Saving Natalie

Chapter 1

Looking around my new apartment I am overwhelmed. There is so much to unpack, I don't know where to start. I look at the time. "Only a quarter past one in the afternoon, that's all," I say to myself. I am so surprised how quickly I got here and unloaded my truck. My furniture won't be here till tomorrow so I am very limited on what I can really put away. I move to the kitchen. It is in the corner of the studio style apartment I rented. There are a few overhead cabinets and an island with more storage underneath. There are only three drawers under the limited counter space next to the sink and dishwasher, so not much room for all my kitchenware that currently sits in seven boxes on the island. I decide to unpack the dishes and cookware and see how far I get before I have to go to the store for groceries.

I unpack and put away all my dishes, and the majority of my kitchen boxes are now empty. I can already tell I will need extra cabinet space for my small appliances that now clutter the counters. I wish this place had a pantry like my old apartment, but I needed to make a change. Getting out of Forks was essential to my well-being. I brush off that line of thought and pull a pad of paper out of my purse. I need to make a list and get to the grocery store before I end up ordering pizza.

Once my list is made, I grab my purse and keys and head for the door. When I pull it open I am surprised to see a little girl playing in the hallway. She looks to be about seven or eight, with long blonde hair that hangs down to her waist. She's jumping back and forth in a pattern down the hall. I watch her for a moment before realizing that she is playing hopscotch without having drawn the boxes on the floor. She doesn't notice me, so I shut my door and turn to lock it. When I turn back around I find her staring at me with the most brilliant blue eyes. I go to introduce myself but she cuts me off, "I'm Natalie, what's your name?"

"Um, my name is Bella. I just moved in."

"Bella, that's a pretty name. You are pretty, so I guess that's why your mom named you that. I live here too, we are neighbors now. Do you have kids? It would be nice to play with someone, but there aren't any other kids in this building. It's boring. Mom says that kids aren't supposed to live here. I'm not supposed to be playing out here." She babbles on and on until I finally stop her.

"Natalie, it is very nice to meet you. I don't have any kids but maybe I can play with you later. I have to go to the store now though," I say, wondering why her need to talk so much makes me sad.

She looks down at her feet and mumbles something I can't understand before looking up and smiling widely. "I understand. I would love to play with you later. I'll look for you after supper," she says.

I smile at her and say good bye before walking toward the stairs. I live on the second floor so it only takes me a moment to get out to the street. I walk to my car that is parked about a half a block down. On my way I pass a woman leaning against the building smoking a cigarette. She looks familiar, but I know I don't know her. She has shoulder length bleach blonde hair and is dressed in a well-worn, short denim skirt and her t-shirt is hanging off her left shoulder. She is wearing high heeled boots and lace tights. My first thought was that she was a hooker. I felt sorry for her. She looked up at me and what I saw took my breath away. The same brilliant blue eyes that warmed my heart only five minutes ago now broke it into a million pieces. This was undoubtedly Natalie's mother or sister. There was no denying the likeness. The woman looked at me with disdainful curiosity.

I had to pull myself away from her to go to my car. I couldn't believe the likeness of the only two people I'd met since pulling into Seattle this morning. I vowed to myself that I'd keep an eye on my neighbors to make sure they were alright. There was just something about the woman's face that troubled me.

I shopped for over an hour and when I got to the check-out lane I had more food than I could ever possibly eat in a month. I noticed that there were many items I'd never buy for myself. Bags of chips, pudding packs, cookies, ice cream, sugary cereals and fruit snacks covered the conveyer belt. I guess I was planning to be the best neighbor that Natalie could ever ask for. I paid for my purchases and loaded the cart with my bags. On the way home I thought a lot about my neighbor. She was quite adorable. Her long blonde hair was nearly white and had absolutely no curl or wave to it at all. I can't even get hair that straight with a flat-iron. Her eyes are a striking blue but there is something, some emotion in them I can't place just yet. Her face has that softness that comes from innocence but it's slightly thin for a child of her age. Her nose is straight with a little bit of a lift on the end. She really is beautiful.

Her personality is what gets me. She has a genuine curiosity that seems to be normal for her age but the way she just talks and talks has me wondering if she ever gets to talk to anyone. She said there were no other kids in the building. I don't remember being asked about kids or reading anything saying kids weren't allowed. Strange. I'll have to look into that.

If that was her mother I saw outside, is she a hooker like I thought or is she just without better things to wear? I feel like I already know the answer to the last question.

When I pull up to the building I see her again. The woman with the beautiful blue eyes, only this time she is leaning into the window of a black Cadillac. I watch as she stands up and starts to walk away when she stops and suddenly gets into the car. The driver pulls away quickly. I suppose that's the answer I knew I'd find. At least they left instead of her taking him up to the apartment.

I get out and try to load as much as I can on my arms so I don't have to make too many trips to the car. As I trudge up the stairs with all but three bags and a gallon of milk, I hear crying. At the end of the hallway I notice Natalie sitting below the window hugging her knees. I take my bags to my door and set them down.

"Natalie," I say quietly. "What's wrong honey?"

She startles and looks up. Her eyes are swimming in tears and her cheek is red. I look closer and realize that the red mark is actually a hand print. I start to ask her about it but she speaks first.

"Nothing, I'm fine," she says wiping away the tears.

"You don't think I'm gonna believe that do you?" I say with as much gentle scolding in my voice as I can get without scaring her. "I know you have been crying and I can see the mark on your cheek. What happened?"

"I'm fine, really. I was crying because Mommy said I can't play with you tonight and I have to go in the apartment for the rest of the night. I only came out here to tell you so you didn't worry."

"Oh, I see. Why can't you play with me? Did she say?" I ask as I sit next to her on the floor. I am starting to get very angry at this woman. "Can I introduce myself to her? Maybe that will help."

"No it won't help besides she's not here. She's working tonight, that's why I have to stay inside." Just as she says that I hear her tummy growl. I have to close my eyes and breathe so as not to say something mean about her mother. "Did you eat? Before she left, did she fix you dinner?"

"No, but there's peanut butter in the kitchen. I'll be fine." I notice she doesn't say there is anything else.

"Can I help you fix it and get you set up for bed? It's almost eight o'clock." She starts shaking her head.

"No, I'll be fine. I don't have school tomorrow or anything so I can stay up late. She'll be home in a little while."

I know she is lying but there isn't much I can do. "If you're sure, I really don't like leaving you alone. You can knock on my door if you need anything. You shouldn't be alone like this, sweetie. How old are you?"

She smiles at me and says, "Nine. Well almost. My birthday is next Tuesday."

"Well I bought some snacks just for you and you are welcome to come visit me anytime you want. I'll talk to your mom next time I see her. What does she look like, so I know how to find her?" I ask, silently praying she tells me something I'm not expecting.

"She looks just like me. People think we are sisters." My heart sinks and I want to cry.

"Oh, ok then. That shouldn't be too hard to notice then should it?" I say as lightly as I possibly can under the circumstances. "What does your mom do? Where does she work?"

"She's a customer service specialist. That's what she calls it. I know better though. She spends time with men for money. I don't know why they would pay her to spend time with them because she is so boring. All she does when she's home is sleep."

I cough at her knowledge and the job title her mom came up with. "Do you have a phone, sweetie?" She nods and digs into her pocket pulling out a small flip phone.

"I have it for emergencies but it's almost out of minutes. Why?"

She shows me the phone and I see it only has a few minutes on it. I'm surprised she even has one so that helps my conscience. "I'm going to put my number in it, if that's ok. That way you can call me if you ever need anything." I wait for her to nod and then punch in my number and name before handing her phone back to her.

"Thank you Bella. I better go inside. I'll be ok. I've gotten good at being alone." Her words break my heart.

"I'm sorry honey. Are you sure you don't want to come over and eat supper with me?"

"No, I don't want to get in trouble if she comes home early. Thank you for asking though," she says, sounding much older than nine. Before I can answer her, she is closing the door to her apartment.

I stand up and head inside with my groceries. After putting it all away I realize that I still have a few things in the car so I head back down to get them. Once outside I see the same black Cadillac pull up and Natalie's mom get out. She walks to the door and I feel a little better knowing Natalie won't be alone tonight. I follow her up the stairs with the remainder of my groceries. I pass her as she is fumbling with the key to the apartment. I notice her hands shaking and offer to help her with the keys. She drops them at the sound of my voice. When I bend down to pick them up, she yells at me.

"I've got them!"

"Sorry, I was just trying to help. I'm Bella, I just moved in," I say hoping to get a name from her.

"Yeah, I figured that out. I'm Heidi, I guess you met Natalie," she says with a forced smile.

"Yeah, she's a cute kid."

She chuckles and shakes her head. "You should try living with her. Anyway, she's been told not to bother you. I'm sure you have better things to do than play with a little kid."

"She's not a bother. I really don't mind if she comes over. In fact I can help watch her for you."

Her eyes brighten and then narrow before she speaks. "Yeah, actually that would be helpful. I work a lot of weird hours and she doesn't like being alone."

I can see her working out a lie when she pauses. I don't want to hear some lame excuse for why she leaves her daughter alone so I jump in before she can speak.

"It's no problem, like I said she's a doll and I can always use the company," I say. "Just knock on the door when you need me. I work from home for now so I should be here most of the time."

She gives me a tentative smile and nods. "Thanks." She opens the door and slips inside leaving me standing there.