This story is by Stephanie Newbern and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Paulette fled through the forest, gripping her handbag, her stomach clenching. The children’s safety comes first – never mind me, she pondered, choking from smoke inhalation. She couldn’t run fast enough – from their home, those memories, most of all, from him. Flames from the engulfed house danced against the midnight sky.
“Come on kids, hurry up,” Paulette ordered, as Jonah kept dropping and picking up his tattered stuffed toy. For six years old, he should be more energetic, but it is the middle of the night.
“Mama, my feet hurt! I wanna go back to my room and to Dad,” Jonah sniffled. Skylar (she goes by “Sunny”), a few years older, obeyed without so much as a whine. What would the neighbors think of the wife and kids of model citizen, Doug Harkinson, running from a fire, without him? If only they knew, Paulette thought.
Paulette scooped Jonah into her arms, quickening her pace. The stitching on Jonah’s toy came undone, then slipped from his grasp.
“Mama, I want Mr. Noodles back!” Jonah wailed. Paulette’s thoughts consumed her, and she ignored him.
“Sunny, what time is it?” Paulette called behind her, breathless.
“Ten minutes to midnight,” Sunny said. Okay, just enough time to catch the last bus to town, but where? Paulette deliberated. Her “sweet” hubby, as everyone called him, was the university president who dominated the town. Nobody crossed him. Doesn’t matter, there has to be somebody to take us in, she guessed, massaging her jaw and bruises with her free arm, and cringing at the scent of her smoke-stained bathrobe. Paulette scolded herself for forgetting her backpack of essentials. She only had twelve dollars to her name, no close friends, not even her own vehicle. Why did I depend on Doug all this time? I let him talk me into turning down that job years ago. What an idiot!
Paulette’s legs and feet felt like jelly by the time the bus arrived. She fumbled in her purse for exact change. When they reached the rear, they sank in their seats, exhausted. Only two other patrons riding, none of them paying attention.
Paulette tried comforting the kids, but they grimaced. She didn’t blame them for hating her. Doug was their world. He read them bedtime stories, took them to the park, kissed their boo-boos to make them better. The kids, and neighbors and friends for that matter, didn’t see what Doug did behind closed doors. The name calling, fists to the head, furniture breaking – all of it. Fourteen years of marriage has ended this way. In Jonah’s and Sunny’s eyes, she was the monster who took them away from their dad.
Half past midnight. The two patrons had left. With only the driver and the engine’s steady humming, the family of three now could sleep.
The bus lurched to a halt, jerking Paulette and the kids awake. She didn’t know how long they’d snoozed. Five minutes? An hour?
The driver turned off the engine and stood up. “Ma’am, you have to leave. My shift is done.”
Paulette, blinking from drowsiness, glanced through the window. She saw only an outstretched dirt road, and a few abandoned cabins scattered.
“But where are we? I thought we were going to town.”
“Lady, my shift is done,” the driver repeated.
She approached him. Maybe seeing desperation up close helps, she hoped. “Look, our home is gone, we don’t have a phone, and my husband’s out there,” Paulette protested. “Can’t you take us somewhere? I’d pay you, but…”
“So, what’s it worth to you?” he interrupted, lighting a cigarette.
Paulette, dumbfounded, shook her head, staying silent.
“No? Well, okay, then get off my bus,” the driver scoffed.
Shaking, Paulette returned to the back, to get the kids ready. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the driver relaxed in his seat, scrolling and thumbing furiously on his phone. She took a deep breath.
The driver opened the door, then stood to usher them out. Dropping his phone, he muttered a curse word then bent over. With full force, Paulette shoved him out, causing him to dive headfirst into the ditch. Jonah grabbed the phone, squealing “Mama, I got it!”
“Sit down and hang on!” Paulette commanded, slamming the door, turning the key. Snatching the phone from Jonah, she tried placing a call.
The phone’s battery said 1 percent, then went black. Crap! Paulette trembled with rage. She hurled it against the wall. The driver, staggering out from the ditch, pounded on the door, cursing.
Steering onto the road, Paulette’s breathing intensified. What kind of example am I setting? Letting Doug control me! I can’t even balance a checkbook, and I’m caring for two kids? Maybe they’re better off with strangers. Anyone other than me. I am the worst mother ever! Tears falling, she just wanted to drive into the night. Anywhere, to get away from herself. She stepped on the accelerator.
Paulette didn’t know how far she drove. On the right side, she detected a faint light. Oh, please let someone be there, she prayed. Let me get the kiddos into warm beds – that much I can do.
She turned off the main road, keeping her gaze on the light as it inched closer. She was so numb with fear, her hands barely felt the steering wheel. Sunny and Jonah remained quiet, huddled together.
Paulette finally reached the light, appearing to be a building almost hidden by tree shrubs. Only three cars parked nearby.
“Mama, I’m hungry,” Jonah groaned.
“Shhhhh,” Paulette placed a finger to her lips, listening for any sign of life. She could hear muffled voices and low karaoke music. Her eyes widened and her heart raced.
Suddenly, in the rearview mirror, blinding high-beam lights approached. It had to be at least 2am – Paulette didn’t know. But who else would be out here this time of night? she wondered.
“Guys, keep your heads down and stay still, okay? I’ll be right back,” Paulette said. Sunny and Jonah nodded.
She skulked outside the bus door, tiptoeing quickly to the building’s other side, away from the street. Thankfully, another window on that side. Paulette tapped the window twice – no answer. She threw pebbles. A shadow moved across, and the music lowered. Surely someone heard me, she thought. Yet no one came.
A scream rang out from the other side. Sunny! Paulette raced to the bus, spotting a huge, male figure inside the door. She gasped and her scalp prickled. It was Doug!
Sunny whimpered, “Mama, is Daddy mad at us? Can we go home with him?”
Paulette seethed until she felt like exploding. Doug hitting her was one thing. I will die before anyone lays a hand on the children. Doug turned to face her. His hair was disheveled, his buttoned-down shirt and jeans were tattered.
“Keep away from them,” Paulette threatened. “How’d you find me?”
“Calm down,” Doug approached her, but she backed away.
“You stay away from me.”
“The bus driver’s my buddy. He texted me, so here I am.”
“You heartless bastard,” Paulette growled. “Why couldn’t you just leave us the hell alone!” She lunged for Doug, and he restrained her. Panicking, she tried to jam her elbows into his stomach and thrashed her arms. The harder she fought, the tighter he maintained his grip.
“Let me go!” she shrieked.
“Paulette, I’m SORRY,” Doug implored. But she wouldn’t listen.
“I’m…I’m so very sorry for what I did. I’ve been horrible to you.” Doug looked away, drawing in his breath.
“The truth is, I started that fire to…to kill…myself.”
Doug covered his face with his hands. Paulette pushed away and struggled to meet his gaze. He looked remorseful.
“I’m turning myself in. For everything. They’re coming now,” Doug said.
Paulette shook her head, “I just don’t believe you.”
Doug lowered his hands, looking her square in the eye. “Wait, you calling me a liar now? Don’t ever call me that!” He inched toward her, fists clenching. Unable to look away, Paulette backed into the bus wall. Standing toe to toe, the whiskey on his breath overwhelmed her. Paulette wanted to scream, kick, do something – her body would not allow it.
The police cars pulled up, sirens wailing.
Doug yanked Paulette’s hair with one hand and grabbed her neck with the other.
“Daddy, don’t hurt her!” Sunny begged.
“Freeze!” An officer commanded. Another officer seized Doug and threw him down. Paulette stood motionless watching. As he was being handcuffed, Doug mouthed those words again, I’m sorry.
“Ma’am, are you okay?” asked the third officer.
Paulette only nodded, rubbing her neck. She slumped against the bus.
Sunny and Jonah rushed out, embracing her. Paulette sobbed, “Kids, remember I love you. I’d do anything in the world for you.”
“We know. You’re the best, Mama,” Sunny said. Paulette smiled, knowing she, not Doug, was their hero and their rock.
As the early morning hours became sunrise, Paulette found something to run toward – a new life of tranquility.