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Des Moines, Iowa
Only minutes before the terror began, six-year-old Amanda Sue Borgson felt especially happy sitting at the kitchen table with her best friend, Penny, the housekeeper's four-year-old daughter.
"Martha, I ate all my soup." Sue lifted her empty, colorfully striped bowl as she watched Martha Johns pouring milk into her glass. "Can I have a cookie?"
"Me, too," echoed Penny, tipping her bowl to show its spotless interior.
Leaning forward, and resting her hands on the table, Martha pretended to scrutinize how well they'd cleaned their bowls. "Yes," she said. "I believe you both deserve a cookie."
Thinking about what had happened nearly five years ago, and how much she loved her job, Martha walked to the counter and opened the large, cupcake-designed cookie jar that the girls were staring at expectantly. She'd worked for the Borgson family for almost five years now. But before she'd needed a job, Kevin, her husband, had worked for the local school system, and they'd rented an apartment from the Borgsons. Four years and eight months ago, winter had made a last ditch effort to cover the city in six feet of snow. Filled with excitement, Martha had been waiting at home with a special dinner, waiting to tell Kevin about the baby.
Kevin lost his life that night--freezing to death because his car slid into a tree during that Iowa blizzard, and no one noticed his car or him. He never knew he was to be a father. In less than an hour her life had all but crumbled to dust. Coming to her rescue, the Borgsons, God bless them, offered her work and encouragement. No, she thought, so very much more than that. They had made her, andeventually Penny, feel like members of the family.
After pulling two huge cookies--the sort children yearn after--from the jar, she returned to the table and placed them in the tiny, eager hands reaching for them. If it hadn't been for the Borgson's generosity, Martha didn't know how she would have survived, pregnant, alone, no income.
She smiled at how gentle and sweet the girls were. She loved that Suzie Q as much as she loved her Penny. Her daddy had dubbed her Suzie Q, and it fit perfectly. She might be two years older than Penny, but she wasn't any taller, and so tiny--
A muffled curse, a grunt of pain, and the clatter-jangle of glass breaking came from somewhere in the house. Startled by the alien and menacing noise, Martha swept Penny from her chair and grabbed Sue's hand. "Hush, now," she whispered, hurrying them across the parquet floor and opening the solid folding doors to the pantry. She followed the plan worked out in her mind if something should pose a threat to the children--tornado-type storm outside or an always probable human menace within because landlords were prime targets.
"Sit on the floor and hold hands while I see what's happening," she ordered. "Don't make any noise, and don't come out until I come back for you." She returned the Borgson's generous support through loyalty and watching out for the children, and, thank goodness it wasn't often, by handling any disgruntled renters who came around to harass the family. The sheriff served on two such people just last week, and one kicked out windows in the Mrs. Borgson's car that same night.
The Borgsons could call them disgruntled if they wanted. But Martha saw them as cancerous professional renters, sponging troublemakers who often destroyed an apartment before finally being forced to leave. She intended to look for the source of the noise, then call the police. She couldn't see the Borgson's taking any more guff off that type of people. It made Martha furious, just plain furious.
The urgency in Martha's voice and her sudden disappearance frightened Sue. In the darkness of the closed pantry, she tightened her grip on Penny's hand.
Penny pulled away. "That hurt, Suzie Q."
"Sh ... Sh..." Sue hissed with a finger placed to her lips. The tersely given orders from Martha made her tummy feel as if she'd eaten rocks, not soup.
A loud, sharp bang echoed through the house. Sue heard a scream, though she couldn't tell whether it came from her mother or Martha.
Hopelessly, Sue tried to hang onto Penny and keep her in the pantry as Martha instructed. The determined Penny yanked away, shoved back the folding door, and sprinted from the kitchen. Sue followed her through the swinging kitchen door and stopped when she reached the broad archway that separated the dining room from the sunken living room. A few more steps and she would be where the staircase began its winding way to the upper floor. A strange man with a shiny brown face, and no nose, or eyes, or mouth, stood at the top of the stairs near her daddy.
"Dammit. You open that safe," the man growled, and raised his hand that had a butterfly on it, a beautiful red, purple, yellow butterfly. "Or I'm going to shoot."
"You don't steal from this family," Raymond Borgson yelled. "Teenager or no, I'm going to see you in jail." He grabbed at the gun in the man's hand with one hand, and with the other he yanked at the top of the man's head.
Her daddy had to've made a mistake. He called the man a teenager, and to her that meant an old boy like her brother Pete--this man looked bigger than Pete. She had to look way up at her daddy, and when he told younger people to do something, they usually did it. He never had to get mad like he was right now. Sue couldn't remember ever seeing him mad before. It made her mad at the man too.
When her daddy quit yanking on the man's shiny skin, Sue thought that he had removed the man's face--but no, now he had a nose and eyes and hair. And, an ugly, puckered line that ran from his eye to his mouth. The gun in his hand suddenly exploded, and plaster rained down on them both from the ceiling. She watched her daddy shake the big boy's arm and the gun flew into the air, then flipped over the railing and fell to the carpet in the living room.
Run! Get that gun, Sue commanded herself, begged herself. If I get the gun and run, the man will leave Daddy alone. Yet her body wouldn't listen, she couldn't move. Tears sprang to her eyes as she saw another man, and with him, an old boy like Pete. They both had the same shiny skin on their faces, and the man had a hold on her mother's arm. He forced her mother to walk with him across the room toward the gun. Seeing her mother's pale face and terrified eyes made Sue's muscles tighten even more; it was useless.
She stared at the boy. Except for him, they all looked like men to her. She realized it was like the stockings her mother wore on her legs when he tugged it from his head and shoved his hand through his long, greasy-looking brown hair. Near his ear was a little picture that reminded Sue of the cross she'd seen at church and his ear had an ugly twist running down the side. He wasn't as tall as the others, and thin--just like Pete.
"You crazy, dumb-shit," the big boy who struggled with her daddy hollered. He shoved, hard, and her father rolled end-over-end down the thickly carpeted steps, with the boy running after him.
Before her father had stopped rolling, the man pulling on her mother's arm reached the gun. He scooped it from the floor, waved it in the air, and then he hit her mother and fired the gun at Martha as she pushed Penny behind Daddy's big chair and reached for the phone on the end table.
Still unable to move, Sue could hear herself screaming as her mother landed on the floor and Martha fell back against the couch then slid to the carpet, a red color now staining the front of her dress.
She opened her mouth to scream again when the hand with the butterfly landed hard against her cheek, bouncing her head to the wall. The men then barreled past her and disappeared into the kitchen. But the thin boy stopped in front of her. He grinned, baring his teeth, and took her neck between his hands, squeezing, cutting off her breath. His grip loosened when one of the men yelled at him, "Move it, LA. That's enough education for one morning." Laughing, he released her neck and ran.
"Bates, we didn't get no money."
"We got jewelry, kid. A real haul," were the last words Sue could hear when the door slammed.
Penny ran to Martha. "Mommy, Mommy," she cried.
"Call the police, Suzie," Martha moaned, while she held Penny's hand. "Hurry, child, the number is on the phone where I showed you."
Sue couldn't make her voice work as she gasped for breath, her throat burning in pain. The words Bates and jewelry echoed in her head. She wanted to scream again, wanted to run, but could do neither. Sprawled at the bottom of the stairs, was Daddy. And Mommy was lying near Martha, her eyes closed as if she were sleeping.
Penny calmly knelt beside her mother. "Mommy, Suzie won't move."
Martha touched her daughter's face. "Remember how I taught you to use the phone for an emergency, baby? Not like calling your friend Kay?"
Penny nodded. "Can I, Mommy? I know how."
Sue heard Martha's whispered, "Yes." She wanted to help her and Mommy and Daddy, too. Tears burned her eyes. She wanted to help.
Penny lifted a satin toss pillow from the couch and placed it under her mother's head and patted her cheek. "I call now, Mommy." Penny climbed on the brocade couch and put the phone receiver to her ear, then carefully punched the numbers. "My mommy and Suzie Q's mommy and daddy are hurt," she said clearly. "Men were here and hurt them." She listened. "Our street is Elmhurst. Okay, I won't hang up." Penny turned her head and looked at Martha. "They will come, Mommy. I'm not to hang up."
Martha moaned. "Good girl, baby," she gasped. "You're such a good girl. Now, tell them 4737 Elmhurst."
And I'm bad, Sue thought. I can't move. Mommy needs me, and I can't move. She didn't understand. No one had shot her, she was standing on her feet; yet, she had fallen asleep all over.
Even when she heard the sirens outside the front door, her legs wouldn't work. She kept seeing the brilliant sparks from the gun, the wet, red stain on Martha's dress, her daddy falling....
Unsuccessfully, she tried hard to remember what had outlined the vivid colors on the back of the man's hand. But she could see the cross and the ear with its crooked scar, and the boy's bold, hard stare that seemed to stab her flesh.
Several people lunged through the front door. The first three were policemen. The next had red jackets and carried big boxes.
Then Sue couldn't see them or hear them anymore as she closed her eyes and toppled to the floor.