No Way Out – Fern Michaels

Ellie Bowman knew that there were murmurs from the neighbors and cruel jokes from the kids on the next block, but it didn’t matter. It had been two years since the thirty-four-year-old had moved into the cottage at the end of Birchwood Lane. She was happy that it was located where it was—as far away from the rest of the houses on the block as possible. With each house sitting on a full acre, there was a comfortable distance between them. The homes were modest ranch-style houses built in the fifties. Thank goodness for Hector, her gardener, assistant, and friend. Without him, she would not have been able to look outside her window and see beautiful flowers. Without him, she wouldn’t have groceries, either. He knew the rules and respected her wishes. The only access he had to the house was to the rear porch, where he would deliver her packages and pick up her trash. The other thing she was grateful for was his willingness to clean up after Buddy, the black Labrador retriever she had rescued from the local shelter when she had moved to Hibbing. The fenced-in yard made it easy for Ellie to let him go out through his doggie doors to do his business and chase the squirrels around. Percy, her cat, couldn’t care less about going outdoors, which was a good thing. Ellie wouldn’t have let him out even if he wanted to go. Her seclusion was a comfort.

It was better than the alternative. * * * Colleen Haywood lived down the street from Ellie with her eight-year-old son, Jackson. She was excited when she learned another woman was moving onto their street but was disappointed never to have met her. It had been two years, and the woman appeared to be a hermit. A total recluse. She had tried numerous times to get Ellie to come over for tea. She didn’t have Ellie’s phone number, so she would leave notes in her mailbox. In turn, Colleen would get a note back in her mailbox politely declining, saying she had a headache or was on a deadline. One afternoon, Colleen thought a personal invitation might do the trick, so she walked over to Ellie’s and rang the doorbell. Colleen was about to leave when she caught a glimpse of Ellie’s face as she moved across the living room.

From the brief peek, Colleen saw that Ellie was pretty, with big eyes and blond hair in a short, blunt cut. She couldn’t tell how tall the woman was, but she looked like she was in pretty good shape for someone who never left the house. At least, no one had ever seen her leave the house. Colleen was about to give up. Obviously, the woman didn’t want to be bothered. Then Colleen jumped as Ellie’s disembodied voice came through the speaker on the intercom. They had a brief exchange, but Ellie once again politely declined Colleen’s invitation. Colleen made another attempt, but when Ellie had made another excuse, Colleen gave up trying to be sociable. It was too bad. They were around the same age, and Colleen could use a friend.

Colleen finally accepted the idea that Ellie was very shy and probably a shut-in. It was odd for someone so young to have agoraphobia, but she could not think of any other reason for her behavior. But if she really was agoraphobic, then how did Ellie’s notes of regret get into her mailbox? Maybe she’s a vampire and only comes out at night. Colleen laughed to herself. Even in witness protection, people who assume new identities live a somewhat normal life. The only interaction between Colleen’s household and Ellie’s was that Colleen’s eight-year-old son, Jackson, would visit Buddy, Ellie’s Lab, every afternoon while the dog was in the yard. Ellie didn’t mind Jackson’s leaning against the fence across the front yard and talking to Buddy. Jackson was just tall enough that his head was barely above the top of the fence. As long as she didn’t have to go outside, it was all right; she figured Buddy could use the company. Ellie had a job that preserved her anonymity.

She was a tech geek in the world of IT. She worked from home, answering questions from frustrated people who could not set up their computers or whose computers had crashed. She also worked with a number of tech companies, testing new software programs. Being a techno whiz, she had no problem hiding her real identity from others, including those who were as savvy as she was with technology. That was the reason she was able to live a quiet, solitary life. It also enabled her to communicate with her mother and best friend, Kara. Before moving to the small town of Hibbing, Ellie had purchased dozens of burner phones to use to make calls. She also changed her Internet service provider address every couple of days. She didn’t want anyone to be able to trace her location. If anyone asked, which was usually only her mother and her friend Kara, she would tell them she was working on a government contract and being sent to various parts of the world and would not be able to return until all the aspects of the project were complete.

It was all “very top secret.” So far, she had been able to pull off the deception for two years. As much as she missed the two of them, she had no other option. Ellie also didn’t use any of the video-calling technology. No FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, or anything where they could see she had cut her bangs, chopped off her hair, and bleached it blond. That was another thing Ellie missed: going to a salon and getting her hair and nails done professionally. She had learned how to do both by watching YouTube videos. She remained isolated from any direct human contact. For the moment, there was no way out. Chapter Two Colleen was a second-grade schoolteacher at the local grammar school.

Colleen had recently separated from her abusive husband, Mitchel. She and Jackson spent their weekdays at the same school. They would walk to school together until the last few blocks. Jackson didn’t want the kids to make fun of him for “walking with his mommy.” The routine reversed going home. They would meet up at the same corner every day. Once they got home, Jackson would do his homework, then go outside to play. He was particularly interested in the dog down the street, the one who lived with the strange lady who never went outside. Colleen tried to explain to Jackson that the lady was nice, but she wasn’t well. She didn’t go into any detail about what the word “well” meant because she didn’t really know, but it seemed to satisfy her son’s curiosity.

And Colleen was grateful that Jackson had a new way of spending his time, playing fetch with Buddy. That was, at least, one thing she got out of her brief conversation with Ellie through the intercom. Colleen recalled the encounter. “Hello, Ellie. How are you today?” “I’m OK. How are you?” “Very well, thank you. Listen, I wanted to see if you’d like to come over for tea?” “Uh, thank you, but I’m on a deadline,” Ellie answered. “OK. Perhaps another time?” Colleen offered. “Maybe,” Ellie lied.

“I hope you don’t mind my son, Jackson, stopping by to say hello to your dog.” “No. Not at all. Buddy can use the company since I’m so busy.” Ellie was calm and collected. “Well, thank you for indulging him. He’s been through a rough patch lately. His father and I recently separated, and he’s having a bit of a hard time adjusting.” Colleen could have stayed there and chatted for an hour, but Ellie cut the conversation short. “I have to get back to work, but thank you again for your offer.

And tell Jackson he can stop by anytime Buddy’s in the yard.” She smiled and pulled the curtain back in place. Colleen turned her thoughts back to the job at hand—grading papers—while Jackson finished his homework. “Mom? Can I go visit Buddy now?” “Of course. But remember, don’t bother Ms. Bowman. She is terribly busy with work.” “Mom?” “Yes, honey?” “Why do you think she never comes outside? I mean, like never.” “Honey, I’m not really sure, but I think she may have some health issues and can’t go out. But let’s not dwell on that, OK? She’s totally fine with your tossing the ball over the fence to Buddy.

” “Goodie! I really like Buddy. He’s one smart dog!” Jackson grabbed his baseball glove and a ball he set aside for playing with Buddy. He pulled on his cap and headed out the door. “Bye, Mom! See ya later, alligator!” “After a while, crocodile!” Colleen said in return, chuckling. Once Colleen finished grading the papers, she went into her bedroom to finish sorting out Mitchel’s clothes. She had a court date to get the temporary restraining order made permanent. The custody battle was just beginning, and she was anticipating that it would be brutal. As it stood, Mitchel’s visits with Jackson had to be supervised. He could see Jackson one weekend day each week. Had Mitchel not tried to punch her in the face, which had resulted in his fist going through the wall, or had he not trashed the kitchen, perhaps things would have gone differently for him.

But the police report told of bruises on her arms and a hole in the Sheetrock. She shivered at the memory of that particular night and recalled the days preceding it. In retrospect, what had happened was inevitable. Things with Colleen and Mitchel had been escalating, along with his drinking. With each argument, she thought he would strike her, but she had always managed to defuse the situation by agreeing with him or taking the blame for something she didn’t do, something he imagined she had done. It was when he grabbed her by the throat and pushed her up against the wall that she knew the end was in sight. But she didn’t want it to be the end of her. Just the end of their marriage. She couldn’t count the number of times she cried herself to sleep, waiting for him to stumble home. She had tried to shelter Jackson from Mitchel’s hostility, but Jackson was a smart kid.

He knew when his dad was acting mean. At first, Jackson thought his dad was mad at him. But then he overheard his father screaming at his mom, using some awfully bad words. Jackson had pulled the pillow over his head to muffle the shouting. The next morning, Jackson noticed that his mom’s eyes were really puffy and her nose really red. He knew she had been crying, but she smiled anyway and made breakfast. Jackson was fiddling with his cereal. “Mom?” “Yes, honey.” “What were you and Dad fighting about last night?” He looked up sheepishly. “Oh, just grown-up stuff.

You know. Mommy and Daddy stuff.” Colleen was trying to smooth over Jackson’s fears. “But I heard Daddy call you some very bad names.” Colleen put her coffee cup down on the table and pulled up a chair. “Daddy and I are trying to work out some problems. You know, like the ones they give you in school?” “Like a puzzle?” “Sort of. But I don’t want you to worry about any of it, OK?” She took his chin in her hand. Jackson grimaced. “Well .

OK. But it scared me.” She gave him a big hug. “I don’t want you to ever be afraid because of us.” She looked him straight in the eye. She knew that if Mitchel ever tried to do anything to her son, she would kill him. Literally. “No, I mean I’m scared you and Daddy will break up. Like Judy’s mom and dad.” Jackson started to sniffle.

“Sweetie, we’ll figure it out. Now, let’s get ready to go to school, OK?” He hopped off his chair and got his jacket and backpack. “Ready when you are!” He dashed out the front door. He wanted to be out of the house before his father got out of bed. His dad was often in a nasty mood in the morning, especially if he and his mom had been fighting, which seemed like almost every night. And Jackson especially didn’t like the way his father smelled in the morning. It was a stinky beer odor, and his face was scratchy from not shaving for days at a time. Jackson wondered why things had changed. And when. He was deep in thought when his father came roaring out the front door.

“Hey! Jackson!” Mitchel shouted as he stood on the front porch in a stained T-shirt and boxer shorts. “Don’t you want to say good morning to your old man?” Jackson looked around to see if there was anyone watching. This was the first time his father had put on such an embarrassing display outside the house. “I said, ‘Say good morning!’ ” Mitchel’s eyes were wide with fury. Jackson didn’t know what to do and was frozen in place. A minute later, Colleen was out on the front porch. “Mitchel, please get back in the house,” she said in a very mild-mannered voice. “Don’t tell me what to do!” Spittle was coming out of his mouth. “Mitchel, please. You’re making a scene.

” “Making a scene?” His voice got louder. Colleen knew there was no way she was going to convince Mitchel to go back into the house, so she pushed past him, grabbed Jackson’s hand, and hurried down the street. “Yeah! Go ahead! Run, you stupid wretch!” he screamed at the top of his lungs. “And Jackson, you spoiled little creep . I’ll remember how you treated your daddy.” By the time he choked out the last sentence, Colleen and Jackson were no longer within the sound of his maniacal voice. Colleen knew Jackson would have a lot of questions and also a lot of anxiety. After they crossed the next block, she stopped. “Are you OK?” Jackson tried to remain calm, but the tears were streaming down his face. Colleen pulled out a tissue and handed it to him.

He was starting to stutter, something he hadn’t done since he was five. “MMM . Mom . I . I . I’m rr . really sccc . scared. DD . Daddy nnnn .

never did th . that . bbb . be . fffore.” “I know. But listen to me. It’s not your fault. Daddy was in a very bad mood this morning.” Jackson had calmed down a bit.

“Because of the fight?” “That’s part of it.” “And why is he so stinky in the morning?” Jackson had a lot of questions that Colleen knew she couldn’t answer at the time. How do you tell your child that his father has become a raging alcoholic? Perhaps that was a question for Al-Anon. Going for help was something she had been reluctant to do, but clearly it was time for some intervention. If not for Mitchel, then for herself. She had a child to protect. “I want you to listen to me.” Leaning over, she looked him straight in the eye again. “None of this is your fault. Daddy is going through something right now that I can’t explain.

I just want you to try to do the best you can today. Try not to think about his bad behavior. Remember, the only person who should feel bad is him. Not you. Got it?” Jackson wiped his nose with the tissue and saluted. “Got it.” “Great. Now, you go catch up with your friends, and I’ll see you in a bit. OK?” “OK!” Jackson gave her his best smile and headed down the street. Colleen was certain that would not be the last of Mitchel’s outbursts.

That very evening, he stumbled in around midnight, reeking from booze and cheap perfume. There was the clichéd lipstick on his collar, too. But she didn’t care. She suspected he had been having sex with someone, probably another drunk. The trick was to figure out how to extricate herself and her son from this whirlpool of horror. She just didn’t think it would be that day. As he staggered into the bedroom, he blew up at her for the morning’s clash on the front porch. “How dare you take my son when I’m trying to talk to him?” He pushed her onto the bed. “Mitchel, please. I was not trying to take your son anywhere except to school.

” Colleen was desperately struggling to defuse the situation. He caught her wrists, held her down, and pushed his face into hers. She could almost taste the foulness of his breath. “You don’t ever try to keep me from my son.” He loosened his grip, and she rolled out from under him. He grabbed her shoulder and aimed his fist at her face, but she was quick enough to dodge the punch, causing him to put his hand through the wall. Colleen ran from the bedroom into Jackson’s room, locking the door behind her. She pushed his dresser against the door. Jackson awoke with a start. “Shhhh .

” She put her finger up to her lips as Mitchel made his way down the hall and into the kitchen. He began clearing the counters with his arms flailing, breaking dishes and glasses along the way. Thankfully, she had had the presence of mind to grab her cell phone as Mitchel cursed and freed his bleeding hand from the wall. Praying she had service, she dialed 911. “Nine-one-one. What’s your emergency?” “Domestic dispute at Thirty-two Birchwood Lane. My name is Colleen Haywood. My husband is on a rampage.” “Where are you right now?” “My son and I are locked in his bedroom. Please hurry.

” “Yes, please stay on the line with me.” “OK.” Colleen made her way to the window, just in case she and Jackson had to climb out. She could hear Mitchel’s manic behavior and cursing through the walls. The dispatcher continued to talk to her. “Are you and your son all right? Do we need to send an ambulance?” “We’re fine right now.” Colleen kept the panic out of her voice, clutching Jackson in her arms. She whispered in his ear, “You’re being very brave,” and kissed him on the top of his head. Jackson whispered back. “Why is Daddy so mad?” Colleen gave him the finger-to-her-lips signal again.

“We have a patrol car a block from your house. Please continue to stay on the line.” “Yes. Of course. We’re next to the window, and we can climb out, if necessary.” “OK, Colleen. What’s your son’s name?” “His name is Jackson.” “How is he doing?” “He’s a bit scared, like me.” She winked at him, trying to keep him calm. After what seemed like an eternity, Colleen finally heard the siren of a police car and could see the flashing lights.

A moment later, there was a loud bang on the front door. “Police! Open up!” “Go to hell!” Mitchel screamed back. “Mr. Haywood, if you don’t open the door, we are going to have to break it down.” “Screw you!” Mitchel shouted. Colleen and Jackson heard the rumbling of the front door being bashed open. “Mitchel Haywood?” “Who wants to know?” he said in a surly manner. “Officer Pedone. Hibbing Police Department. Put your hands behind your back, sir.

” “Put your hands behind your back, sir,” Mitchel replied mockingly. “Mr. Haywood, you are under arrest for assault.” “Like hell I am,” he slurred back. “I didn’t assault anyone.” “Then can you tell me how your hand got so bloody? And how your kitchen got trashed.” There was a knock on the closed bedroom door. “Mrs. Haywood? This is the police. I’m Officer Davis, with Officer Pedone.

Are you all right?” Colleen spoke to the dispatcher and told her that the police had arrived. She pushed the small dresser away from the door and unlocked it. She almost crumbled in relief. “We have your husband in custody now. It’s safe for you to come out.” She peered down the hall and saw Mitchel slouched over on the sofa. “Can you take him outside so my son doesn’t have to witness this?” “Certainly. As long as you are both all right. Do either of you need medical attention?” “We’re OK.” She hugged Jackson tightly against her.

“No need for an ambulance,” she said, reiterating what she had told the dispatcher. “Wait right here, please,” Davis instructed her. Mitchel was still protesting as Pedone escorted him to the patrol car, guided his head into the vehicle, and locked him in the back seat. “Jackson, honey, I want you to stay in your room for a little while, OK?” Colleen pulled the words out as soothingly as she could muster. “You can even play with your tablet.” “But, Mommy, what about Daddy? And the policeman?” “I’ll tell you all about it in a little while. First, I have to talk to these nice policemen. Then you and I will have some ice cream.” Jackson wasn’t sure how to react to any of this, but he listened as Officer Davis squatted down to talk to him. “It’s going to be OK, son.

Do as your mom asks, then ice cream. You got any questions for me?” Jackson was immediately distracted by the interest the police officer had shown. “Did you ever shoot anybody?” Davis chuckled. “Do you know how many times people ask me that question?” Jackson smiled. “A bazillion?” “Yep. And, no, thankfully I never had to shoot anyone.” He tousled Jackson’s hair. “So what’s going to happen to my dad? Is he going to jail?” Jackson sat down on his bed, trying to hold back tears. “That’s going to depend on your mom. Like I said, we have to clear up a few things.

Now, go do what your mom said. We’ll be right down the hall.” “OK.” Jackson seemed to be a bit more relieved. And safe. Colleen’s eyes swept across the kitchen. It looked as if someone had thrown a hand grenade. “Do you mind if I pour myself a drink?” She began to shake. It’s common knowledge that during times of extreme stress, our fight-or-flight instincts take over. She had fought back, and now what had just happened began to sink in.

“Let me get that for you,” Pedone offered. Colleen pointed to the liquor cabinet above the refrigerator. “Scotch, please.” She rarely drank any hard liquor, but it seemed like a good idea at the moment. He looked around for something to pour it in. “There are glasses in the dining-room cabinet,” Colleen said. A few minutes later, Pedone returned with her drink. Her hands were trembling so badly she needed to use both of them to hold the glass. “Can you tell me what happened this evening?” Pedone pulled out his notebook and began to write as Colleen recalled the events of the evening. It took about a half hour for her to explain everything, starting with Mitchel’s behavior that morning.

“Do you want to press charges?” Pedone asked.


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