Can a mother make the ultimate sacrifice to save the daughter she loves?
|"I have her," Ramona whispered into the black plastic mouthpiece of the payphone. The connection crackled and sputtered, breaking up her words, but she knew the man on the other end heard her loud and clear. Fear and cold shook her thin frame as the beginnings of a summer storm lashed at the glass sides of this isolated booth. His voice, so familiar and yet a stranger's, filled up the silence, stilling her lungs. She clutched the swaddled bundle in her arms against her chest.
"I know - I am watching you, Ramona. Step outside and walk down the pier to the end. You know what to do."
"I want to talk to my daughter first! Damn you! Let me hear her voice!" It was the first time since the abduction that she had dared raise her voice to this man, who had never given her his name.
A dark, mocking chuckle crawled over the connection, making her feel colder than the rain outside ever could. "Ramona, you know better, don't you. Do you want me to cut her throat? Your beautiful little Sidney just turned 12, and it would be such a shame. No questions, no requests, just play along and your daughter will come home alive - that was our deal. Now honor it, unless you want to be childless again. Remember, you won't get another chance if you fail." The line disconnected with a pop that made Ramona jump, then a muffled wail of anguish welled up into her mouth. She tried to hold it back with her lips, desperate to keep the child in her arms asleep. Please God she prayed, eyes squeezed shut while she tried to prepare herself for the run out of the booth and down the empty pier, please, let her stay asleep, so she will never have to know or feel what I am about to do.
She dashed out of the glass box and across the boardwalk onto the pier, her feet making a hollow drumming noise on the weathered planks that matched the thundering beat of her heart. In the darkness of late night, the end of the pier was invisible out ahead, and she lowered her chin to her chest over the child wrapped there, charging ahead. For Sidney, for Sidney... Ramona chanted in her head as she ran towards a choice she was not certain she could make.
The pier's end came too soon, and out here the waves below were louder than the howl of the storm. Rain and tears mixed freely on Ramona's bare face, her dress and the blanket she clutched equally soaked while her hair tore about her on the sea wind. She pressed against the railing, staring over the side into the black, pitching water nearly thirty feet down, and felt her stomach lurch. Stumbling away, she only barely managed to catch herself before she fell, and reflexively squeezed hard on the bundle in her arms. It gave a squeak that quickly rose to a keening cry, deafening and heart-wrenching to Ramona's ear. She leaned down and whispered soothingly to the baby girl, trying to get her to fall back into sleep, but the child was very awake now, and frightened.
The first telephone call she had received from the Man scrolled across her mind:
"I don't understand, why do you want me to steal this other woman's baby? I want my daughter back! Please!"
"Ramona, you don't need to know anything except this. If you do what I say, exactly as I say, then you will get Sidney back. Consider it a trade."
"You.... you don't mean for me to..."
"If it comes to that, you'd better be ready to do whatever it takes. Isn't that what mothers do for their children? Anything?"
Taking a deep breath, Ramona stepped back up to the pier's edge and slowly unwrapped the now screaming baby from her protective blanket. She didn't know this little girl's name, and it was better that way. Her stomach turned over again, the threat of vomiting making itself known in her throat. She clenched her teeth and in one motion extended her arms, holding the child out over the deadly swells of seawater, turned away from her so that she could not see the baby girl's face. Arms trembled violently, like the rest of her body, and she cried hysterically, trying to hold the image of Sidney opening her presents, Sidney eating breakfast, Sidney riding her horse, Sidney playing with her puppy, Sidney at Christmas...
But her fingers could not release, her arms could not relax. She could not do it! Defeated, enraged, Ramona drew the baby back in tight against her chest and turned around, running back down the pier to about halfway, where dull yellow halogen lights provided some illumination. From here she could see the line of warehouses crowding the boardwalk to the left, and the line of shops to the right, but all steeped in shadow and storm. She did not doubt that she was being watched - but from where, she could not guess.
"I won't do it!" she suddenly screamed out into the wind, pulling the wet blanket back up around the child in her arms. "I wont! You bastard! Give me back my Sidney!"
A long drawn out moment of silence filled only by the tempest settled over the pier, and Ramona searched for some flicker of movement ahead that would give her a clue, a hope. It was a gamble on the Man's behalf, a ruse, it had to be! No human being would expect a mother to truly make that choice, to sacrifice another child to save her own, and no human being would really execute an innocent young girl because a mother couldn't.
Then, splitting the silence from far away, but carried to her ears by the raging winds of the storm, was the distinct report of a gunshot from somewhere in the beach's shadows. Horror and devastation flooded Ramona's being, realization robbing her legs of their strength so that she sank to her knees on the pier. She had failed....
Oh dear God, what have I done! God, please, no!"
Her pocket began to ring and vibrate, a merry song Sidney had always loved to hear that now sounded clanging and foreboding (When you're smiling, when you're smiling, the whole world smiles with you...). With fingers numb and trembling, Ramona barely managed to answer the phone, only a croak escaping her throat when she held it up to speak.
"That was stupid, Ramona," came His voice, a sigh on its tail end,"and you have forced me to do something I was not looking forward to. But no going back now. I hope that baby in your arms was worth exchanging for the one now lying bleeding to death in front of me. Goodbye, Ramona."
The cell slowly slipped from her limp, incredulous fingers, hitting the wooden planks under her with a final thud as the casing cracked and the screen went black.
Ramona screamed, a sound even recognized by the gods in their apathetic halls above. The sound of heartbreak and utter loss.