Aunt Natalie raised her eyebrows and blew breath out her mouth. “Abby and I want to buy gift wrap. We won’t be long. Come on.”
Lily relented, but she couldn’t understand why anyone would want to buy Christmas wrapping paper the day after Christmas. They wouldn’t use it for a whole ‘nother year. Why couldn’t she have stayed home and played with LaShondra? But her third-grade friend’s mother said they were visiting relatives for the day. It wasn’t fair.
Abby, her aunt’s friend, opened the door. Too many people filled the aisles, and the carpet smelled wet, like a dog had peed on it. The Christmas Day rain had saturated the carpet. Lily dropped Aunt Natalie’s hand and covered her nose.
“Lily, stand in the corner over there. I don’t want someone knocking you over. Don’t go anywhere, okay?”
“Okay,” Lily said. Just because she was small for her age, didn’t mean she was a baby but getting out of the way seemed like a good idea to her. After celebrating yesterday, Lily felt tired. If the carpet hadn’t been wet, she could have sat down. Aunt Natalie and Abby promised to take her out for lunch after they finished shopping. They let her choose the restaurant, her favorite, near the outlet mall in Nags Head.
Waiting was hard, and the store was so crowded, she couldn’t see Aunt Natalie or Abby anymore.
A nice-looking lady wearing a pantsuit bent down and smiled at her. “You don’t like it in this store, do you?”
“Nope, the carpet smells.” Lily noticed the lady wore the same perfume as her teacher.
“I think so, too. Let’s wait outside on that bench. Your mom won’t mind.” The lady held out her hand.
Lily was going to tell her that she was with her Aunt Natalie, but her mother said that correcting adults wasn’t polite. “I’m supposed to wait here. But that would be a better place to sit and wait,” Lily said. Her feet hurt.
“Honey, your mom can see you through the window. Come on, I’ll wait with you. It’ll only be for a minute.”
It sounded reasonable to Lily. Aunt Natalie should have suggested that before they went into the store. She could wait by herself. Everyone treated her like a baby. The lady took her hand, and they walked out of the store to the bench, but the lady kept walking.
“Hey, we passed the bench.” Lily looked at the lady, who picked up her pace.
“I thought we’d get a soda. See the stand over there.” The lady pointed somewhere ahead of them. Lily didn’t see a soda stand. Being short meant that she often couldn’t see what the grownups were talking about.
“You get the sodas. I’ll wait on the bench,” Lily said.
The lady kept walking as if she hadn’t heard Lily’s suggestion. “But I don’t know what you like. They may have ice cream cones. Maybe you’d like to have that instead.”
Lily tried to let go of the lady’s hand. The lady tightened her grip. She didn’t look very nice, now. “I don’t want to go over there.” Lily pulled her arm back and yelled. “Let me go.”
“Caroline, we’re going home. No arguments.”
Who was Caroline? Lily saw a few people look at them, but she also saw their sympathetic looks as if Lily were misbehaving. The lady smiled at them. They looked away. “Who’s Caroline? My name is Lily. You must have me confused with someone,” Lily said. They approached the parking lot and stepped off the curb.
Lily pulled on the lady’s arm harder. When the lady wouldn’t let go, Lily kicked her leg and screamed, “Let me go.”
The lady scooped her off her feet and walked fast to a car. “Just wait until I get you home, young lady.” She unlocked the car door with her fob, pushed Lily into the car and slammed the door shut. Lily screamed and tried to open the door, but the lady must have locked the car door with the fob. Mom’s car had protective door locks, too. Lily wondered why no one had thought that keeping her inside the car might be more dangerous than getting out. Behind the closed door, no one heard her scream.
When the locks clicked, Lily tried to open the door again, but before she could, the lady got in and clicked her fob again. She started the car and backed out of the parking space. It happened so fast, Lily was speechless as the car pulled out onto the road and the mall disappeared behind them.
The lady drove over a bridge. “Where are we going? I’m supposed to be with Aunt Natalie,” Lily said.
“Honey, you don’t have an Aunt Natalie. Your aunts are Letitia and Miranda. Don’t you remember?”
“What are you talking about? I never heard of them, lady.”
“You call me Mom. I am your mother, and if you don’t be quiet, you’ll go to your room when we get home.”
Lily stopped talking. There was something wrong with the lady. She wasn’t all there, like she was playing make-believe. Grownups didn’t play make-believe. If they did, they were crazy.
She remembered when her kindergarten teacher had given them a test to see if they could tell the difference between make-believe and what she called “reality.” The test was stupid. Every kid knew when playing started and stopped. That was when your mother told you to set the table, hang up your clothes or brush your teeth. Reality was work and play was play. The lady didn’t seem to know the difference.
Lily held Tamera to her chest. She didn’t play with baby dolls anymore, but the familiar doll given to her by her real mother made her feel safe. Beach dunes and birds filled her vision. She frowned and concentrated. After a while, they came to a town. She tried to memorize the names of stores while they drove, but then they left the town and trees and bushes lined the road. They came and went through another town, followed by another barren stretch without stores. She forgot the names of the
After about an hour, she guessed, the lady turned off the main road onto a smaller road and stopped the car in front of a house on pilings. The houses on either side looked empty. Having lived her whole life at the beach, Lily knew that many of the houses were rented to families during the summer months. Her mother cleaned the houses when new renters came. But after Christmas, few renters vacationed on the islands.
The lady did the same thing as before. She hit the key fob to relock the door after she got out of the car. When she got to Lily’s side, she unlocked the door, pulled Lily out by her arm and steered her to a door under the house. When the lady closed the house door behind them, she slid a metal bar on the door to the frame. It was out of Lily’s reach. Her eyes blurred with tears. The windows were too high from the ground to climb out of, and she was too short to slide the metal bar back to release the door. How could she run away? Where would she go if she could get out of the house?
Lily stumbled as the lady pulled her up the stairs. Like most beach houses, the bedrooms were on the first floor. They climbed to the second floor where the kitchen and family room were located.
“Do you have to use the bathroom?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Lily said. The lady pointed to a powder room. Lily went into the powder room and looked out the window before she did her business. She saw a narrow road in front, but she couldn’t see the main road or any stores. She wished she had a cell phone. All the older kids had them. Her mother said she was too young to have a phone. Her mother was wrong. Lily wondered if there was a house phone. Many people didn’t have them.
When she was finished, she opened the powder room door and looked for a phone. Her hopes fell when she didn’t see one anywhere. The lady was in the kitchen. “Want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Lily ate the sandwich. She tried to finish it because she was hungry, but the peanut
“You go to your room now and take a nap.”
Lily didn’t know what room the lady was talking about but getting away from her sounded good. The lady stayed in the kitchen while Lily walked downstairs to the bedrooms. The first bedroom had a double bed. A robe lay across the bed. It looked like the lady’s robe. A picture of a little girl and the lady stood on the bureau. The picture was taken on the beach. The little girl held a bucket and shovel. They looked happy. In the picture, the lady didn’t look scary. She wondered where the little girl was. Was the lady the girl’s mother?
She continued down the hallway to the next bedroom. It looked like a girl’s bedroom because it had a pink bedspread. There were picture books and a dollhouse on a chest near the window. She walked into the bedroom and closed the door. She felt so tired that she laid down on the bed, clutching Tamera to her chest.
When Lily woke, the house was dark and silent. She sat up, leaned against the headrest and sucked her thumb. She hadn’t done that in a while. It made her feel better, but then she wasn’t a baby anymore and pulled her thumb out of her mouth. How could she help herself? What should she do?
In the corner of the darkened room, Lily heard a tinkling sound, like wind chimes, and sparks flew. She held her breath. The sparks multiplied and whirled in a circle. They formed the shape of a person. Lily started to shake. Goosebumps formed on her arms. Then, the sparks turned white, sparkling and beautiful like snow. The shape of wings appeared when the sparks became solid. In the darkness, a man with wings stood before her, glowing.
When he smiled, Lily didn’t feel scared anymore.
“Hi Lily. My name’s Jerry. I’m a friend of your Aunt Natalie’s friend, Abby,” the angel said.
“Abby knows an angel?”
“Yep. We met when we weren’t too much older than you.”
“But you can’t tell anyone. It’s a secret.”
“I can keep a secret,” Lily said.
“You’d better. If you don’t, people will think you’re crazy. Kind of like that lady, huh?”
“She must be crazy. I don’t know what to do. How can I get out of here?”
“Come on, I’ll help you.” He motioned for her to get off the bed. Lily followed the angel to the hall. His wings were so wide he turned sideways to get them through the door opening.
In the hall, he bent down and whispered to her. “There’s a chair in the next bedroom. Let’s get it so you can reach the metal bar on the door.”
“Where’s the lady?” she asked Jerry.
“Upstairs. Asleep on the couch.”
Lily nodded, knew she had to be quiet and followed him into the next bedroom. He pointed to a desk and chair in the corner. Lily held Tamera and tried to pick up the chair. “It’s too heavy.”
“You’ll have to put Tamera down. You can get her later. I can’t move the chair myself, but I can give you the strength to do it.”
He was right. She couldn’t hold the chair and the doll at the same time. She put Tamera on the bed and picked up the chair. With Jerry walking behind her, the load on Lily’s arms lightened as she walked through the doorway and down the hall carrying the chair to the door. She took the first step down the stairs. The chair’s weight caused her to fall forward. She tried not to scream as she started to fall. In an instant Jerry’s energy soared through her. The chair’s weight dissipated to that of a feather. She righted herself, stopping the fall and walked down the stairs without incident.
Lily placed the chair in front of the door, stood on the chair and slid the metal bar back, freeing the door, and climbed down.
“Move the chair to the opposite side of the hall so the door can swing open,” Jerry said.
Lily picked up the chair and moved it away from the door. Jerry motioned to the doorknob. She turned it open, went outside on the top step, and shut the door behind her. Jerry took her hand and led her down the stairs. His hand felt warm and tingly. Once down the stairs, Lily asked where they were going.
“To Aunt Emmaline's house. She was a friend. Abby and I knew her. You’ll be safe there and can call your mother and Aunt Natalie.”
“Is Aunt Emmaline at home?”
“No. She’s my boss in heaven, now. But she said that a cup of cocoa will be waiting for you at her old house and to watch some videos until you mom picks you up.”
“Aunt Emmaline must be nice.”
“Yes,” Jerry said and winked. “But she can be bossy.”
“My teacher’s nice, but she’s bossy, too,” Lily said.
They walked down the road to the Sound beach until Lily remembered her doll. “Jerry, I forgot Tamera!”
“I’m sorry. I should have remembered her. She’s new, too.”
“Yes.” Lily knew her mother would be disappointed that she lost the doll.
“It’s better that you leave her with the lady.”
Lily’s throat tightened, and she stopped walking. She looked back in the direction of the lady’s house.
“You don’t want to go back.” Jerry didn’t ask a question.
“No,” Lily said. She knew going back would be stupid and turned in the direction of Aunt Emmaline’s house. “It’s dark out here.”
“Not really, look at all those stars and the moon.”
Lily looked up. Jerry was right. She could see by the light of the moon and its reflection on the water. The cold air made her shiver, but that wasn’t the only reason. “Why did that lady take me? Is she crazy?”
“Crazy in a sad way, Lily. Her little girl, Caroline, drowned earlier this year. The lady misses her little girl.”
Lily gasped. “That’s so sad.”
“I feel sorry for her. But taking me wouldn’t bring Caroline back.”
“No. She thought another little girl could fill a hole in her life. She’s confused, sad and angry. I think she’ll get better. Tell your mother about her and what happened to her.”
“Will she take another little girl?”
“No, I think the consequences of snatching you will shake some sense into her.”
A knock sounded at the door. “That will be your mom.”
Lily ran to the door, but then she turned back to Jerry. “You’re going to disappear, aren’t you?”
“Yes. I have to go. It was good to meet you. Remember, I’m a secret.”
“Will I ever see you again?”
“We’ll meet again, I’m sure of it.”
“Thanks, Jerry.” Lily watched as Jerry faded away, and then she opened the door.
Abby held a key in her hand as if she had been about to open the door. Behind her, Aunt Natalie and her mother stood. They came through the doorway, and her mother picked her up, swung her to her chest and gave her a big hug. “I don’t know how you knew about Aunt Emmaline’s house, but a friend of Abby’s inherited the house so she knew it’s location,” her mother said.
“Some lady took me.”
“We called the police,” Aunt Natalie said. “After you disappeared.” Aunt Natalie sounded a little bit mad and, at the same time, thankful.
Lily saw Abby’s face. Her expression held questions. “I’ll tell you what happened,” Lily said.
“Yes, we want to know,” a man said from the doorway.
“That’s Detective Bateman,” Abby said. “He’s a friend of mine. Tell us what happened, Lily.”
Lily told them about the lady taking her, but she omitted getting help from Jerry. They wouldn’t know the chair had been too heavy for her to lift. Like Jerry had warned her, they would think she’d gone crazy if she told about him.
Detective Bateman asked if she could show them where the lady lived. He radioed other police from his car before they left. Back on the Sound beach, Lily led them to the lady’s house using the path Jerry had shown her. The detective knocked on the door. When no one answered, he knocked louder. Not a sound came from the house.
For a moment, Lily wondered if the lady had left, but she noticed that the car still sat in the driveway. She pulled on Detective Bateman’s sleeve and motioned to the car. He took the license plate number and walked back to the road in front of the house where a police car had pulled up. After a few moments, the detective walked back to them. “The car belongs to a woman named Marla Carter. We’re breaking into the house.”
It only took a minute for the police to open the door. When they disappeared, Lily took her mother’s hand. “I’ll show you where I slept.” Aunt Natalie and Abby followed them through the door. “See there’s the chair I used to slide the bar back so I could get out.” Lily’s mother and Aunt Natalie nodded their heads as they followed Lily up the stairs. She pointed to the pink room, and the older women went inside the room.
Lily turned around. At the bottom of the stairs, Abby picked up the chair. Her forehead wrinkled. Lily held her breath. Abby looked up the stairs in disbelief as she found Lily’s eyes. She knew Lily couldn’t have walked the heavy chair down the stairs. As they stared at each other, Lily saw realization cross Abby’s face. Lily nodded to Abby, who broke out into a beatific smile.
“Sure looks like a little girl lived here, but where is she?” Lily’s mother said, as she and Aunt Natalie came out of the room. Her mother frowned and looked back into the room. Her face showed concern, and Lily wanted to tell her about the little girl drowning, but then the police walked down from the top level leading the lady by the arm. Her crying filled the quiet night. She clutched Tamara to her chest and howled when she saw Lily. “My baby,” she said.
“Not yours, mine,” Lily’s mother said. Her hands were on her hips. Her fingers were tightened into fists. “My daughter. How dare you snatch my daughter. How would you like it if someone stole your child?” Her mother was angrier than Lily had ever seen her.
The lady fell to her knees crying and hugged Tamera to her chest.
“Momma, don’t be too hard on her. Her little girl drowned,” Lily said.
Everyone looked at Lily, and then back at the woman.
“Ma’am, you’ll have to come with us,” Detective Bateman said, as he gestured the group out of the house. He pulled the lady up by her arms, walked her out of the house, and led her to the back of his car.
“Wait a second, Detective,” Lily’s mother said. “That woman has my daughter’s baby doll.”
“It’s okay, Mom. I think she needs Tamera more than I do.”
Her mother looked at her. “You’ve grown up, baby.”
“Maybe instead of a doll, you could get me a cell phone,” Lily said. “It’s more important than a doll.”
Her mother looked as if she were about to argue again about the cell phone, but she clamped her mouth shut, thought for a moment, and said, “Dang right, honey. Tomorrow, we’ll pick one out. Let’s go home.”
On the walk back to Aunt Emmaline’s house, Lily asked what the police would do with the lady.
“She’ll get help. Talk to someone, get grief counseling, and they’ll probably contact her family. I’m not sure if she’ll have to stay in jail or not,” Abby said.
“She must have some sisters because when I mentioned Aunt Natalie, she said my aunts names were Letitia and Miranda.”
“I’m glad to know she has family,” her mother said. “That woman needs help.”
As they drove back to Nags Head, Lily prayed that the woman would be okay. She looked at the stars. One twinkled more brightly than the others did. She smiled, looked over at Abby and winked. Abby gave her a grin. Jerry would be their secret.