eye of the storm ~ chapter four

for the record

Chapter Four 

Brandon, Florida 

As soon as Grace disappeared from sight, Claire walked slowly back into the house, locked the door and threw the dead bolt. Thank God she’s gone. If Grace knew the truth, she would want to stand and fight. But I never said a word. Claire lit a cigarette and drew the smoke in with a shaky breath. Then she looked around the living room as if she had an audience and shouted, “Hear that, you bastard! I never said a word.” 

She walked through the living room and down the short hall to Grace’s sunny yellow bedroom. It exuded her personality. The rest of the house was completely anonymous. On purpose. Grace had never known about her efforts to hide in plain sight. Not that it mattered anymore. She had been found ten years ago. Her efforts to be invisible all these years had failed. 

Claire sat down on Grace’s neatly made bed and put her face in her hands. Her cell phone chirped. Claire fished it out of her jeans pocket. Grace. She’s barely been gone a half hour. 

After their brief conversation, Claire stood up and smoothed the covers on Grace’s bed, then went back to her own bedroom. She didn’t pull back the covers, just lay down on her back and fell into a deep sleep, even though it was nearly mid-morning. She barely slept a wink the night before, fretting about everything. 

Claire slept straight through until dark, when she awoke with a start and grabbed for the cell phone on her bedside table. There was a message from Grace. “Hi Mom, it’s me. Just wanted to let you know I got here safe and sound. I’m at the apartment and in for the night. Talk to you later. Love you. Bye.” 

Claire showered, dressed for work, and microwaved a frozen dinner, which she washed down with hot coffee. She didn’t mind working the graveyard shift in the neonatal intensive care unit at Brandon Hospital. Nurse burn-out rate was high. Happy outcomes for the high-risk infants there were not assured, and it was considered a tough place to work. Not for Claire, though. She had been on the unit twenty years, ever since she arrived in Brandon as a young nurse with a toddler of her own. She understood more than most that once you’re born, it’s too late. Life itself is a high risk proposition. 

The NICU unit was Claire’s home. Her work there felt like a calling, a duty, maybe even a penance. She had spent many nights just like this one, where even with all the high-tech equipment, the low-tech remedy of holding a premature, sick infant in your arms in a rocking chair and humming “Hush Little Baby” was still the best medicine in the world. 

Claire left her station shortly after 11 for a quick break. She was in the nurse’s lounge with hot coffee and a cinnamon roll when her cell phone chirped to alert her to an incoming text message. “Love u. Wish u were here.” Claire pushed #1 to speed dial Grace’s cell. 

 “You won’t believe this, Mom. I am sitting out on the balcony of the condo watching a full moon over Escambia Bay. I can see three beautiful sailboats and a huge shrimp trawler that looks like something out of another century. It’s incredible.” Claire had never heard her daughter talk so fast. 

“It sounds amazing. Did you get some supper?” 

“Sure did. I picked up a frozen veggie pizza at Publix. There’s a little round glass-top patio table and a couple of chairs out here, so I sat in one, propped my feet in the other, and enjoyed my dinner while I watched pelicans dive-bombing the bay for their dinner.” 

“That’s wonderful, Grace. You’ve earned it. Makes me happy to know you’re happy. Enjoy the rest of your weekend before you start work Monday.” 

“I will, Mom.” 

“Well, time’s up. I’ve got to get back to work..” 

“Okay, Mom. Hope the rest of your shift goes well.” 

“Thanks, honey. Oh, and Grace?” 

“Yes ma’am?” 

“Don’t forget to keep an eye out for strangers.” 

“Well, Mom,” Grace laughed, “that’ll be pretty hard to do. Everybody here is a stranger to me right now.” 

“You know what I mean. There are friends you haven’t met yet, and then there are strangers.” 

“I know, Mom. Don’t worry. You raised me right. Besides, I’ve been pretty much on my own for quite a while, now, and I’m not a kid anymore. I’m always careful.” 

“Twenty-four years old and a lawyer. You really are almost a fully-grown bear, aren’t you?” 

“Just about.” 

“I’m glad we could talk, Grace. Sets my mind at ease, for now anyway. Love you, baby girl. Talk to you soon.” 

The rest of Claire’s shift was uneventful. She moved from the bright fluorescent lights of the hospital as the sliding front doors whooshed her into the cool morning air. She crossed the street to reach staff parking at the back of the lot, then slid behind the wheel of her small silver car, started the engine and turned onto the nearly deserted road. It was a few minutes after 6 a.m. 

Claire drove past the Waffle Shop. It was a brightly lit rectangle in the still-dark landscape and looked inviting. Half a dozen cars were in the parking lot. She could see people in booths and at the counter through the big plate glass windows. Memories of the seductive aroma of yeasty waffles, crisp bacon, butter pecan syrup and stand-you-up coffee seemed to invade her car. She almost stopped in for breakfast. She longed to immerse herself in the comfortable chatter of strangers who lived in a safe world, but she drove on by. 

She was still thinking about the sickest baby in NICU and murmuring a little prayer for him when she turned at her road, South Bryan Circle, and pulled up onto the concrete pad of her carport. She moved her small Lady Smith and Wesson 350 magnum pistol from her purse to her right hand, held her keys in her left hand and walked the short distance to her front door on the narrow sidewalk. She wasn’t expecting a problem, but it had become a habitual precaution. The sky was growing lighter by the minute, and she hoped to be in bed asleep before full sunrise. 

Claire smiled when she saw the neon pink flamingo stuck in the ground by the front door step. Even in the dim light of approaching morning, it was hard to miss. That was Grace’s doing, and it was the one touch of whimsy in the minimally landscaped yard. Grace brought the garish souvenir to Claire from Pensacola, when she went there to interview. 

Claire spent the last two decades trying to get Grace ready for the moment when she could launch out into the world, far away from Brandon, mostly far away from herself, from anything or anyone who might harm her. She would miss Grace, but she was glad 500 miles separated them now. 

Claire bent to unlock the front door, both key lock and dead bolt. She simultaneously opened the door and wiped her feet on the mat. Something hard and jiggly grabbed her. It rattled and moved as she screamed. “Let me go! Let me go!” She almost fell over backward as her right arm jerked when her pistol fired. Whatever it was that had hold of her let go and fell to the floor with a noisy clatter. Breathing hard, nearly hyperventilating, Claire flipped on a ceiling light with the butt of the pistol on the light switch just to the right of the front entry. 

A skeleton. Damn it. It’s a toy. The white plastic skeleton was a Halloween prop. It was suspended by the foyer light fixture with fishing line. Some of the hideous bones were still dangling from the light. Claire looked at the mess at her feet. She saw the skeleton’s bony hands were wired to hold a large rectangle of stiff white card stock which now had a bullet hole through the middle of it. Her shot hit the card a few inches below the message, which was printed in large black block print stick-on letters: 

IF YOU TELL HER, I WILL KNOW. THE GIRL WILL DIE. 

Claire turned on the porch light and looked around to see if any neighbors were reacting to the gun shot. She didn’t see anyone, so she came back inside, double-locked the door, and walked through the rest of the house, turning on lights as she went. 

He’ll never quit as long as I live. He’ll never believe I won’t tell Grace who she really is. By the time Claire completed her search and satisfied herself that no one was in the house, she knew what she had to do to stop this. 

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