Tara punched in the security code, resetting the alarm beneath the kitchen cabinets. Though she was already late, she peered through the small, square window over the sink. Gas lamps lit the path that bordered the house trailers nearest her temporary home. Holiday lights sparkled on bushes and around windows, creating shadows that darkened the spaces between the trailers.
Kali Kerkorian sat at the fold-down table behind Tara, tablet and textbook open in front of her. “Cyril can do nothing from jail,” she said.
“The people he works for can.” Tara turned away from the window to face her friend.
“And so?” Kali said. “You will stay in tonight?”
“Like every other night for the last four months, you mean?”
Kali shrugged and smiled. “I can make tea for us. Or return home to Grandmother.”
“No.” Tara zipped her jacket and resisted the urge to recheck the alarm. Her baby, who, by all natural laws, should not exist, slept on a blanket in the living room, unaware of any threats or of the controversy surrounding her. Tara longed to lie down and rest like that without at least part of her on the alert. She doubted she ever would.
Outside, dried leaves crunched under Tara’s gym shoes. She inhaled crisp night air. It smelled of pine. She exhaled a long breath. Kali knew about the death and damage caused by those who’d been after Tara while she’d been pregnant. She would take all security precautions. And she’d watched Fimi before. But that had been during the day. Somehow, leaving the baby alone after dark felt more worrisome despite the protection the Willow Springs community offered.
The Friday night service at the Community Center, with its dancing and singing, helped Tara unwind and feel freer than she had since she’d discovered she was pregnant. The grown ups only hour after it added to her good mood. Most of her socializing in the last four months had been with Kali and Kali’s grandmother, Nanor, the founder of Willow Springs. Both were people Tara loved, but it felt great to visit and laugh with others, too. A text from Kali at the start of the gathering reassured her that all was well and she could enjoy herself.
On the way back, Tara veered slightly off track toward her favorite section of Willow Springs – the lake that divided its residential area from the woods surrounding it. The night was hazy. Few stars dotted the sky, and the moon stayed hidden. When Tara reached the creek that fed the lake, she listened to its trickling water, her eyes scanning the landscape. Vigilance had become a habit.
Rustling came from the darkness to Tara’s left. She froze, peering at silhouettes of bare trees. A rabbit, white tail bobbing in the faint starlight, darted across her path, startling her. A few minutes later, leaves skittered along the stones that edged the creek. More rustling in the distance.
“Another rabbit,” Tara said aloud, her voice echoing. But she did an about-face. She’d been gone long enough for her first evening out.
The six trailers nearest Tara’s stood dark, other than their holiday lights. No doubt her neighbors were still at the Community Center. All the lights glowed in Tara’s trailer, just as she’d left them. But a John Fogerty song blared through the closed windows. She quickened her pace, hand dropping to the pocket where she kept her switchblade. While Fimi was a happy baby, rarely crying or fussing, Kali wouldn’t crank the sound to that level to test Fimi’s good nature.
Knife in one hand, Tara tried her cell phone with the other.
No service. She ran for the front door. This couldn’t be happening. The trailer she’d stayed in during her first visit to Willow Springs the year before had been broken into. By Cyril Woods. But he was in jail, and Tara had been assured all the security vulnerabilities had been fixed.
She burst through the door. Fimi’s blanket, rattle, and stuffed monkey lay on the carpeted living area floor. But no Fimi.
She’s here, she’s here, she’s got to be here.
The song changed to “Centerfield,” and John Fogerty’s cheerful voice sang “Put me in, coach.” An undertone of sweat, acrid and unfamiliar, permeated the hall between the living room and bedroom. Strangers had been here. Or were here.
Tara forced herself to creep rather than race down the hall. She cracked the bedroom door. Kali lay on her side on the bed, wrists behind her back. Duct tape covered her mouth, and her eyes had swollen shut. Bruises purpled her forehead. Holding her breath, Tara eased the door open. She saw no intruders. And no Fimi. She rushed in.
No response. Tara held her hand in front of Kali’s nose and felt faint breath. She tried her phone again, then the landline. No dial tone. Tara rushed through the trailer, pausing only to yank open the few drawers and cabinets large enough to hold a baby. Outside, she banged on trailer doors until she found a neighbor with a working landline who called Security.
Tara circled her trailer looking for tire tracks, signs of the intruders, anything that might provide a clue. Aside from one emergency road, Willow Springs wasn’t accessible by automobile. Only golf carts, bikes, and motorcycles fit through its gates, down the paths in the surrounding woods, and along the narrow residential roads. Tara found no tracks other than those leading to her own golf cart. She peered through the back window at Kali. She couldn’t leave her friend. But how could she stay here when Fimi could be anywhere, with anyone?
At last, flashing red light flooded the front garden. The head of Security and the community doctor arrived in the first golf cart. Both women rushed inside. A second cart brought two more Security personnel. After Tara spilled out the story, search tasks were assigned.
Tara took her own cart and drove toward the closest wooded area. Someone from Security would be searching as well, but Tara had to do something. Residents jumped out of Tara’s way as she drove, horn blaring. She saw no one who shouldn’t be there.
Where is she? Where is she? This was supposed to be a safe place. And Kali, what about Kali?
When she reached foot trails, Tara pulled the cart to one side and hurried into the woods. She shone her smartphone’s flashlight around, trying to think who would take Fimi. The obvious answer was the Brotherhood, the religious order Cyril Woods had belonged to. Probably still belonged to, despite being in prison awaiting trial for what he’d done to Tara’s brother. But why now? News about Tara and Fimi had spread across the Internet. But after what Tara had said under the Arch for all the world to hear, few people believed what the press called Tara’s “story” that she’d been shocked to discover her pregnancy because she hadn’t had sex. Not many had believed even before Tara had spoken. So what threat could Fimi pose to the Brotherhood and its teachings?
Tara took a side path. She’d seen no trace of the Security person who was supposed to be here, but the woods spanned acres.
Breathe. Panicking won’t help.
Fimi might have been taken by any of the hundreds of people who’d sent messages calling Tara evil, a liar, or a slut, or telling her God should have made her baby stillborn. But Tara thought if she were going to kidnap a child, she wouldn’t send a warning first, she’d just do it.
Moving as quickly as she could, Tara examined each shadow, petrified she’d find Fimi’s body on the ground or tied to a tree branch or bush. Twigs snapped behind her. Tara spun, her flashlight beam illuminating the trees around her.
Cyril Woods stood before her.
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