Anything was damn well possible.
I tried to warn the last woman.
My father picked her from the girls’ clothing department in the biggest store at the mall: a pretty blonde, wearing jeans and an emerald green sweater, her hair pulled back. She wasn’t curvy like my mother, but not thin like me, either. Solid. That was my first thought. She looked like someone who could take care of herself, but I knew she couldn’t. Not this time.
He told me where he’d be, then pushed me toward her. The sick swirling in my stomach made my steps halting, like the commands couldn’t get from my brain to my legs without coming apart on the way. I stumbled over the carpet that formed passages around the store, tripped over the tile where the clothing racks stood. I wanted to run out of the store and right into the street. If I was lucky, a car would hit me, and he and my mother would run off without me. I would lie to the doctors and the police about my name, and if they ever came back looking for me, they would never find me.
Or the car hitting me would kill me. Either way, I would be free.
From the corner where he lurked, he made an impatient gesture. I saw it from the corner of my eye. I knew better than to look his way, to draw anyone’s attention his way.
The woman lifted a dress from the rack, holding it at arm’s length, tilting her head to study it. It was the purest, cleanest white I’d ever seen, about my size, with a rounded neck, sleeves that went to the elbow, a dropped waist with a wide ribbon so pale that I couldn’t tell if it was pink or blue. I’d never had a dress like that. For just a moment, I coveted it. Coveted her. Surely a woman who bought a girl a dress like that would love her and take care of her and never make her cry.
I moved around a rack of T-shirts, turning so that my father was behind me. I was taking too long. He would be mad at me when we left, but I didn’t care. He was always mad at me. I watched as she put the white dress back and picked up one the color of spring grass. Green wasn’t my favorite color, but I wanted that dress, too, just because she’d picked it.
I could feel him staring at me, could feel the anger and impatience and hatred building. I couldn’t move any slower without stopping. I reached the dress rack, nausea rising inside me. I never had to pretend to be afraid or to cry. That came naturally because I knew what was going to happen, because of him, because of me, and I wanted to die.
I just wanted to die easy, but I knew that wouldn’t happen. He would never make it easy.
Before I could find my voice, she glanced at me. Smiled. Turned the dress so I could see it. “Do you like this?”
I nodded mutely.
“It’s for my niece. Her birthday is next week. She’ll be ten.”
Bile worked its way up my throat and into my mouth. I swallowed it back, grimacing at the taste.
“Are you okay?” Her brows furrowed, and she swept her gaze around the area. “Where’s your mom? Who are you with?”
“I—I—my father.” I took a breath, a shallow one, and my lip began to tremble, along with my voice, as words spilled out. “He’s over there. He sent me to get you, to trick you into going outside with him. Please walk away. Please just go, go out to your car and leave. If you don’t, he’ll take you and he’ll hurt you. Please…”
Please please please.
—Excerpt, The Unlucky Ones by Jane Gama
Mila got home late again Monday evening, and Poppy was howling her displeasure to anyone in a two-hundred-foot radius. She rushed the dog into the backyard, turned the shower on, then let the dog in for cookies and fresh water. Mila bathed quickly, too antsy to spend a lot of time under the water. After the day she’d had, the best thing for her and Poppy both would be a walk, and she knew exactly where to go.
Dressed in shorts and a tank top and flip-flops that felt like nothingness after an entire hot day in boots, she looped Poppy’s leash over her wrist and walked a block east to Main Street, then turned north. The real main street, First, was downtown and home to A Long Time Ago and Gramma’s apartment. It wasn’t likely Mila would catch her in the store—the only times the downtown businesses kept late hours was on Thursdays—but Poppy was behaving so well that checking the easiest choice was worth the extra block’s walk if she was wrong.