Numbness spreads across my body. Sharp pains stab at my chest so hard I can barely breathe. My eyes blur as we make our way up the grassy hill. I stare down at the ground, focusing on the tiny dew drops perched atop the small blades of grass, imagining myself shrinking down to one inch tall, hiding in the giant forest of grass. In my mind, this isn’t really happening, this is a nightmare I can’t wake up from.
I can’t feel my body. In fact, I have no idea how I’m actually walking right now. Moving on autopilot the soft ground squishes beneath my shoes. I pray for the ground to open into a giant sinkhole and swallow me whole.
The sun peers through the gray clouds on this dismal day. A narrow beam of light streaming through the darkened sky, confirming my belief that my mom is still here with me. My fingers graze the locket around my neck as I continue to trudge warily through the thick, wet grass, sticking close to my dad’s side. He looks handsome in his black suit.
We finally make it to the top of the hill. I scan the vast cemetery surrounded by lush greenery, large oak trees and gray tombstones. Looming straight ahead of us, like the electric chair, is a giant, deep, dark hole in the ground. I freeze in my tracks, clutching my chest. My breath catches in my throat. I feel my dad’s arm squeeze around my shoulder. He curls up the sides of his mouth into an encouraging smile.
“We’ve got this, Bell,” he whispers.
I draw in a deep breath and force my legs to move forward.
Lowering myself on the cold, metal chair, it creaks beneath my thighs. I press my hands down the front of my blue dress, my mom’s favorite color, smoothing out the wrinkles, then cross my feet at the ankles. Clutching my locket in the palm of my hand, my body stiffens, paralyzed by sadness. I stare at the white casket hovering above the giant hole. The clean, smooth surface of the casket catches my eye. Soon, it will be covered with dirt, never to be seen again. A bouquet of flowers cascades across the top with ribbons the same color of my dress fluttering in the breeze. My stomach twists in knots. I picture my mom’s beautiful face in my mind. She smiles at me. Then, squeezing my eyes shut, I blink them back open to this harsh reality, a reality I don’t want any part of. A quick glance over my shoulder and I find my teacher’s face in the crowd. Relief floods through my veins. Even though I just started the school this year, it’s nice to see a familiar face. It’s just a small gathering of old neighbors, nurses, doctors, and even a mailman, there are no family or friends. With my mom being sick, making friends wasn’t high on my priority list. It’s been just the three of us for as long as I can remember.
The priest’s soft, soothing voice lulls me into a calm, tranquil state, with verses from the bible echoing through my head. We’ve never been super religious, but it’s surprisingly comforting at a time like this.
A brisk movement catches my eye on the other side of the casket. At first, I think it’s an animal, but then, I see a male figure darting behind a tree. Narrowing my eyes, I cross my arms over my chest and stare in his direction, wondering why a stranger would be watching my mom’s funeral. His head pops out from behind the tree and the sun reflects off the red hues in his hair.
Immediately, I recognize him. I think he’s been following me. Our eyes lock like magnets. My cold stare burns into his face and his eyes widen. He flips back behind the tree.
My dad taps my arm lightly, handing me a single, long-stemmed red rose to place on top of my mom’s casket. I rise slowly, forgetting about my stalker for a moment and praying my legs will hold me up. Unsteady on my feet, I follow my dad to the side of the coffin and lay the rose on top. Sniffling back a sob, my dad looks down at me with a look in his eyes that only I could understand. He leans down and whispers in my ear.
“We’re going to be okay, we have each other.”
He wraps his arm around my shoulder and we turn to walk away.
Without warning, in my peripheral vision, like a scene from an action movie, police in swat gear advance on us from all sides. My mind races. Before I know what’s happening, they push my dad to the ground, planting his face in the wet grass and pulling his hands behind his back. My mouth falls open. I freeze in place.
I don’t know what to do… should I put my hands in the air? Should I drop to the ground?
My heart pounds uncontrollably in my chest and I manage to yell, “What are you doing?”
“Ma’am, please come with us,” an officer says, calmly, but sternly.
“Dad…” I plead, “Dad, what’s happening?”
“Do what they say, Bell, ” my dad grunts with his face planted in the ground.
The officers pull him to his feet and drag him to an unmarked car surrounded by police cars and swat vans lined up down the road. Ear piercing police sirens drown out my thoughts, I clench my jaw and spin around to see everyone from my mom’s funeral staring at us with their mouths agape. I search for my teacher’s comforting face in the crowd, but she’s nowhere to be found.
“What’s going on?” I yell at the officer, who has his hand gently, but firmly around the back of my arm.
“We’ll talk when we get to the station,” he instructs.
I flash a look around, locking eyes with the red-headed guy who caught my eye earlier, the one hiding behind the tree. He is out in the open now, watching us. His eyes bore into me with intense curiosity… and maybe a hint of sadness.
Who is he? Why is he watching us? And more importantly… what the hell is going on?
The ride to the police station is a blur. My mind races in a fog of confusion. I shake my head slapping my hair across my face.
If I could just wake up from this nightmare…
I’m not handcuffed, but I am sitting in the back of a police car with cold steel bars in front of my face. Claustrophobia irrationally takes over my mind. My breath quickens and my heart races in my chest.
“I… can’t… breathe,” I gasp, clutching my throat.
“Take a deep breath,” the woman cop says, gently, from the passenger seat, “Bob, roll down the window,” she orders the driver.
Instantly the cool breeze whips across my face like a sharp slap. I pinch my eyes shut, forcing myself to draw in a deep breath and blow it out. Dropping my head forward, I inhale long, drawn out breaths to keep from passing out.
Walking into the police station is surreal, I’ve never been inside before. I always envisioned a cold, dirty environment full of concrete, but to my surprise, it’s actually pretty nice. Cherry hardwood floors lead us directly to a window, similar to a drive-through. Remnants of Christmas linger throughout the station, a forgotten red garland strewn across the wall, a limp wreath hanging on the door, and a half eaten candy cane on a nearby desk.
The lady on the other side of the window reaches up to slide it open. Peering at the male cop over the top of her reading glasses with a smirk, she says, “Hey Bob.” Then, she presses a button to unlock the solid gray door to the back.
“Hey Joanne,” Bob replies, lowering his eyes to the ground.
“Heeeyyyy Joanne,” his partner mutters under her breath.
“Shut up,” Bob murmurs.
Are they really flirting and teasing each other right now, while my life is spiraling out of control?
Passing through the heavy door, we head straight to a small, windowless room in the back. An old, shabby, brown couch sits against the puke green wall. There are two gray metal folding chairs across from it.
“Have a seat,” the female officer says, gesturing to the couch.
“Where’s my dad?” I snap, narrowing my eyes and crossing my arms defiantly.
“You will see him soon,” she says.
Bob takes a seat in one of the folding chairs and starts writing on a clipboard.
“What is going on?” I ask, feeling my heart pounding inside my chest.
“Well,” the female starts, she seems to be the one in charge, “your dad has been arrested.”
“Yeah, I saw that,” I say, swinging my arm back to remind them that I was at the cemetery with them, “But why?”
“Kidnapping,” Bob says, nonchalantly.
My head snaps in his direction.
“Kidnapping?” I repeat, furrowing my brow.
“Bob…” the female reprimands, in a low voice.
“Who did he kidnap?” I ask, ignoring her.
Flustered, Bob flashes his eyes to the female officer for help. Her eyes land on me with concern and compassion.
“You,” she says, softly.
Life as I knew it ends…
“Me? No! He didn’t kidnap me, I… he’s my dad, they are my…”
I drop down on the couch, clutching my head in my hands.
How is this possible? There must be some kind of mistake. What is happening?
A wave of dizziness hits me like a freight train. Squeezing my eyes shut, I struggle to sit up, feeling everything around me slip away.
“Bell?” a voice calls out from far away.
Like I’m in a tunnel, muffled noises echo all around me, soft voices try to wake me from this nightmare. A hand shakes my shoulder gently. My eyes flutter open to a woman hovering over me. I blink rapidly, struggling to sit up.
“Not too fast,” she says, gently.
Wearing a charcoal gray pantsuit, she looks more like a lawyer than a police officer. Her hand moves to my wrist to take my pulse. The other two officers are no where to be found.
“Who are you?” I ask, snapping my brows together.
“My name is Charlotte,” she says, “can I get you some water or a soda or anything?”
“No,” I say, sitting up in a huff.
“Take it easy.”
“What is going on?”
“Well, you passed out.”
“I mean, why do they think I was kidnapped… and who are you?”
“Someone reported it.”
I blink in confusion.
“I’m an only child.”
I narrow my eyes.
“No, Bell, you aren’t. I work for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.”
“This is crazy.”
I clutch my head in my hands.
I feel so alone. My mom is dead. My dad has been arrested. I’m surrounded by strangers. I’ve been thrust into an alternate reality and I don’t know what to do.
“I’m here to help you,” the lady says, slowly, “we’ll work through this together.”
“I don’t even know you,” I sputter through my hands.
“I know, but I’m here to help.”
“Can I see my dad?”
“Not yet, they are still interviewing and processing him.”
“How can this be happening? My mom… my mom just died.”
I drop my head in my hands, fighting back a queasy feeling. She squeezes my shoulder. Surprisingly, the tears don’t come. I must be in shock. I don’t feel anything. No anger, no sadness, no frustration, only confusion.
What’s wrong with me?
“Everything will be okay,” the lady says.
Instantly, my head pops up. Rage blazes through my body, like a tornado. Glaring at her, I watch as she draws in a quick breath. I narrow my eyes and lay into her.
“Who the hell are you? How do you know things will be okay? My life is over. One parent dead, the other parent…” I choke on the words, but quickly recover,“gone… I’m alone. I have no family. Thing’s will NEVER be okay again.”
When I finally look up, I realize I’m standing on the other side of the room. I don’t even remember walking over here, even though it would only take a couple steps. Strangely, the look on Charlotte’s face is one of compassion, not fear, anger or surprise. I lean back against the puke green wall, slap my palms against it and slide down to the ground. I’m exhausted, emotionally drained, my will to fight is gone. The tears flow steadily now, with every emotion hitting me at once.
Charlotte moves toward me slowly and drops down to the floor next to me. Her arm wraps around me. Without thinking, I drop my head on her shoulder. She caresses my strawberry blonde hair, like my mom used to do. Although, I want to recoil from her touch out of anger and frustration, instead, I squeeze my eyes shut, pretending she’s my mom, and that she’s not dead, and I’ve woken up from this terrible nightmare.