by Kate Miller, 1465 words

That evening Jerome talked Meghan into picking up Phyllis and Ted and driving over to the house where Amy and Alice were staying. He had filled everyone in on Flora’s advice. With Willoughby Smyth on the prowl in their small town, posing a danger to Amy, but also to Phyllis and Meghan and Alice, the diner gang would be much stronger working together.

 And so, here they all were, sitting in the motel-like main room in the house by the freeway, ready to share both their individual knowledge and their collective ideas about how to protect each other. Flora came to take notes, Meghan made decaf coffee and tea, and Jerome brought his famous Baklava.

First Amy shared the story of “Jeff Smith”, how they were a couple until “they” became pregnant and then “Jeff” promptly exited, apparently for good. Until he started stalking her. Amy herself did not know she was carrying twins so when she woke after Meghan’s birth there was only a lingering feeling that something was terribly off.

After Amy was done, Phyllis and Ted contributed their part of the story. They both knew that Amy had two infants, not just one, and that one of the infants had been kidnapped from the hospital while Amy was recovering. What they did not know was who had taken the baby, or why they had taken the baby, or even where they had taken the baby. “Jeff” aka Willoughby, unskilled as he was with child-napping, somehow managed to leave no clues, seemingly vanishing into thin air. Phyllis talked to local officers but with no clues, no leads, and with Amy unaware there was a second infant, she and Ted decided to “forget” the second infant. Better all-the way around they told themselves.

It was Alice’s turn next, and in a small, quavering voice she recounted her solitary life in orphanages and later, ever revolving foster care homes, always unloving and often abusive.

Amy told Alice that she was probably “lucky” that Willoughby was not her dad, as he would have been no better than the nuns or foster parents, but all Alice could think of now was how much better her childhood would have been with her birth mother and her twin. Underneath her quiet demeanor, Alice wept for what might have been hers, and raged at the man who was responsible for her misery.

Now it was Jerome’s turn. He recounted the run-down cabin in the woods, the blond man who shot at him, whose red truck he had seen in front of the diner multiple times. He told them he had seen the same blond man carrying a gas can into the trees behind the diner on the morning of the fire. They all knew it had to be Willoughby. Jerome told them that he was sure Willoughby saw him and now he too was afraid of the man. “He meant to kill me the first time, and now that he knows I saw him leaving the diner with a gas can I’m sure I’m not safe” Jerome said.

Phyllis broke in to let everyone know about her “peeping tom” experience with Willoughby the other night. “I was so scared to see his face again after all these years that I fainted right there in my bedroom doorway” she sighed.

But if he had indeed torched the diner, what further revenge could he inflict on Amy and her family, and why?

“I’m not sure we can answer those questions now” Amy said. “But figuring out some good safety strategies would probably be a good idea. Flora, we’ll start by brainstorming ideas, so you just write them down as we say them, and then we will have a good list to start with.”

Alice lay in bed, awake in the early morning, as sleep eluded her. “Kill him, why don’t we just kill him” Alice muttered over and over to herself. Not that she had voiced that sentiment in the brainstorming session. No, she just sat there, head bowed, silently seething with rage over everything she now knew that her “father” had ripped from her, her chance for a family, for her mother’s love, for a sister, for a home. She could barely breathe; she was so furious at Willoughby she thought she could kill him. But all the others in the room had no idea that Alice, the silently shrinking woman in the corner, was plotting murder.

It took Alice a few days to figure out what she could do about Willoughby but finally it all came together. She spent part of those days essentially spying on the guy, where he drove his old red Ford, where he ate now that the diner was gone, when he went to the library to use the internet, and what bars he drank in late at night.

Alice knew that all her years of practicing being invisible could pay off in her plan. And if anything went wrong, she felt that no-one would miss her. She knew that Meghan wasn’t very happy with her new, strange sister showing up, ready to share their mother. And the “Alice stolen” story caused pain for Amy, plus the whole disaster seemed to have drawn crazy Willoughby back into the equation, endangering a much wider circle of people. She felt guilty for being the cause of so much pain in other people’s lives. At the same time, she felt so angry at the man who had initiated this whole chain of sad events, stealing her and her future life because of mistakes he had made himself.  Now her luck seemed to have changed and Alice wasn’t at all sure she deserved the love of found family that might finally be in reach. In fact, Alice didn’t think she was deserving at all.

“WHO COOKS FOR YOU? WHO COOKS FOR YOU?” The large Barred owl shrilled loudly on the lonely back road. Then it flew a full circle around the young woman standing in the center of the road. The woman was dressed in a ragged pale blue nightgown and furry old slippers. The owl hovered right in front of the girl’s face and did its best crazed laugh, “If anything will wake this human out of her trance, this should do it” the owl thought. And sure enough, the woman’s eyes flew open. Stepping back in surprise, she found herself face to face with a very large owl. With one final flap of its wings, it turned and disappeared into the trees.

Alice knew she had a problem with sleepwalking, but it had been years since her nighttime journeys had taken her outside whatever bedroom she was sleeping in at the time. Where was she now? It would have been totally dark, but the crescent moon overhead cast a wan silver light, weak but enough for her to see the road stretched out before her.

Suddenly there it was, the old red Ford truck, headlights on high beam, weaving right down the road toward her. Must have been going at least sixty. The man at the wheel was slumped forward. In just a short while the car would crash into her, and they would both be gone. Willoughby would no longer be a threat, harming her newly found family. Alice and the troubles trailing her would be no more.  Everyone could get on with their lives, not able to miss a girl they had never known.

In these last few seconds several things happened at once. The Barred owl swooped out of the woods again, flying so close to Alice that a wingtip brushed her forehead. Alice knew in that instant she wanted to live, not be killed like a deer on the road by the man who was her biological father but never her dad. And Willoughby sat up, blinking. He could see something in the road up ahead that looked like a person. He pulled the wheel sharply to the left and the truck crashed into the ditch, plowing up into the trees, rolling over twice before coming to rest against a huge old Cedar.

Alice watched in horror, staring into the woods at the largest Cedar she had ever seen.  A crumpled red truck with a smoking engine lay on its side at the base of the tree.  She couldn’t see if the driver was alive, or injured, or dead. She didn’t want to look. Shaking with cold and adrenaline, Alice turned and ran back toward the house, somehow finding her way in the coming light of dawn. Before going back inside she called 911 to report an accident, then went inside and crawled into the bed. Wrapping her arms tight around herself, she sobbed into the pillow until she fell into an exhausted sleep.