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Bears in Blue
The usual toddler toys littered the living room floor, a mass of wooden blocks and puzzle pieces, but the child herself was nowhere to be found.
“Melly?” her mother called, a note of panic lacing her tone. “Melissa? Where are you?”
Abruptly, a small, blonde head of curls popped up from behind the coffee table, partially hidden by unpacked boxes, and a set of smoky eyes lit up.
“Here I am, Mama!” she cooed, waving her hands for effect. Lisa Stark laughed, relief flooding her face, and she opened her arms for the child to fall into, sweeping Melissa into her embrace.
“Are you my sweetest girl?” Lisa murmured, inhaling Melissa’s baby-scented head. “Are you Mama’s best child?”
The precocious three-year-old threw her head back and looked at Lisa with surprise.
“I’m your only child!” she argued and Lisa laughed, although her heart was thudding at the statement.
Thank God for small favors, she thought regretfully. Oh, what Lisa wouldn’t have done to have another child to hold in her arms, to watch grow up and play with the pretty blonde she had already birthed.
Only one child. That’s all you’ll get.
Melissa continued to stare adoringly at her mother, waiting for a response which would assure her that that was all Lisa needed.
“That you are, Melly. You are my only baby and I will always protect you.”
She lavished Melissa’s small face with a dozen kisses until the girl squealed and struggled to escape, and Lisa permitted her to go.
No one will ever keep you against your will or force you to be something you’re not, Lisa vowed silently. I’ll die before that ever happens.
The phone in the kitchen was ringing and reluctantly, the exhausted single mother rose to answer it, casting Melissa a warning as she did.
“You play gently now,” she said, sauntering into the other room to find the landline. “Don’t forget, we’re going to have to clean this up before supper and bath time. There’s still a lot of boxes to be put away.”
“I will, Mama,” Melissa replied but Lisa smiled, knowing that her words had gone right through her daughter’s ears. What did a three-year-old know about cleaning?
“Hello?” she answered warily, noting the blocked number on the call display.
There’s no way. It’s just a telemarketer. It’s just a—
The two words were enough to send chills of panic through Lisa’s body and her instinct was to hang up the phone but she dared not, not without knowing where he was.
How does he always manage to find us?
“No…” she whispered. “No…”
“Listen to me,” he rasped. “You can’t hide her forever, Lisa. She’s mine and she will—”
“You’ll leave us alone!” Lisa hissed, regaining her composure. “She’s a child! My child!”
There was a long, deep silence and for a moment, Lisa thought he had hung up the call.
“She belongs with me, Lisa, maybe not now, but when she gets older, she’s going to want to know about her father. If you come home now, I promise—”
“Your promises don’t mean jack to me, Paul. You leave me and my daughter alone!” Her fury managed to override her fear if only to yell at him.
“Lisa, she’s my daughter too.”
“No,” Lisa countered, the rage of a mother hellbent on keeping her daughter safe fusing through her bones. “She is not your daughter, no matter what you think. What do you want, Paul? Money? Don’t make me call the cops.”
There was a slight lull but even through the phone, Lisa knew her threats didn’t alarm him.
“You and I both know that’s not going to do anything.”
“If you think for a second that I won’t fight you to the death for my daughter, you’re sadly mistaken, Paul.”
Her ex-husband grunted into her ear as if Lisa was becoming annoying and her mind raced wildly.
If he has my home number, he must already know where we are. Dammit!
That meant only one thing.
Damn you, Paul. Do you know what you’re doing to our daughter?
“Lisa, I’m not calling to scare you,” he told her reasonably. “I’m calling to tell you that inevitably, I’m coming for Melissa. You can’t keep her away forever.”
“Watch me,” Lisa spat and slammed the cordless phone down onto the table, her hands trembling. She knew what she had to do now.
“Mama? Mama, are you crying?” Melissa’s fair head appeared in the doorway of the kitchen and Lisa quickly blinked her hazel eyes to keep the unshed tears from falling to her cheeks.
“Nope,” she lied. “I was just looking for something good to eat for dinner.”
“Oh! Can we have pizza?” Melissa asked, her innocent face oblivious to her mother’s mounting fear. Lisa had become an expert in suppressing the tension which had followed them from Seattle to the east coast and finally to Ohio, where Lisa had hoped she had finally rid herself of Paul’s endless tail.
But there is no escaping from him. He will continue to chase after us until I give him what he wants—Melissa.
“You know what, muffin? We’re fresh out of pizza but you know who makes great pizza?”
Melissa studied her mother with wide eyes. Even in her plaintive youth, the girl could sense something was wrong but she was far too ignorant to the ways of the world to know what was going on.
“No,” Lisa chuckled, despite the fear in her gut. “Chicago.”
Melissa had no answer for that and her brow knit in confusion.
“Never heard of it. Is it as good as Papa John’s?”
“You haven’t had pizza from there yet,” Lisa assured her. “But that’s where we’re going. Chicago.”
“Okay… Mama, are we moving again?” Understanding colored Melissa’s face slowly and Lisa felt a massive pang of regret as she nodded slowly.
“We are, honey.”
“Why, Mama? I like this house. You said we could stay here for a while.”
“We will find a better house. A nicer house,” she vowed, but as she said the words, Lisa knew how many times she’d said that to her daughter in the last year and a half.
We need to get out of the country. Paul won’t track us if we get out of the States, Lisa thought, but that was a pipe dream, at least for now. She hadn’t even had the means to procure new identification for them. It was a small wonder that Paul was able to find her without incident. In the age of technology, she couldn’t just escape, not the way one could twenty years before.
We’ll get settled someplace where I can reach out to some people and find a way to get us to Canada or Mexico. That’s the only way to be done with this once and for all.
But she was no criminal, no spy with underground connections. She was a college grad from Oregon who had married the wrong man.
There was no argument in Melissa’s tone and guilt swept through Lisa in a torrent. She almost wished her daughter would fight, kick, scream.
She’s only three and she already knows the feeling of adult-sized disappointment. Maybe I’m a terrible mother for doing this. Maybe Paul is right and I’ve got this all wrong. Maybe I should go back to Seattle.
But as Lisa stared into her little girl’s intense grey eyes, she knew that she was doing right by Melissa.
And I will protect her even if we have to spend our lives on the run like fugitives. I only hope she understands and forgives me one day.