The brisk late-night air wound itself around Matt's neck while the house keys shook in his hand. He glanced over his left shoulder. Over his right. His heart thundered against his ribs. He scanned the neighborhood. Nothing out of the ordinary—but nothing was as it seemed. Never would be again. He wiped perspiration from his forehead and drew in a breath.
In one swift movement, he opened the creaky front door to the rental house, stepped inside, and closed the door. He locked the door and rested his head against it for a moment before turning around. With three strides he was standing next to the couch, where his wife lay sleeping, bathed in the glow of the television. He knelt next to the couch and attempted to calm his breathing while he watched the rhythmic rise and fall of her chest. So peaceful. Relaxed. Unaware.
He tugged on her arm, trying to rouse her. "Pam, honey, wake up."
Her eyelids fluttered open. He took several breaths, hoping to settle his raging heartbeat.
"Matt? What's wrong?" She lifted herself on one elbow and pushed a few strands of her long, blonde hair from her face. "You look terrified."
He didn't want to panic her or scare her. But he had no choice. "We need to leave."
She cleared her throat. "What are you talking about?"
"We can't stay here anymore." It sounded crazy and unreasonable—even to him.
Pam raised her eyebrows. "Why? You aren't making any sense."
"I can't explain right now." He raked his fingers through his hair, a stone of sadness in his stomach.
Pam sat up and adjusted her flannel nightgown.
Her pale face forced him to focus on her. "Feeling nauseated?"
She nodded and placed her hand on her belly. "All day and night. Whoever named it morning sickness got it wrong." She leaned her head over the small white trashcan next to the couch.
"I'm sorry you're sick. But we have to go. Now." Matt stood and crossed over to the window. He parted the curtains and searched the street. Had anyone followed him? The clock on the wall mocked him with its constant tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock.
"What are you doing?" Pam asked, wiping at her mouth.
He turned to face her. "I was offered a promotion."
"No. It's not great." He licked his parched lips. "Not great at all." A shudder rippled down his back.
Images. Bits of conversations. Paperwork. It all made sense now.
"Why not?" She tilted her head and peered at him.
"The company isn't what it seems. Nothing is as it seems." He stepped over to the couch and reached his hand out for hers, pulling her up.
"You're shaking." She placed her soft, warm hand over his. "What's going on?" Her eyes searched his.
"We need to get out of here. Tonight."
Pam stared at him, the fear and confusion apparent in her blue eyes.
"Please," he said. "Go to our bedroom and grab whatever you can. There isn't much time." He let go of her hand and turned back to the window again, looking urgently from side to side. A siren sounded in the distance, and several dogs barked in concert. The scene seemed ordinary enough, but he knew better.
He faced her. "Pam, please. Hurry."
She reluctantly walked down the hall toward their bedroom. He rushed into the kitchen and emptied his pockets of the money he'd cashed out earlier from their bank account. Rummaging through a drawer, he found a piece of paper and pen and scribbled a note to the landlord. He didn't want any loose ends when they left—no trail that could lead back to them. Not if he hoped to protect his wife and unborn child from the monster who had once been his best friend.
He slammed his fist against the counter. Why hadn't he noticed it sooner? The muscles in his neck constricted. All he'd wanted to do was provide for his growing family by working for a legitimate business. He shook his head at his stupidity and misplaced trust.
Pam's footsteps interrupted his thoughts as she neared the kitchen. He finished the note telling the landlord they were leaving and wouldn't be coming back. He tucked it under a cup with enough bills to cover the remainder of the lease and turned to Pam. She stood in the doorway, wearing a solemn expression, dressed in a grey sweatshirt and jeans with a brown suitcase in hand.
"I packed as much of our stuff as I could." She tried to smile, but it didn't reach her eyes. Matt sensed her misgivings. How would he ever explain this to her?
"Good." He took the suitcase.
She stood firm. "I want you to tell me what's going on and why we're leaving in the middle of the night."
"We don't have much time—"
She crinkled her forehead. "What does that mean?"
"It means we need to go." He reached his hand out for hers but she didn't reciprocate.
"I don't understand what's happening."
Matt stepped close to her and ran his hand down her arm, grasping her hand in his. "I know this all sounds confusing and crazy, but I need you to trust me. Please. I'll try to explain everything after we leave." His eyes pleaded with her, hoping she wouldn't ask any more questions or weaken his resolve.
"You're acting so erratic. You're scaring me."
Matt set the suitcase down and pulled her to him, losing himself in the familiar strawberry scent of her hair. He wished things were different. But they weren't. All he could do now was run—run fast and run far, without looking back. Their lives depended on it. He stepped back and gazed deeply into Pam's eyes. "We have to go before they realize that I've left."
"Our lives are in danger."
Pam's eyes widened. "Danger?"
Matt nodded. "Yes. Let's go."
"Where are we going?" A tear snaked down her cheek. "What are we going to do?"