Jagged streaks danced across the night sky, bathing the landscape in harsh white light. Crouched behind the old sedan, Melissa Langston cringed. Each burst of virtual daylight shredded her already frayed nerves. She needed the cover of darkness.
A clap resonated through the air and gave way to a deep, persistent rumble. In the silence that followed, she tuned her ear to the dull thump of muffled footsteps, straining to pinpoint their source. Why couldn’t he wear boots? The hard soles would at least warn her if he veered from the sidewalk.
But Eugene always wore tennis shoes.
She held her breath, every muscle a tangled knot of apprehension. He was suspicious. But he hadn’t seen her. She was sure of it. Otherwise, he would have come after her.
His sudden appearance had almost sent her into cardiac arrest. She had slipped from her apartment for the final time and just reached the parking lot when movement at the end of the building caught her eye. A split second later, she dove behind the nearest car. That was almost an hour ago, when the approaching spring storm was nothing more than distant heat lightning and a vague threat of rain.
Another series of flashes illuminated the sky, and she counted. One thousand one, one thousand two…the ground trembled beneath her. Almost eight seconds. A mile and a half away. The rain was even closer, its musty, organic scent heavy in the air.
But it wasn’t the rain that worried her. It was the lightning.
The last time she checked, he still paced back and forth in front of her apartment. The restraining order she filed several weeks ago was little consolation. So was the thought that help was minutes away. Her phone was in her purse, waiting in the console of her car. But if Eugene saw her run for it, she wouldn’t have the opportunity to dial nine-one-one. He had warned her. She could never leave, or she would regret it. If the ice-cold fury in his eyes didn’t convince her, the steel blade against her throat did.
Anger surged up from within, nudging aside a sliver of the fear. She didn’t ask for this. How could friendly conversation on laundry night and the occasional visit to the ice cream shop across the street morph into this sick obsession that left her fleeing for her life?
A liquid trail of silver fire zigzagged downward, followed by an answering clap. Then a deathly silence settled in. The footsteps had stopped. Where was Eugene? Awareness zinged up her spine, and she tensed, every sense on full alert. He was close. She could feel it.
She dropped to all fours and crawled along the length of the back bumper, the roughness of the asphalt against her hands and knees an annoying undertone to the alarms going off in her head. Her heart beat a staccato rhythm in her chest, and she paused to draw in a steadying breath. The instant she peered around the side of the car, another flash pierced the darkness, and a wave of panic cascaded over her. Eugene stood at the front quarter panel, not twelve feet away.
She drew back and pivoted on one leg, grinding the skin from her bare knee, and then scurried to the other side of the car.
An earsplitting boom accompanied the next flash, and she bit off a startled shriek. Had Eugene seen her? Even if he hadn’t, he could step around the old sedan at any moment and stumble upon her carelessly chosen hiding place. Then he would know she was leaving.
And she would pay with her life.
Dread settled over her, seeping into her pores and filling her limbs with lead. But she had no choice. Talking to him accomplished nothing. Threatening him with a restraining order only made him mad. And getting the restraining order triggered a fit of rage that left her pinned against the laundry room wall with a knife at her throat. Even the police had been no help. By the time they arrived, Eugene was always gone. No, running was her only hope.
She sat back on her heels, again in a deep squat. Molten lava coursed through her knee with every beat of her heart. She reached to brush away the embedded grains of sand and gravel, wet and sticky with her own blood, and dropped her hand. She would doctor herself later. Ignoring the fire raging in her knee, she raised herself to peer through the windows of the old sedan. Where was he?
With the next brilliant flash, she knew. He stood at her Honda two spaces over, bent at the waist, peering inside.
Thank God the last of her things had fit in the trunk. A back seat filled with boxes would have sealed her fate. This was her fourth-and final-midnight trip. Her cat waited at a friend’s house. Everything else was packed into a rented box truck in her friend’s driveway. Freedom was so close she could almost taste it.
A whispered “shhhh” sounded in the distance and moved steadily closer, building to a rumble then a roar as thousands of advancing mini soldiers pounded across the parking lot. The next instant, she was drenched. Rain tainted with hair spray, moisturizer and make-up trailed down her forehead and into her eyes. The sting competed with the pain in her knee.
She wiped her face with her soaked shirt and searched for Eugene’s stocky frame. Several seconds passed before she spotted him. He had moved away from her car and strolled down the sidewalk, seemingly unperturbed by the hammering rain. Even after his retreating figure disappeared from view, she remained in her semi-crouch, unable to shake the feeling that just when she reached her car, meaty fingers would clamp around her throat.
She finally summoned the courage to emerge from her hiding place and closed the final yards at a sprint, prodded by urgency with an edge of panic. The panic grew, pounded up her spine and pressed on her chest. With shaking fingers, she jammed the key into the lock.
Light flooded the interior of the car, and she shot a glance back at the building, half expecting Eugene to materialize there. When he didn’t, she slipped into the seat and slammed the door, eyes still glued to the point where the shadows had swallowed him earlier. She reached for her phone, navigating the three numbers with her thumb. She had placed dozens of these calls. And each time it was pointless. Eugene had a knack for disappearing into thin air. Maybe it was his military training. Maybe he had given her a false name right from the start, and that was why there was no record of him, military or otherwise. It was as if he didn’t exist.
Much later, she sped through the darkness down Interstate 75, the Honda attached securely to the back of the truck and Smudge in a carrier beside her. Layer by layer, her tension peeled away, falling off with every mile that rolled by, and relief settled in, mixed with a sort of wry humor. She had done it. She had escaped. She was starting over – a new home, a new job, a new name and a new life.
But she was doing the one thing she swore she would never do.