It took Bella less than a minute to settle the patrons and run out after Penny, but by the time she got outside, her friend was gone.
“Friend” was probably the wrong word now. Bella pounded her fists against her head. “Think!” she shouted at herself, “Think!”
But she couldn’t. She felt sick with guilt and panic. She made a terrible guess. A gamble. Because she was shitty. A shitty mom, a shitty wife, and shitty at her job too. “Fuck!” she shouted, doubling over. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”
Screaming didn’t help. It just made her feel more afraid of everything that would be coming down.
I ruined my life.
Cars sped by as if in slow motion, and for one brief moment, Bella considered tossing herself in front of one. The clarity of that thought was enough to jolt her into motion. She dialed Caleb.
He picked up after the first ring, voice calm and grounding. Still, she fought to keep herself on the sidewalk.
“I’m at Dawson’s Bar. I…I need help.”
Caleb’s voice was curt. “Don’t move. I’ll be right there.”
Seconds later, he walked out from an alleyway, a muscle ticking in his jaw when he saw her.
“I fucked up.” She fell over as she sobbed and let him catch her.
“Obviously, I’m not going to ask you to babysit a toddler,” Vlad snapped at his daughter as they landed in front of his house. “You dislike children. I merely need to give the babysitters extra money, and by that time, Latimer will have located a lawyer to whom I will also give money, and then Alice will be free.”
“That is bullshit!” Lilith pointed at him angrily, “You’re pretending to have a plan, but you don’t. Alice has been taken, and you’re out here paying pimply-faced teenagers and calling legal representation instead of storming that prison and dragging her out!”
Vlad closed his eyes and prayed for patience as a headache started. His daughter couldn’t possibly know that he was intimately familiar with storming prisons and having it work out badly. There were some traumas he tried not to revisit on his children. “Lilith, I have a plan. I’ve told you the plan. You can go if you do not wish to be a part of it. In fact, please go because you’re not a part of it.”
“I’m not going while your stupid girlfriend is in trouble.”
He clenched his jaw. “Then stop complaining.”
Lilith glared, but Vlad ignored her. He was hanging onto his own sanity by a thread, and he didn’t want to frighten her or Gwendolyn. The latter because she was just about to turn three, the former because she’d seen the result of him becoming completely unglued, and it broke her.
There’s a monster inside me too, and I promise we will learn to control it together.
He clenched his fists, stuffing his rage and anxiety down until they were a leaden weight in his stomach.
“I’m not going to wait outside,” she announced.
“Well, bully for you,” Vlad growled as he threw open the door.
He felt the wrongness of the creatures inside the house immediately, but Gwendolyn was happy with them, talking baby nonsense and singing songs.
“Monster!” she shouted when he entered the room, “My monster! These my monsters too.”
Calm. Be calm, he told himself. Gwendolyn was the priority. He could always kill these creatures later. Picking her up, Vlad kissed her forehead, “Yes, my little hellion. I do belong to you. Wave hello, this is my daughter.”
The tiny terror waved, and to his surprise, Lilith did too.
“Hello, Gwendolyn; I’m Lilith, and I’m going to stay with you.”
Vlad tried and failed to hide his shock. His daughter smirked at him and continued.
“It’ll be me and you and your monsters while my father picks your mother up from work.”
Gwendolyn was thrilled. “You monster too,” she gasped, “Pretty monster. Like me! Monster so pretty!”
“I am a pretty monster,” Lilith agreed. She kept her voice light as if speaking to the Tiny Terror, but her eyes were on the babysitters. “Sometimes when creatures see me, they say, ‘My, Pretty Monster, what big teeth you have.’ And sometimes, when I reach for them, they say, ‘Oh dear, Pretty Monster, your claws are so sharp.’ And sometimes they make a wrong move because they don’t think I’m watching them, and then they don’t say anything at all.”