Claire felt her blood freeze as she slowly turned, feeling an undeniable chill grow in her heart.
She had been caught. Her life was officially over. Not just her life, but the life hidden among the goods she had been rifling through not a second ago. How could she ever live with herself?
As she faced her opponent, any hope she had of surviving this encounter vanished like vapor in the air. The woman who stood before her was a tall woman, with an athletic build and ideally suited for the physically demanding job of airport security. Not only that, she was very beautiful, much like a cheerleader. Heck, I bet when she was in middle and high school, she was on every team AND the head cheerleader, Claire thought bitterly, as helpless rage started to grow in her heart.
But not only was she physically superior, but she also had the look of a plastic. It was a strange frightening thing to watch as her face changed from empty, vapid pleasure at her plight to sadistic amusement in different lighting. This woman would enjoy tattling to her parents and making her suffer.
"Come along now, sweetie," she crooned, her voice like poisoned sugar. "Don't you know little girls aren't allowed in the cargo bay? Oh, you did?" she gasped in mock surprise. "Oh this won't do. Illegally trespassing with the intent to steal makes you eligible for up to five years in a federal prison." She smiled maliciously. "Lets not keep the feds waiting."
She grabbed the speechless girl's arm forcefully, her fingers digging in as she dragged her down the steps.
Her mind had been completely numbed, to the point where she was aware of the female security guard's hold on her, but only in the most distant of ways, as though she were witnessing the present events underwater.
Leona, she thought miserably. Leona I'm so sorry. I failed you. I'm not worthy of being your mother. Anybody's mother.
I failed you.
Only a minute after Claire had been forcefully dragged out, another head peeked in the small space. After checking the coast was clear on all sides, he hopped in and hurriedly set upon his task. Unlike his sister, David was not inclined to preserve the items in the plane's storage area and search carefully. After several seconds of overturning and plowing through several priceless treasures from expensive luggage to Fed-Ex items, he found Leona's kitty porter.
"Hey little girl," he whispered, removing her briefly. Though the powerfully ugly smell of waste and excrement hit him, he managed to ignore it and check if her heart was still beating and if she was still breathing. When her eyes fluttered with a yawn, he felt something wash through his being that was more than relief.
"Oh, good," he sighed. "I'm so glad you decided to wake up," he teased. "You know, if you had decided to leave us all alone here on Earth, Claire would be terribly sad. So would I. You're a tough kitten aren't you? Good thing too, cause if you had left, I'd have to worry about what your mommy would do to me. She's still bigger than me you know. Plus, she's scary when she's mad."
David started at the sound of engines outside. Heart pounding, he raced to the opening in the cargo area, and looked outside. To his great relief no car seemed to be approaching this one yet. And at the same time, every ten seconds one of those little cars raced by this very one. How was he supposed to get out of her without attracting attention?
Reluctantly, he started to put her back in the porter.
"Hey now, you can't fuss at me now. I can't just walk out of here with a lion cub in my arms. People will try to take you from us. Trust me, as soon as we can manage it, we'll ditch the porter. And the first thing you're getting," he wrinkled his nose. "is a bath."
As Claire was pulled along by the merciless grip on her arm, she had to wonder not only how she was going to end her life, but also, what exactly was it that this random woman, in an airport of thousands of people, had against her. Underneath her vitriolic sweetness and viper's smile, Claire could sense an unadulterated hatred that made her wonder if she was in for more than being exposed, not only to her parents, but also to national television. She set her face grimly. Though Leona was now lost, she still had some fight left in her. If her miserable existence was about to come to an end, it would be on her terms. The harridan could stew in her own rot, as far as she was concerned.
As they came to an abrupt halt in front of some counter, Claire's fear-induced mind began to work furiously. How did someone get out of this? Well, she glanced down at the hand trapping her arm, there was that.
And when she saw the huge, intimidating superman in front of her, her plan pulled itself together with an audible click in her mind.
Glancing at the blonde behemoth beside her, she grinned. The shrew was so busy arguing with the man at the counter that her attention was completely off her. Taking a huge, silent breath, she exhaled and then aimed a sharp, swift kick to his shin.
Instantly he whirled around, his face going red with fury.
"Who kicked me?" he yelled.
"She did!" Claire yelled frantically. "She did, she hates you!"
"What?" he menaced, towering over the now powerless security guard. In her surprise, she had let go.
"What? No I swear, I would never-" she stammered.
"The only thing that's stopping me from kicking your ass from here to kingdom come is the fact that we're right here, in an airport and it would be a little…counterproductive." He grinned sadistically. "But you know what? That's what civil suits are for. You can rest assured that I'll be suing you for everything, you're worth.
"No! You can't! It wasn't me it was that little-" she stopped short.
"Hey, the brat! Where'd she go? Hey!" Her beady little eyes scanned the area, but out of the thousands of people in the airport the slight, brown-haired girl had disappeared without a trace.
A few moments later, a bathroom door slammed open and Claire stumbled in, tears streaming. Slamming the door shut, she sank into the stall, hardly able to control the tears or the sounds produced from her broken heart.
"Leona!" she gasped. "Leona what have I done? I-i-it would have been b-b-better if I had left you with s-s-somebody back home. Mzungu could have taken c-c-c-care of you!" her sobs increased in tempo and volume, and she could hardly breathe from the overwhelming raw pain of it.
"I'm so selfish," she whimpered as she sank to the floor.
"D-d-da-david?" she hiccuped.
"Yeah, it's me," he answered, concern transparent in his voice.
"What are you doing in here?" she snapped, feeling uncharacteristically irritable. "This is a girls' bathroom you know."
"Yeah I do know," he answered, irritation slightly coloring his voice as well. "That's why I wouldn't come in if I hadn't seen you so upset. And I know why you're upset."
The fight went out of her as her face crumpled and fresh sobs wracked her body.
"I just can't believe it," she whispered. "I couldn't save her."
"I know," he replied quietly. "That's why I did."
Disbelief, combined with intense relief washed through the young teenager like a soothing balm.
"What? But, how?" she sniffed, trying to compose herself
"I knew you were going to go get her, so I followed you just in case you got caught," he answered in his usual candor.
"Wow….I-I just don't know what to say," she slowly replied. She stared dumbfounded at the one thing she had just seconds ago thought she'd lost forever, before silently taking her in her arms and quietly sobbing.
Not knowing what else to say either, her brother did the only thing her could think of and silently wrapped his arms around her shoulders. They both stood there for sometime just holding and gazing at the tiny, one month old feline. Despite the grueling twelve hours the small one had just survived, at the moment, she forwent being fussy and demanding, and was simply content to gaze back. Her eyes had opened mere weeks ago, and they were the most brilliant shade of green Claire had ever seen. Her eyes reminded her of every green thing she loved, from the healthy green grass on their new front lawn to her favorite green sweater in the winter. It was not a deep green like emeralds, but nor was it a green too light, as the walls of her old elementary school were. In Claire's opinion, they were just right.
But the moment could not last forever. As they stood there, the ominous creak of the bathroom opening back up jolted them out of their reverie and sent Claire into a panic.
Without thinking, she shoved her brother into the nearest stall with Leona.
"Whatever you do, don't make a sound, and don't let her either!" she hissed.
Trying to get her emotions back under control, she went to a sink and started to splash water on her face, hoping that the lady who had just walked in wouldn't try to be kind and well-meaning. She couldn't take any more delays, nor did she think she could stand her emotional ground in the face of somebody else's compassion.
Unfortunately, her hopes were in vain.
"Hey…are you alright, honey?"
Taking a deep breath, she focused, solely on the task at hand and didn't look up. But despite trying to avoid conversation, it went against her grain to be rude to someone who obviously was only concerned for her well-being.
"Yeah, I…I'm fine ma'am," she replied, her eyes still on the sink.
"Just, had a fight with someone. No big deal."
"May I ask with whom?" she prodded gently.
"I-I'd rather not say."
"Your mother?" she replied in a quiet voice laced with understanding.
Going to the sink had been a waste. She shut the water off as fresh tears trickled down her face and she tried to hold in the sobs that fought her and tried to escape.
But when she looked at the woman before her, she knew she was lost. The beautiful woman standing before her was gorgeous to look at with a petite frame, delicate bone structure and short but well-styled brown hair, but it was the sweetness and simple kindness shining from her soft brown eyes that revealed her true beauty. When Claire clutched the sink and started to descend to the floor, the kind woman took her in her arms just like a mother and allowed her to cry on her shoulder.
"There there my dear," she soothed, rubbing her back. "Let it all out."
When the tears finally subsided, Claire withdrew. "I'm sorry ma'am," she whispered, her voice laced with embarrassment.
"It's quite alright," the lady said kindly. "I'm sorry that I don't know your situation and that I could not help you more. I will pray that whatever your troubles are, God will see you through and will heal whatever rift is causing you trials at this moment."
She managed to smile through her tears. "Thank you ma'am," she replied shakily. "It's very nice to know that someone cares. Even if you are a stranger," she replied timidly.
"Well we can certainly change that right now," she laughed. "My name is Donna. I'm very pleased to meet you, dear one."
Smiling with more strength than before, Claire extended her hand.
"And I'm Claire; it's very nice to meet you too, Donna."
"God willing, I hope we meet again someday, Miss Claire," she demurred warmly. "In the meantime, may God bless you and keep you."
As she left, Claire snapped out of her reverie and realized that while she had been chatting with Donna, ten minutes had passed.
Quickly she opened up the stall door. There was David, bravely enduring Leona's teeth on his finger in an effort to keep her quiet. The grimace on his face would have been funny in any other situation, but right now, it drove home the point that this was a very dangerous situation and time and care was of the essence.
"A little help?" he whimpered.
Despite the circumstances, a little of her good humor was restored as she wrested the baby away from her brother's finger.
"All right Leona, that's enough now," she stated firmly. "Time for you to have that bath and then-" she stopped short as she realized something.
"David, how are we going to feed her? It's at least a three-hour drive home."
At that, he fell silent too as he realized the gravity of that fact.
"I…I don't know," he said uncertainly. "Isn't her formula in a lunch box somewhere in your travel bag?"
"Well yeah, it's just that…I don't see how we can get it out without the 'rents noticing. Unless…" her eyes lit up. "Yes! Yes, that's exactly how we're going to do it!"
"Do what?" he asked, confused.
"Come closer to the sink and I'll tell you as we wash her. Now here's how this'll work…"
Ten minutes and three more close calls later, brother and sister both left the bathroom separately, Claire leaving first in order to signal the all-clear. They left the porter in some inconspicuous corner. Truth be told, they hoped that whoever got a hold of it would burn it.
Of one thing Claire was thankful for the most, was the fact that the minute they got off the plane, they were allowed to change into more suitable clothes for winter weather. It had been her natural inclination to take the hoodie with the huge double-sided pocket on her front, as well as her large red winter coat, but now she was seeing the benefits of such clothing as far as stealth and secrecy went. Both materials were ideal for hiding a tiny one-month cub who was still on the underweight side. The only concern she had was that Leona might get too hot.
Getting back to the rest of the family proved to surprisingly be less of a hassle than Claire had anticipated. Apparently, as David had guessed exactly where she would be going and why, he had let their parents know that he would be following her to make sure she was alright, since she looked like she was in pain. Naturally, since in a way, she had been in pain, they let him go without question. Now that they were back, all Claire's mother had to do was look at her pasty complexion and red-rimmed eyes and guess that she had indeed, struggled with the physicalities of going to the bathroom, and in a bad way. So after some comforting words and an inquiry to her health, all was settled.
Thankfully, she had left her coat with her mother when she had left to go retrieve Leona, so she had an edge in case that crazy harpy from security were to spot her. Speaking of…
"Shoot! No!" Claire hissed, panic setting in fast. "Quick David, hide me!" She hurriedly pulled up her hood while her brother loyally covered her as they passed.
David could feel malevolent suspicious eyes on him, probing in reality, the girl whose body he was protecting, but they only rested on the small family for a minute before fully dismissing them altogether and moving somewhere else.
Once outside the airport, Claire exhaled sharply before beginning to tremble. It was becoming too much too fast.
"Claire?" her mother asked, clear concern in her voice. "Is something the matter?"
Another deep breath. "No, Mom," she answered. "It's just really cold out here."
"Yes, it is," she agreed, pulling her own coat closer. "Well the van isn't far off. We'll soon be inside where it's nice and warm, okay?"
"Sounds great," Claire said, trying to sound happy.
As they neared the van, her apprehension grew. It seemed once one problem was solved, another one grew in its place. The thought of nerve and boldness it was going to take to do what she had to do next was feeding that palpable fear in her, growing it to where it was almost choking her. It was all she could do to steel her resolve and keep marching forward as though there was nothing wrong.
David, wonderfully loyal brother that he was, took his cue as soon as the locks on the door sounded.
"Mom! I think I left my Tom Sawyer book on the plane! Can we go back for it, please?"
"What? David, how could you!" She exclaimed. "David, do you know how difficult it'll be to get it back?"
"I'm sorry Mom, I didn't mean to forget!" he cried pitifully. "I just left in the seat beside me, that's all!"
"David I cannot believe you were so irresponsible. Truth be told, I'm not sure if you can get it back…"
While they argued, Claire stealthily opened the back of the band, and carefully hoisted her bags into the space at the end of the band. Nothing suspicious about that. Thankfully both adults were trained on the boy, even Cal. Cal was usually hard to fool, so she was incredibly thankful that even his unnervingly keen hawk eyes could be drawn away every so often. Surprisingly he had joined the argument, not something Claire would have thought he'd involve himself in considering the fact that this argument was petty at best. Hurrying as fast as she could, she extricated the bottle as fast as she could from the iced over interior of her lunch box and quickly put it in her pocket. Oh Leona, I hope you don't mind cold milk every once in awhile. It's just as well, since you're almost ready for solid food.
She managed to zip everything up as her mother, finally exasperated and at the end of her short fuse, exclaimed:
"David, I am NOT going back in there, waiting hours for them to get around to searching that plane! I'm cold, I'm tired, and I want to go home! I'd search your bags if I were you, and hope your book was there, because there is no way that we're going back into that airport. You should have known better than to just leave something like that on the plane if it was so important to you," she huffed.
So David got down on his knees, unzipped his first duffel bag and made a great show of looking for the book for about two minutes.
"Aha! There it is!" he cried, his movements and voice getting showier with every word. Claire cringed; David's performance was obviously amateur and she worried that their mother would catch onto the tone in his voice that suggested very strongly to her at least, that this had all been scripted and rehearsed. Which of course it had.
"Whew! Thank God, it was in here all this time. I don't know what I would have done if I'd lost that book!"
"Yeah, yeah, whatever," their mother sniffed. She had already lost interest now that going back to the airport had been avoided. "Let's all get in the van and just go home."
Claire suddenly felt like a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders. While not completely gone, it's mostly absent presence made her feel significantly lighter and happier than she'd been since they had left Africa .
Still, the exhaustion she felt intensified right as she felt her worries and fears go from her, leaving her light-headed and extremely heavy in body. She forced herself to clamber back to the back of the van but not fall asleep. Thankful that she had a brother who loved the little life hiding in her sweater just as much as she did, she carefully moved the packet of specially made milk from the now chilled side of her body to the other, hoping that her body heat was enough to warm it up before Leona got too fussy and blew their cover.
Once everyone had settled in and all became quiet and relaxed, Claire turned to David. The radio was on, thankfully, plus the adults were quietly talking, so she assumed that her own private conversation with her brother wouldn't be overheard.
"Okay…that went well. Good job," she smiled.
"Thanks," he grinned. Then he paused. "You don't think that was too much, do you?"
"Yeah…" she said, slowly drawing the word out. "Sorry bro, but yeah, it was a bit much." At his discouraged look, she changed her tone. "But hey! It worked, didn't it? I mean you successfully kept their attention away from me, and they still don't suspect a thing." She lowered her voice even further. "And if it weren't for you, we would be here without her and she'd still be-" she stopped as her voice caught. "Stuck in that prison of a porter and starving to death. It was your quick thinking that saved everything."
He grinned sheepishly. "Aw, it was really no problem. I just wanted her to come home too."
She grinned too as she shifted in her seat. "Okay, I think this is ready. Does this feel warm enough to you?"
She surreptitiously handed him the packet bottle, checking to make sure the music was still on and nobody was looking.
"Um….it could be better," he answered, placing it near his own body in order to give it warmth.
"Please give it soon. She's starting to fuss!" she hissed in sudden panic. Thinking quickly, she placed a finger in her mouth before too much noise could be made. She risked a glance frontward again; once more, nobody was aware of the backseat situation.
An agonizing ten minutes passed before David wordlessly handed it back and she replaced her finger with the milk. She ate hungrily, and would have been noisy if Claire hadn't put her in her coat to muffle the sound before hand. Even so, Claire kept wondering if there was any way her mother could hear what she was hearing. The thought scared her half to death. But the rest of the ride, seemed to pass completely without incident. If Claire and Daniel had whispered conversations, so too did their mother and Cal. And thankfully the music provided the perfect barrier between the two pairs.
Still, an uneasiness started to creep into her psyche, and as much as she tried to fight it, it grew, and festered. She wondered if there was something she didn't know but should, if something unpleasant was about to occur. As the scenery around them began to become more familiar, it started to overwhelm her. The fear gripped her as she realized what it was she feared: Her mother finding out. It would happen whether she wanted it to or not, but that didn't make it any easier to face.
What she didn't expect, was what happened once everybody vacated the van and entered the house.
Her mother turned to her with a look of ice, and said in very measured tones:
"All right Claire, where is she? I know you disobeyed me."