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This was the life she'd made.
Cheese crackers crunching beneath her boots. A tickling and suspicious stink like milk that had been spilled in some unfound crack coming from the backseat. An unfinished To Do list, laundry piled and waiting for her at home, two overtired and cranky children whining at her. This was her life, and most of the time Gilly could ignore these small annoyances that were only tiny details in the much larger overall picture. Embrace them, even.
But not today.
Please, shut up. For five minutes. Just shut up!
"Give Mama a few minutes" is what Gillian Soloman said instead, her voice a feathery singsong that belied her growing irritation.
"I'm thirsty, Mama!" Arwen's high-edged, keening whine stabbed Gilly's eardrums. "I wanna drink now!"
Count to ten, Gilly. Count to twenty, if you have to. C 'mon, keep it together. Don't lose it.
"We'll be home in fifteen minutes." This would mean nothing to Arwen, who didn't know how to tell time, but to Gilly it was important. Fifteen minutes. Surely she could survive anything for fifteen more minutes, couldn't she? Gilly's voice snagged, ragged with the effort of keeping it calm, and she drew in a breath. She put a smile on her face not because she felt like smiling, but because she didn't. Kept her voice calm and soothing, because an angry tone to the children was like chum to sharks. It made them frenzied. "I told you to bring your water bottle. Maybe next time you'll listen to me."
Gilly made sure she'd signed the check in the right place and filled out the deposit envelope appropriately. Looked over it again. It was only a check for ten bucks and change, but if she messed up the amount written on the envelope, the credit union could and would charge her a fee. It had happened before, unbalancing her checkbook and causing an argument with her and Seth. The numbers blurred, and she rubbed her eyes.
"Mama? Mama? Mama!"
Gilly didn't even bother to answer, knowing the moment she said "what?" that Arwen would fall into stunned silence, nothing to say.
Fifteen minutes. Twenty, tops. You'll be home and can put them in front of cartoons. Just hold it together until then, Gilly. Don't lose it.
From the other seat came Gandy's endless, wordless groan of complaint and then the steady thump-kick of his feet to the back of Gilly's seat. Bang, bang, bang, the metronome of irritation.
"Gandy. Stop kicking Mama's seat."
For half a second as her pen wavered, Gilly thought about abandoning this venture altogether. What had she been thinking, making "just one more" stop? But damn it, she needed to cash this check and withdraw some money from the ATM to last her through the week, and since she'd already had to stop to pick up her prescription at the pharmacy
"I wanna drink now!"
What do you want me to do, spit in a cup?
The words hurtled to her lips and Gilly bit them back before they could vomit out of her, sick at the thought of how close she'd come to actually saying them aloud. Those weren't her words.
"Fifteen minutes, baby. We'll be home in fifteen minutes."
Thump, thump, thump.
Her fingers tightened on the pen. She breathed. She counted to ten. Then another five. It wasn't helping.
Last night: she fumbles with her house key because Seth locked the door leading from the garage to the laundry room when he went to bed. She stumbles into a dark house in which nobody's left on any lights, carrying handfuls ofplastic bags full of soap and socks and everything for other people, nothing for herself. She' d spent hours shopping, wandering the aisles of Walmart, comparing dish towels and bathroom mugs just so she had an excuse to be by herself for another hour. She took the long way home with the radio turned up high, singing along with songs with raunchy lyrics she can't listen to in front of the kids because they repeat everything. Scattered toys that had been in their bins when she left now stub her toes, and she mutters a curse. In the bedroom, lit only by the light from the hall so she doesn't wake her sleeping husband, the baskets of clean, waiting-to-be-put-away laundry have been torn apart by what, a tornado? Clothes all over the floor, dumped as though she hadn't spent an hour folding them all.
Even now as she remembered, Gilly's fingers twitched on the ATM envelope and rage, burning like bile, rose in her throat. Seth's excuse had been "I needed clean pajamas for the kids." She'd gone to bed beside him, stiff with fury, the taste of blood on her hardbitten tongue.
She'd woken, still just as angry, to the sound of Seth slamming dresser drawers and his plea to help him find a pair of clean socks, though of course they were all in the very basket he'd trashed the night before. In the shower Gilly had bent her head beneath lukewarm water that too quickly ran to chill. She'd been glad when he didn't kiss her goodbye.
At breakfast the children each wanted something different than what she'd put on the plate in front of them. Shoes wouldn't fit on feet, coats had gone AWOL, and every pair of Arwen's tights had managed to get a hole. The cat got loose, and the children cried, no matter how much she tried to reassure them Sandy would be just fine.
They'd been late to Gilly's doctor appointment. On any other day being on time would've meant a fifteen-minute wait. Today, the sour, scowling nurse informed them they'd almost forfeited their appointment. Arwen pinched her finger in a drawer, and Gandy fell off the rolling stool and cracked his head. Both children left the office in tears, and Gilly thought she might just start to cry, too.
The day didn't get better. There was whining, there was fussing, there were tantrums and yelling and threats of time-outs. And of course, though she'd spent hours in Walmart the night before, she'd still forgotten to buy milk. That meant a trip to Foodland. That meant children begging for sugary cereals she refused to buy. More tears. Pitying looks from women in coordinated outfits without stains on the front and well-behaved children who didn't act like starving beggars. By the time they'd finished their grocery shopping, Gilly was ready to take them both home and toss them into bed. She'd made one last stop at the ATM.
One last stop.
The whining rose in intensity and persistence. The kicking continued, ceaseless. Like all of this. Like her life.
Count to ten. Bite your tongue. Keep yourself together, Gilly. Don't lose it. Don't lose it.
Gilly made herself the Joker. She wouldn't have been surprised to feel scars rip open on her cheeks from the smile she forced again. "Ten more minutes, baby. Just ten. Let Mama do this, okay? Now listen. I'll be right back."
She turned in her seat to look at both of them, her angel-monsters. Arwen's eyes had gone squinty, mouth twisted into a frown. Gandy had snot dribbling from his nose and crusted goo at the corners of his lips. He'd spilled a juice box all over his pale blue shirt. They looked like the best of her and Seth combined. This was what she had made.
"I'll be right back," Gilly said, though frankly she wanted to start running down the highway and never look back. "You both stay here and keep your seat belts
on. You hear me? Seat belts on. Do not get out of your seats."
Good mothers didn't leave their children in the car, but the ATM was only a few feet away. The weather was cold enough that the kids wouldn't broil inside a locked vehicle, and she locked them in so nobody could steal them in the five minutes it would take her to finish her task. Besides, she thought as she slid her ATM card into the machine and punched in her PIN, dragging them both out into the freezing, early evening air would surely be worse than leaving them warm and safe in the Suburban.
Frigid wind blew, whipping at her hair and sending stinging pellets of winter rain that would've been less insulting as snow against her face. She blinked against it, concentrating on punching in her PIN number with fingers suddenly numb. She messed up. Had to cancel, do it again.
Slow down. Do it right. One number at a time, Gilly. It'll be okay.
She deposited the check, withdrew some cash, shoved her receipt and her card into her wallet and got back in the car. The kids had been silent when she opened the door, but within thirty seconds the whining began again. The steady kicking. The constant muttering of "Mama?" Gilly swallowed anger and tried desperately to scribble the amount of her withdrawal from the ATM in her checkbook, because if she didn't do it now, this minute, she would forget and there'd be another overdraft for Seth to complain about, but her hands shook and the numbers were illegible. She took a deep breath. Then one more. Willing herself to stay calm. It wasn't worth losing her temper over any of this. Not worth screaming about.
Five minutes. Please just shut up for five minutes, or I swear I'll
Not go crazy. Not that. She wouldn't even think about it.
Gilly put the truck in Drive and pulled slowly out of the parking spot. The strip mall bustled with activity, with Foodland getting its share of evening foragers and the office supply store just as busy. Gilly eased past some foron in a minivan who'd parked askew, brake lights on, and mentally threatened them with violence if they dared back out in front of her.
This part of the strip mall had been under construction foreverthe promise of a popular chain restaurant and a couple upscale additions had made everyone in Lebanon salivate at the thought of getting some culture, but in the end poor planning and the economy's downturn had stalled the project. They'd only gotten as far as building a new access road, slashing like a razor on a wrist through what had previously been a tidy little field. Gilly stopped at the stop sign and looked automatically past the empty storefront to her left, though all that lay at the end of the road in that direction were dirt and Dumpsters.
The passenger door opened, and Gilly looked to her right. She blinked at the young man sliding across the bench seat toward her. He slammed the door and grunted as he kicked his duffel bag to the floor. For one infinite moment, she felt no terror, only confusion. "Where did you?"
Then she saw the knife.
Huge, serrated, gripped in his fist. She didn't even look at his face. And she wasn't confused any longer.
Cold, implacable fury filled her and clenched her hands into numbness. All she'd wanted to do was go home, put the kids to bed and take a hot bath. Read a book. Be alone for a few precious minutes in peace and quiet before her husband came home and wanted to talk to her. And now
The tip of his knife came within an eyelash of her cheek; his other hand gripped her ponytail and held it tight. "Go!"
There was no time for thought. Gilly went. She pounded her foot so hard on the accelerator the tires spun on ice-slick ground before catching. The Chevy Suburban bucked forward, heading for the traffic light and the road out of town.
He has a knife. The press of steel on flesh, parting it. Blood spurts. There is no smell like it, the smell of blood. That's what a knife can do. It can hurt and worse than that.
It can kill.
Gilly's hands moved on the steering wheel automatically. With little conscious thought, she flicked her turn signal and nosed into the line of traffic. Night had fallen. Nobody could see what was happening to her. Nobody would help her. She was on her own, but she wasn't alone.
"I'll do what you want. Just don't hurt my kids."
No smile this time, but it was the same voice she'd used just minutes ago with her children. It was her mother's voice, she thought. She'd never noticed. The realization sent a jolting twist of nausea through her.
"Mommy?" Arwen sounded tremulous, confused. "Who's that man?"
"It's okay, kids." This was not her mother's voice, thank God. It was the one Gilly used for things like shots and stitches. Things that would hurt no matter what she said or did. This voice broke like glass in her throat, hurting.
Gandy said with a two-year-old's wisdom, "Man, bad."
The man's gaze shot to the backseat as if he only now noticed the kids there. "Shit." He moved closer. He gripped the back of her seat this time, not her hair, but the knife stayed too close to her neck. "Turn left."
She did. The lights of the oncoming cars flashed in her eyes, and Gilly squinted. Slam on the brakes? Twist the wheel, hit another car? A checklist of choices ticked themselves off in her brain and she took none, her fury dissolved by the numbness of indecision and fear. She followed his barked orders to head out of town, away from the lights and the other cars. Away from safety. Away from help.
"Where do you want me to go?" The big SUV bounced with every rut in the road, and the knife wavered that much closer to her flesh. She'd bleed a lot if it cut her. She didn't want her children to see her bleed. She'd do anything to keep them from seeing that.
The man looked over his shoulder again. "I'll tell you when to turn."
The Suburban headed into farm country, past silos and barns, dark and silent. Gilly risked a look at him. She took a deep breath, spoke fast so he'd listen. "I have sixty dollars in my purse. You can have it. Just let"
"Shut up and drive!"
No other traffic passed them, not even a car coming the opposite direction. Salt and grit spattered against the windshield, smearing it. She turned on the windshield wipers. She didn't oblige him by driving fast.
If he didn't want money, what did he want? Her mind raced. The truck? The vehicle wasn't the kicky, sexy sort of car she'd always assumed people wanted to steal. It was far from new but well-maintained, and had cost an arm and a leg, but she wasn't attached to it.
"Look, if you want the truck, you can have it."
"Shut up!" The knife again dipped close to her shoulder, close enough to brush the fleece of her jacket. The blade glittered in the green dashboard light.
He didn't want the truck. He didn't want the money. Did he want ..her?
Both children wailed from the backseat, a sound that at any other time would have set her teeth on edge. Now it broke her heart. The road stretched out pitch-black and deserted before them. No streetlamps out here in Pennsylvania farm country. Nothing but the faint light of electric candles in the window of a farmhouse set off far down a long country lane.
"What do you want?" Her fingers had gone past numb to aching from holding on so tightly to the steering wheel.
He didn't answer her.
"Just let my kids go." She kept her voice low, not wanting Arwen and Gandy to hear her. "I'll pull over to the side and you can let them out. Then I'll do whatever you want."