The small gray house in Oakdale blends in amongst all the others. It is not the first time I have visited, but it will be the first time I have stood on the doorstep.
I know every detail of her schedule. When she leaves each day. Where she goes. What groceries she buys, how often she fuels her car. There isn't a single thing I don't know. And as I count the time passing on my watch, I know in fifteen seconds, she will open the door, rushing out to her car to take her son to school.
I stand and wait. Moments later, there is a commotion on the other side of the door. Something clatters to the floor, and she curses. She yells for her son, telling him they have to go. The knob turns, and when the door opens, she spills out in a rush, nearly colliding with me.
A small gasp flies from her lips, and horror washes over her face as she scrambles back inside, trying to shut the door to seal the monster out. My palm slams against it, and a dark smile bleeds across my face.
"Hello, Hazel. It’s been a while."
"No!" She shoves against the door with all her might, trying to stop me from entering.
Panic seeps into every muscle in her body as she glances over her shoulder at her son and tells him to run.
"There's no need for such dramatics." I shove against the door, the force knocking her off balance. When she stumbles back, I enter the house and shut the door behind me.
Hazel is breathing hard, eyes wide, looking very much like her sister but not as beautiful. Nobody is as beautiful as my wife.
"Please." Her hands shake as she reaches for her son, who can't be older than five, securing him in her arms. "You don't have to do this."
"What exactly is it you think I'm here to do?" I cock my head to the side, studying her.
She glances briefly at her son, tightening her grip on him. He looks just as terrified, and I find that notion surprisingly distressing. I haven’t ever given the feelings of children much thought, but considering my impending fatherhood, I think perhaps I should make an effort.
"Your name is Michael, right?" I kneel to meet his eyes, hoping I might be less frightening for him at his level, but he only curls his little fists tighter into his mother's shirt. "I'm Santiago."
He looks up at his mother, and she forces a smile that looks more like a grimace. "It's alright, sweetheart. Why don't you just go upstairs and play with your toys for a little bit? Mr. Santiago and I are going to have a talk."
"Okay," he whispers, and slowly, she releases him from her grip. He tiptoes up the stairs, pausing a few times to glance back at me.
He can sense the monster in his presence. But all children are like that, aren't they? My own will inevitably be the same. They will cling to their mother, too horrified to look at me.
I swallow, but it does not dislodge the painful knot in my throat. My wife is missing. She has taken my child with her. And the question I don’t want to acknowledge lingers at the back of my mind. If it would be better to let her go—let them both go—so that I never have to witness that same revulsion from my own son's eyes.
Yet I can argue that this is exactly what I wanted. My wife pregnant with my children. A family. Heirs to the De La Rosa name. But it isn’t just about heirs anymore. I’d be lying to myself if I said it were. I want her back. I need her back.
"What do you want?" Hazel hisses, putting some distance between us as she takes a few steps back and straightens her clothing.
When I don't answer right away, she starts to pace, brushing loose strands of hair back over her ears. "I expect the cavalry is coming. That's why you're here, isn't it? You plan to haul me away for punishment? What will it be? How will I pay for my sins for leaving IVI? I can’t leave my son alone in this world—"
“Do you really believe The Tribunal would end your life over such a minor slight?” I stare at her, incredulous. “You are panicking. Stop. Think. Breathe. What you’re saying doesn’t even make sense.”
She shakes her head in denial, spewing more fragmented thoughts from her mouth.
"I expected this day would come... I knew it would. We should have left the state. But then it doesn't matter, I suppose. IVI is everywhere, aren't they?" She pauses to take a deep breath and continues, "Just leave my son out of it. That's all I ask. If you plan to take me, let me call someone to come look after him. He doesn't have anything to do with my decisions. I won't let him pay the consequences..."
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