Her Last Goodbye Page 31

She grabbed the bag of food and returned to the cot, holding the nail in her closed fist as if it were a priceless prize.

Food was necessary for survival. She needed to eat, no matter how awful she felt. She opened the bag. Inside, she found a Coke, chicken fingers, and french fries. Her body perked up at the smell. She took a tentative bite of a fry. When her stomach didn’t revolt. She ate another, then moved on to the chicken. She chewed slowly. Who knew when she’d get more food? Everything that went into her belly needed to stay there. She ate every fry and piece of chicken and licked the breadcrumbs from the cardboard box. The Coke settled her stomach. She inspected the two tablets he’d left her. Ibuprofen. There was no need to be in more pain than necessary. She washed them down with Coke. Then she sat back and rolled the nail in her fingertips.

What was she going to do with it?

She curled her knees toward her chest. The manacle on her leg clanked. She inserted the nail into the keyhole, working it gently, feeling her way, prodding, pressing, turning.

Patience! Don’t break it.

After what seemed like forever, the lock clicked and dropped open. She flinched, staring.

She’d done it.

A wave of joy swept over her, quickly followed by a burst of terror.

What would he do if he found out?

Memories of the beating and branding flooded her. Unable to cry any more, she gagged on her distress. Small, panicked noises sounded in her throat.

Stop!

Bella. William. Bella. William. Bella. William.

She repeated her children’s names in a centering and calming mantra. Then she got to her feet again to walk toward the door. She touched the door handle, turned it, and pushed. There was no give. She used all her weight. Resting her forehead against the cold metal, she breathed.

No giving up.

She walked the perimeter of the container again, kicking at each rust spot. Frustration welled in her throat. Her eyes closed, and her head fell back.

This is hopeless.

She was going to die. Or worse. She would be here for a long time, subject to his whims. It would get worse. Every cell in her body knew that he had something truly horrible planned for her.

She opened her eyes. Her gaze locked on the small hole in the ceiling. Through it, she could see a canopy of branches and bits of black night sky. She fetched the camp lantern and held it up. The hole was approximately ten inches in diameter, and the surrounding metal heavily rusted. Could she enlarge it enough to squeeze out? And even if she could, how could she get to the ceiling?

Scanning the container, her gaze settled on the few objects: the chain coiled on the floor, the barrel, the cot. The blanket fell to the floor as she moved toward the cot.

It was a standard camp model. She turned it over. The frame and legs were hinged. When folded, it would fit into a canvas carry bag. At either end, an aluminum bar about two feet long supported the frame. She braced her feet against the bar to pop it out of place. Once she had it loose, she slid it from the canvas sleeve.

Returning to stand beneath the hole, she poked at the edges with the bar. The metal crumbled. She was able to enlarge it several inches all the way around. Large enough that she could probably squeeze through. But she was no gymnast. She couldn’t launch her way through the opening.

She dragged the cot under the hole. It wasn’t high enough. After reinserting the bracing bar and manhandling it back into place, she turned the cot onto its side. She stooped and picked up the wool blanket, tossing it over her shoulder. She left the lantern behind. She couldn’t risk being seen. The shed must appear exactly the same from the outside. Then, carefully placing her foot directly above the center support bar, she pushed up in one smooth motion. The cot wobbled on its side as she straightened her leg and reached for the hole in the ceiling. Close to the ceiling, she was forced to hunch over. She gripped the edge of the hole to steady her balance and keep the cot from toppling. The sharp metal sliced into her hand, the blood that welled up made her grip slippery.

Once her balance was stable, she pushed the blanket through the hole. Her head, shoulders, and arms were next. She pressed her palms down on the roof and pulled the rest of her body onto the roof.

Her breaths came in pants, and her heart jiggled a ragged beat. She rolled to her back and stared up at the sky. The moon shone through a thin veil of clouds. She gulped air. It seemed fresh now, but quickly bit through the thin cotton of her dress. There was nothing she could do about that.

Her heart sprinted in her chest. If he saw her . . .

She stopped herself.

Her mind simply couldn’t go there without being paralyzed.

She froze. What now?

She waited, listening and letting her eyes adjust. It didn’t take long, though her vision was still a little blurry. In a few minutes, she could make out the outlines of a building. A small house? Cabin?

Whatever it was, it was dark. Was he there? Or did he sleep and live somewhere else? The whole property had an abandoned air. But she didn’t have time to contemplate anything. She had to get away. She turned her head and looked over her shoulder. Behind her, on the other side of a meadow, were woods.

She crawled across the flat roof. On the side opposite the house, she tossed the blanket to the ground. She put her feet over the edge and let her body slide until she balanced on her hip bones. The burn on her buttock raged as the muscles tensed. She wiggled farther, until she dangled from her hands. Then she dropped to the ground. Soft knees absorbed the landing.

The container blocked the moonlight. In its shadow, darkness surrounded and concealed her. The ground was cold under the bare soles of her feet. She grabbed the blanket and wrapped it around her, covering as much of the bright-yellow dress as she could.

To get to the woods, she had to cross the open space. A wide, open space. She stepped out of the shadows and started toward the trees. Desperation and hope fueled her steps. She broke into a stumbling jog. Sticks and rocks bit into her feet as she ran for the cover of the forest.

Somewhere behind her, a dog barked. She glanced over her shoulder. A light went on in one of the cabin’s windows.

Oh, my God.

He was there!

Chelsea ran faster. One more glance back showed more lights. A door opened, light spilling out.

No more looking back. Adrenaline blocked the pain. Her legs remembered this. Running. She did it every day. Muscle memory carried her toward the trees. She blocked out all thoughts of what would happen if he caught her.

Please.

Bella. William.

Mommy loves you.

The slap of a screen door echoed in the night air.

Chapter Twenty-One

“Enough.” He tossed the chained hound a scrap of beef. The dog snapped his reward out of the air and swallowed it whole. The beast knew its job. It had learned.

He scanned the silent yard. Everything looked the same as when he’d gone inside.

The container stood in silence under the thick spread of branches. It had been on the property when he’d purchased it. From the amount of rust on the steel exterior, the metal box had been there for many years. He’d painted the spots of cancer to keep them from spreading.

He crossed the mossy ground and checked the door. Reaching out, he touched the padlock that secured the door. Locked.

But something didn’t feel right.

Turning his head, he listened. The snap of a twig reverberated from the darkness of the trees. A deer?

He pulled the key from his pocket, unlocked the padlock, and opened the door. The dim light of the camp lantern shone on an empty box. His gaze took in the chain, the upturned cot, the enlarged hole in the ceiling. Unable to believe what he was seeing, he blinked. But it didn’t change reality.

She’d escaped.

Anger spiked inside him, red and hot and sputtering like a thick boiling liquid. He breathed the cold night air deeply into his lungs. Emotions wouldn’t find her. A cool head would.

He’d purposefully chosen a smart woman.

Be careful what you wish for.

Pivoting, he sprinted for the house. In the kitchen, he grabbed his jacket from the back of a chair and his flashlight from the counter, then turned back toward the door.

Wait.

He returned to the drawer and withdrew a handgun and checked the load. Then he went back outside and returned to the container. Shining the light on the ground, he found a footprint in the soft earth. Slim arch. Small toes.

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