out of her Honda Civic and headed to the back door of her small, brick house. As soon as she pushed through the door, dumping her stack of files and papers on the kitchen counter, Sam, her German shepherd, greeted her with his usual enthusiasm. As she relocked the door, he jumped on her with a slobbery lick and a wildly wagging tail. Good ol' Sam.
Her loyal friend. Her canine garbage disposal. Her lethally trained protector.
"Hey, Sam. Give me a minute to change clothes, and we'll go for our walk, okay?" Sam responded with a bark that could only be interpreted as Yes!
After throwing on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, Megan took Sam's leash from the hook beside the back door. Sam pranced and circled her with unrestrained exuberance.
"Hold still! I can't hook your leash with you wiggling around like that."
Sam woofed, and if she hadn't known better, she'd have sworn the dog grinned at her. The corner of her mouth lifted in bittersweet response, and a fresh lump of emotion clogged her throat. "You crazy dog. What would I do without you?"
Wiggling loose and scratching at the door, Sam seemed to say, Yeah, yeah. Enough of that. Let's cruise!
With a deep cleansing breath, Megan shoved down her maudlin thoughts and unlocked the door for Sam. The late August heat and inescapable Louisiana humidity hung in the air like a suffocating blanket. By the time she'd walked one block with Sam, sweat beaded on Megan's forehead and dampened her back. Despite the hot weather, she picked up the pace, hoping a little exercise might help clear her mind and exorcize the day's demons. Sam loped along beside her, his tongue hanging out of the side of his mouth and his eyes bright with excitement.
They jogged past the old homes of the Lagniappe Garden District, many of them recently remodeled by new tenants, and Megan waved at neighbors who worked in their yards or rested in rocking chairs on their front porches.
As she neared her house after circling the block, Megan watched a young girl, with dark ponytails flying, dart into the street. The child ran to intercept her and Sam.
"Hi! Can I pat your dog?" the girl asked, even as she wrapped her arms around Sam and ruffled the fur behind his ears. Sam licked the girl's face, and she giggled.
"Um, sure, sweetie." Megan glanced across the street to the empty yard where the girl had been playing. The house had recently been bought by a new owner, and Megan had been meaning for days to introduce herself to the new resident. Most of her neighbors knew her and Sam well because of their daily walks and because she made a point of meeting and greeting them. For security reasons, if nothing else, it paid to know who lived around you. The older residents, who stayed home all day, kept an especially close watch on the comings and goings in the area, which pleased Megan immensely. She'd learned the hard way one could never be too careful.
Finding no sign of a parent or older sibling watching the little girl, Megan twisted her lips in a scowl. "Honey, does your mommy know you're playing outside?"
The girl, whose age Megan estimated at around four years, peeked up at her with a puzzled look. "My mommy? Nuhuh. My mommy went away."
Burying her face in Sam's fur again, the girl continued scratching Sam behind the ears. Sam sat down, his tail thumping the sidewalk, and tipped his head to accommodate his new friend's loving hands. Clearly, Sam had found canine nirvana.
"Well," Megan said in her best teacher's voice, "you didn't look before you crossed the street. Your mommy would be real sad if you got hurt by a car."
The child peered up at her again, wrinkling her freckled nose. "I told you my mommy went away. How would she even know if I gotted hurt?"
"Well, she uh." Megan paused and chewed her lower lip.
"Can you tell me where your mommy went? To the store? To work? Do you have a babysitter?"
"Nuh-uh. Just my daddy. Daddy hasn't got me a new sitter yet."
Squatting down to eye level with the girl, Megan studied the child's freckled face. As a teacher, she'd been trained to look for signs of abuse, but this child showed none of the tell tale marks. Her pink sundress was wrinkled but clean, and the child appeared healthy and happy.
So where was her guardian?