Sheltering AnnieBy: Lauren Giordano
Blueprint to Love, Volume 4
I am so pleased to dedicate this book to all the beautiful, strong women who have ever struggled with domestic or partner violence. A portion of the proceeds of this book and Chasing Marisol, (book 3), are being donated to Safe Harbor Shelter. You can assist them at safeharborshelter.com.
"No, it’s not. I gots him for Christmas."
As dusk settled, Annie McKenna turned the car into the driveway, headlights casting exaggerated shadows on their latest home, a ramshackle two-bedroom rental. This one was gray, a perfect match to her family's mood these days.
"Tommy—please let him have it?" Even her voice sounded defeated. "Yours is . . . still packed." Or lost. Or left behind at the last place they'd abandoned. In the old days, she could've run to the store and bought another whatever they happened to be fighting over. But—that took money. Earned at a job. Which had been difficult to do . . . lately. She would be grateful for the day their lives returned to normal—whatever normal turned out to be.
"Jason's is lost," her almost-seven year old insisted. He'd said it so often, she'd started thinking of him that way, too. Almost seven. "My army guy has a blue dot on his neck." He jerked the doll from his brother's hands, eliciting a scream that signaled the start of a full-blown tantrum. "Look at his neck!" He flung the doll into the front seat, narrowly missing her head before it clattered on the dashboard.
The fond moment forgotten, Annie fought the urge to weep. For a woman who rarely cried . . . with the exception of that car commercial about your kids growing up and leaving you- Now, she battled each day just to keep herself glued together. Wincing as her youngest son’s shriek reached the decibel level of a mach ten fighter jet, she rethought the growing up and leaving thing. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all . . .
Her sons' arguing grew louder. Lately, it seemed the fighting never stopped. Had it really only been two weeks this time? "Tommy? Hey—boys-" She struggled to be heard over the yelling. "Gather up your backpacks. Jason, don't forget-"
"Mommy, why is the front door open?"
The neglected house stood bathed in her headlights. Breath hitching in her throat, she froze. Not again.
"Who painted those words?"
Panic forked through her as she hit the door locks and threw the car into reverse. "Don't undo your seatbelts." Dragging in a terrified breath, she floored the gas pedal. Over the roaring in her ears, she heard the rough scrape of hedges along her fender when she swerved. Tires squealing, she managed to back out without taking any shrubs with her. The quiet, residential street that had seemed so safe . . . suddenly menacing.
"Mommy almost hit the mailbox." Her youngest son's gleeful chortle sounded miles away.
"Mom, what are you doing? We're home." Tommy's quizzical voice penetrated her frozen brain. "I'm hungry."
"I just remembered . . ." Blinking back tears, she dug through her purse, groping for her phone. Keep it together, McKenna. She dialed the emergency number. "Aunt Sue . . . invited us for dinner." And to spend the night. Again.
Safely away from the house, she released a shuddering breath, still watching the driveway in the rearview mirror as it grew smaller. Someone answer the phone.
"Sue—is that you?" Annie tried to keep the quaver from her voice. It wouldn't take long for the boys to pick up on her fear. "It's Annie McKenna. I—we . . . n-need to come in." She waited on hold for the instructions that would provide them safety—for a night. Only two weeks this time. Two weeks, they'd lasted on their own. Each time, Phil seemed to find them sooner than the last. She fought the tears building in her throat, the hot rush of failure that wanted to grab hold and strangle her. Bracing herself, she watched Tommy in the rearview mirror, waiting for her older son to puzzle through it.
His head bolted up. "Wait . . . you mean Aunt Sue—from the shelter?"
Annie confirmed her instructions and plugged them into the GPS. "Hopefully, it will only be a few days this time."
"Mommy . . . no," he shrieked. "I just made f-friends." Her son's voice choked with tears. "I don't wanna go b-back there."
Four-year- old Jason watched his brother thrashing against his seatbelt, thankfully still oblivious to his mother’s latest failure. "It’s okay, Tommy," he said around his thumb. "We make new friends."
"No." Tommy flopped back against the seat, strong, little legs bracing against the back of her seat as he began to kick. "No!"
Clutching the wheel, hands shaking, her eyes blurred as her oldest began to cry. In that moment, it was hard to imagine their lives being any kind of normal ever again.
"Mommy, they . . . they finally ate l-lunch with me this week. Please . . . don't make me leave."
A FEW DAYS. Annie forced a smile as she slid juice glasses across the counter to the haggard-looking woman facing her in line. Trying not to stare, she wondered how long it would be before she wore that expression. Beaten down. Defeated. "Good morning," she said, her voice on autopilot as she addressed the next person in an endless line of hungry people. At seven a.m. the shelter was already jam packed—the start of the breakfast rush hour.