Sempre redemption, p.80
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       Sempre: Redemption, p.80

         Part #2 of Forever series by J. M. Darhower
 
Page 80

 

  Those weren’t the only plans in the making. While all this was happening, Haven and Carmine were across the country, safe and sound in the tiny ghost town of Blackburn. On the ground where the Antonelli ranch once stood—the ranch Corrado had purposely destroyed—the shell of a new building had already appeared. The three-story structure, designed from scratch, would someday house the first official Safe Haven.

  “I want to build thirty-three of them in all,” Haven had said. “A place for people like me to go to start their new lives. When they run, I want them to have somewhere to go. I want them to know they’re not alone. ”

  TEN YEARS LATER . . .

  Epilogue

  Leaves crunched and twigs snapped as the little girl tramped through the shadowy forest, her dirty bare feet sinking into the cool ground. The plush grass tickled as it slipped between her toes but she kept a straight face, not daring to laugh.

  No, laughing wouldn’t be good. Not here. Definitely not now.

  Keeping her head down, eyes fixed on the ground, she followed the small trail that wove through the trees. She could hear the single set of footsteps stomping along behind her, could feel the pair of narrowed eyes burning holes into the back of her head. It made her muscles tense and she clenched her small hands into fists, wincing. Cuts and scrapes routinely adorned her body, the newest ones covering her palms. They burned, the skin rubbed away as drops of blood oozed from the filthy surface.

  Ouch.

  She stepped out of the trees and into the large clearing, the last remnants of bright North Carolina sunshine streaming on her as the sun started to set. Her feet suddenly moved faster then, carrying her away from the protection of the trees, but she wasn’t fast enough.

  A strong hand clamped down on her shoulder from behind, instantly stalling her movements. “Oh no, where do you think you’re going, girl?”

  Uh-oh.

  She shrugged her shoulders the best she could. Where was she going? She didn’t know. It wasn’t as if she could escape him.

  He let out a dry laugh at her lack of response. “Haven, look who I found. ”

  The woman swung around where she stood in the yard, panic on her face as her hands clutched her swollen stomach. She looked like she was carrying a watermelon under her pink shirt, but the little girl knew it was really a baby—her daddy told her so. A little brother named Nicholas, but she secretly hoped they would be nice and give her a sister instead.

  But nice wasn’t a word she would use to describe them. No, they were anything but happy with her right now. A brother it would be.

  Yuck.

  Her mama let out a deep sigh that seemed to cover the entire clearing, wrapping them all in a sense of relief. “Where was she?”

  “In the woods,” he replied, still keeping her locked in place. “She was climbing a big ass tree, as usual. Fell out of the motherfucker, too. She’s lucky she didn’t break her neck. ”

  She shook her head exasperatedly. “Can’t say I’m surprised. She is your daughter, after all. ”

  The hand on the girl’s shoulders disappeared seconds before her dad stepped around her, a pair of small pink Nike’s swinging in his hand. She had discarded them in the woods as she ran along the path, preferring to go barefoot. She was like her mama that way. She couldn’t stand to feel restrained. She liked to be free to run and jump and play and climb trees even though Daddy said it wasn’t safe.

  Her dad strolled through the yard, kissing her mama quickly before going inside the big three-story house. They had been coming there to Durante every summer since she was a baby, although the girl couldn’t remember those first few years. Usually Uncle Dominic and Aunt Tess came along with her cousin Vinnie, but they took him to a football camp this year, so they wouldn’t make it to visit until later.

  Aunt Dia was in town, though, with her new girlfriend. They came by a few times but were staying with other family, so it was just them for now—just her and her parents in the big, old house.

  She thought it would be fun, not having to share anything, but it turned out the lack of chaos only led her to get into more trouble by herself.

  The little girl still didn’t move from the spot in the yard, firmly rooted in the ground as her mama approached. She wiggled her toes, digging into the dirt, trying to distract herself, and couldn’t stifle the giggle that escaped her lips that time.

  Oops.

  “What’s so funny?” her mama asked, crouching down in front of her.

  She shrugged her shoulders again, head still down, as she whispered, “It tickles, Mama. ”

  Maura Miranda DeMarco could only be described as a tiny tornado, a ball of energy that couldn’t be tamed. She was tiny, shorter than the average seven-year-old, but her size didn’t impede her at all. She would jump any hurdle, climb any obstacle, and solve any problem in her way. A combination of both of her parents—her dad’s daring personality with her mom’s strong exterior—she had proven to be a force of nature since the day she was born.

  Her appearance, though, contradicted her fiery personality. Long lashes framed a set of big green eyes, eyes she had gotten from her dad, while soft waves of brown hair fell into her face. Her pale complexion had a constant pink flush to her round cheeks, splashes of freckles dotting her nose. She looked like a porcelain doll, vulnerable, breakable, when she was anything but.

  The girl was tough as nails. If you asked her dad, he would say she came into the world screaming and hadn’t shut up since.

  Usually bold and unrestrained, Maura was uncharacteristically quiet as she stood in front of her mama in the yard.

  Reaching over, her mom grabbed Maura’s hands and pried her fists open, surveying the bloody scrapes. Wordlessly, she led her into the house, taking her straight to the kitchen and sitting her on the counter beside the sink.

  “You know better than to run off like that,” she said quietly, washing out her daughter’s wounds. “We have to know where you are at all times. ”

  “I forgot,” she said. “I didn’t mean it. ”

  “I know, but you have to remember. ” Her mama paused, sighing. “It’s not safe otherwise. ”

  Not safe seemed to be her parents’ favorite thing to say.

  “I’m sorry. Really, really, really sorry. ” Maura stared at her with wide eyes. “Really, Mama. ”

  A smiled tugged her lips. “I believe you, sweetheart. ”

  A throat cleared behind them. Her dad stood just inside the kitchen, leaning against the doorframe with his arms crossed over his chest. “I don’t know if I believe you. You didn’t throw in enough ‘reallys. ’”

  “Really, Daddy!” Maura said, nodding so furiously she nearly knocked herself off the counter. “Really, really, times twenty-nine hundred thousand million. ”

  “And how many is that?”

  Maura opened her mouth to reply but only offered silence. She looked to her mama after a moment for an answer. “Mama?”

  She laughed. “It’s a lot. ”

  “A lot,” Maura agreed, turning back to her dad. “It’s a lot, Daddy. ”

  Her mama excused herself as her dad strolled over to the counter, stopping in front of Maura. She gazed at him with her big green eyes, hesitance with a tinge of fear lurking in them.

  She thought she was in trouble.

  “You know, you scared your mother,” he said. “She hates it when she can’t see you. She’s afraid you’ll go missing. ”

  “Forever?” Maura asked. “Like those other people Mama talks about that no one sees?”

  He nodded. “She’s scared you’ll disappear. ”

  Maura stared at him, her forehead scrunched up as she processed his words. “Where would I go if I disappear?”

  “Don’t know,” he said. “You’d just be gone. ”

  “And I wouldn’t be able to see you and Mama?”

  “Nope. ”

  “I don’t wanna disappear, Daddy. ”

  He chuc
kled. “We don’t want you to, either. ”

  “But why do people?” she asked. “Why does anyone disappear? Why don’t we find them?”

  “They’re hidden,” he said. “Sometimes it’s forever, but sometimes, after a few years, someone finally sees them and makes it their mission to save them. ”

  “Like Mama!” she declared, her face lighting up as she put together the pieces. “Grammy Maura saved Mama, right? That’s what you say!”

  “Right,” he said. “And before that, your grandfather saved your grandmother. ”

  Her bright expression dulled a bit. “But then they disappeared again. ”

  “They died,” he said. “That’s different. We know where they are. ”

  “Where?”

  He sighed exasperatedly. “I don’t know. Heaven, I guess? But they’re still with us, too. That’s what I meant. We carry them around in our hearts. ”

  “Are they with Grammy Miranda?”

  “Yes. They’re all together up in Heaven, doing whatever the fuck people do there. ”

  Maura’s eyes widened as her mouth formed an ‘o’ in shock. “You owe money for the swear jar! Four quarters!”

  His brow furrowed. “How do you figure?”

  “You just said a swear! And outside you said two swears! Four quarters!”

  “Bullshit,” he said. “That’s only three. ”

  Maura smiled, whispering, “That was four, Daddy. ”

  He grabbed her when he realized she had tricked him, tickling her sides. Giggles erupted from her, filling the kitchen with the sound of carefree, childish laughter. She grasped at his hands, kicking her small feet, and nearly nailed him in the crotch. He clutched her tightly, pulling her off the counter and swinging her around in a circle before setting her on her feet.

  Taking her small hand in his, he led her outside and pulled her over toward the giant tree at the corner of the house. “Your mother used to climb this tree, you know. ”

  Her eyes widened. “No way!”

  “Yep,” he said. “She climbed it like a champ. ”

  He picked Maura up, pushing her toward the tree. She grasped the closest branch and pulled herself up, wiggling out of his arms. She climbed up onto it, fearlessly scaling it, and sat down against the thick trunk a few branches away. Her dad stood just below her, watching and waiting, but giving her enough space to explore on her own.

  Fireflies flickered in the yard as the sky darkened. She reached out and caught one of the bugs, giggling.

  “Daddy, maybe it is the same,” she said, letting the bug go. “Maybe the people who disappear are just like Grammy Maura and Grammy Miranda and Papa Vincent. If I disappeared, I’d still be in your heart like them, right?”

  “Yes. ”

  “Then it’s the same. ”

  “No, it’s not,” he insisted. “They’re gone, and I know that. I know they’re never coming back. But your place is right here with your mother and me. Don’t you ever forget that. If you disappeared, I’d tear the fucking world apart until I found you again. ”

 
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