© 2001, 2021 Darin Miller

Stephanie Markham raised to the tips of her toes and strained her arm, attempting to reach the last bottle of her brand of laundry detergent tucked high away on the stratospheric top shelf of Aisle 18A.  She hadn’t even attempted to locate a store clerk. 

McGruder’s Department Store was thick with customers this February evening.  Once yearly, Carl McGruder, owner and proprietor of the only department store in the small village of Corgan’s Bluff, pulled out all the stops with a seventeen-hour sale.  Every item in the store was marked down a minimum of twenty-five percent.  There were two-for-one’s and three-for-two’s and rebates and free samples.  People poured into the store from the moment the doors slid open at 7:00AM until they closed at midnight.  They came from Corgan’s Bluff, from the hills and canyons in the outlying areas, and even as far as Garrettsville, which was nearly sixty miles away.  There were no nearby malls or other modern shopping areas.  The closest mall was nearly two hundred miles north.  This quaint concept was like science fiction to Stephanie, who had moved to Corgan’s Bluff two months ago from a larger metropolitan area with her husband when his job transferred him. 

McGruder always boosted his payroll for this extravaganza, but every year the store was severely out of proportion in its employee-to-customer ratio.  Trying to find help was like playing a bizarre, live action Where’s Waldo? game.  What might appear to be the bright blue vest of customer service personnel would invariably turn out to be an optical illusion generated by the swirling colors of the thickly packed shoppers pushing past one another. 

Stephanie had been warned to avoid McGruder’s when the sale was in full swing.  It would have been different when she was younger, single and able to joust elbows with the best of them.  Her husband, Alan, would have enthusiastically applauded the savings, but since their little boy, Danny, had been born a year-and-a-half ago, simple undertakings like shopping, visiting her girlfriends or even going for a stroll had become much larger tasks.  There was the car seat and the ongoing battle between Stephanie and Danny as to who decided when its use was necessary.  There was the E-Z collapse stroller that never collapsed even remotely as easily as the one in the television commercial.  The diaper bag had to be loaded with enough changes to last any unforeseen diarrhea typhoon, baby powder, wet napkins, first aid supplies, baby food, formula (if Danny wasn’t in the mood to breastfeed), pacifiers, a rattle…no matter how full the bag was, Stephanie always had the feeling she had forgotten something vitally important.  She used to have a recurring dream in which social workers seized her son because she had the wrong brand of formula.  But, alas, today was laundry day, and Stephanie had forgotten to buy detergent when she had come in three days earlier for her weekly sundries. 

Stephanie used the tips of her fingers to grapple for the bottle.  She made contact and for a second, a smile played at her lips.  Then the effort of trying to rake the bottle a little closer had the opposite effect.  It skittered back another inch.  The smile dropped abruptly. 

Stephanie, clenching her jaw with determination, clamped the fingers of her left hand onto the edge of the top shelf and tentatively moved her feet one at a time onto the bottom shelf.  The maneuver rewarded her with two more inches of height, which was just enough to get her finger through the plastic handle of the detergent and pull it forward and into reach.  Her smile was back, warm and triumphant.  The detergent was hers, by God! 

She turned to place the jug in her cart and froze with her arm suspended in midair.  Something was different.  She quickly turned around, thinking she may have gotten reversed somehow while up on the shelf, and this was the cart of another customer.  She examined the contents.  It carried her purse and keys, several packages of diapers, and a blouse she had had her eye on for several weeks. 

Stephanie’s eyes widened with horror, and her head jerked left and right, scouring the aisle for the precious cargo she was missing.  “Oh my God,” she gasped.  “Where’s my son?

She spun around again, her eyes darting quickly up the aisle, down the aisle.  Danny couldn’t have gotten out of the cart by himself.  He could barely walk, much less complete the acrobatic maneuver required to descend from the plastic child seat behind the cart’s handle.  She looked under the cart in case, God forbid, Danny had fallen out.  He was not there. 

Cold beads of sweat formed at the nape of Stephanie’s neck and trickled down between her shoulder blades.  Full-blown panic constricted her throat and filled her limbs with lead.  She opened her mouth to scream, but no sound escaped.  The thick volume of customers became a human quicksand, immobilizing her and pulling her under.   

After what seemed an eternity, Stephanie was able to move, even if she hadn’t yet found her voice.  With eyes blazing, she began to push her way through the crowd of mostly elderly ladies, greeted by astonished gasps and surprising profanities.  Her eyes darted from cart to cart, looking for any sign whatsoever of her little boy. 

Scream, damn you! her brain instructed.  Help!  Help!  Help! 

But Stephanie could not.  Her mouth formed words, but the only sound to come forth was that of her strangled sobbing. 

The sea of bargain shoppers was swelling like high tide and she was drowning.  Hot tears were flowing, blurring her vision.  She was unable to discern individual features of these passersby, just flashes of color and sound.  As she continued toward the front of the aisle, she thought she saw Danny, sitting in a cart, playing with his fingers.  When she rushed forward, the illusion fell away, and she was face-to-face with a child she had never seen before.   His mother instinctively pulled him to her, eyeing Stephanie with the unique mix of fear, distrust and menace only a mother’s eyes can project. 

Stephanie’s ears were filled to overflowing with the chatter of all the people, the steady hum of the refrigerator units two aisles over, the buzz of the cash registers regurgitating receipts and a strange high-pitched whine that was punctuated with little hiccups.  It occurred to her that this last sound was coming from deep within her, gaining volume as surely as if someone were turning a knob on the back of her head.  The circle of shoppers around her had stopped and were staring with wide eyes, recoiling backward as if she intended to physically assault them. 

Stephanie turned to her left and ran for the mouth of the aisle.  Beyond it lay the bank of cash registers, buzzing and buzzing, all lanes open.  The exit door was at the front of the store.  It became Stephanie’s sole purpose to get to that door.  She had to make sure she saw any person who might try to leave the store with Danny tucked in the crook of his or her arm. 

Suddenly, a very tall, thin man appeared, blocking the aisle.  He wore some sort of uniform with dark blue pants, a light blue shirt and black tie.  Through her tears, Stephanie could not discern much else about him.  He was somewhere between twenty and fifty years of age, had enormous front teeth and thick glasses.  The filter of her despair had rendered him into a cartoon image.  A cartoon image who was in her way.  His lanky arms stretched out to his left and right in an attempt to block Stephanie’s progress and shepherd her toward him. 

Stephanie had to reach that exit.  Time had lost its meaning to her, and she had no idea how long Danny had been gone from the cart.  He might have already been taken from the building.  For that matter, he may already be in a car speeding far, far away from Corgan’s Bluff. 

In a smooth maneuver that was neither practiced nor expected, Stephanie lifted her right foot three feet off the ground and drove it with all her might down onto the lanky man’s left foot.  As soon as it connected, her left knee was in motion, swinging upward at a forty-five-degree angle, connecting solidly with the astonished man’s groin.  He made a shrill scream and started to drop like a stone, but Stephanie was already clawing and climbing over him, her focus still on the exit door.  As he dropped, he made a convulsive twitching movement, protectively drawing his legs up into the fetal position and in the process, tangling Stephanie’s legs with his own.  She went down hard, hitting her head on the highly polished tile floor.  Unconsciousness swallowed her whole. 

*****

Stephanie squinted her eyes, trying to adapt to the overhead light beaming down on her.  She was lying on a couch with a cold rag pressed to her forehead.  She wasn’t sure where she was.  She sat up abruptly, but two strong arms clamped firmly over hers and eased her back down.  The arms were attached to a middle-aged balding man in dress slacks and a white button-down shirt that was too tight around his bulbous midsection.  His long sleeves had been unbuttoned and were cuffed to his elbows.  Around his collar hung a paisley tie which was loosened at the neck and tied unevenly, with the back hanging two inches below the front.  His look of genuine concern comforted her. 

“Easy, there, now you just lay still a minute, honey.  You hit your head pretty good out there.  I’ve called a doctor to check you over,” the man said, rubbing his hands up and down her arms in a reassuring, paternal manner. 

“What happened?” Stephanie asked, sending her right hand to investigate the source of the throb in her head.  It emanated from a goose egg behind her hairline just above her right temple.

“Well, now, I was hopin’ that you could tell me about that,” he said, grinning warmly. 

“I’m not sure,” Stephanie said dazedly.  She slowly maneuvered into a slightly more upright position.  What had she been doing?  Her mind was in a mosh pit, being hammered and pushed and pulled with sensory information.  Whatever she had been doing, Stephanie was sure it was very important, maybe even a matter of life and death.  The details were dancing in the distance, twinkling like animal eyes in a heavy pea soup fog. 

The couch upon which she lay had seen a lot of use.  It was dark brown simulated leather, with multiple cuts in its cushions and back.  Most of these had been healed by furnace tape, although a few still gaped open, yellow stuffing protruding.  The room was a small, fully enclosed cubicle.  Behind her head was a door and beside that a large window which appeared to be an interior one.  From Stephanie’s position, she could see rows of florescent lights stretching across the ceiling that was beyond the window.  There was an industrial metal desk across the room from the couch with bright orange bucket chairs facing it.  Its surface was covered with green and white printouts, metal trays and many other varied office supplies.  Sitting slumped into the large chair behind the desk was a young, lanky man, his eyes fixed suspiciously in Stephanie’s direction.  He was awfully familiar, but Stephanie’s cognitive process was momentarily shattered, and she could not pull it all together. 

“Do you know who you are?” the older man was gently asking.

She looked at him for a moment as if he were insane.  What kind of question was that?  Then, from somewhere, she realized that he was checking her orientation because of the blow to her head.  “Of course.”

He looked at her expectantly. 

“Oh, you want a name.  Stephanie.  It’s Stephanie,” she said.

“Howzabout a last name?” He jotted something on a legal pad and waited. 

Stephanie’s eyebrows knitted together earnestly, reaching and straining.  Everyone has a last name.  How could someone not remember their own damned surname?  “This is so stupid; I can’t seem to…”  Her voice trailed off and she shrugged with a weak smile. 

“That’s okay, honey.  I’m sure it’ll come right back.  Just relax and stop trying so hard,” he said, patting her arm.

“Where am I?” she asked. 

“Why, you’re in my office.  I’m Carl McGruder.  I’m the owner of this here store,” he said with a smile. 

Stephanie carefully pulled herself into a sitting position, swinging her legs down to touch the floor.  A beige handbag rested on its side at her feet, presumably hers.  “Store?” she asked, perplexed. 

“Tell ya what,” Carl said.  “I’ll tell you what I know, and maybe that’ll jog ya.”

“Okay.”

Carl looked for a way to sugarcoat the incident as told to him by several store patrons and Lonnie, the lanky security guard who was still affixing Stephanie with suspicious eyes.  “As best I understand, you were down in Aisle 18A, and you just kind of went nuts,” he ended up saying.  Eloquence and tact had never been strong points for Carl.

“Nuts?” she smiled, feeling a little mortified although unsure of why. 

Lonnie authoritatively cleared his throat.  Stephanie looked at him and wondered if this alleged security guard was old enough to vote.  He had longish, greasy black hair hanging in strings around his face.  His face was pitted and scarred with the ghosts of acne past and present.  An especially angry red bump glowed on his chin, threatening to spore without provocation.  He wore thick glasses with heavy black frames and his front teeth jutted out prominently from between his lips.  When he spoke, his voice was as whiny and petulant as Stephanie would have expected.  “What you done, Miss, is you assaulted an officer.”

Stephanie laughed richly.  She couldn’t help herself.  “An officer?  Who?”

Lonnie’s cheeks blazed red.  “Me!  Who the hell didja think I meant?  Me!”  With his pride clearly wounded, he swiveled halfway around and resumed sulking. 

Rolling his eyes, Carl looked at Stephanie and smiled again.  “Lonnie Akerman is one of our security guards here at McGruder’s Department Store.”

Stephanie tried to refocus.  The name of the store was so familiar, like the tune of an old favorite song.  “Okay, go on.”

“Well, you were screaming and carrying on, but no one could tell what you were trying to say.  Lonnie, here, heard the commotion and went to see if everything was alright.  I guess you pulled out the ole kung fu on him and climbed right over him, quicker’n a cat can scale a tree.”

“She caught me by surprise!”  Lonnie yelled defensively.  Nonetheless, he kept his eyes downcast, avoiding Carl’s gaze. 

“Anyway, you got all tangled up in Lonnie’s legs as he was goin’ down—”

Lonnie, his eyes bugging out, interrupted, “Jesus, Carl!  You’re makin’ me sound like a dadburn foo-ool!  It was taekwondo, man, taekwondo.  I used her momentum to bring her down just like—”

Lonnie.  Give it a rest or I’m gonna send you to the parking lot to bring in some carts.”  Carl’s voice was firm, and he glared unblinkingly at Lonnie.  Lonnie could see Carl had every intention of following through, if necessary.  He snapped his mouth shut, folded his arms across his chest and swiveled sideways, resuming his pout. 

Carl returned his attention to Stephanie.  “When Lonnie fell, you did too, and you hit your head on the floor.  That pretty well brings us current.  Your ID and your purse were in a cart partway up the aisle behind you.  Your name is Markham.  Stephanie Markham.  Does that jog anything?”  He handed her the purse, which she absently strapped over her shoulder. 

Obviously, he had been trying to get her to remember on her own.  Now he was attempting to spoon-feed her with pertinent information in hopes of an epiphany. 

Stephanie scratched her head.  Of course she was Stephanie Markham.  Ever since she had gotten married.  Before that, she had been Stephanie…Jarvis!  That’s right.  Her mother’s name was Beatrice and her father was Jacob.  A smile started to spread across Stephanie’s face.  She had moved to town…Corgan’s Bluff… just a few months ago.  She moved because her husband, Alan, had gotten a new region to manage.  He was in insurance. 

Carl smiled, seeing the flickers of recognition in Stephanie’s eyes.  “Oh, good, good.  Is it coming back?”

Stephanie nodded.

“We’ve got a doctor on the way to make sure you’re okay, and we left a message for your husband, but he—”

Stephanie eyes widened with terror.  Oh, God, she thought.  Danny.

Carl’s smile fell from his lips.  “Ma’am?  Are you alright?”

Suddenly, Stephanie leapt to her feet.  The world beneath her seemed to be at a terrible incline, and she plopped back on the couch.  “My God, my God, my God,” she said, cradling her head in her hands.  She got up again, more slowly this time.  Tiny bursts of blackness played in her peripheral vision, but after a moment, it crept back, allowing her to think more clearly.  How long has it been? she thought, stepping over to the large window overlooking the store’s sales floor.  People were everywhere, in every aisle, at every checkout lane.  The cash registers buzzed and buzzed.  “Someone kidnapped my son!

What?”  Carl was on his feet immediately.  “Are you telling me that someone has taken your son in my store?”

Stephanie nodded frantically, but she would not take her eyes away from the window.  Danny might still be in the store.  What could have happened?

Carl was already on the phone, calling the police.  “We’ve got a missing kid down here at McGruder’s.  Send someone, pronto.”

Lonnie had gotten up from his seat and circled the desk to stand by Stephanie.  “What’d the little boy look like, ma’am?”  He was an eager bloodhound begging for a scent. 

“He’s 19 months old, fuzzy brown hair, dimples….oh, he was wearing a powder blue snap-up jumpsuit.  His name is Danny,” she said.  Suddenly, her eyes were drawn all the way left to Aisle 1.  A willowy honey-blond woman was rounding the corner of the aisle, traversing the median that separated the checkout stands from the other perpendicular aisles.  She pushed an empty shopping cart in front of her.  Empty except for a small child in the safety seat.  He wore a blue jumpsuit and had a fluff of brown hair leaping straight up from his head.  He was red-faced, his mouth pulled open in a mighty bawl that was eerily silent from within the sanctuary of the office.  Danny!

Stephanie didn’t even remember going through the office door.  She left Carl and Lonnie in a confused daze, her legs carrying her down the long aisle behind the registers.  She sifted through the crowd at all costs, never losing sight of the top of that honey-blond head.  She was vaguely aware of Carl and Lonnie following somewhere behind her. 

At last, she was standing at the cart, looking down at the boy.  Please, oh God, please, she thought. 

It was Danny. 

A fresh stream of tears dampened her cheeks.  Her ears were joyously filled with the shrieking sobs emanating from the unhappy little fellow.  Amazingly, the honey-blond woman had not yet noticed her.  Just before Stephanie had reached the cart, the woman had been jostled by a heavyset teenage girl, and they were in the middle of exchanging choice words. 

Stephanie reached into the cart and plucked the little boy up into her arms, cradling him to her breast.  He calmed instantly, nestling into the warm crook of her arm.  After hushing him and gingerly stroking his head, Stephanie’s eyes darted back to the willowy woman.  Her argument with the teenager had ended, and she was now staring at Stephanie.

Their eyes locked.

The woman’s youthful, willowy appearance belied the hardness of her tight, drawn features.  She was wearing a cut-off t-shirt that displayed her emaciated belly, threadbare blue jeans that were almost white, and yellow flip-flops that exposed her dirty feet.  Her arms were wiry and muscular, with veins pulsing up and down them.  Her eyes were almost black.  Black eyes, burning a hole right through Stephanie.  The woman’s upper lip drew back, exposing an odd yellow grimace.  One of her front teeth was missing. 

Stephanie had no doubt this woman was unbalanced.  Dangerously unbalanced.  Who else would pluck an innocent child away from his mother in the middle of a store?

The woman started to reach out her claw-like hands.  “What—” the woman began, but Stephanie wasn’t about to stick around and wait for the rest of the sentence.  If it came down to hand-to-hand combat, she was unsure of her odds.  This woman looked like an animal.

Stephanie tightened her grip on Danny and whirled around and reversed course.  The cart was between the two women and offered her only a minimal head start.  Carl and Lonnie emerged from the crowd directly in front of Stephanie. 

“Is that your boy?” Carl asked anxiously, as Lonnie proceeded toward the other woman.  Stephanie nodded, her face pressed to the top of Danny’s head.  That was all Carl needed.  He was only steps behind Lonnie, who had just reached the other woman.

Stephanie dared to look back.  She had run far enough she could not hear the woman, but her mouth was moving a mile a minute.  Lonnie had his hands firmly on her shoulders and Carl was barking something at her, his finger jabbing the air in front of her face.  She looked crazed.  Her black eyes blazed with fury.  Whatever she was saying was sending strings of drool dribbling down her chin.  Then she started to violently throw herself forward, pushing Lonnie, and then pushing both Carl and Lonnie.  Her arms were outstretched, clawing at the air, but her eyes were fixed on Stephanie.  Above the buzz of the sale shoppers, Stephanie heard her unmistakable vow, “I’ll kill you!

Stephanie gasped and turned on her heel.  She plowed through the people who stood between her and the exit.  Nothing would stop her now.  She saw the look in those eyes.  She knew the woman meant business.  She doubted Carl and Lonnie could hold her for long.  Stephanie had once read some psychopaths exhibited superhuman strength while in the throws of rage.  Her primary object was to get Danny the hell out of there.

At last, Stephanie reached the exit door.  It slid open for her, but not quickly enough, so she pushed it along faster, causing the internal workings of the door’s motor to groan in protest.  She burst through and into the cold night air.  The parking lot was packed.  Frantically, Stephanie searched for her automobile, finding it two lanes to her left and several rows deep.  An overhead light cast a ghostly pallor on the vehicle, spotlighting her exact location.  A gentle snow was falling.

Stephanie fumbled with her purse which had mercifully remained on her shoulder.  She found her keys and unlocked the driver’s door.  She depressed the automatic lock button on the inside panel of the door, freeing the locks from the remaining doors.  Quickly, she opened the rear door and began to position Danny into the car seat.  As if on cue, his wailing resumed followed by a flailing of unhappy little arms and legs. 

“Danny!  Stop it!  We don’t have time,” Stephanie urged, gently holding his legs in place as she maneuvered the belts of the safety seat.  Through the windows of the passenger side, she glanced up at the store’s entrance. 

The crazed woman was pushing her way out of the store.

Stephanie could see Carl and Lonnie just over the woman’s shoulders.  They both looked angry, frustrated the woman was gaining distance, staying beyond their grasp.

A strangled cry escaped Stephanie’s lips as she locked the front of the car seat into place, despite Danny’s escalating wails.  She slid into the driver’s seat and started the car.  The engine roared to life.  She geared into reverse and stomped on the gas pedal.  Realizing almost instantly she was going to plow into the cars parked across the lane behind her, she slammed on the brake, stopping with only inches to spare.  She jerked the gearshift into drive and cut the steering wheel hard and to the left.  As her foot began to release its pressure from the brake, the woman threw herself onto the passenger side of the car. 

Stephanie screamed.  The woman was screaming, too, but it was unintelligible.  She sounded like a baying wolf, dangerously close.  Her hands were pounding the tempered glass, over and over, making the glass vibrate in its track.  As she cursed, the spittle that was spraying from her mouth landed on the window in bubbly white oozing trails.  Stephanie realized she hadn’t relocked the doors just as the passenger door flew open. 

Stephanie buried the accelerator.  The car lurched forward and to the left, jarring the crazy woman’s hold on the car.  She tumbled backward into the parking lot.  The swinging door slammed shut as it clipped the trunk of a big white Cadillac parked in the next space. 

Like a bullet from a gun, Stephanie rocketed up the paved tongue which served as the only entrance and exit to McGruder’s Department Store.  As she neared its end, she slowed only as much as necessary to ascertain there were no oncoming vehicles on Main Street.  She turned the car hard to the right and barreled off into the night.  As she left, she could hear the faint approach of sirens as the police were nearing the scene. 

Thank God, she thought.  Let them deal with her.

Stephanie realized she had been holding her breath for some time.  She allowed herself to exhale and replenish her lungs with fresh air.  Danny, his cheeks shiny with tears, was screaming furiously in the backseat. 

She reached the end of the city limits on Main Street.  The streetlights stopped abruptly here, marking the perimeter of the little village.  Beyond, Main Street became Route 313, winding out into the dark, rural countryside.  Snow was falling harder, leaving a fine powder of white dust on the road.  Stephanie and Alan’s old farmhouse was five miles straight ahead.  If she could make it there, everything would be okay.

Stephanie glanced nervously in the rearview mirror.  She half expected to see a car closing in behind her.  Instead, the road was dark and empty. 

She looked at Danny who was still crying.  “Danny boy,” she said soothingly.  “Mommy’s here.  Everything’s alright.  We just have to get home to Daddy, and everything will be all better.  How’s that sound, baby doll?”

Danny coughed and sobbed, having been aggravated by all the sudden action. 

Stephanie’s eyes alternated their focus.  First, the road ahead, stretching out into the darkness.  Snow was driving into the windshield.  Next, the view in the mirror, still dark and empty.  Then, Danny.  She inspected what she could see in the rearview mirror.  He didn’t seem to be hurt.  She could see his legs and arms squirming.  All of his toes and fingers were still attached. 

Danny!

Unintelligible ramblings of praise to God flowed from Stephanie’s lips.  Her baby was safe!  Thank you, thank you, God!

The five-mile drive seemed to go on forever, but soon, her oversized mailbox, all decked out like a miniature farmhouse, appeared on the right side of the lane.  The farmhouse stood on a hill, with a winding dirt drive that led beside the house and beyond to a ramshackle barn.  Alan planned to tear the barn down this summer and replace it with a more modern garage. 

The house was dark.  Darkness fell earlier at this time of year, and Stephanie had lost all concept of time.  She glanced at the digital display on her dashboard.  It was 7:00PM.  Alan would be home from work anytime. 

Stephanie stopped the car at the side of the house.  She extracted Danny, who had begun to settle, from the car seat and carried him up to the side porch.  She cooed lovingly in his ear and stroked the back of his head.  They had bolted from the store so quickly Stephanie hadn’t had enough time to find Danny’s coat, much less put it on him.  He was shivering from the cold.

Stephanie unlocked the door and carried Danny into the kitchen, flicking on the overhead light as she passed the switch.  She wanted to squeeze him so tightly to herself it took conscious effort not to become overzealous and hurt him.  His sobbing had stopped, and he was making little burbling sounds. 

Stephanie pulled a chair away from the kitchen table and sat down.  She eased Danny away from her and placed him on his back in her lap.  He looked up at her with puffy, heavy blue eyes.  He was sleepy. 

Stephanie allowed herself to cry.  She feared she would frighten Danny but could hold back no longer.  She remembered the joy of being informed of her pregnancy.  Some husbands were not nearly as supportive as Alan had been.  He was a good husband and a good father.  He had been elated.  The nine months of her pregnancy seemed to last nine years.  They shared as much of the experience as they physically could.  Some of her more dour friends back in Portsmouth, Ohio, had filled her with horror stories of the pain of delivery.  All she remembered was that magic moment when Danny had made his entrance into the world.  He was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. 

The last year-and-a-half had been full of firsts and Stephanie was always filled with amazement and wonder that this little piece of her was so clever and talented.  She supposed all mothers felt this way, but way deep down inside, she knew it was really true about her child. 

She lifted him gently to her breast and carried him into the adjoining living room, pressing her nose into his soft, fuzzy hair and inhaling deeply.  She loved the way the top of his head smelled. 

Alan had bought a secondhand crib at a garage sale when they had moved into the house.  He placed it in the living room so Danny could be close to Stephanie even when he napped during the day.  Stephanie eased the baby down into it, carefully cupping her hand behind his head and lowering it onto the small pillow.  He was already sleeping.  She pulled a flannel blanket adorned with teddy bears around Danny and smiled down at him. 

Her boy was safely at home.

As she gently traced the contours of Danny’s face with her fingertips, she saw a beam of headlights pierce the darkness.  A car was coming up the drive.  Alan was home at last.

Stephanie kissed the top of Danny’s head and reentered the kitchen, needing to see Alan, to feel his strong arms around her.  Together, they would call the police and tell them what happened in the store.  The woman should already be under arrest, but the police would need Stephanie’s testimony.

Stephanie froze.  Framed in the doorway to the porch was the wild-eyed woman, her honey-blond hair disheveled and a look of pure hatred on her face.  Her arms were tensed and away from her sides, like a gunslinger from the Old West, poised for the draw.  Her yellow teeth were fixed in a snarl. 

Stephanie wanted to scream.  She wanted to scream so loudly the sound would reverberate through the surrounding hills and be heard from one end of Corgan’s Bluff to the other.  Her mouth opened, but nothing came out.

From behind the woman came an authoritative voice, “Freeze!  Police!  You stay right there!”

Thank God!  Stephanie thought.  The police are right behind her.  Of course, they are.

The woman didn’t move, but her eyebrows knitted together in frustration.  The policeman, a stout, barrel-chested man, appeared at the woman’s elbow.  He bent down closer to the woman’s face and said gently, “You need to let us handle it from here.  There’s no need in getting yourself into any trouble.”  He turned his gaze to Stephanie.  “Are you Stephanie Markham?”

“Yes,” she said hesitantly.

“Ma’am, you are under arrest for the kidnapping of this child.  You have the right—”

NO!” Stephanie screamed, backing into the corner of the kitchen.  Behind the officer, Carl and Lonnie from the department store were entering the kitchen.  They looked at her with condemning eyes. 

Alan came next, entering the kitchen with his briefcase in hand.  He looked around, trying to comprehend all that was happening.  In a booming voice, he said, “Just what the hell is going on here?”

*****

The officer had taken Stephanie away in handcuffs.  She had gotten hysterical and was lashing out at anyone within arm’s reach.  Another policeman, Sergeant Hitchings, had arrived on the scene and was taking statements.  Carl, Lonnie, Alan and the honey-haired woman whose name was Tina Charles, sat around the kitchen table.  Tina was cradling the baby and holding him to her bosom. 

“They won’t hurt her, will they?” asked Alan.  “She’s not a criminal, she’s just…”

“No, they won’t hurt her,” replied Sergeant Hitchings.  “They need to get her calmed down, but then they’ll turn her over to a doctor for psychiatric care.”

“I can’t believe this is happening.  My son last week, my wife this week,” murmured Alan, lowering his face into his hands.  His eyes were lined with grief.

“What happened to your son?” the policeman asked.

“He was visiting his grandparents last week.  There was a carbon monoxide leak in their heating system.  He was gone…” Alan choked back a sob.  “I’ve been a total wreck.  I went back to work today for the first time since…  Stephanie was being so strong.  I thought it was amazing.  I couldn’t even look at his…things long enough to put them out of sight.  Steph said we’d do it together when we were ready, and she went through the house covering all of it until then.”

Sergeant Hitchings took details of the incident in the department store from Carl, Lonnie and Tina.  Satisfied when he had enough, he stood to leave.  Carl and Lonnie had already mumbled condolences to Alan and left.  

“Wait a minute,” said Tina in her sweet country twang, tugging at Sergeant Hitchings sleeve.  “Do I have to press charges?”

“You don’t want to?” asked the surprised sergeant. 

“Well, can’t we do something to get her help without puttin’ her in jail?”

“I’m sure we can work something out that’s to everyone’s benefit,” the sergeant replied.   

Alan looked wonderingly at Tina.  “Thank you so much.  Why are you being so kind?”

“Looks to me like your wife’s had enough hard knocks.  I coulda killed her myself most of this evening, but instead, I’d rather take the high road.  I think that’s what Jesus would want me to do.”  She flashed her yellow smile at Alan.

“Come along, Mrs. Charles.  I’ll take you and your boy home,” said Sergeant Hitchings, placing a hand on Tina’s elbow. 

“That’s right,” Tina cooed into the baby’s ear as she and the sergeant headed for the door.  “I bet your daddy’s just about worried to pieces, ain’t he, Danny boy?”