VANESSA BEACON’S HANDS SHOOK as she stared down at the California driver’s license she’d had her gardener purchase for her several months ago. The photo was hers, along with the physical characteristics. Hair: Bld; Eyes: Bl; HT: 5-06; WT: 120. The name, birth date and address, however, were not. The name read Emma Wright. Vanessa had chosen “Emma” because it was her mother’s middle name. “Wright” she’d selected as a reminder. She was doing the right thing. She had to believe that wholeheartedly or she would never have the courage to take such a risk.
The clock ticked loudly on the wall of her expansive chrome-and-marble kitchen. It seemed even louder than Manuel’s new plasma television, which she’d turned on in the living room to occupy their son, Dominick. She’d gone through her and Dominick’s suitcases, checked for his new birth certificate, her driver’s license and the two prepaid credit cards she’d purchased as additional identification, plus the teaching credential in her new name. She also counted her cash and packed her maps. But she couldn’t help worrying that she’d forgotten something.
God, she couldn’t make a mistake. Dominick’s life might depend on what she’d forgotten.
Mumbling a silent prayer that she could think straight despite her racing heart, she once again sorted through the backpack she’d hidden in the attic for the past three weeks. A small, handheld cooler contained three types of insulin—NPH, Regular and the fast-acting Humalog. Outside the cooler and loose in the backpack, she’d packed two hundred Ultra-Fine needles for Dominick’s three or more daily injections, two blood-glucose monitors, arm and finger pokers with plenty of test strips and two boxes of extra lancets. There was also a biohazard sharps collector, which was so large and bulky she’d almost taken it out a number of times but didn’t in the end because she had to have somewhere safe to toss the needles. She’d included KetoStrips to test for protein in Dominick’s urine, an emergency glucagon kit—in case he ever passed out, God forbid—and a tube of oral glucose gel for use in smaller emergencies. Besides all that, she’d packed his logbook to record his blood-sugar readings, and plenty of carbohydrates disguised as granola bars, trail mix, fruit and individually packaged chips for her son’s mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks. She’d nearly required a small suitcase just to transport his diabetes supplies. But every item was absolutely essential. One missed insulin injection could quickly result in ketoacidosis, a life-threatening condition.
I have everything. There’s nothing to worry about…. Vanessa closed the bag. A glance at the clock made her feel weak in the knees. It was after ten. Juanita should’ve been here fifteen minutes ago. Would she come at all? Or had Manuel gotten to her?
Vanessa cautioned herself against the paranoia that threatened. Manuel always watched her closely, but she was sure he had no idea she was about to disappear. She could trust the gardener. Carlos had proved himself with his secrecy on the false ID and the car he’d bought for her. Juanita would come through, too—if her loyalties were what Vanessa believed they were, and if she clearly understood what Vanessa wanted her to do. Vanessa thought she did. Manuel had insisted on hiring a nanny who could speak only Spanish, so his son would learn his native tongue, he said. But there were plenty of bilingual nannies, especially in San Diego where they lived. No, it wasn’t solely for Dominick that Manuel had selected Juanita. Manuel liked the idea that Vanessa wouldn’t be able to communicate with her. Isolating Vanessa gave him that much more power and control.
Fortunately, it wasn’t quite that simple. He didn’t know it, but during the four years they’d been living together, she’d taught herself enough Spanish to speak and understand most of what she heard. At first, she’d done it to help while away the empty hours of her day, since Manuel wouldn’t let her return to school or get a job. Later, she’d wanted to understand the strange phone calls he received at night and to decipher what the Rodriguez family discussed during the frequent meetings they held in the conference room off Manuel’s home office.
But she didn’t want to know about Manuel’s business dealings anymore. Or his family’s. His family was the main reason Manuel had never married her, even after she’d had Dominick. His mother refused to accept her, ostensibly because of her nationality, but Vanessa knew it went a little deeper than that. Mama Rodriguez couldn’t tolerate the thought of another woman in her favorite son’s life. Period. It was a fact Vanessa had once lamented, but no more. She’d learned enough about Manuel’s mother, his whole family, to be thankful for their rejection.
Dominick came in from the living room, his round face a picture of impatience. He’d just turned five two months ago and would’ve been starting kindergarten in a few weeks. She hoped she’d be able to get them situated soon so he could go to school this year. “Mo-om, I thought you said we were going to leave!” he said.
Vanessa attempted a reassuring smile, even though she was sweating profusely and feeling as though she might faint. Juanita had to come. She had the car Carlos had bought. And if she didn’t appear soon, it meant Manuel had figured out what was happening. He’d take Dominick to Mexico and Vanessa would probably never see her son again. Manuel had certainly threatened that often enough—whenever she tried to establish some independence. He’d made his point when she’d tried to leave the first time. Her father had passed away several years before she met Manuel, and her brother had been killed in a motorcycle accident not long after, but her mother and married sister lived in Phoenix. She’d gone to them, and wished she could do so again.
But she wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. Manuel had tracked her down and dragged her back—then let her know, in no uncertain terms, that he wouldn’t tolerate her leaving in the future.
Don’t think of that. Don’t remember….
“We’re waiting for Juanita,” she said, aching to pull her child into her arms. She didn’t know what she’d do if she could never hear Dominick laugh again or tell her how much he loved her. But she knew a clingy, desperate hug wasn’t what he needed at the moment. She didn’t want to communicate her anxiety to him any more than she already had.
“You said she was coming a long time ago,” he complained. “Where is she?”
Vanessa had no idea. Juanita had worked for them for nearly a year and was never late. Where could she be today? Without her support—and the car—Vanessa and Dominick would never get away.