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Swan's Shelter

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The door snapped shut and she let out a sigh of relief, as she did every morning. Except today was different. She stood in the middle of the grand entrance hall, frozen, waiting until she could be sure he had gone. The car engine roared to life moments later. It idled softly as it rolled backwards, gravel crunching beneath the tyres and swung onto the quiet suburban street. And then the engine sound increased, picking up speed as he accelerated away, the exhaust unnecessarily loud.

She sprang into action as the car faded from earshot. Spinning on the spot, she took the stairs two at a time. In the master bedroom, she reached up to the top of the cupboard and pulled down a large black suitcase, wincing at the stab of pain which the move triggered. But she ignored the tug of her ribs and pushed on. She opened the walk-in wardrobe and dragged the case inside, flipped up the lid and stood to survey the racks before her. Time and space were limited. She pulled out a few of each item of clothing, folding them quickly as she placed them inside the case. A handful of underwear landed on top. A few pairs of shoes followed, specifically her running sneakers and pumps rather than the heels he insisted she wore.

Before moving onto her next task, she removed the tight dress she had been told to wear that morning. The restrictive material of her outfits always made her feel claustrophobic, constricted. Peeling it off, she left it lying on the floor and reached for some old jeans she rarely wore. Pairing them with a simple cream pullover, she dragged the half-full case from the walk-in and moved to the en-suite.

Taking the opportunity to tie up her hair, she gathered the long brown strands and pulled it away from her face. He didn’t like her hair up, so she always wore it down. But it irritated her and got in her way, especially as long as it had grown now. Hair dealt with, she set to work. Shampoo, conditioner, toothbrush, toothpaste, hairbrush, sanitary products. She needed nothing else. Well, she didn’t after grabbing a face wipe and aggressively removing the makeup she had been expected to apply that morning.

She paused, staring at herself in the pristine mirror above the expansive double basin vanity. Her skin was paler than usual and worry lines spread from the corners of her eyes, usually masked by her make-up. Fingers reached up to touch the healed scar for a moment, the skin tingling slightly as she caressed the gouge which marred her lip and led up towards her nose.

And then she was on the move again; the washbag tossed into the case which she dragged from the room and down the corridor. Pushing open the bedroom door, upon which five wooden letters spelled out the name of the occupant, she shifted the case inside. Standing up, she surveyed her son’s room for a moment before glancing at how much space was still available. Some of his possessions would have to be left behind. She could only take his favourite and apologise for anything she forgot. It was all replaceable, she reminded herself as she began to pull a number of outfits from his dresser. On top of the clothes were added a few books, some of his favourite toys and the stuffed elephant, unimaginatively named Eddie.

How long did she have? Glancing at the clock on her son’s bedside table, she calculated that she had at least seven hours before her husband returned. But she still had more to do. Zipping the case shut, she heaved it onto the wheels and trundled it down the corridor before bumping it down the stairs. Leaving the packed bag by the front door, she returned to the master bedroom with her handbag. Reaching into the very back of the wardrobe, she fumbled in the darkness until her fingers closed around the tin she had hidden there.

Sitting on the bed, she opened the box and tipped the contents onto the bed. She counted the money, already knowing how much was there. Enough, for now. Gathering the notes back up, she reached for her purse and stuffed the bills inside. They barely fit but half of them would be gone within the hour. The two passports she picked up and put in her bag too. Her cell phone she took out. He tracked that, she knew. Leaving the empty tin and the phone on the bed, she headed out of the bedroom.

It was a warm spring day as she stepped out of the house. Pausing on the top step, she took in a steadying breath.

“Hi Regina! Beautiful morning, right?”

She forced a smile and waved to Alicia, her neighbour across the street who was tending to their immaculate front garden. Suburban neighbours were far too involved in one another’s business for what she had planned today. But there was no way around them. Swinging her handbag onto her shoulder, Regina set out down the sidewalk towards the outskirts of town.

“Damn,” Emma Swan said to herself as she hung up the phone. “Damn, damn, damn.” Her fingers tapped a rhythm on her thigh. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. There was problem which needed to be solved. But she couldn’t solve it herself. Not tonight. She had plans. The plans had been made a week ago. She couldn’t change those plans. There was only one thing for it.

“Ruby,” Emma called out through the open office door towards the reception area. “Can you work this evening?”

“Why?” the woman asked, poking her head around the doorframe, bright red hair swinging almost down to her waist.

Emma swallowed. “Ella just called. Alex is sick and she’s not going to make it to work tonight. I … I can’t cover her. Can you?”

“Yeah, I guess so. But if I do tonight, could you cover my Sunday shift?”

Sunday. What was happening on Sunday? What did she need to do on Sunday? Turning the pages of the rota list in front of her to buy her some more time, the tapping resumed. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. Yes, Sunday was ok. She could do Sunday. She had no plans on Sunday. “No problem,” she agreed, crossing out Ruby’s name with a single neat black line and writing her own next to it.

“Thanks, Em. You’re the best.” Ruby disappeared back to the reception, leaving Emma alone to process the new schedule for her week.

Tonight was as planned. She was meeting up with her foster parents. They were going to have dinner. Mary Margaret had already sent her through the link to the restaurant and Emma had driven past to make sure she knew the route from her apartment to the restaurant. They would eat, catch up, then her parents would go home and Emma would return to her home. The difference would be that Ruby, her flatmate, wouldn’t be there. She would be working the night shift. But that was ok; Ruby often wasn’t there. Emma was used to that.

The change was on Sunday. On Sunday Emma would be working too. Emma didn’t usually work Sundays but she had in the past and it had been fine. In fact, Sundays were the same as Mondays, or Tuesdays, or Wednesdays, or any other day of the week. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. Ok. Emma took a deep breath. Everything was ok. She hadn’t planned anything for her Sunday so nothing needed to be cancelled. Opening her cell, she set an alarm for 7:24am on Sunday. That was the time she woke up every morning when she had a shift. It was the perfect amount of time to get ready.

Done. The changes had been done. The rota had been sorted. Everything was fine. Emma was satisfied and calm once more. Getting to her feet, she left the office and headed out into the reception area. It was quiet. Ruby was sat texting on her cell. That was ok, as long as she stopped if someone came in. She headed down the corridor and stopped at the next door. Punching in the security code, she pushed them open when the electronic buzz permitted her to. On the other side, a child was screaming, ragged sobs and indistinguishable words.

“What’s going on?” Emma asked Belle Gold, the shelter’s resident counsellor who was stood in the doorway to her office, arms folded as she listened to the anguish.

“One of the new kids is upset. He wants to see his dad and his mom said no.”

“Did you talk to him?”

“Not yet. She seemed pretty reluctant to let me, to be honest. They only checked in last night and when I offered her a session this morning, she said she didn’t need my help. I tried to talk to her just now but she wouldn’t let me in.”

It wasn’t unusual for those staying to resist help at first. They were wary, suspicious. Their lives had, for the most part, recently seen a dramatic change. New people were scary. Change was scary. Emma understood that. It was one of the things which made her so good at her job.

“I’ll go and see if I can help,” she said, setting off down the corridor, listening outside each room as she passed until she found the one from which the screams were emanating. The door was closed. One, two, three, four, five, pause. One, two, three, four, five, pause. She raised her knuckles and knocked on the wood.

“We’re fine,” came the harried response.

“I just wanted to see if you need anything,” Emma replied. “My name’s Emma. I’m the manager here. Would you mind if I came in?”

It had taken Emma a while to become comfortable with asking permission to enter people’s rooms. But she knew now that sometimes it was necessary to offer her support and services. Years of training and experience had boosted her confidence in certain areas, so interactions such as these were second nature. To those who knew Emma outside of work, the difference between the blonde woman at the centre compared to how she was in other social situations was as different as night and day.

No one had ever been able to understand this behavioural change. The only explanation her psychologist had offered was that Emma’s work acted as an ‘obsession’ in her life. People on the spectrum often fixate on something around which much of their world revolves. But rather than knowing everything there is to know about bumblebees or computer software programs or car engines, Emma had not only learned but applied everything there was to know about caring for and protecting survivors of domestic abuse. In some strange, unexplainable way, this also translated into her social interactions with them which were calm, measured, confident and supportive.

“Fine,” came the answer after several seconds.

Emma turned the door handle, none of the doors were fitted with locks inside the main part of the shelter, and stepped into the room. On the bed sat a dumpy woman with frazzled brown hair. Her mouth was drawn into a tight, thin, tired line. In her arms was a baby, less than six months old. Sitting in the corner of the room, crying loudly, was a boy of about four.

“I’m Emma,” she said again, having not yet met the latest new resident. She didn’t ask the woman’s name. Handing over personal information wasn’t required when anyone entered the shelter. If they wished to remain anonymous, if doing so made them feel safe, then the staff never pushed. The woman said nothing. “May I?” she pressed on, gesturing to the small boy.

The mother nodded and Emma crossed slowly to the boy and crouched down a few feet from him. “Hi, I’m Emma.”

The boy raised his head from between his knees. “Go away! I want my dad!” he shouted.

Undeterred, Emma sat herself down near the boy, her head resting against the wall. She noted as she did so that the kid didn’t have a New York accent. It wasn’t unusual for people who arrived at the shelter to be from out of state. When running from someone, or something, distance often made people feel safer, as did being in the most densely populated cities in the United States. There was a certain anonymity to NYC. “You know, we have a really cool games room here. Want to see it?”

“I don’t want to play games with you,” the boy said, his words muffled against his legs, face pressed into his pants once more. “I hate grownups.”

“Want to know a secret? I’m not keen on grownups either sometimes. But everyone here is really nice, I promise. And there might be some other kids in the room too so maybe you could play with then?” Emma offered. “We have lots of jigsaws and there are even a few computer games.”

The boy’s blue tear-filled eyes reappeared. “Computer games?”

Emma nodded. “Yep. Have you ever played Mario Cart?” He shook his head. “Maybe you and your mom could come and check out the game before lunch?” Emma suggested, glancing at the woman who was watching the interaction with a relieved yet tired expression.

“Ok, but only if I get to play computer games,” the boy said, turning to look defiantly at his mother.

“Sure,” the woman nodded, grateful that the screams had stopped and willing to give her son anything t make him happy after the trauma they had experienced. “Thank you,” she added to Emma.

“No problem,” Emma smiled. “Shall I show you guys where the room is?”

All new arrivals at the shelter got a full tour on their first day. Emma liked this part of her work a lot; showing the women and their children around and pointing out all of the features which made them a secure facility. Whatever or whomever they were running from, Swan’s Shelter kept them safe.

“Are you sure you want that one?” the lanky teenager frowned. “We’ve got way cooler models.”

“I’m not looking for cool. I’m looking for reliable,” Regina replied. She had done her research. She knew what she wanted. “So, the paperwork?”

“Whatever,” the teen shrugged, gesturing for Regina to follow him into the office of the used car dealership. Taking a seat opposite the boy, Regina glanced at her watch. She had six hours now. “Ok, I need you to fill this out,” the teen said, handing her several pieces of paper. “I need your license and your credit card.”

“Oh, I’m paying cash,” Regina said, pulling out her purse and quickly counting out the amount. The boy’s eyes bulged at the sight of several thousand dollars but Regina ignored him, setting to work filling in the papers as fast as possible.

Within fifteen minutes, she was unlocking the door of the decade-old Volvo, feeling immediately like a soccer mom, and turning the key. The engine came to life at once, the vibrations somehow soothing her racing heart. One step closer. Pulling out of the used car dealership, she waved once to the teen and turned the opposite direction to her home. Just in case. Circling the block, she paused to fill up the generous tank before continuing onwards. Back on the correct road, she drove towards the house she had been living in for almost a decade.

She was relieved to see when she reached the driveway that her nosey neighbour had gone indoors. If anyone saw her, she was going to have questions to answer. Getting out of the car, she hurried to the side door of the garage and entered. The room was dark but she knew what she needed. Navigating to the side of her own car, she unlocked the door and began unstrapping the car seat. It took her only a few minutes to get it out. The process of fitting it into the Volvo took a few more, her heart pounding in her chest. The longer she was out here, the more likely it was someone would see her. At last the seat was in. Regina slammed the car shut, raced into the house and closed the front door, leaning against it and breathing heavily.

It’s ok, she said to herself. You can do this. You have to do this. Now for the final steps of the plan. She headed to the kitchen and began putting together some food, enough to sustain both her son and herself, for the journey ahead. Sandwiches, chips, fruit and several drinks were packed into the large cooler which she deposited by the front door beside the suitcase.

Once done, she returned to the kitchen and emptied her handbag, sorting through the items one final time. No phone, of course. The two passports. Close to seven thousand dollars in cash, now the money for the car had been spent. She pulled out her debit and credit cards. Neither would be needed from now on. An assortment of makeup was also left on the table, only the vanilla lip balm put back in the bag. Her keys she decided to take, just in case she needed to return. But she wasn’t going to; she couldn’t. She had to leave. She had to get away. For her son’s sake and her own.

Satisfied that she had all she needed, and anything she had forgotten could be replaced, she stood up and gathered her bag once more. As she walked from the kitchen, her eyes fell on the Elmer book she had been reading with her son before dinner the previous evening. Picking it up, she slid it into her bag as well before returning to the hallway.

“Ok, Regina. You can do this,” the brunette said to herself, looking sternly at her reflection in the hallway mirror.

Opening the front door a crack, she peered around it, checking to see if anyone was in the street. The coast was clear. Picking up the food and the suitcase caused a stabbing pain in her chest but she ignored it as she heaved everything out of the house and closed the door. Clambering down the steps, she pointed the key fob at the new car and opened the trunk. The suitcase was lifted and thrown unceremoniously into it before the lid slammed shut, her ribs protesting worse than ever.

“Where are you off to?”

Regina spun around to see her neighbour stood at the bottom of her driveway. “Oh, Alicia, hi. Um, just taking some old clothes to the thrift store.”

“Is this your car?” the woman asked, ignoring the answer to her first question and asking a second.

“Yep, mine’s in the shop,” Regina lied.

Alicia’s nose wrinkled. “It’s old.”

Regina nodded, feigning annoyance. “I know, I told them that but they had no other options. Anyway, um, I’d better be going. I’m spring cleaning today.”

“Oh, that explains the outfit,” Alicia said, eyeing Regina’s unusually dressed-down appearance.

“Yep,” Regina agreed, seizing the excuse she had been handed.

“Ok, well, see you on Friday for dinner, right?”

“Sure, can’t wait,” Regina smiled, picking up the food cooler and circling to the driver’s side.

“What’s in the cooler?”

Regina gritted her teeth. “I’ve made some baked goods for the school. Just dropping them off before this afternoon’s sale.”

Alicia gave a little clap. “Ah, you’re just the perfect wife and mother, aren’t you? Parker didn’t even tell me there was a bake sale today. I’d better hurry and make something so you don’t show me up in front of the rest of the PTA!” With that, the woman at last turned and scuttled back to her own corner of suburbia.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Regina opened the car door and climbed in. Reversing out of the drive, she set off down the street towards her son’s school, less than half a kilometre down the road. The final stop before they left.

It was just before lunch time by the time she arrived. Almost five hours before he came home. She explained that an emergency dental appointment had been made and waited for the receptionist to go and get her son from his class. Crossing her legs, her foot jiggled nervously as she watched the door. Come on, she thought to herself. Every second matters. We have to get a head start. She let out a little sigh of relief as she saw her son emerge into the waiting area.

“Mom, I have to go to the dentist?” he asked at once.

“Henry,” she said, pulling her son into her arms as he walked towards her. “Come on, I’ll explain in the car.”

“But my teeth don’t hurt.”

“Do you have your coat?”

“No, I didn’t bring one today, remember? You said I didn’t have to.”

So there’s one thing we’ll have to replace, Regina mused. At least it was spring moving into summer rather than fall heading towards winter. “Ok, well, let’s go.”

Henry looked curiously up at his mother, unused to seeing her without makeup and sensing the tension radiating from her body. “Is something happening? Am I sick?”

“No, my little prince,” Regina said, crouching down at once, desperate to reassure him. “I’m just in a bit of a hurry. Come on, I’ll explain later.”

“Ok, bye Mrs Green,” Henry agreed, waving at the receptionist.

“Bye Henry,” Mrs Green replied. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Regina forced a smile as she pushed open the door for her son and followed him out into the sunlit parking lot.

“Where’s the car?” Henry frowned when he couldn’t see his mother’s vehicle.

“It’s in the shop. There was a problem with it so we’re using this one today,” Regina said, leading the way over to the silver Volvo.

“Ok,” Henry accepted. “So, why do I have to go to the dentist?”

Regina didn’t answer and instead focused on helping Henry into the car and securing his belt. Once that was done, she moved to her seat and started the engine. “Mom, the dentist,” Henry repeated. “Is there something bad about my teeth. Cos you know that tooth that got real wobbly and fell out last month and the new one isn’t there yet. Do I need a plastic tooth?”

“No Henry, you’re not going to the dentist.”

“Where are we going then?” Henry asked.

“On a little trip,” Regina replied.

“Where to?”

“New York City.”