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. The scene fell into semi-darkness, the glow of downtown Atlanta in the distance.
A clap resonated through the air and gave way to a deep, persistent rumble. In the silence that followed, she listened 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. Otherwise, he would have come after her.
His sudden appearance had sent her heart straight into her throat. 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.
It wasn’t the rain that worried her, though. It was the lightning.
The last time she checked, he still paced back and forth in front of her apartment. The restraining order she’d 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 911. He had warned her. He would never let her leave. If the ice-cold fury in his eyes hadn’t convinced her, the steel blade against her throat had.
Heat surged up inside, 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 zigzagged downward, followed by an answering clap. Then a deathly silence settled in. The footsteps had stopped. Where was he? Awareness zinged up her spine, fanning out in a wave of goosebumps. He was close.
She dropped to all fours and crawled along the length of the back bumper. The asphalt dug into the soft skin of her knees and palms, and her heart beat a staccato rhythm against her ribs. She paused to draw in a steadying breath. As she peered around the side of the car, another flash pierced the darkness, and a bolt of panic shot through her. Eugene stood at the front wheel well, not ten feet away.
She drew back and pivoted on one leg, grinding the skin from her bare knee, then scurried to the other side of the car.
An earsplitting boom accompanied the next flash, and she bit off a startled shriek. Had he 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’d know she was leaving.
And she would pay with her life.
Dread pressed down on her. But she had no choice. Talking to him had accomplished nothing. Threatening him with a restraining order had only made him mad. And getting the restraining order had 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.
She’d run out of options. Disappearing was her only hope.
She sat back on her heels, again in a deep squat. Fire 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, then dropped her hand. She would doctor herself later. Ignoring the pain in her knee, she raised herself to peek through the windows of the old sedan. Where was he?
The next brilliant flash provided the answer. He stood at her Honda two spaces away, bent at the waist, peering inside.
At least, the last of her things had fit in the trunk. A backseat filled with boxes would have sealed her fate. This was her fourth—and final—midnight trip. Smudge, her big, white 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 wind gust whipped her hair across her face, and a whispered “shhhh” sounded in the distance. It moved steadily closer, building to a rumble then a roar as a solid sheet of advancing rain pounded across the parking lot. The next instant, she was drenched. Water tainted with hair spray and makeup trailed down her forehead and into her eyes. The sting competed with the pain in her knee.
She wiped her face with the soaked hem of her shirt and searched for Eugene’s stocky frame. Several seconds passed before she spotted him. He had moved away from her car and was strolling down the sidewalk, seemingly unperturbed by the hammering rain. Even after he disappeared from view, she remained paralyzed, unable to shake the feeling that the moment she moved, beefy fingers would clamp around her throat.
Finally, she summoned the courage to emerge from her hiding place and hurried toward her car. Urgency morphed to panic, and she closed the final yards at a sprint. Her hand shook as she slid the key silently into the lock.
When she swung open the door, light flooded the interior of the car. She shot a glance back at the building, half expecting Eugene to materialize there. When he didn’t, she slipped into the seat and pulled the door closed, eyes glued to the point where the shadows had swallowed him earlier. The dome light clicked off, but the tension didn’t dispel.
She turned the key, wincing when the engine roared to life and praying the pounding rain camouflaged the sound. Without waiting to see if Eugene would come to investigate, she backed from the space and sped away.
At the first traffic light, she reached for her phone and punched in the three numbers. It was an exercise in futility. 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’d 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.
An hour later, she pulled from her friend’s driveway, the Honda attached securely to the back of the truck and Smudge in a carrier beside her. As she sped through the darkness down Interstate 75, her tension peeled away layer by layer. Relief settled in, mixed with a sort of wry humor. She’d done it. She’d 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.