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, seemingly 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 Dominick’s new birth certificate, her driver’s license and the two credit cards she’d purchased as additional identification, and the teaching certificates 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 several weeks. A small, hand-held cooler contained three types of insulin–NPH, Regular and the fast-acting Humalog. Outside the cooler and loose in the backpack she’d packed 200 Ultra-fine needles for Dominick’s three or more daily injections; two blood-glucose monitors; arm and finger pokers with plenty of test strips; two boxes of extra lancets; 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; Keto-strips 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 included 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. It 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. But a glance at the clock made her weak in the knees. It was after ten. Juanita should have 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 watched her closely, but she was certain he had no idea she was about to disappear. She could trust the gardener. Carlos had proven himself with his secrecy on the false ID and the car he’d gotten for her. Juanita would come through, too—if her loyalties were what Vanessa believed they were, and if she understood what Vanessa wanted her to do as well as Vanessa thought she did. Manuel had insisted upon 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 so close to the Mexican border. 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 wile away the empty hours of her day—Manuel refused to let her return to school or get a job. Later, she’d wanted to be able to understand the meaning of the strange phone calls he received in the night and to decipher what it was the Sanchez 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 had Dominick. His mother refused to accept her, ostensibly because of her nationality, but Vanessa knew it went a little deeper than that. Mama Sanchez 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 appreciate 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. Hopefully, she’d 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. Then 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 quite clearly when she tried to leave him the first time. Although her father had passed away several years before she met Manuel, and her brother had been killed in a motorcycle accident not too long after, 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, itching to pull her child into her arms and never let go. She didn’t know what she’d do if she could never hear Dominick laugh 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….
“Maybe she had a flat tire.” Please let it be that. “I’m sure she’s coming.”
The phone rang. Vanessa quickly gave Dominick some markers so he could write on the dry erase board attached to the fridge and approached the desk in the corner.
Talons of anxiety stabbed through her when she recognized Manuel’s cell phone number on the Caller ID. He was supposed to be on a plane to Mexico. He left the country often and stayed, sometimes for several days, sometimes for a couple of weeks. He claimed to import marble from Culiacán, but Vanessa had long suspected that he imported more than marble.
The steady bursts of noise jangled her already frayed nerves. Should she answer it?
She wasn’t sure she could keep her voice level. Hoping that his plane had simply been delayed, that he’d be gone soon, she decided to let it go to the answering machine. But she should’ve known she couldn’t avoid him so easily. Her cell phone, which was sitting on the counter, started ringing only a few seconds later. Manuel hated it when he couldn’t reach her. She knew he’d keep trying, again and again and again, until she finally picked up, even if it meant missing his flight.
She couldn’t let him miss his flight….
When she didn’t answer, Dominick glanced up from his drawing. “Mommy?”
Spurred by the curiosity in her son’s voice, Vanessa schooled her expression into a blank mask to hide the fear and loathing Manuel elicited and retrieved her cell. “Hello?”
“What’s going on?” Manuel demanded without a greeting.
“You didn’t answer the house phone.”
“I told you last night that I might run a few errands this morning.”
“You haven’t left the house.”
A prickly unease crept up Vanessa’s spine. He’d spoken so certainly. Too certainly. “How do you know?”
“A good guess.”
She didn’t believe it was a guess at all, and by his flippant tone, he didn’t care whether he’d convinced her. Somehow he always knew where she was. She’d scoured every inch of the house and been unable to find any type of listening device or video camera, so he must have hired someone to watch her. Which made Juanita absolutely integral to her plan.
Dominick went back to drawing, and Vanessa moved to the sink to stare out the kitchen window at the perfect summer day, wondering for the millionth time who was out there….
“Why didn’t you pick up?” Manuel pressed, unwilling to let the subject go regardless of how tiny the infraction.
“I was…” she swallowed to ease the dryness of her throat “…in the bathroom.”
“I had a phone installed there, remember? For your convenience.”
Not for her convenience. So she wouldn’t have even the bathroom as an escape from him, if he wanted her. “I refuse to answer the phone while I’m in the bathroom,” she said. “I haven’t used that extension since you put it in. You know that.”
He chuckled softly. “Querida, you can be so stubborn.”
Manuel had no idea. But he was about to find out—if only Juanita would arrive as promised.
“What do you need?” she asked.
“I’m calling to check on you.”
Check on her? Certainly not in a loving way. Vanessa could hardly tolerate the sound of Manuel’s voice or the pretense of his caring. When she first met him, at twenty-two, she’d just graduated with a teaching degree. He’d been older, twenty-five, and had seemed energetic and ambitious—but loving and kind, too. Or so she’d thought. He’d changed so fast….
Maybe she’d never really known him. Maybe the man he used to be was simply a character he adopted when it suited him. In any case, she barely recognized him anymore. His eyes, once the color of melted chocolate to her, watched her too closely, frightening in their obsessive intensity. And the thick black hair she used to love to see falling across his brow he now slicked back in a dramatic style that added to the impression he gave of being as hyperaware as he was hypercritical.
She pressed a hand to her chest, preparing herself for the answer to her next question. “Aren’t you going to Mexico today?”
“The trip’s been postponed.”
Her muscles tightened. No! Not when I’m so close…. “Until when?” The knocking of her heart against her ribs made it difficult to speak.
“Come on, mi amor. You know better than to bother your pretty head with business.”
A dodge. Typical of him. As was the condescension in his voice. He didn’t like her knowing his schedule. Except for the odd occasion, he typically sprung news of an impending trip on her only the night before.
But Juanita still wasn’t here, and Manuel hadn’t said why his trip had been postponed. Did he know she was planning to leave him?
“Will you be home for dinner, then?” she asked.
“Of course. I always spend my evenings with you, if I’m available.”
Bile rose in Vanessa’s throat at the thought of postponing her escape until Manuel’s next trip to Mexico. She knew holding out until he was far from home would be the wisest course. She and Dominick needed the lead time. But everything was already arranged. And staying meant she’d have to suffer through who could say how many more interminable nights in Manuel’s company, nights that always ended, at some point, with her lying beneath him. Manuel had an insatiable sexual appetite and demanded she perform some kind of sex act for him daily, often two or more.
“Maybe you could mention to Juanita that I’m in the mood for meñudo,” he said.
Even the prospect of sharing another interminable dinner with Manuel made Vanessa ill.
She stared at the cigarette burn her husband had inflicted on the inside of her wrist four days ago. Manuel loved to deal out little reprisals for anything that displeased him—
Dominick rounded the kitchen island. Quickly hiding the injury, she rubbed her son’s back as he came over to hug her leg.
“What’s wrong, Mommy?” Worry clouded his innocent eyes.
She pressed a finger to her lips to indicate silence. She didn’t want Manuel to overhear.
“I’ll tell her to make it for dinner,” she said into the phone.
“And I’m going to need those suits I had you take to the cleaners,” he added. “Can you pick them up for me while you’re out?”
Her life was closing in on her again…. “Of course.”
“Thank you. You’re such a wonderful wife.”
“I’m not your wife,” she said.
“As far as I’m concerned you are. Every man should be so lucky.”
Vanessa’s nails curled into her palms at his assumption and false praise. He threw her a few compliments from time to time—enough, in his mind, to keep her happy. But he didn’t trust her or love her enough to let her be truly happy. Or to stand against his family and marry her. Or to treat her as an equal instead of some kind of chattel property.
“How do you want me to pay for it?” she asked, because she knew he’d expect this question. Their gated, ten-thousand-square-foot mansion provided proof of his wealth. But he kept such a tight rein on their money that it had taken her nearly two years to save the funds she’d given Carlos for the car. She’d only managed to garner that much by returning small items she hoped Manuel wouldn’t miss, even grocery items, and hiding the money between the insulation and the wall in the attic.
“I’ll call the bank and add an extra hundred to your account,” he said.
“Fine.” She grimaced at his stinginess. He allowed her no standing balance. He waited until she had a specific need, one he could easily verify. Then he called and transferred enough to cover the expense. One hundred bucks would barely pay his dry cleaning bill; Manuel clothed his lean, sinewy body almost exclusively in the finest hand-tailored suits.
“Thank you, querida,” he said. “What else do you have planned for the day? What is my hijito doing?”
She glanced at their son. Dominick was so unlike his father, so much more similar to her side of the family—especially the younger brother she’d lost the year she moved in with Manuel. Large for his age, Dominick had sandy-blond hair, an unusual color of green eyes and golden skin that still retained the softness of a baby’s. “He’s standing here, waiting to go to the store.”
“He needs to be reading, Vanessa. You know I want him to read.”
“We’ll read when we get back.”
“Let me transfer the money to the credit card I’ve given Juanita. She can do your shopping and pick up my dry cleaning. I don’t know why you insist on doing such menial tasks.”
Maybe it was because she had nothing else to do. Manuel insisted that Dominick needed every moment of her attention, but she believed there should be more to life than following her son around, watching over his every move, correcting all his mistakes, stealing the same privacy and independence from him that Manuel had already taken from her.
“I like to get out once in a while,” she said. If you only knew how badly I’m dying to disappear right now…. “It’s good for me.”
“So you’re always telling me.” She had to leave. Right away. She couldn’t survive the helplessness any longer….
“But today…today you might be right,” she said. “I’m getting a headache. Why don’t you go ahead and put the money on Juanita’s card. I’ll have her take Dominick to run errands while I lay down.”
“I’ll see you tonight,” she said, eager to get off the phone. Tears burned at the back of her eyes, tears of disappointment and bitterness toward the man who had used her son to systematically cut her off from all previous friends and family.
At least he didn’t know what she had in store for today, she thought. If he did, he would have said something about the way she’d set him up…wouldn’t he?
“Te amo,” he said.
She couldn’t say it back. She hadn’t been able to for years.
“Good-bye.” She hung up, then slumped over the kitchen sink, afraid she was going to be sick.
The sound of keys jingling in the lock at the front door brought her head up. Dominick dashed off and, a moment later, he marched into the kitchen ahead of Juanita, who met Vanessa’s eyes with a fearful expression.
“Are you ready, my friend?” she asked in Spanish.
“Where have you been?” Vanessa replied.
“I had a neighbor check the engine of the car. I couldn’t let you go without knowing you and Dominick would at least have a reliable vehicle.”
Vanessa feared the car might be stolen. It should have cost a lot more than it did. But Carlos hadn’t said as much, and she hadn’t asked. What was the point? She had to take what she could get; she didn’t have a choice. “Why didn’t you tell me? Or call?”
She scowled and moved closer, gazing around the kitchen as if looking for the camera Vanessa had searched for repeatedly. “I thought of it too late to mention it yesterday, and we agreed never to discuss this over the phone.” She lowered her voice. “He called me last night, you know. He asked how Dominick was doing in his studies, but he also asked me many questions about you.”
“What you do while he’s gone, where you go, whether you try to communicate with me.”
“What did you tell him?”
“Nothing.” She removed the long heavy coat, sunglasses and headscarf Vanessa had asked her to wear. “Put these on and go. Right away. It isn’t odd for a little old lady like me to dress so warmly, even in the summer. And the engine of the car is good, strong. You should be fine.”
Vanessa hesitated as she accepted the clothing, wondering whether she should tell Juanita that Manuel hadn’t gone to Mexico. She definitely would have told her, if not for the news of his call last night. Manuel must sense something amiss. She didn’t know how much longer she could hide her plans.
Taking a deep breath, she covered her head with the scarf and pulled on the coat. It was now or never. She was leaving; she would never look back. Somehow she’d provide a life for herself and Dominick that had nothing to do with the man who tried so hard to own her.
A few magnets on the fridge had momentarily distracted Dominick, but he scowled at her now. “Why are you dressing up like Juanita?”
“This is the game we’ve been practicing for,” she told him as she added Juanita’s sunglasses and dark lipstick to her disguise. “We’re going to see if anyone can tell who I really am.”
“Am I going to dress up, too?”
“No, you’re going to pretend I’m Juanita, remember? When we step outside, you’ll hold my hand and walk to the car like you do whenever Juanita takes you shopping or to the library.”
“That’s not how it goes. We always pretend I’m a boy called Max, and you’re a lady named Emma.”
She smiled, although it was difficult to concentrate on anything except what was going to take place in the next fifteen minutes. “We’re going to do that, too. Just as soon as we drive away.”
“Oh, I get it! You’re going to be Juanita first, then Emma,” he said and seemed excited–until he followed them into her bedroom and noticed, for the first time, the two suitcases she’d packed. He watched Juanita cover one with a big black garbage bag and take it out to the back veranda.
“Why are we throwing away our suitcases?”
“We’re not,” Vanessa said, doing the same with the other one. “Carlos is going to get them for us.”
“He mows the lawn and takes care of the plants, remember?”
“Is he playing the game, too?”
Vanessa bagged the backpack in the kitchen and put it outside, too. “Sort of. We’re going to meet him down the street.”
“But why do we need suitcases? Are we going somewhere far away?”
“Yes,” Vanessa said, feeling such relief in the word that she reached out to squeeze Juanita’s hand.
“Where?” Dominick asked.
Across the country, as far as I can take us…. “You’ll see. It’s a surprise.” She stood at the entrance to the living room to make sure that Carlos saw their luggage. Surely he’d noticed Juanita pull up outside.
The gardener came almost immediately. Good. He’d been paying attention. Glancing inside the house, he nodded as he picked up the first bag and carried it around to the front as if he was only loading more clippings into the bed of his truck.
Fear turned Vanessa’s legs rubbery as she gave her nanny a tight hug. “Carlos is going to give you a ride home in a few hours, right?”
“And you’ll be okay?” she asked in Spanish.
“Of course. We have it all planned out, remember? I’m just the housekeeper. I know nothing. I’ll tell him you were gone when I got here.”
“What if someone’s watching the house? What if they tell Manuel that you left with Dominick and never came back?”
“Calm down. We’ve talked about this before. I’m just the housekeeper. No one pays attention to me. If someone says something like that, I’ll say they’re loco. I never went anywhere. Obviously, even if I did, I came back, eh? I’ll be right here. How can Manuel argue with that?”
“And if Manuel wants to know why you didn’t call him when I didn’t return?”
“I’ll say Dominick’s library books were gone, that I thought you went to the library. Then I started feeling ill and went home so I didn’t get Dominick sick as well.”
“That’s good,” Vanessa said, nodding.
“He doesn’t even think we speak the same language,” Juanita added placatingly.
“Right.” He’d never suspect Juanita, Vanessa told herself. He trusted her. Everyone trusted Juanita.
“I could never thank you enough,” she murmured.
Juanita squeezed her arm. “Just be safe, my beautiful friend. And be happy.”
Vanessa waited while Juanita said good-bye to Dominick. Then she took her son’s hand and, keeping her face down and stooping a bit like the older woman, she led him out the front door into the mellow sunshine of a clear August day.
The nondescript white sedan she’d asked Carlos to purchase sat in the circular driveway, representing the freedom she’d craved for so long. She wanted to race toward it, buckle Dominick safely inside and put the metal to the floor as she tore away. But she forced herself to walk very slowly, like Juanita. She’d be away soon. Then she wouldn’t be Vanessa Beacon anymore. She’d start over as Emma Wright, and Dominick would be Max.