She had just finished loading the dishwasher when she felt it.
Just the slightest trickling of unease. Barely there. Nothing, really. Silly.
She wiped the countertops down with the sponge, squeezing out the remaining suds and putting it back in the dish near the sink. She glanced at the clock – 11:45. She really should get to bed. Marcus would have her head if she was late to the briefing. Thank God the nanny agreed to come at 6am. An early meeting was a necessity, since they had to conference with their counterparts in Sydney. Things were getting out of hand.
11:50. She really needed to get some sleep.
She turned out the kitchen light, heading into the sitting room where toys and pillows still lay scattered. She bent to pick up a stray paper that had fallen off the end table, and found herself frozen by the image on the paper. Incongruously colored in crayola, the landscape was terrifying. Stark trees, and a littering of bones on the ground. A man, half in shadows, behind the trees. The picture was vivid – too vivid for a seven year old.
There it was again.
Silly. It’s just the picture putting you off. That’s all.
That wasn’t all.
She raised up slowly, glancing at the windows, her heart in her throat.
Nothing. Just the usual evening fog.
She would have let out a relieved breath, if she’d felt relieved. She didn’t. She’d learned long ago to trust her instincts, and they were screaming at her.
Putting a smile on her face, as though she were relishing a soft bed at the end of a long day, she moved up the stairs quickly and into Michael’s room. He slept, though not peacefully. The covers were twisted in his fists, and he was turned half-over, almost in a crouch as if he were ready to spring. Even he felt it. She was sure of it.
“Michael.” She whispered it softly, but urgently.
He came awake with a start, and she put her hand over his mouth to stifle any cry. She glanced quickly at the window, grateful to see that the shade was down.
“Michael. It’s time.”
“Yes.” She moved swiftly to his dresser, pulling out pants, socks and a warm shirt. “Quickly, Michael.” He began pulling the pants on as she peeled his pajama top off his head, replacing it with the shirt. She looked for his shoes as Michael pulled his socks on, jamming them on his feet and standing him up.
“Remember what I told you. Straight to Christian’s house. Don’t stop. Don’t wait for me, and don’t come back for me. I will find you if I can.”
“But it will catch me if I run. It’s fast, isn’t it?”
“Yes. It’s fast. You’re going to take the electric scooter. I can keep it busy so it won’t know you’ve gone.”
She stepped out of the room, glancing about. Her hand brushed the fat ruby on the chain around her neck, and her eyes closed as she concentrated.
“It’s not here yet. Soon. Quickly, Michael!”
“But I can help you! “
“Michael Alfred Thomas! You know what I must do. And you know you must save yourself. Now is the time, Michael. Now.”
“You forgot these.”
He was holding the box of bullets. Dipped in herbs, they wouldn’t stop it, but they might slow it a bit. At least, she hoped it would. She pulled the gun from her apron pocket and loaded it as he passed her each one, solemnly and quickly.
He put his hand in hers and she pulled him down the stairs, both of them quiet and hardly daring to breath. They entered the garage, her first, then him. She put his helmet on him, even as she felt him trembling. She paused a moment to look into his face, his eyes shining in the dim light coming through the open doorway into the house.
“Beloved.” She kissed him softly on the forehead, then reached up, unclasping the necklace. She dropped it around his neck, tucking it carefully into his shirt. Her hand caressed his brow, lingering a moment.
He nodded, still shaking. Unable to speak, but trying.
“You love me. I know, Michael. I love you as well. To the end of my life and beyond.”
He nodded again, his head jerking, his breathing harsh.
“Quiet now. When you hear my voice, open the side door quickly and push the bike outside. When you hear the gun, go. Ride as fast as you can. The shots will distract it, and you can get away.”
“I’ll wait for you, there, Mum.”
“I know you will. But don’t wait too long. You know I’ll find you, if I’m able.”
She kissed him again, then turned and walked quickly into the house, refusing to look back. She remembered to grab a garbage bag on her way in, so that it looked as though she were merely going out to get one. She stopped to wrap up the trash, putting the new bag in.
She headed over to the sink, filled the kettle, and put it on.
Her hand reached up reflexively, brushing her collarbone as though the stone were still there. She managed to keep from glancing around, heading over to the cupboard to get a mug. She turned, and there he was.
He stood a few feet in front of her and they stared a moment. What could be said?
“So. It’s now, is it?”
Her chin came up, and she set the mug on the counter.
“Overdue, if you ask me.” His voice was barely a whisper, and all the more deadly for it.
She raised her voice a bit, hoping he’d take it for bravado. “What makes you think I’ll make this easy?”
He smiled slowly. “I was hoping you’d say that. But you’re only part of the fun this evening.”
She blanched, somehow managing to keep her eyes from darting to the door and betraying her.
“He’s no threat to you.”
“I consider this a pre-emptive measure.” He started to move to the stairs, intending to get to the child first.
“No!” she shouted. Then she drew the gun, and fired.
He came about quickly, but she managed another shot and still another before she hit the floor, her last thought being the hope that it was enough.
He ripped her bloody shirt open, making a sound of disgust as he saw that the stone wasn’t there. He stooped a moment, checking her pockets, before he stepped away, leaping nearly the entire room before bounding up the stairs.
A few moments later, the sound of a screaming teakettle drowned out his rage.