The light above me is buzzing. There are real things to focus on, but that damn light keeps buzzing. Am I in shock? Yes, yes- shock. Take a breath.
“The doctor said he’s fine, a few cuts and bruises. They want me to follow up with a therapist, but physically…” The police chief nods along; he was told, too. I’m just talking to myself- for myself- to stay calm.
“He’s a brave little guy, and very smart. I’m sure he’ll be ok.” Chief Barrett pauses to give me a once over, “Are.. YOU ok? Should I call the doctor back here?” I blurt out a quick no before saying that I’m just ready to go home. No more waiting, I’m ready to be somewhere safe again.
“Thank you for coming in, I want to be sure we get as much of this recorded as possible before you forget any details.” Police Chief Michael Barrett has asked me to come to the station to tell him what happened, record it, and answer a few questions. It’s cute that he thinks I’ll ever forget the details. I’d pay tuition-levels of money to anyone who could help me do just that. “Chief, I’m not sure where you’d like me to start.” “Let’s start with when you left the house on June 7th.”
June 7th was a Monday, and I’d decided that we needed some sunshine. Being a stay at home mom has its perks, and getting prime time at the park’s splash pad was one of them. I packed a bag with swim trunks for Scout and towels for us both, remembered the sun screen, and grabbed the sunglasses. “Mom, I’m goona splash the water so big, it falls down like a giant waterfall, and washes everyone away in the tide.” Scout is 5 and a half, just you ask him, and everything lately had to be ‘so big’ or ‘so strong’. I smiled and said “oooook” before patting him on the butt to get him walking. “Bubs, you’re getting so big,” I grunted while lifting him to the carseat, “You really need to start climbing in here by yourself.” He laughed, “Nooo, you pick me up. You’re the mom.” Geez kid, ‘the mom’ is not ‘the workhorse’. But I smiled and wrinkled my nose at him, knowing these days would be gone before I knew it.
The Ridgeview Park is up a heavily wooded mountain, and the windy road up there is beautiful. Forest, and wildflowers, and animal life- it certainly doesn’t feel like it’s only 10 minutes from the city. My family had driven it every Sunday in the fall, just for the scenery, and I knew every curve very well. What I didn’t know was what else was in the woods. Illegal dumping, kids partying, someone camping- probably. The woods of Pennsylvania are pretty notorious for those things. It never occurred to me that someone might call the woods home. Or that said someone might be watching the road.
“Police are asking that anyone with information regarding their disappearance please call the number on the screen. If you’re just joining us, we are live on Ridgeview Mountain Road, where a car believed to belong to Nina Fellows has been discovered. Nina and her 5 year old son, Scout, disappeared June 7th. It has been 2 days since their family has had contact with her. Mark Fellows, Nina’s husband, has been complying with police and has offered a reward to anyone with information on where his wife and son are. Stay tuned for updates, as we’ll be on the scene here for the remainder of the night. Police chief, Michael Bar…..”
I can hear the news broadcast from somewhere. Has it been 2 days? It feels like more. I don’t know where we are, except to say it appears to be a cellar. Not a basement, nothing so refined. More like an old root cellar. Dirt floor, dirt walls? It’s hard to tell with the small amount of light coming in a broken, smudgy window. Scout has been so scared, either crying inconsolably to go home, or sleeping. Right now, it’s the latter. I run my fingers through his tear-muddied hair. If he doesn’t get something to drink soon- no. NO! I cannot let myself think like that. I’m his mother, damn it. I am supposed to protect him! What happened? How are we even here? I can’t reme..wait. Do I remember something?
“MOM! Captain Mighty fell!!!” I was startled by the sudden yelling from the backseat and almost swerved into a ditch. “What, bubs? Where?” I looked in the rearview mirror and caught a glimpse of his sad eyes as he wailed “Out the window!”
I pulled over. That damn toy was too expensive to just leave, and besides, it was Scout’s favorite. “Ok, ok, calm down, babe. I’ll try to find him.”
I stepped out of the car. I remember being careful not to slide down into the ditch myself. A broken ankle wasn’t in the plan. I heard a noise- was someone in the woods? Probably a deer. But it didn’t really sound like a deer. It sounded like shuffling, the way a child walks through Autumn leaves. I turned around to look and then, nothing. A flash of blue sky as I was presumably falling, but I don’t remember tripping. I don’t remember anything else at all.
I can hear that shuffle step now, above me. Whoever was in the woods is also in this house. I strain to pick out any other noises. Voices, other footsteps. I have no idea how many people are even up there. I don’t know where this house is. I don’t know how I got here. I don’t know WHY I’m here. I need to save my baby boy. I need to get the fuck out of here. Now.
I must have dozed off. My mouth feels like sandpaper. How long was I out? The dirty window light is darker now. It’s either evening or morning. Is this still day 2, or is it day 3? “Mommy, please, I want daddy.” Scout’s little face is breaking my heart. It occurred to me to get up. Have I tried getting up? Seems awfully stupid to sit here for 2 days (3 days?) without trying to get up. I try to stand and don’t get very far off the ground before realizing I’m restrained. There’s a thick leather belt across my mid section that I hadn’t even noticed, and it was held closed with a large padlock. This was basically a collar and leash system, as the belt was attached to the wall with a thick rusted chain. With barely enough slack to get to my knees, there was certainly no way in hell I’d be standing to run.
The shuffle steps above me start to get louder than I’d heard them before. They’re getting closer! Someone is coming down here, they’re coming down here WHAT THE FUCK DO I DO?
But not just the shuffle steps. Another set of footsteps is coming, too. Smaller. Lighter. I hear muffled voices now, they must be close to the cellar door. It sounds like a man and woman? Am I delirious?? What kind of people kidnap a mom and child in broad daylight?
My brain stalls out. ‘In broad daylight’. I’m sure that’s the sizzle. The scintillating news headline to grab viewers’ attention.
What the fuck, Nina, pay attention. It’s so hard to do. I’m so tired, and my throat is so dry, and STOP IT. Pay attention. Scout needs you! Man up.
I hear the clicking of locks and the twisting of a well-used doorknob. This is it. Here they come. My captors. The last faces I may ever see.
“Hello, sweety. Would you like some milk? I have some cookies for you, too.”
She’s an older woman, maybe 65? Scout looks at her warily, scared out of his mind, but starving. He turns to me with his dusty face, “Mommy?” He’s asking permission. He’s seeking the go ahead to accept cookies and milk from the same people who threw us in this dirt hole. I pull him closer to me and stare in the woman’s eyes. “Who the fuck are you, and why the fuck are we in here?”
“Oh, Birdie. I don’t care for that language in my…”
“I DON’T GIVE A FLYING FUCK WHAT YOU CARE FOR…”
I don’t get to finish that sentence. Shuffle Step comes out of nowhere with a tight backhand to my mouth. I taste blood and know I could be in real trouble here. I say the only thing I can think of in this moment. “Go ahead, bubs. Ask nicely for a cookie.”
“So I decided to play along.”
Chief Barrett rubs his forehead like he’s trying to understand the words I just said. “Mrs. Fellows- what do you mean? When you say ‘decided to play along’?” I look back at him for a long couple of seconds before landing on the explanation I was searching for. “You know how women are told to scream ‘fire’ instead of ‘rape’?” He nods and I continue, “Well, I remember reading that if you’re ever taken, to try to be, you know, obedient. That you’re more likely to survive if you don’t give them a reason to kill you. I just… didn’t want to give them a reason.”
“Is that the feeling you had, that your life was in danger?” I can’t believe that’s the question he goes with. I’m speechless for a moment, and with my mouth agape I ask, “What? I was chained in a cellar with MY CHILD and had just been cracked in the mouth. Yeah, I felt like there was some ‘danger’! What kind of question is that?!”
The chief motions with his hands for me to calm down before writing something down in his notebook. “I didn’t mean to offend, it’s just..To be honest, Mrs. Fellows, I’m not sure what kind of questions to ask. I’ve never had to ask about this sort of thing.”
How reassuring. It’s not his fault, Nina. “Chief, every second I sat there felt like I was already dying. I just did what I thought would give us the best chance to get out.”
“Little Birdie, would you like a cookie, too? Here, sweetheart, give mama a cookie.” Scout grabs a cookie from the large plate and sits back down on the ground next to me. “Mommy, want a cookie? They’re pretty good!”
He doesn’t get it. He’s still a baby, he doesn’t know how bad this is. “No, bubs. Thank you, but mommy isn’t very hungry.” I turn to look up at my captors, reminding myself to be nice. Through a measured breath, I manage to respond, “They look delicious, I just don’t have much of an appetite, Ms…..”
“May, Birdie. You can call me May. Now, since I can’t convince you to eat a cookie, maybe you’d like to help make dinner. A little movement might stir the appetite up.” I do my best to smile while answering with a nod. Anything to get out of this chain.
The upstairs isn’t much better than the cellar. It’s dark and hoarded, there’s thick coal dust on every surface. There has to be a door somewhere, or windows? I can’t see many of the walls due to the stacks of garbage and junk. The few visible areas of the wall are crowded with biblical pictures, velvet Jesus paintings, pages torn right from a bible and tacked up for easy reference. Who the fuck are these people, what is even happening?
We have no choice but to walk single file down the “walkway” carved through the trash. May leads with me carrying a too-heavy Scout, who is staring at Shuffle Step walking behind us. “I’m Scout!” He sounds like he’s meeting a new friend, the sugar must have perked him up. “Shh babe, let’s be quiet.” I do not want him getting comfortable with these people.
“My name is Joey.” At least that’s what I think Shuffle Step says. It sounds more like ‘muh gabe’s jee’. “Hi Joey! Do you like Captain Mighty?!” Oh my fucking lord, I can’t take this. “Bubs, please hush. Ok?” Resigned, he mutters an ok before laying his head on my shoulder.
“This is the kitchen, I imagine you’ll want to get familiar with it since you’ll be spending most of your time here.” I look around at the only uncluttered room I’ve seen thus far, but damn is it old. I’m looking at a filthy wood fired stove and rusty sink basin as my brain actually processes what she just said. “Why.. um, I mean, how much time are we going to be staying with you May?” Play nice, play nice, play fucking nice. “Oh Birdie, Joey isn’t going to want to move away from his mama. Y’all can just live here with me.”
I do not understand what the fuck she is saying. What is she saying?
“And in a few months, I’ll be here to be your midwife when the baby comes. With your precious angel here, I know you’re nice and fertile.”
Alarm bells start ringing in my ears, my sight pinholes, and I’m about to pass out as I ask in a whisper “Excuse me?”
“What wedding, what did she mean about a midwife?” The chief seems as lost now as I felt in the moment. His tone is a bit on the hysterical side. “It seems Ms. May thought I’d be a good wife for her son, and wanted me to give her a grandchild. A beautiful family moment, huh?” Now my tone is hysterical, too.
“There’s a room upstairs for the little angel, go get him settled in and come back down here. Us ladies will get to fixing dinner and catch up. Go on now, Birdie.” I know I’m not moving and I know my mouth is hanging wide open. My brain has shut down, I have panicked into a state of complete malfunction. “I, uh. I. I’m sorry, can.. Can you tell me, please, say that again.. Please. I’m still, I’m just. I’m feeling a bit, uh. Tired.” She looks at me with the warmest smile. She looks so sweet that I almost forget who she is. What she is. “Oh Birdie, I know. You’ll take a nice bath before the ceremony this evening and that’ll perk you right up.”
“The ceremony? That’s, that’s today? So soon..?” I feel like I’m going to pass out again, who the fuck are these people?
May doesn’t seem to notice my panic, or at least she doesn’t respond to it. “Of course it’s today, dear. I won’t have my baby boy living in sin! Imagine conceiving my grandbaby in sin.” She turns around to the sink before motioning to Joey, “and you go get that truck unpacked. We’ll need the nursery fixed up sooner rather than later.”
“I’LL HELP! I mean, I can help. We can all do it together, like a family.” I almost puke out those last words. I feel disgust rolling in my stomach.
“Are you ok to go on? You look a little pale.” Chief Barrett’s face is hard to read. I can’t tell if he wants me to take a break or if it’s him that needs a break. “I’m ok if you are. I’d just like to get this over with.”
“Oh, look at you, Birdie! Jumping right in, I knew you were the one for my Joey. Go ahead out. Joey, lead the way and don’t get to foolin’ around out there.” Joey grunts a reply to May, turns to give me a smile that I will likely never forget, and starts lumbering his way back out through the trashpile walkway. I follow him carrying Scout, who is now done with being carried and squirms in my arms. “Mommy, I wanna walk. Can I just walk?” I kiss him on his head and whisper, “You’re going to walk in a minute, babe. You’re gonna run.”
We finally make it to the front door, which leads out to a rotten wooden porch. Boards are cracked, missing, and twisted. The paint has long since peeled off. By looking down the steps, I can see exactly where we are. We’re not far, we can make it. All around the property is forest, and the driveway is just a dirt road, made by driving over the bushes for years until a trail formed. The driveway is long, but not that long, and I can see the road beyond it: Ridgeview Mountain Road. We never left the mountain. I start formulating a plan in my head. We can make it, I know we can.”
I put Scout down on his own feet, and he sways a little bit. Having been trapped in a cellar for days gave him jelly legs. I hold his hand and walk towards the truck. Towards Joey. Ok, Nina. And what are you going to do about Joey? I don’t know. Maybe nothing? Nothing. Nothing else matters except that we.can.make.it. Joey is busy messing with something in the cab, so I say, loudly and sweetly, “Oh hey, bubs! Look at this great stuff back here! Let’s help Joey and start taking this stuff inside!”
I don’t wait to see if Joey believed my ruse or not. I just have to hope that I’ve bought a few minutes because he thinks we’re busy in the bed of the truck. As soon as we were at the tailgate, I hissed “RUN” in my boy’s ear. I knew I couldn’t run fast enough carrying him and wanted him to get a head start. Sensing the fear in my command, he took off running down the driveway. He looked like an angel with the sunlight shining through the trees. My beautiful angel. I bumped around at the back for another minute or two, talking to myself so that Joey would think I was talking to Scout.
Then I ran.
I ran faster than I knew I could. I ran with my chest burning from the fresh air being forced into my lungs. I saw Scout, I saw the road, and now I could see what part of the road we were on- and I almost screamed with joy. There was a large gas station right across the street.
We can make it. We can make it.
We’re 10 feet from the road when Scout turns to look for me, but I’m already right there and I scoop him into my arms without missing a step. I ran. I ran even though my legs were about to give out. I ran even though I was afraid I’d drop Scout. I ran until I was across Ridgeview and entering the parking lot of the busy gas station. And then I continued to run, only now, I was also screaming.
“What were you screaming?”
“Chief, if I’m being honest, I don’t remember any actual words coming out. I was just…making myself heard.”
We can make it.
I ripped the door of the gas station open so hard, I thought I broke my wrist. “Help! Help us! Please help!” The cashier, looking scared out of his mind, came around the counter to see how he could help.
Breathlessly, I start rambling. “My name is Nina Fellows, there are people who took us, they’re right across the street, you need to call 911 NOW!” As the words leave my lips, I hear the growl of a pickup truck and the screeching of old brakes.
I turn to the large front window in terror and realize that we’re not safe yet. Joey swings his shuffle-step feet out of the driver door, as May reaches down to the passenger floor board. I already know what’s about to happen, like a psychic vision. I yell “DOWN!” and quickly duck under window level and pull Scout down with me. There’s a sudden thunder-like BOOM and we are being showered with silvery glass. I do my best to keep Scout’s face down and when I myself finally look up, another BOOM shakes the store front. Snacks and newspapers explode, there’s a screaming woman outside, and as I look for the cashier, I see him sitting propped up against the counter. He is holding what’s left of his right shoulder while speaking to the 911 dispatcher on the phone.
Nina, you don’t have time to wait for the police.
I push Scout and we start crawling away from the window. I shove him behind the first row of miscellaneous snacks so we have a little cover and we keep crawling. I know there’s an office, I just have to get to it. We crawl until we make it to the back wall, covered floor to ceiling by drink coolers. Flustered, I quickly look left and right to see which way we need to go when BOOM! The shot hit about 2 rows back from us, and now there’s antifreeze and random car-care liquids spraying everywhere. Fuck, where is the office?!
I can’t wait, I choose to go left. We crawl as quietly as possible amongst the pandemonium surrounding us until we finally come upon a doorway.
It’s a fucking bathroom, are you kidding me?
I chose the wrong direction, but there’s no going back now. I crawl through the door and pull Scout through by his arms. “Mommy, but this is the girls’ bathroom! I can’t be in here, it’s the girls’ bath…” “SHHHHHH BUBS. I know. But it’s ok. It’s ok because you’re with me, ok? I just need you to go in the last stall- go in the last stall and put yourself as far as you can into the corner.” Thankfully, he listens without question. I let the door close and lock it, silently thanking this store for having locks on the bathroom. I can hear sirens pulling up out front, so I know it’s almost over. We can make it. Just a few more minutes, we can make it.
Bang, bang, bang.
Someone is knocking at the bathroom door. “Ma’am, my name is Sergeant Nichols. We have the perpetrator cuffed and in custody. It’s safe to come out.”
Perpetrator. I almost miss it in my relief to be done. Perpetrator, not perpetrators. “Sir, what about his mom? What about May??”
“Ma’am, I’m being told there was only one assailant… there’s no woman that we’re aware of.”
“Well, we checked the house. A lot of junk, mostly, but we found the cellar and chains. We haven’t yet found May, but we have a car outside the house in case she tries to go back. I want to tell you…. You don’t need to worry… Joey took his own life. In jail, in his cell. He, uh, he won’t be able to hurt you.” I’m not sorry, I hope there’s a hell and I hope he burns there. “So then, what about May? I just pretend she’s not out there somewhere? I just say ‘ok’ and go back to my life..? How do you expect me to do that?” Chief Barrett places his hand on my shoulder and there is kindness in his voice as he says “I don’t expect you to pretend. I expect you to protect your son and face every day with bravery. And talk to a therapist.” I manage a chuckle at the last suggestion as I say “Oh yeah, I’ve booked an extended stay in the psych ward.”
I step out of the police station, squeezing through the heavy doors out into the warm June sun. I stand there for a minute, taking a few deep breaths and letting the sun wash over my face. I am going home to my son and my husband. It’s over. With a final deep breath, I start down the steps to the parking lot.
We made it. We made it.
I start my husband’s car (mine was still considered evidence, though I’m not sure I want it back anyway) and head out to the road. I look left and see a car headed down, so I wait to pull out. The driver waived a ‘thanks’ to me and I gave one last road check. Left- clear. Right- clear. I pull out of the lot and enter traffic, giving a quick glance to my rearview mirror.
I thought I must have imagined it, so I did a double-take. But there, from the side of the road, was May. Watching. And waiving.