“Cavanaugh, your mum is here. Stop practicing and get ready,” my coach yells from his office door.
“Yes, sir,” I huff.
I pull off my grips and wipe my hands on a towel to remove most of the chalk, then I grab my sweatpants from my bag and slip them on over my leo. I look around and notice my mum didn't step in to meet me. She usually comes in to talk to my coach. She must be in a hurry today. I try to remember if we had to be somewhere right after practice.
My only focus is school and gymnastics. Mum worries that I don't have friends here. She's right. My only friends are at my boarding school, and since I'm home on a short break, I have no one here. So that means I just practice. My dream is to go to the Olympics, and that means I work harder than anyone.
I slip on my worn-out tennis shoes, they're about to fall apart but I won't tell Mum, she worries enough about money. It's just her and me; she says my father is out there keeping an eye on us and protecting us, but I think she's just hoping he is. I have little memories of him. She says he's a spy and doesn’t want to put us in danger. I'm old enough now at twelve, you'd think she would stop with the lies and just tell me the wanker ran off.
Grabbing my sweatshirt, I tug it over my head as I walk out the door. It gets stuck on my long ponytail and I free it as I nearly bump into a man standing right outside.
“Sorry, I didn—”
He grabs me and pulls me into him tight; one arm bands across my chest and the other around my neck, his fingers dig into my throat. I struggle to get loose, but my arms are tangled in my sweatshirt. I can’t scream. I can’t get anything through my throat except gurgles. Panic rises and my world focuses on this moment in time.
I finally pull my arms free and grip his arm at my throat, digging my little nails into him. I keep my nails trimmed close for gymnastics, so they don't find any purchase. I look around, hoping my mum sees what's happening and will help me. She could help me, she's always there for me, but my eyes fall on her in the car across the street from the gym. She's banging on the glass, trying to break it and screaming. The panic in her eyes reflects my own.
What does this man want?
“Watch and learn what happens when you cross me, little one.” His voice sounds weird. He has an accent I don't recognize. He isn't from around here.
I try to scream for my mum as best as I can but very little comes out. I push on him and still nothing. Finally, my nails gain some purchase, and I rake them down his arm. My fingers are strong from all my training. I reach up to his face as an explosion rocks our bodies. He holds me tight as I turn to see the auto holding Mum explode. I swear I see her hair on fire and her face melting but I know I don't. My nails slide down his face. Everything in me battles to get free to help her, to deny what I'm seeing.
“If your father ever crosses me again, I'll kill you next.”
My ears are ringing. Did he say my father? What does he have to do with this? He isn't even a part of our lives.
He continues to hold me until the sounds of sirens approach. My coach is banging on the door behind us. The guy must have somehow made sure that my coach couldn't get to me.
My mum is gone. I have no one. I'm all alone.
He drops me on the grass and walks away, as if he didn't just destroy me.
I close my eyes as the tears take over and block out everything else.
* * *
I wake up in a hospital with my hands strapped to the bars, a nurse sitting beside me, and another woman I don't know.
“Daniella, are you okay?” the woman says, and I then recognize her; she's my aunt. My mum's sister. Why am I in a hospital bed and why is she here?
“W… What hap…happened?” I ask through a dry throat. The nurse jumps up and gets me a cup of water; I take a drink as my aunt starts.
“There's been an accident. Don't you remember?”
“Remember what? I went to practice today, and that’s the last thing I remember. Where's my mum?”
“Oh, sweetheart, she's gone.” Tears fill her eyes and she chokes on a sob.
“Gone where?” My voice rises in panic. Why would my mum leave? Not like my father, please don't let her have abandoned me too.
“Sweetheart, she’s dead. They say her car had a gas leak and it sparked, causing an explosion. You were there. Don't you remember? Your coach said a man was holding you back because you were trying to get to her.”
“I don't know what you're talking about, but this isn't a funny joke. Please get my mum,” I demand, holding the tears and pain back. I struggle with the bonds, trying to get away from the pain I see in her eyes. Why is she lying to me?
“She's gone,” my aunt says firmly.
She's gone. How? I don't remember any of what she said. The doctor walks in and proceeds to tell us that I'm blocking out the memories because it was so traumatic. I just want to start the day over. To wake up with my mum. My life the way it was before all this. I lie back, trying to make myself remember what they say I saw, but nothing comes to me. Just emptiness. I’m all alone.
I just want to go back to school.
But even that has changed.
I go back to my boarding school with a new name and even poorer than I was before. I really don't fit in now. I hate my life.