A chill walked Amara’s spine and broke her concentration on the movements of the martial arts exercise. As she hit the wall to propel herself into the air, she slipped and landed in a heap on the matted gym floor of the church run community center. She peered toward the door. The local drug lord and his nephew paused in the doorway. Ramos was probably headed to Father Joe’s office for his weekly visit. Her hands coiled into fists.
Ramos moved away but Miguel sauntered to her side. He stroked her cheek with a finger. Her body shook. Every day he grew bolder.
Miguel leaned closer. “Gonna own you, babe. Make you mine.”
She shook her head. “No.”
He leered. “Once I take you hard, I’ll own you body and soul ‘til I tire of you. Then my boys will have a taste.”
Words of defiance froze on her tongue. His hooded gaze stripped her naked. He squeezed her breast. “See you soon.”
She rose and completed the final exercise of today’s martial arts training session. A quick glance at the door showed he was gone. She should have felt relief but her hands shook and the sour smell of fear remained.
“Ready for a match?” another of the students asked.
Amara shook her head. “I have to leave.”
The teenager stepped closer. “Wonder what Ramos wants?”
“Father Joe will know but I don’t intend to ask.” With shaking hands she pulled on her jeans and tee shirt and tied her sneakers. In a half-run, she hurried to the door and left the community center.
Outside, aromas reached her. Cooking food, exhaust from cars and busses. Her own fear-laced sweat. Noises penetrated. Music, horns, people’s voices. Her head darted from side to side. Was anyone watching her?
What could she do? Each time she’d encountered Ramos’s nephew her fear strengthened. Each time his words carried the same threat.
“Gonna plow you good, babe. You’ll sing for me real sweet.”
She had no one to guard her back. Hadn’t had anyone since her father’s death. She sighed. She’d almost had a friend. An undercover cop had saved her. Then Ramos had discovered the man’s identity. Seth had vanished. Was he dead?
As she scurried toward the apartment building where she lived with her uncle and his family, she fought to control the fear rocketing through her thoughts. Her breathing came in quick gasps. After her father’s death and her mother’s suicide, her uncle had reluctantly given her a home. Social Security benefits had been the reason but she would soon age out.
When she reached the building instead of stopping on the fourth floor she continued up the stairs toward the roof. She wasn’t ready to hear her uncle’s demands for her to quit school and find a job. She rubbed her arms. There was no one to help her.
The sound of feet on the stairs from below reached her. She crouched and peered through the railing. She sucked in a breath. Would her pounding heart shatter her ribs? Why was Ramos here? One of his bodyguards pounded on her uncle’s door.
When the men entered the apartment, she raced lightly up the rest of the stairs and opened the door to the roof. The heavy metal slab nearly slipped from her hands. She paused for a moment to use a piece of wood to block the handle. She ran across the roof. Once she reached the edge, she slipped over the low wall and placed her feet on the fire escape. Step by step she made her way down until she reached the fourth floor and the windows of her uncle’s living room. Had she missed anything of importance? The unseasonable heat of the autumn day meant open windows. She crouched where she could hear.
“Mr. Ramos, what do you want from me?” Her uncle’s voice vibrated with fear.
“I have come to offer safety for you, your wife and children. There will also be money allowing you to relocate.”
Ramos’ smooth voice sent chills darting over Amara’s skin. Her hands clenched.
“What do you want me to do?” her uncle asked.
“You have a beautiful niece. I have a handsome nephew who is my heir. Miguel wants the girl. Bring her to me and all will be as I promise.”
Would her uncle accept? Amara knew the answer. He had no love for her other than for the money she brought into the house. Her body tensed. The metal of the fire escape burned her hands.
“What if she won’t obey me? She holds herself apart from the family.”
Ramos laughed. “You will make her obey. Aren’t you the man of the house? Bring her to me. She was seen entering the building not long ago.”
When her uncle said nothing, Amara felt a moment of hope.
“I said now,” Ramos barked.
“But…” Her uncle rose. Would he tell the drug lord she hadn’t come home?
To keep from crying out, Amara bit her finger. Time to move. She had to escape but where could she go? When they didn’t find her in her room would her uncle remember how she often went to the roof? She eased to her feet. No time or way to reach her room and the stash of money she’d hidden. She needed a place to hide. With care she climbed to the roof and rolled over the wall.
After her breathing slowed, she searched her pockets. Phone. Twelve dollars, mostly singles and some change. The paper Seth had given her before he disappeared. If she ever needed an escape, today was the time. She read the words.
Life got you down? Have unsolved problems?
Looking for an escape? The answer is in your stars.
A counselor is available night and day.