Hidden in Plain Sight
Third Round Entry, 2020 NYCMIDNIGHT Flash Contest
Genre: Mystery | Prompts: Ambulance, Polluted River
The only way to stay alive is to hide, an impossible task for a mother and
her older children who are desperate to find their missing baby brother.
“Mommy, we have to find Daniel.” Ethan’s lips tremble.
“We will, sweetie,” I whisper. “But you and Hannah must stay quiet.”
“I hate it here,” he continues softly.
“Pretend we’re camping.”
The wrecked ambulance, wedged into a road embankment, has been our hideout in plain sight. It’s not out of place in this war-stricken city, crumbling from raids and bombs.
As I keep watch out the frosted windows, praying no one looks for us here, sleep beckons my bleary eyes. I blink it away.
We just have to hang on until we can take the train to the coast. One more day. They have guards on the trains now, but Agnes told us there are a few who’ll let us escape. She said these sympathetic guards will be on shift tomorrow. I sewed my grandmother’s jewelry into my dress to bribe them.
Hannah frowns. “Mom, we have to find Daniel.”
Daniel, my sweet baby boy. He’s gone, and what’s there to say to Ethan and Hannah? I can barely comprehend it myself, but I have to keep everyone quiet. If I don’t, the soldiers will find us, see our dark hair and eyes. Kill us.
“We’ll get Daniel back.” My voice cracks. I can’t allow myself to think about my angel. If I do, I’ll fall apart.
“The homeless man has him,” Ethan whispers.
Hannah looks at me. “He was staring at Daniel’s buggy when we collected snow.” Hannah’s voice squeaks. “If we could just drink river water like we used to.”
“Stupid pollution,” Ethan adds, covering his face.
“No more, both of you.” I fight back tears. They don’t know that a soldier also saw us collecting snow that day. “Keep your voices down and finish your beans.”
“I don’t want beans,” Hannah barks in a whisper.
“Hannah, eat,” I order. She’s gotten dreadfully thin.
“I’ll eat when we find our baby brother.” She looks at me with pleading eyes. “Why can’t we get Daniel from the homeless man tonight?”
“How did he take…” Ethan trails off, choking up. “How did he take Daniel without waking us up?”
“Oh, sweetie.” I step over and take Ethan into my arms, running my fingers through his soft hair. His ears are ice-cold, so I hold my hands over them.
Hannah gasps, pointing out the window. “Look, the homeless man’s pushing Daniel’s buggy!”
“Shhh!” I say automatically, but my head whips to the window. Bitter vitriol roils in my empty belly, seeing my baby’s buggy. But I keep it to myself. I want to scream at the top of my lungs, but all I do is whisper, “There’s nothing we can do right now, Hannah. We’ll go after dark.”
At dusk, the man appears again. We hover around the window as we watch him lift the blanket of the buggy. When all that’s underneath is a collection of food scraps, Ethan and Hannah start to cry again. I pull them into a tender hug, keeping them quiet.
Just after nightfall, a knock on the window makes me jump out of my skin.
My pulse racing, I look out.
It’s just Agnes. She’s the only soul who knows we’re here, and she brings us bread.
I open the window to a burst of bitter air before taking the basket with shaky hands. “Thank you,” I fumble out, the wind knocked out of me. I don’t know if it’s from fear or the biting cold.
She leans in. “You must leave early. I heard soldiers talking about trying to get this thing started tomorrow.”
“Oh, Agnes,” I utter. “I don’t know how to thank you for all you’ve done.”
“Send me a postcard,” she replies before disappearing into the darkness.
“Agnes loves Daniel,” Ethan says. “She took him, Mommy.”
Hannah jumps up. “Ethan’s right. She does love him, and she’s the only one who knows where we are. And, she hasn’t said anything about him being gone! Please, Mom. She just lives up the hill. Let’s go.”
“Okay. We’ll find Daniel.” I look at my two children, hope sparkling in their eyes for the first time since their father was killed. “But we must be smart. At dawn, we’ll head to the shop where Agnes gets flour. If she took Daniel, she’ll have him there. Her husband can’t carry a baby while unloading the morning’s cargo ships.”
“Right.” Hannah smiles. “He can’t do his work with Daniel. Good plan.”
“Okay, it’s set.” I smile back. “Now please, eat. You’ll need energy for tomorrow.”
They nod before polishing off their beans and bread. Then they crawl in their blankets under a gurney without argument—a first.
Agnes’s flour shop is on the way to the train station. Once Ethan and Hannah see that she doesn’t have Daniel, I’ll tell them we must get on the next train. They’ll cry, but they’ll go.
I sit on the bench seat, my bed, staring out the window. The memory of four nights ago will haunt me for as long as I breathe.
That night after we’d collected snow, out this same window, I saw the soldier who’d seen us earlier. He was in the street, gun drawn, head cocked at the ambulance. He heard Daniel crying.
At the thought, I need air, so I slip outside. White flakes flurry in the sky as I hide in a gap between the ambulance and snowy embankment. The river babbles on the other side, smelling like sewage, even in the dead of winter. It’s been like this since the bombs hit.
I sob in silence as I stroke the sliver of Daniel’s blanket that pokes out, the only visible reminder of the secret I’ll carry to my grave.
When the soldier approached, I wrapped the blanket tight around Daniel’s cherub face as Ethan and Hannah slept. By the time the soldier peered into the window, we were all covered in blankets under the gurney.
Daniel was silent.
* * *
A heartfelt thanks to Shelby Van Pelt, Katina Ferguson, and Roland Royster for being all around amazing help.