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Stillhouse Lake / (by Rachel Caine, 2017) -

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Stillhouse Lake /   (by Rachel Caine, 2017) -

Stillhouse Lake / (by Rachel Caine, 2017) -

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Stillhouse Lake / (by Rachel Caine, 2017) -
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2017
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Rachel Caine
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Emily Sutton-Smith
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,
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upper-intermediate
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10:04:13
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

Stillhouse Lake / :

.doc (Word) rachel_caine_-_stillhouse_lake.doc [932.5 Kb] (c: 21) .
.pdf rachel_caine_-_stillhouse_lake.pdf [1.72 Mb] (c: 46) .
audiobook (MP3) .


: Stillhouse Lake

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PROLOGUE GINA ROYAL Wichita, Kansas Gina never asked about the garage. That thought would keep her awake every night for years after, pulsing hot against her eyelids. I should have asked. Should have known. But shed never asked, she didnt know, and in the end, that was what destroyed her. She normally would have been home at three in the afternoon, but her husband had called to say he had an emergency at work and shed have to fetch Brady and Lily from school. It was no bother, reallythere was still plenty of time to finish up in the house before starting dinner. Hed been so lovely and apologetic about having to disrupt her schedule. Mel really could be the best, most charming man, and she was going to make it up to him; shed already decided that. Shed cook his favorite dish for dinner: liver and onions, served with a nice pinot noir she already had out on the counter. Then a family night, a movie on the couch with the kids. Maybe that new superhero movie the kids were clamoring to see, though Mel was careful about what they watched. Lily would curl into Ginas side, a warm bundle, and Brady would end up sprawled across his dads lap with his head up on the arm of the sofa. Only bendable kids could be comfortable like that, but it was Mels favorite thing in the world, family time. Well. His second-favorite, after his woodworking. Gina hoped that he wouldnt make an excuse to go out and tinker around in his workshop this evening. Normal life. Comfortable life. Not perfect, of course. Nobody had a perfect marriage, did they? But Gina was satisfied, at least most of the time. Shed been gone from the house for only half an hour, just long enough to race to school, pick up the kids, and hurry home. Her first thought as she turned the corner and saw the flashing lights on her block was Oh God, what if someones house is on fire? She was properly horrified at the idea, but in the next, selfish second, she thought, Dinners going to be so late. It was petty but exasperating. The street was completely blocked off. She counted three police cars behind the barricade, their flashing light bars bathing the nearly identical ranch houses in blood red and bruise blue. An ambulance and a fire truck crouched farther down the street, apparently idle. Mom? That was seven-year-old Brady, who was in the back seat. Mom, whats happening? Is that our house? He sounded thrilled. Is it on fire? Gina slowed the car to a crawl and tried to take in the scene: a churned-up lawn, a flattened bed of irises, crushed bushes. The battered corpse of a mailbox lay half in the gutter. Their mailbox. Their lawn. Their house. At the end of that trail of destruction was a maroon SUV, engine still hissing steam. It was embedded halfway into the front-facing brick wall of their garageMels workshopand leaned drunkenly on a pile of debris that had once been part of their solid brick home. Shed always imagined their house as being so firm, so solid, so normal. The vomited pile of bricks and broken Sheetrock looked obscene. It looked vulnerable. She imagined the SUVs path as it jumped the curb, took out the mailbox, slalomed the yard, and crashed into the garage. As she did, her foot finally hit the brake of her own vehicle, hard enough that she felt the jolt all the way through her spine. Mom! Brady yelled, almost in her ear, and she instinctively put out a hand to hush him. In the passenger seat, ten-year-old Lily had yanked her earbuds out and leaned forward. Her lips parted as she saw the damage at their house, but she didnt say anything. Her eyes were huge with shock. Sorry, Gina said, hardly aware of what she was saying. Somethings wrong, baby. Lily? Are you okay? Whats happening? Lily asked. Are you okay? Im fine! Whats happening? Gina didnt answer. Her attention was pulled back to the house. She felt strangely raw and exposed, looking at the damage. Her home always seemed so safe to her, such a fortress, and now it was breached. Security had proved a lie, no stronger than bricks and wood and drywall. Neighbors had poured out onto the street to gawk and gossip, which made it all so much worse. Even old Mrs. Millson, the retired schoolteacher who rarely left her house. She was the neighborhood gossip and rumormonger, never shy about speculating on the private lives of everyone within her line of sight. She wore a faded housecoat and leaned heavily on a walker, and her day nurse stood beside her. They both looked fascinated. A policeman approached Ginas vehicle, and she quickly rolled down her window and gave him an apologetic smile. Officer, she said. Thats my house there, the one that the SUV crashed into. Can I park here? I need to look over the damage and call my husband. This is just awful! I hope the driver wasnt hurt too badly . . . Was he drunk? This corner can be dangerous. The officers expression went from blank to hard-focused as she spoke, and she didnt understand why, not at all, but knew it wasnt good. This is your house? Yes, it is. Whats your name? Royal. Gina Royal. Officer He took a step back and rested his hand on the butt of his gun. Turn your engine off, maam, he said as he signaled to another cop, who came at a jog. Get the detective. Go! Gina wet her lips. Officer, maybe you didnt understand Maam, turn your engine off now. It was a harsh order this time. She shifted the vehicle into park and turned the key. The motor spun down to silence, and she could hear the buzz of conversation from the curious onlookers gathering on the far sidewalk. Keep both hands on the wheel. No sudden moves. Are there any weapons in the van with you? No, of course there arent. Sir, I have my kids in here! He didnt take his hand off his gun, and she felt a surge of anger. This is ridiculous. They have us mixed up with someone else. I havent done anything! Maam, Im going to ask you again: Do you have any weapons? The raw edge to his voice derailed her outrage and replaced it with cold panic. For a second she couldnt speak. She finally managed to say, No! I dont have any weapons. Nothing. Whats wrong, Mom? Brady asked, his voice sharp with alarm. Why is the policeman so mad at us? Nothings wrong, baby. Everythings going to be just fine. Keep your hands on the wheel, hands on the wheel . . . She was desperate to hug her son but didnt dare. She could see that Brady didnt believe the false warmth of her voice. She didnt believe it herself. Just sit right here, okay? Dont move. Both of you, dont move. Lily was staring at the officer outside the car. Is he going to shoot us, Mom? Is he going to shoot? Because theyd all seen videos, hadnt they, of people shot to death, innocent people whod made the wrong move, said the wrong thing, been in the wrong place at the wrong time. And she imagined it happening, vividly . . . her kids dying and her unable to do a thing to stop it. A bright flash of light, screams, darkness. Of course hes not going to shoot you! Baby, please dont move! She turned back to the policeman and said, Officer, please, youre scaring them. I have no idea what this is about! A woman with a gold police badge hanging around her neck walked past the barricade, past the officer, and right up to Ginas window. She had a tired face and bleak, dark eyes, and she took in the situation at a glance. Mrs. Royal? Gina Royal? Yes, maam. Youre the wife of Melvin Royal? He hated to be called Melvin. Only ever Mel, but it didnt seem like a time to tell the woman that, so Gina just nodded in response. My name is Detective Salazar. Id like you to step out of the vehicle, please. Keep both hands in view. My kids They can stay where they are for now. Well take care of them. Please step out. What in Gods name is wrong? Thats our house. This is crazy. Were the victims here! Fearfor herself, for her kidsmade her irrational, and she heard a strange tone in her voice that surprised her. She sounded unhinged, like one of those clueless people on the news who always made her feel both pity and contempt. Id never sound like that in a crisis. How often had she thought that? But she did. She sounded exactly like them. Panic fluttered like a trapped moth in her chest, and she couldnt seem to keep her breathing steady. It was all too much, too fast. A victim. Sure you are. The detective opened her door. Step out. No please this time. The officer whod called the detective stepped away, and his hand was still on his gun, and why, why were they treating her like this, like a criminal? This is just a mistake. All a terrible, stupid mistake! Out of instinct, she reached for her purse, but Salazar immediately took it and handed it to the patrol officer. Hands on the hood, Mrs. Royal. Why? I dont understand whats Detective Salazar didnt give her a chance to finish. She spun Gina around and shoved her forward against the car. Gina broke her fall with outstretched hands on the hot metal of the hood. It was like touching a stove burner, but she didnt dare pull away. She felt dazed. This was a mistake. Some terrible mistake, and in another minute theyd apologize and she would graciously forgive them for being so rude, and theyd laugh and shed invite them in for iced tea . . . she might have some of those lemon cookies left, if Mel hadnt eaten the rest; he really loved his lemon cookies . . . She gasped when Salazars hands slid impersonally over areas that she had no right to touch. Gina tried to resist, but the detective shoved her back in place with real force. Mrs. Royal! Dont make this worse! Listen to me. You are under arrest. You have the right to remain silent Im what? Thats my house! That car drove into my house! Her son and daughter could see this humiliation, right in front of them. Her neighbors all stared. Some had cell phones out. They were taking pictures. Video. Uploading this horrible violation to the Internet so bored people around the world could mock her, and it wouldnt matter later that it was all a mistake, would it? The Internet was forever. She was always warning Lily about that. Salazar continued to talk, telling her about rights that she couldnt possibly comprehend in that moment, and Gina didnt resist as the detective pinned her hands behind her back. She just didnt know how to even begin. The metal of the handcuffs felt like a cold slap on her damp skin, and Gina fought a strange, high buzzing in her head. She felt sweat rolling down her face and neck, but everything seemed separated from her. Distant. This isnt happening. This cant be happening. Ill call Mel. Mel will sort this out, and well all have a good laugh later. She could not comprehend how shed gone in a minute or two from normal life to . . . to this. Brady was yelling and trying to get out of the car, but the policeman kept him inside. Lily seemed too stunned and scared to move. Gina looked toward them and said in a surprisingly rational voice, Brady. Lily. Its okayplease dont be afraid. Itll be okay. Just do what they tell you. Im all right. This is all just a mistake, okay? Its going to be all right. Salazars hand was painfully tight on her upper arm, and Gina turned her head toward the detective. Please. Please, whatever you think I did, I didnt do it! Please make sure my kids are okay! I will, Salazar said, unexpectedly kind. But you need to come with me, Gina. Is itdo you think I did this? Drove this thing into our house? I didnt! Im not drunk, if you think She stopped, because she could see a man sitting on a cot by the ambulance, breathing oxygen. A paramedic was treating him for a wound to the scalp, and a police officer hovered nearby. Is that him? Is that the driver? Is he drunk? Yes, Salazar said. Total accident, if you call drunk driving an accident. He hit early happy hour, made a wrong turnsays he was trying to make it back to the freewayand took the corner too fast. Ended up with his front end inside your garage. But Gina was utterly lost now. Completely, horribly at sea. But if you have him, why are you You ever go into your garage, Mrs. Royal? Ino. No, my husband turned it into a workshop. We put cabinets over the door from the kitchen; he goes into it from a side door. So the door at the back doesnt go up? You dont park in it anymore? No, he took the motor out, you have to go in through the side door. We have a covered carport, so I dont needlook, what is this? What is going on? Salazar gave her a look. It wasnt angry now; it was almost apologetic. Almost. Im going to show you something, and I need you to explain it to me, okay? She walked Gina around the barricade, up the sidewalk where black tire marks veered and careened in muddy ditches through the yard, all the way up to where the rear of the SUV stuck obscenely out of a jumble of red bricks and debris. This wall must have held a pegboard with Melvins tools. She saw a bent saw mixed in with the chalky drywall dust and for a second could only think, Hes going to be so upset, I dont know how to tell him about any of this. Mel loved his workshop. It was his sanctuary. Then Salazar said, Id like you to explain her. She pointed. Gina looked up, past the hood of the SUV, and saw the life-size naked doll hanging from a winch hook in the center of the garage. For a bizarre instant, she nearly laughed at the utter inappropriateness of it. It dangled there from a wire noose around its neck, loose arms and legs, not even doll-perfect in proportions, a flawed thing, strangely discolored . . . And why would anyone paint a dolls face that hideous purple black, flay off pieces of the skin, make the eyes red and bulbous and staring, the tongue protruding from swollen lips . . . And that was when she had one single, awful realization. Its not a doll. And against all her best intentions, she began to scream and couldnt stop. 1 GWEN PROCTOR FOUR YEARS LATER Stillhouse Lake, Tennessee Begin. I take a deep breath that reeks of burned gunpowder and old sweat, set my stance, focus, and pull the trigger. I keep my body balanced for the shock. Some people blink involuntarily with every shot; Ive discovered that I simply dont. It isnt training, just biology, but it makes me feel that much more in control. Im grateful for the edge. The heavy, powerful .357 roars and bucks, sending familiar shocks through me, but Im not focused on the noise or the kick. Only the target at the end of the range. If noise distracted me, the constant din of other shootersmen, women, and even a few teens at the other stationswould have already spoiled my aim. The steady roar of gunfire, even through the thick muffle of ear protection, sounds like a particularly violent, constant storm. I finish firing, release the cylinder, remove the empty shells, and set the gun on the range rest with the wheel still open, muzzle pointed downrange. Then I remove my eye protection and put the glasses down. Done. From behind me, the range instructor says, Step back, please. I do. He picks up and examines my weapon, nods, and hits the switch to bring the target forward. Your safetys excellent. He has his voice pitched loudly to be heard over the noise and the barrier of hearing protection we both wear. Its already a little hoarse; he spends most of his day shouting. Heres hoping my accuracy is, too, I yell back. But I already know it is. I can see it before the paper target is halfway back on the glide. Empty holes fluttering, all in the tight red ring. Center mass, the instructor says, giving me a thumbs-up. Thats a letter-perfect pass. Good job, Ms. Proctor. Thank you for making it so painless, I say in turn. He steps back and gives me space, and I close the cylinder and replace the weapon in its zipped bag. Safe. Well get your scores in to the state office, and you should get your carry permit in no time. The instructor is a young man with a tight burr haircut, former military. He has a soft, blurred accent that, though Southern, doesnt have the sharper lilt of Tennessee . . . Georgia, I think. Nice young man, at least ten years below the age Id ever consider dating. If I dated. Hes unfailingly polite. I am Ms. Proctor, always. He shakes hands with me, and I grin back. See you next time, Javi. Privilege of my age and gender. I get to use his first name. I said Mr. Esparza for the first solid month, until he gently corrected me. Next time Something catches his attention, and his easy calm shifts to sudden alertness. His focus goes down the line, and he bellows out, Cease fire! Cease fire! I feel a sweep of adrenaline ping every nerve, and I go very still, assessing, but this isnt about me. Raggedly, all the percussive noise of the range dies, and people pull their weapons down, elbows in, while he walks down four stalls. Theres a burly man there with a semiauto pistol. Javi orders him to clear the firearm and step away. Whatd I do? the man asks in a belligerent tone. I pick up my bag, nerves still jangling, and head for the door, though I do it slowly. I realize the man hasnt done as Javi instructed; instead, hes chosen to get defensive. Not a good idea. Javis face goes stiff, and his body language changes with it. Clear that weapon and place it on the shelf, sir. Now. Aint no call for this. I know what Im doing! Been shooting for years! Sir, I saw you turn your loaded weapon in the direction of another shooter. You know the rules. Always point the muzzle downrange. Now clear it and put it down. If you dont follow my instructions, I will remove you from the range and the police will be called. Do you understand? Smiling, calm Javier Esparza is now someone else entirely, and the force of his command blasts through the room like a stun grenade. The offending shooter fumbles at his gun, gets the clip out, and throws it and the weapon down on the counter. I notice the muzzle still isnt pointed downrange. Javis voice has gone clear and soft now. Sir, I said clear your weapon. I did! Step back. As the man stares, Javi reaches for the gun, ejects the last cartridge from the slide, and sets the bullet down on the counter beside the clip. Thats how people get killed. If you cant learn how to properly clear a weapon, you need to find another range, he says. If you dont know how to obey a range instructors orders, find another range. In fact, you might want to just find another range. You endanger yourself and everybody here when you ignore safety rules, do you understand? The mans face turns a puffy, unhealthy red, and he balls his fists. Javi puts the gun back down exactly the way it had been when he picked it up, turns it downrange, and then pointedly turns it to lie on its other side. Ejection port goes up, sir. He steps back and locks eyes with the man. Javis wearing jeans and a blue polo shirt, and the shooter is wearing a camo shirt and old army-surplus uniform pants, but its clear as day which one is the soldier. I think youre done for the day, Mr. Getts. Never shoot angry. Ive never seen a man so clearly on the edge of either outright, unthinking violence or a massive heart attack. His hand twitches, and I can see him wondering how fast he can get to his gun, load it, and start to fire. Theres a heavy, sick weight to the air, and I find my hand moving the zipper slowly down on the bag Im holding, my mind calculating the stepsjust as he isto preparing my gun to fire. Im fast. Faster than him. Javier isnt armed. The tension shatters as one of the other people standing frozen at a shooting station takes a single step out, halfway between me and the angry guy. Hes smaller than both Javi and the red-faced man, and he has sandy-blond hair that might have been close-cropped once but is growing out to fan his ears now. Lithe, not muscular. Ive seen him around but dont know his name. Hey now, mister, lets just gear this back, he says in an accent that doesnt sound like Tennessee to me but comes from somewhere more in the Midwest. Folksy. Its a calm, quiet sort of voice, seductively reasonable. The range masters just doing his job, all right? And hes right. You start shooting angry, never know what could happen. Its amazing, watching the rage drain out of Getts, as if someone has kicked a plug loose in him. He takes a couple of deep breaths, color fading back to something like normal, and nods stiffly. Shit, he says. Guess I got a little ruffled there. Wont happen again. The other man nods back and returns to his shooting window, avoiding everyones curious looks. He starts checking over his own pistol, which is oriented the correct way, downrange. Mr. Getts, lets talk outside, Javier says, which is polite and correct, but Carls face twists up again, and I see a vein pulse in his temple. He starts to protest and then senses the weight of eyes on him, all the other shooters waiting in silence, watching. He steps back into the booth and angrily begins shoving his kit into a bag. Fucking power-hungry wetback, he mutters, then stalks toward the door. I pull in a breath, but Javi lays a friendly hand on my shoulder as the door slams behind him. Funny how that asshole listens to the white guy before the range master, I say. All of us in here are white, with the exception of Javier. Tennessee has no shortage of people of color, but youd never know it from the makeup of the people on the firing line. Carls a jackass, and I didnt want him in here anyway, Javi says. Doesnt matter. You cant let him talk to you that way, I say, because I want to slam a fist into Carls teeth. I know it wouldnt go well. I still want to do it. He can talk any way he wants. Blessings of living in a free country. Javi sounds pleasant, still. Doesnt mean no consequences, maam. Hell be getting a letter banning him from the range. Not because of what he said, but I dont trust him to be responsible around other shooters. Not only are we entitled to turn people away for unsafe and aggressive behavior, were required to. He smiles a little. A grim, cold little smile. And if he wants to have a word with me in the parking lot sometime later, fine. We can do that. He might bring his beer buddies. Thatll be fun. So, who was the guy that stepped up? I jerk my head toward the man; hes already got his hearing protection on again. Im curious, because hes not a usual range rat, or at least not during the times I tend to shoot. Sam Cade. Javi shrugs. Hes okay. New guy. Kinda surprised he did that. Most people wouldnt. I hold out my hand. He shakes it. Thank you, sir. You run a tight range. I owe it to everybody who comes here. Be safe out there, he says, then turns back to the waiting shooters. He breaks out his drill sergeant voice again. Range is clear! Commence fire! I duck out as the thunder of bullets rattles again. The run-in between Javi and the other man has shaved a little off my good mood, but I still feel vastly elated as I leave my hearing protection on the rack outside. Fully certified. Ive been thinking about it for a very long time, cautious, unsure about whether or not I dared to put my name on official records. Id always had guns, but it had been a risk, carrying without a license. I finally felt settled well enough here that I could take the leap. My phone buzzes as I unlock the car, and I nearly fumble it as I open up the back to place my gear inside. Hello? Mrs. Proctor? Ms. Proctor, I automatically correct, then glance at the caller ID. I have to suppress a groan. School administration office. Its a number with which I am already depressingly familiar. Im sorry to tell you that your daughter, Atlanta Is in trouble, I finish for the woman on the other end. So I guess this must be Tuesday. I lift the panel on the floor. Beneath, theres a lockbox, big enough for the gun bag, and I put it in and slam the box shut, then pull the carpet back over to conceal it. The woman on the other end of the call makes a disapproving sound, low in her throat. Her voice rises a notch. Its not funny, Mrs. Proctor. The principal is going to need you to come in to have a serious discussion. This is the fourth incident in three months, and its simply not acceptable behavior for a girl of Lannys age! Lanny is fourteen, a perfectly predictable age to be acting out, but I dont say that. I just ask, What happened? as I walk to the front of the Jeep and climb in. I have to leave the door open a moment to let the suffocating heat bleed out; I hadnt managed to score one of the shady spots in the ranges narrow parking lot. The principal would much rather discuss it in person. Your daughter will need to be picked up from the office. Shes been suspended from classes for a week. A week? What did she do? As I said, the principal would prefer to talk face-to-face. Half an hour? Half an hour doesnt give me time to take a shower and get rid of the smell of the range, but maybe thats for the best. Having a gunpowder perfume probably wouldnt hurt me in this particular situation. Fine, I say. Ill be there. I say it calmly. Most mothers, I think, would have been angry and upset, but in the great history of disasters in my life, this hardly deserves a raised eyebrow. As soon as I hang up, my phone buzzes with a text, and I figure it will be Lanny, trying to get her side of the story out fast before I hear the less charitable official version. It isnt Lanny, though, and as I crank up the Jeep, I see my sons name glowing on the screen. Connor. I swipe and read the text, which is terse and to the point: Lanny in fight. 1. It takes me a second to translate that last bit, but of course the number one equals won. I cant decide whether hes proud or frantic: proud that his sister held her own, or frantic that it might get them booted out of school again. Its a valid fear. This past year has been a brief, fragile peace between unpacking boxes and packing them again, and I dont want it to end so soon, either. The kids deserve a little peace, and a sense of stability and safety. Connor already has anxiety issues. Lanny acts out on a regular basis. None of us is whole anymore. I try not to blame myself for that, but its hard. It damn sure isnt their fault. I text back a quick reply and put the Jeep in reverse. Ive changed vehicles frequently over the past few years, from necessity, but this one . . . I love this one. I bought it cheap for cash on Craigslist, a quick and anonymous purchase, and its just the right thing for the steep, woody terrain around the lake, and the hills that stretch up toward misty blue mountains. The Jeep is a fighter. Its seen hard times. The transmission needs work, the steerings a little off. But scars and all, it has survived, and it still keeps rolling. The symbolism isnt lost on me. It bucks a little as I steer down the steep hill, passing through cool pine shade and into blazing noonday sun again. The shooting range sits on an overlook, and as I turn onto the road that leads down, the lake slips gradually into view. Light shatters and scatters on the ripples and shifts of the deep blue-green water. Stillhouse Lake is a hidden gem. Used to be an expensive gated community, but with the financial crunch, the communitys funds cratered, and the gates now stand permanently open, the guardhouse at the entrance empty except for spiders and the occasional raccoon. Still, the illusion of wealth lingers here: a scattering of high, fancy houses, though many of the other dwellings are more along the lines of smaller cabins now. There are boaters on the water, but its far from crowded even in todays fine weather. The dark pines scratch at the sky as I speed past them down the narrow road, and the sense of finally being right strikes me again. I havent found many places in the past few years that felt even a little safe, and certainly none that felt like . . . like home. But this placethe lake, the hills, the pines, the half-wild remotenesseases the part of me that never really relaxes anymore. The first time Id seen it, Id thought, This is the place. I put no stock in past lives, but it felt like recognition. Acceptance. Destiny. Damn it, Lanny, I dont want to have to leave this behind so soon because you cant learn to blend. Dont do this to us. Gwen Proctor is the fourth identity Ive had since leaving Wichita. Gina Royal lies dead in the past; Im not that woman anymore. In fact, I can hardly recognize her now, that weak creature whod submitted, pretended, smoothed over every ripple of trouble that rose. Whod aided and abetted, however unconsciously. Ginas long dead, and I dont mourn her. I feel so distant that I wouldnt recognize the old me if I passed her on the street. Im glad Ive escaped a hell I had hardly even recognized when I was burning in it. Glad that Ive pulled the kids out, too. And they, too, have reinvented themselveseven if theyve been forced to. Ive let them pick their own names each time we had to move on, though Ive had to regretfully reject some of the more creative efforts. This time they are Connor and AtlantaLanny, for short. We almost never slip up and use our birth names anymore. Our prisoner names, Lanny calls them. She isnt wrong, though I loathe that my kids have to think of their early lives this way now. That they have to hate their father. He deserves that, of course, but they dont. Choosing their own names is all the control I can give my children as I drag them town to town, school to school, putting distance and time between us and the horrors of the past. It isnt enough. Can never be enough. Kids need security, stability, and I havent been able to give them any of that. I dont even know if I ever can give them that. But Ive kept them safe from the wolves, at least: the most basic and important job of a parent, to keep her offspring from being eaten by predators. Even the ones I cant see. The road glides me around the lake, past the cutoff to our house. Not the house, as I usually think of such things, but finally our house. Ive grown attached. That isnt long-term smart, but I cant help it; Im tired of running, of temporary rented addresses and new fake names and new imperfect lies. I had an opportunity: Id been given a heads-up about this place and scored the house for cash at an incredibly poorly attended bankruptcy auction a year ago. Some financed-to-the-hilt family had built it as their rustic dream getaway, then abandoned it to squatters, and the place had been a wreck. Together, the kids and I had cleaned it, repaired it, and made it into our own. Wed painted the walls in our own colorsbold ones, in Connors room at least. That, I thought, is a sure sign were making it a real home: no more beige walls and rental-property bland carpets. We are here. We are staying. Our house, best of all, has a built-in safe room. For the sake of Connors enthusiasm, I call it our Zombie Apocalypse Bugout Shelter, and weve fixed it up with zombie-fighting gear and signs that read NO ZOMBIE PARKING, TRESPASSERS WILL BE DISMEMBERED. I wince and try not to think too deeply about that. I hopeand I know its a vain hope, reallythat all Connor knows about death and dismemberment comes from watching TV shows and films. He says he doesnt remember much from the old days, when he was Brady . . . or at least, thats what he tells me when I ask. He never went back to school in Wichita after that day, so the schoolyard bullies had no chance to scream the story at him. He and Lanny went into the custody of my mother out in Maine, in a remote and peaceful place. Shed kept her computer locked up in a cabinet and used it only sparingly. The kids hadnt found out much during that year and a half; theyd been kept away from magazines and newspapers, and the only TV in the house had been under my mothers strict control. Still, I know the kids have found ways to dig up at least some of the details about what their father did. I would have, in their place. Its possible that Connors current zombie apocalypse obsession is his cryptic way of working things out. Lannys the one I really worry about. She was old enough to remember a lot . . . The accident. The arrests. The trials. The hushed and hurried conversations my mother must have had on the phone with friends and enemies and strangers. Lanny must remember the hate mail that poured into my moms mailbox. But what I worry about most is how she remembers her father, because like it or not, believe it or not, he had been a good father to his kids, and they had loved him with their entire hearts. Hed never been that man, not really. Being a good father was just a mask hed worn to hide the monster underneath. But that didnt mean the kids have forgotten how it felt to be loved by Melvin Royal. Without meaning to, I remember how warm he could seem, how safe. When he gave his attention, he gave it completely. Hed loved them, and me, and it had felt real. But it couldnt have been real. Not considering what he was. I must not have known the difference, and it makes me sick when I realize all that I got wrong. I slow the Jeep as another big vehicle swings around a sharp curve aheadthe Johansens. They are car-proud people; the SUVs black finish glints perfection, and there isnt even a fine film of dust. So much for off-roading. I wave, and the older couple wave back. Id made a point of meeting our closest neighbors the first week we moved in, because it seemed like a good precaution to assess them early for threats, or as possible resources in an emergency. I dont count the Johansens as either. They are just . . . there. Most people just take up space anyway. The whisper comes and goes in my head, and it frightens me, because I hate remembering Melvin Royals voice. That was nothing hed ever said at home, ever said to me, but Id seen the video of him saying it at the trial. Hed said it utterly casually about the women hed torn apart. Mel infected me like a virus, and I have an unhealthy surety deep down that Ill never get completely well again. It takes a solid fifteen minutes to navigate the steep road down to the main highway, which slips in ribbon waves through the trees. Trees thin, grow shorter and sparser, and then the Jeep rolls past the rustic, sun-blighted sign that announces Norton. The top right corner of the sign is obliterated by a cluster of shotgun pellet strikes. Of course. It wouldnt be the country if drunks werent shooting signs. Nortons a typical small Southern town, with old family establishments clinging on grimly next to repurposed antique stores, everyone hanging by a fragile economic thread. Chain outfits are slowly taking over. Old Navy. Starbucks. The yellow-arch scourge of McDonalds. The school is a single complex of three buildings built in a tight little triangle, with a shared space for athletic and arts between. I check in with the single guard on dutyarmed, as is customary around here, with a handgunin his little shack, and score a faded visitor pass before proceeding. The lunch bell has already sounded, and all over the grounds young people eat, laugh, and engage in flirting, bullying, teasing. Normal life. Lanny wont be among them, and if I know my son, Connor wont be, either. I have to use the intercom to state my name and business before the secretary buzzes me inside, where the smell of stale sneakers, Pine-Sol, and cafeteria food hits me in a familiar puff. Funny how all schools smell the same. Im instantly thirteen again, and guilty of something. As I walk into the junior highs administration office, I find Connor slouched in one of the hard-plastic chairs, staring at his shoes. Called it. He looks up when the door opens, and I see the relief spread over his sun-browned face. It wasnt her fault, he says, before I can even say hello. Mom, it wasnt. Hes an earnest eleven now, and his sister is fourteentough ages even at the best of times. He looks pale and shaken and worried, which bothers me. I can see that hes been biting his fingernails again. His index finger is bleeding. His voice seems hoarse, as if hes been crying, though his eyes look clear enough. He needs more counseling, I think, but counseling means more in-depth records, and records mean complications we cant afford, not yet. But if he really needs it, if I see signs hes regressing to the state he was in three years ago . . . Ill risk it. Even if that means we are found, and the cycle of names and addresses starts all over again. Its going to be okay, I say, and then I draw him into a hug. He lets me, which is unusual, but there are no witnesses here. Even so, he feels tense and solid in my arms, and I let him go quicker than I intended. You should go on to lunch. Ill take care of your sister now. I will, he says. But I couldnt He doesnt finish, but I understand. I couldnt leave her alone, he means. One thing about my kids: they stick together. Always, even while they bicker and fight. They havent let each other down since the day of The Event. Thats how I try to think of it, in capitals and italics: The Event, like its a scary movie, something removed from our lives that we can forget. Fictional and distant. Sometimes, it even helps. Go on, I tell him gently. Well see you tonight. Connor goes, though not without a glance back over his shoulder. Im biased, maybe, but I think hes a handsome kidsparkling amber eyes, brown hair that needs a trim. A sharp, clever face. Hes made some friends here at Norton Junior High, which is a relief. They share typical eleven-year-old interests in video games and movies and TV shows and books, and if theyre a little nerdy, its a good kind of nerdy, the kind that comes from rabid enthusiasm and imagination. Lannys a bigger problem. Much bigger. I take in a deep breath, let it out, and knock on Principal Anne Wilsons door. When I enter, I find Lanny in a chair against the wall. I recognize the cross-armed, head-down posture. Silent, passive resistance. My daughter has on baggy black pants with chains and straps, and a torn, faded Ramones T-shirt she must have stolen out of my closet. Shes let her newly dyed black hair fall loose and ragged around her face. The studded bracelets and dog collar look shiny and sharp. Like the pants, theyre new. Ms. Proctor, the principal says, motioning me to the padded guest chair in front of the desk. Lanny has one of the hard-plastic ones off to the sidethe chair of shame, presumably, worn shiny by dozens, if not hundreds, of militant little asses. I think you already see part of the problem. I thought we agreed that Atlanta wouldnt wear these kinds of clothes to school anymore. We have a dress code that we have to enforce. I dont like it any more than you do, believe me. Principal Wilson is a middle-aged African American woman with natural hair and comfortable layers of fat; shes not a bad person, and she isnt making this some kind of moral crusade. She has rules to follow, and Lanny? Well. My daughter isnt good with rules. Or boundaries. Goth kids arent violent assholes, Lanny mutters. Thats some bullshit propaganda, you know. Atlanta! Principal Wilson says sharply. Language! And Im speaking to your mother. Lanny doesnt look up, but I can well imagine the epic eye roll under that curtain of black hair. I force a smile. This isnt what she had on when she left this morning. Im sorry about this. Well, Im not sorry, Lanny says. Its fucking ridiculous that they can tell me what to wear! What is this, Catholic school? Principal Wilsons expression doesnt change. Also, obviously, there is her attitude. Youre talking about me like Im not even here! Like Im not a person! Lanny says, raising her head. I can show you some attitude. The shock of seeing her face makes me flinch before I can control it. Pale makeup, heavy black eyeliner, corpse-blue lipstick. Skull earrings. For a moment I cant breathe, because her face morphs from my daughters to something else, someone else, someone dangling from a thick cable noose, limp hair sticky around her head, eyes bulging, what skin she had left that same shade . . . Put it in the box. Lock it up. You cant go there. I know damned well Lanny has done this deliberately, and our eyes meet, challenge, hold. She has an eerie ability to find and push my buttons. She got it from her father. I see him in the shape of her eyes, in the tilt of her head. And that scares me. And, Principal Wilson continues, theres the fight. I dont look away from my daughter. Are you hurt? Lanny shows me her right fist and raw knuckles. Ouch. She has a shadow of a smirk on her blue lips. You should see the other girl. The other girl, Principal Wilson says, has a black eye. She also has parents who are the type to have lawyers on speed dial. We both ignore her, and I nod for Lanny to continue. She slapped me first, Mom, Lanny says. Hard. After she shoved me. She said I was looking at her stupid boyfriend, which I wasnthes gross, and anyway, he was looking at me. Not my fault. Wheres the other girl? I look at Principal Wilson. Why isnt she here? She was picked up by her parents half an hour ago and taken home. Dahlia Brown is an A student who swears she did nothing to bring it on. She has witnesses to back her up. There are always witnesses in junior high, and they always say what their friends want them to say. Surely Principal Wilson knows that. She also knows that Lanny is the new kid, the one who doesnt fit in. Thats because my daughter has taken up the goth lifestyle in part as a control mechanism: pushing others away before she can be pushed. That, and in some strange way, shes dealing with the secret horror show that is her childhood. I didnt start it, Lanny says, and I believe her. Ill probably be the only one. I hate this fucking school. I believe that, too. I turn my attention back to the woman at the desk. So youre suspending Lanny, but not this other girl, is that right? I really have no option. Between the dress code violation, the fight, and her attitude about the whole incident . . . Wilson waits, clearly anticipating the argument to come, but I just nod. Okay. Does she have her schoolwork? Hard to miss the relief that slips over the principals face, that this parent who reeks of gunpowder isnt going to make a scene. Yes. I made sure she does. She can come back to classes next week. Come on, Lanny, I say, rising. Well talk about this at home. Mom, I didnt At home. Lanny lets out a sigh, grabs her backpack, and slouches out of the office with her dyed-black hair hiding her expression, which surely isnt pleasant. Just a moment, please. Im going to need specific assurances before I let Atlanta back in classes, Wilson says. We have a no-tolerance policy, and Im bending it because I know youre a good person and want her to fit in here. But this is the last chance, Mrs. Proctor. The very last chance. Im so sorry. Please dont call me that, I say. Ms. Proctor will do. Has since the 1970s, I believe. I rise and offer her my hand. Hers is a moderate handshake, businesslike, nothing more. These days, I count merely businesslike as a positive. Well talk next week. Outside, Lanny has chosen the very same chair her brother used; its probably still warm from his body heat. Do they mean to do it, or is it just instinct? Are they getting too close? Have my paranoia and constant vigilance made them like this? I draw in a breath and let it go. The last thing I want to do is overanalyze the kids. Theyve had enough of that. Come on, I say. Lets kick it, as the kids say. Lanny looks cross. Ugh. We really dont. She hesitates and looks down at her boots. Youre not mad? Oh, Im furious. Im planning to eat all my feelings at Kathys Kakes. And youre going to eat them with me. Like it or not. Lannys reached the age where being enthusiastic about anything, even skipping school to eat ridiculously butter-loaded cake, isnt cool, so she just shrugs. Whatever. As long as I get out of here. Do I even want to ask where you got all this stuff youre wearing? What stuff? Really, kid? Thats how youre rolling with it? Lanny rolls her eyes. Its just clothes. Im pretty sure every girl wears clothes to school. Surprisingly few want to join Marilyn Mansons backup band. Marilyn who? Thanks for making me feel like a crone. Did you order all this online? So what if I did? You didnt use my credit cards, did you? You know how dangerous that is. Im not an idiot. I saved up and bought a preload, just like you taught me. I had it sent to the PO box in Boston and remailed. Twice. That eases a dark, anxious knot in my chest, and I nod. Okay then. Lets discuss it over calories. We dont discuss anything, really. The cake slices are huge, and delicious, and homemade, and theres no point being mad while eating them. Kathys Kakes is popular, and there are people all around us enjoying the treats. A dad with three little ones is rubbernecking on his phone, and the kids are taking advantage of his inattention to dump cupcake crumbs everywhere and paint their faces with vivid blue icing. In the corner theres a studious young woman with a tablet computer; as she twists to plug it in, I see a tattoo on her shoulder beneath her tank top. Something colorful. An older couple sits at what looks like formal tea, with fancy china and a round cake tower crammed with tiny bites on the table between them. I wonder if having tea requires you to look like it bores you to death. Even Lanny eases her attitude by the time we finish eating, and with her corpse-dark lipstick rubbed away, she almost looks normal as we talk, cautiously, about the cake, about the weekend, about books. It isnt until were on the road, grinding gears back up the trail to Stillhouse Lake, that I am forced to spoil things. Lannylook. Youre a smart girl. You know if you stand out like this, pictures will get taken and passed around, and youll get posted on social media. We cant have that. Since when is my life a we problem, Mom? Oh, wait. I remember. Since ever. Id done my absolute best to shield my kids from the worst of the horrors that had followed The Event, and so had my mother in her turn when Id been tried as an accessory. I hoped that whatever Lanny remembered, or had learned, it was a shallow trickle instead of the toxic flood Id been submerged in. My mother had been forced to tell Lanny and ConnorLily and Brady thenthat their father was a murderer, that he was going to trial and then to prison. That hed killed multiple young women. She hadnt told them the details, and I didnt want the kids to know them. But that was then, and I know I cant keep the worst of it from Lanny for much longer. Fourteen is far too young to comprehend the depravity of Melvin Royal. We all have to keep a low profile, I say. You know this, Lanny. Its for our safety. You understand, dont you? Sure, she says, pointedly looking away. Because theyre always looking for us. These mythical strangers youre so afraid of. They arent I take in a breath and remind myself, again, that an argument does neither of us good. We live by the rules for a reason. Your rules. Your reasons. She rests her head against the Jeeps seat, as if too bored to hold it up anymore. You know, if I go goth, nobody will recognize me anyway. They just look at the makeup, not the face. Lanny has a clever point. Maybe not, but here in Norton, itll get you expelled. Homeschooling is still a thing, isnt it? And it would have been an easy answer, too. Id considered it seriously, many times, but the paperwork took ages, and until recently wed always been on the move. Besides, I want my kids to be socialized. To be part of the normal world. Theyve had too much unnatural crap in their lives already. Maybe theres a compromise, I say. Mrs. Wilson doesnt object to the hair. Maybe tone down the makeup, lose the accessories, dont go full black on the clothes. You can still be weird. Just not weird. She momentarily brightens. Can I finally get an Instagram account, then? And a real phone instead of these stupid flip things? Dont push it. Mom. You keep saying you want me to be normal. Everybody has social media. I mean, even Principal Wilson has a lame-ass Facebook page full of stupid cat pictures and weird memes. And she has a Twitter account! Well, youre an antiestablishment rebel; work with that. Be different by refusing to follow the trend. That wasnt flying, and she gave me a disgusted look. So you want me to be a complete social leper. Great. Theres such a thing as an anonymous handle, you know. Doesnt have to be my name on it. I swear, Ill make sure nobody knows who I am. No. Because about two seconds after you open an account, itll be full of selfies. Location tagged. The toughest thing in this image-obsessed day and age was trying to keep the kids images off the Internet. There are eyes always searching for us, and those eyes never close. They dont even blink. God, youre such a pain in the ass, Lanny mutters. She hunches in on herself to stare out the window at the lake. And of course we have to live at the ass-crack of nowhere because youre so paranoid. Unless you plan on packing us up and moving us to someplace even more redneck. I let the paranoid part slide past, because its true. You dont think the ass-crack of nowhere is beautiful? Lanny says nothing. At least she doesnt have a smart comeback, which is a minor victory. I take every victory I can get these days. I steer into the gravel driveway and bounce the Jeep up the hill to the cabin, and Lanny is out the passenger side before Ive even pulled the parking brake. The alarms set! I shout after her. Duh! Isnt it always? Lannys already inside, and I hear the rapid tones of the six-digit code being punched. The interior door slams before I can hear the all-clear signal, but Lanny never gets it wrong. Connor does, sometimes, because hes not as careful about italways thinking of something else. Funny how the two of them have changed places in four years. Connors now the one with the rich interior life, always reading, while Lanny lives with her armor bolted proudly on the outside, begging for trouble. Youre on laundry duty! I say as I enter after Lanny, who, of course, is already slamming her bedroom door. Emphatically. And were going to have to talk about this sooner or later! You know that! The surly silence behind the door disagrees. It doesnt matter. I never give up when its important. Lanny knows that better than anyone. I reset the alarm and then take a moment to put my stuff away, stash everything in its proper place. I like to have order, so that I never have to waste a moment in an emergency. Sometimes I turn the lights out and run crisis drills. Theres a fire in the hall. Whats your escape route? Where are your weapons? I know its obsessive and unhealthy. Its also practical as hell. I mentally rehearse what Id do if an intruder broke in the garage door. Grab knife from block. Rush forward to block him in the door. Stab stab stab. While hes reeling, slice the tendons at the ankles. Down. Always, in my rehearsals, its Mel coming for usMel, looking exactly the same as he had in the trial, wearing a charcoal-gray suit his lawyer had bought, with a blue silk tie and pocket square that matched his denim-colored eyes. He looks like a well-dressed, normal man, and the disguise is perfect. I hadnt been in the crowd at his court appearance, where everyone reported hed looked like a perfectly innocent man; Id been locked up, awaiting my own trial. But a photographer had captured him at just the right moment as he turned and looked at the crowd, the victims families. He still looked the same, but his eyes had gone flat and soulless, and seeing that picture had given me the eerie feeling that something cold and alien was inside of that body, staring out. That creature hadnt felt the need to hide anymore. When I imagine Mel coming for us, thats whats staring out of his face. Exercise done, I make sure all the doors are locked. Connor has his own code, and when he comes home, Ill listen for the tones and the reset. I can tell if its wrong, or if he forgets. The key fob to set the whole system to alert and ring in the Norton Police Department is constantly with me in my pocket. My first action in any emergency. I sit down at the computer in the bedroom Ive made my office. Its a smallish room, with a narrow closet that holds winter clothes and supplies, and its dominated by a battered, magnificent rolltop desk I rescued from an antiques shop my first day in Norton. The date penciled on the drawer puts it at 1902. Its heavier than my car, and someone had used it as a workbench at some point, but its so large that it comfortably holds computer, keyboard, and mouse, plus a small printer. I enter my passcode and hit the target to start the search algorithm running. This is a relatively new computer, bought fresh when I got to Stillhouse Lake, but its been customized with all manner of black-hat goodies by a hacker who goes by the name Absalom. In the days and weeks and months after Mels trial, while I sat in jail and endured my own legal torment, Absalom had been one of a huge baying pack of online abusers to go after me, analyzing every aspect of my life for hints of guilt. After I was acquitted, though, the firestorm really started. Hed unearthed every detail of my life and made it available online. Hed organized troll armies to relentlessly attack me, my friends, my neighbors. Hed found even my most distant relatives and doxed their addresses. Hed hounded the two cousins that Mel still had living and driven one of them to the brink of suicide. But hed drawn the line when the trolls he pushed in my direction went after my kids instead. Id gotten a remarkable message from him just after that hideous campaign started, a heartfelt e-mail that talked about his own childhood traumas, his own pain, and how hed pursued me to banish his own demons. The train hed started couldnt be stopped; the crusade had taken on a life of its own. But he wanted to help me, and what was more, he could help me. By that time wed been on the run out of Wichita, desperate and uncertain, and having him offer a hand? That had been the turning point. That had been the moment Id retaken control of my life, with Absaloms help. Absalom isnt my friend. We dont chat, and I suspect he still hates me on some level. But he helps. He builds false identities. He finds me safe havens. He does what he can to control the constant online harassment. When I get a new computer, he images it from backups he keeps in a secure cloud, so I dont lose data. He writes the custom search algorithms that allow me to keep track of the Sicko Patrol. For this favor, of course, I pay him money. No need to be pals. We keep it strictly business. While the search is running, I make a cup of hot tea with honey and sip it with my eyes shut, gathering myself for the challenge. I always keep certain things within reach as I do this: A loaded gun. My cell phone, ready to speed-dial Absalom if theres an issue. And last but not least, a plastic garbage bag into which I can throw up, if necessary. Because this, this thing: this is hard. Its like sticking my head into a blast furnace, a writhing fury of mindless hatred and vile fury, and I am always shaken and scorched when I back away. But it has to be done. Daily. I feel the tension spiral down from my head, slithering like a cold serpent along my spine, my shoulders, and coiling heavily in my stomach. Im never fully prepared when the search results come back, but today, as ever, I try to be calm, observant, distanced. There are fourteen pages of results. The top link is new; someones opened a thread on Reddit, and now the gruesome descriptions, speculations, and howls for justice are ginning up again. I grit my teeth and click the link. Wheres Melvins Little Helper these days? Would love to pay that church lady hypocrite bitch a visit. They like to call me church lady because our family had been a member of one of the larger Baptist churches in Wichita, though Mel was spotty on attendance. Id usually been there with the kids. There are plenty of ironic pictures posted on that themesplit screens of me and the kids at church, crime scene photos of the dead woman in the garage. On Sunday mornings, Mel had usually excused himself by saying he had things to do in the workshop. Things to do. I have to close my eyes for a moment, because theres a hidden monsters joke in those words. Hed never thought of the women hed tortured and murdered as people. He thought of them as objects. Things. I open my eyes, take a breath, and move on to the next link. Hope Gina and her kids get raped and ripped and hung up like meat so people can spit on them. Mutilating Mel dont deserve a family. That ones accompanied by a crime scene photo of someone elses kids shot and dumped in a ditch. The callous hypocrisy is breathtaking. This troll is exploiting someone elses personal horror to make his point about mine. He doesnt care about children. He cares about revenge. I run through the rest in a sickening rush. You see his daughter? Lily? Id bump that til its cold. Burn them alive and put em out with piss. I got an idea, find some working outhouse and drown the kids in shit. Then send her directions on where to find them. How can we make her suffer? Suggestions? Anybody got eyes on the bitch? On and on and on. I leave Reddit, go to Twitter, find more threats, more hate, more vitrioljust in concise, 140-character bites. Then the blogs. 8chan. The true crime message boards. The websites that are shrines to Mels crimes. On the message boards and websites, the deaths of innocent young women are casual drive-by entertainment. Historical information. At least those armchair detectives arent very threatening; Mels family is just a footnote to the real story for them. Theyre not dedicated to our destruction. The ones who are more interested in us, in Melvin Royals missing family . . . those are the ones who could be dangerous. And there are hundreds, maybe thousands of themall competing to outdo one another with terrible new ways to punish me and the kids. My kids. Its a sick horror show, devoid of even a shred of conscience. None of them recognize that theyre talking about people, real people who can be hurt. Who bleed. Who can be murdered. Or if they do recognize that, they absolutely dont give a shit. There are some, an unnerving skim of this unholy broth, who are true, cold sociopaths. I print it all out, highlight usernames and handles, and begin cross-referencing in the database I keep. Most of the names on the list are old hands at this; they have, for whatever reasons, fixated on us. Some are newer, zealous acolytes whove just stumbled on Mels crimes and are looking to exact some retribution for the victims, but its really got nothing at all to do with Mels victims. I rarely see any of their names mentioned. To this particular crop of vigilantes, the victims didnt matter alive, and they dont matter now. Its an excuse to let their vilest impulses out to play. These trolls are no different from Mel in many waysexcept that unlike him, they probably wont act on those impulses. Probably. But then, thats why I keep the gun sitting next to me, to remind me that if they do, if they dare come near my kids, theyll pay the price. I will not let anyone hurt them ever again. I pause in reading, because whoever the psychopath is behind the handle fuckemall2hell, hes stumbled over a careless piece of court paperwork that has one of our older addresses. Hes publicly posted the street address, looped in victims families, called reporters, sent out downloadable posters that have our pictures on them, with the words MISSING: HAVE YOU SEEN THESE PEOPLE? Its a tactic these savages have adopted recently, trying to play on genuine humanity and concern. Hes preying on the better instincts of people to rat us out so that predators can reach us more easily. Im more worried for the innocent people now living at that address hes distributed, though. They might not have any idea whats coming. I send an anonymous e-mail to the detective in the areaa grudging allyto let him know the address is being passed around again, and I hope for the best. Hope that the family living in that house doesnt wake up to packages of rancid meat and dead animals nailed to their door, to a flood of torture porn, to terrifying threats in their inboxes and mailboxes and on their phones and at their work. I clearly remember the shock of discovering the flood of abuse being leveled at my empty house, even though I was safely in jail and the kids had been spirited away to Maine. If the current residents have kids, I pray they arent targeted. Mine were. Signs on telephone poles. Their pictures sent to pornographers as models. There are no limits for the hate. Its free-floating, a toxic cloud of moral outrage and mob mentality, and it doesnt care who it hurts. Only that it does. The address that this particular troll has uncovered is a dead end; it cant lead him to our door, or our new names. There are at least eight broken trails between where he points and where I now sit, but that doesnt comfort me. Ive gotten good at this out of sheer necessity, but Im not them. I dont have the same rancid drive. All I want to do is surviveand keep my kids as safe as I can. I finish checking, shake the stress out of my arms and hands, drink the cold tea, and stand up to pace the office. I want to hold on to the gun as I do, but thats a terrible idea. Unsafe and paranoid. I stare at the quiet gleam of it, the safety it promises, though I know thats a lie, too, as much a lie as any Mel ever told me. Guns dont keep anyone safe. They only equal the playing field. Mom? A voice from the doorway, and I turn too quickly, heart hammering, glad that I dont have the gun now because surprising me is a bad idea, and its Connor standing there, book bag dragging at his right hand. He doesnt seem to notice that hes startled me, or hes so used to it he doesnt care. Is Lanny okay? he asks me, and I force a smile and nod. Yes, sweetie, shes fine. How was school? I am only half listening, because Im thinking that I didnt hear him come in, didnt hear the code, didnt hear the reset. Id been too deep in concentration. Dangerous. I should be more aware. He doesnt answer the question anyway. He gestures at the computer. Did you finish the Sicko Patrol? It catches me by surprise. I say, Where did you hear that? But I answer my own question. Lanny? He shrugs. Youre looking for stalkers, right? Right. Everybody gets mean stuff on the Internet, Mom. You shouldnt take it so seriously. Just ignore them. Theyll go away. That, I think, is a maddening thing to say on so many levels. As if the Internet is a fantasy world, inhabited by imaginary people. As if were ordinary people in the first place. And most of all, its such a young male thing to say, this automatic assumption of safety. Women, even girls of Lannys age, dont think that way. Parents dont. Older people dont. It reveals a certain blind, entitled ignorance to how dangerous the world really is. It occurs to me, a little sickly, that Ive helped him form that attitude because of how Ive insulated him. Protected him. But what else can I do? Constantly terrify him? That cant help. Thanks for the opinion I didnt ask for, I tell him. But Im all right with doing this. I sort the papers and file them. Ive always kept both electronic and paper records; in my experience, the police are more comfortable with paper. It feels like proof to them in a way that data on a screen doesnt. In an emergency, we might not be able to pull data in time, anyway. Sicko Patrol completed, I say, then shut and lock the file drawer. I drop the key in my pocket. Its attached to the alarm fob, and its never out of my possession. I dont want Connor or Lanny to go through those files. Not ever. Lanny has a laptop of her own now, but I have strict parental controls enabled. Not only does it not give her the results, but Ill be alertedand have beenwhen she tries to search keywords about her father, the murders, or anything related to it. I cant risk giving Connor a computer quite yet, but the pressure to give him online access is growing at an impressive rate. Lanny flings her door open and flits past the office, dodging Connor on her way down the hall. Shes still wearing her goth pants and Ramones T-shirt, black hair fluttering in the breeze. Heading to the kitchen, I guess, for her typical afternoon snack of rice cakes and energy drink. Connor stares after her. He doesnt look surprised. Just resigned. All the sisters in the world, and mine has to dress like somebody out of The Nightmare Before Christmas, he says. Shes trying to make herself not as pretty, you know. Its a surprising insight from a kid his age. I blink, and it strikes me hard that beneath her oversize pants and shaggy hair and corpse makeup, Lanny is pretty. Growing into her bones, turning tall and hinting at curves. As a mom, I always think of her as beautiful, but now others will, too. The edgy style keeps people at a distance and changes the standards by which she will be judged. Thats clever and heartbreaking at the same time. Connor turns and heads off to his room. Wait! Connor! Did you reset the alarm? Of course, he calls back without stopping. His door closes with finality, but no force. Lanny returns with her rice cakes and energy drink and flops into the small chair in the corner of my office. She puts the energy drink down and gives me a mock salute. All present and correct, Master Sergeant, she says. Then she slumps at an angle functionally impossible for anyone over twenty-five. Ive been thinking. I want to get a job. No. I can help with the money. No. Your job is to be in school. I have to bite my lip to keep from complaining that my daughter used to like school. Lily Royal had liked school. Shed been in drama class and a programming club. But Lanny couldnt stand out. Couldnt have interests that made her special. Couldnt make friends and tell them anything approaching the truth. No surprise it made school hell for her. This girl you got into the fight with, I say. You understand it cant happen? Why you cant get into these things? I didnt get into it. She started it. What, you want me to lose? Get the shit beat out of me? I thought you were all about self-defense! I want you to walk away. Oh, sure, you would. Thats all you do, walk away. Oh, Im sorry. I mean run. Theres nothing quite as scorching as a teenagers contempt. It has a breathless sting, and it lingers for a very long time. I try not to let her see shes scored points, but I dont trust myself to speak. I pick up the teacup and head for the kitchen, the comfort of running water to rinse away the dregs. She follows, but not to hit at me again. I can tell by the way shes hanging back that she regrets having said it and isnt quite sure how to take it back. Or even if she wants to. As I put the teacup and saucer in the dishwasher, she says, I was thinking of going out for a run . . . ? Not alone you dont, I say, which is automatic, and then I realize she was counting on it. A nonapology apology. I hate even giving up the control of letting them ride the school bus, but venturing out on their own around the lake? No. Well go together. Ill change. I change into leggings and a loose T-shirt over a sports bra, heavy socks, good running shoes. When I come out, Lanny is stretching lithely. She has on a red sports bra, no shirt, and black leggings with harlequin patterns down the sides. I just look at her until she sighs, grabs a T-shirt, and pulls it on. Nobody else runs in T-shirts, she grumbles at me. I say, Im going to want that Ramones shirt back. Its a classic. And Ill bet you cant name a single song. I Wanna Be Sedated, Lanny immediately shoots back. I dont respond. Lily had been medicated a lot, that first half year after The Event. She hadnt been able to sleep for days, and when she finally had fallen into a restless doze, shed woken up screaming, crying for her mother. The mother who was in prison. Unless youd prefer Were a Happy Family? I say nothing, because her song choices are completely on point. I turn off the alarm, open the door, and call for Connor to reset it. He grunts from somewhere down the hall, and I have to hope he means yes. Lanny rabbits ahead, but I catch up at the end of the gravel drive, and we head east on the road at a good, loose lope. Its a perfect time of day, with the air warm, the sun low and friendly, the lake calm and dotted with boats. Other joggers pass us heading the other direction, and I open up the pace, Lanny pulling easily up. Neighbors wave at us from porches. So friendly. I wave back, but its all surface, this trust. I know if these good people knew who I really was, knew whom Id married, theyd be just like our old neighbors . . . distrustful, disgusted, afraid to be anywhere near us. And maybe theyd be right to be afraid. Melvin Royal casts a long, dark shadow. Were halfway around the lake before Lanny, gasping, calls a halt to lean against a swaying pine. Im not winded yet, but my calf muscles are burning and the points of my hips ache, and I stretch and keep up a light in-place jog while my daughter catches her breath. You okay? I ask. Lanny gives me a filthy look. Thats a yes? Sure, Lanny says. Whatever. Why do we have to make this so Olympic-level? You know why. Lanny looks away. Same reason you signed me up with that Krav Maga freak last year. I thought you liked Krav Maga. She shrugs, still studying some fronds down by her shoes. I dont like thinking I need it. Neither do I, baby. But we have to face facts. There are dangers out there, and we need to be ready. Youre old enough to get that. Lanny straightens up. Okay. Guess Im ready. Try not to run me lame this time, Terminator Mom. Thats hard for me. While I was still Gina, but after The Event, Id taken up running, and it had been grueling and exhausting until I built up my strength. Now, when I stop holding myself back, I run like I feel breath on my neck, as if Im running for my life. Its not healthy or safe, and Im well aware that driving myself that hard is a form of self-punishment, and also an expression of the fear I live with every day. I forget, despite my best efforts. Im not even aware of Lanny falling back, gasping, limping, until Im around a curve and realize that Im running alone in the shadow of the pines. Not even sure where I lost her. I end up stretching against a tree and, finally, perching on a handy old boulder as I wait. I see her in the distance, walking slowly, limping a bit, and I feel a surge of guilt. What kind of a mother am I, running a kid into the ground like that? That sixth sense Ive developed suddenly drenches me in adrenaline, and I straighten up and turn my head. Someones there. I catch sight of a person standing in the shadows of the pines, and my nervesnever calmgo tight. I slide off the boulder and into a ready stance, and I face the shadow head-on. Who is it? He gives me a dry, nervous laugh and shuffles out. Its an old man, skin like dark, dry paper, gray whiskers, gray curls tight against his scalp. Even his ears droop. He leans heavily on a cane. Sorry, miss. Wasnt meaning to worry you. I was just looking at the boats. Always like the lines of them. Never was much of a sailor, though. I spent my time on dry land. He wears an old jacket with military patches on it . . . artillery patches. Not World War II, but Korea, Vietnam, one of those less clear-cut conflicts. Im Ezekiel Claremont, live right over there up the hill. Been here since half forever. Everybody this side of the lake calls me Easy. Im ashamed for assuming the worst, and I advance and offer my hand. He has a firm, dry grip, but his bones feel fragile beneath it. Hi, Easy. Im Gwen. We live up over there, near the Johansens. Aw, yeah, youre some new folks. Nice to meet you. Sorry I havent been up that way, but I dont do as much walking these days. Still healing up since I broke my hip six months back. Dont get old, young ladyits a pain in the ass. He turns as Lanny lurches to a stop a few feet away and braces herself, bent over with her hands on her thighs. Hello. You okay, there? Fine, Lanny gasps. Peachy. Hi. I dont quite laugh. This is my daughter, Atlanta. Everybody calls her Lanny. Lanny, this is Mr. Claremont. Easy, for short. Atlanta? I was born in Atlanta. Fine city, full of life and culture. Miss it sometimes. Mr. Claremont nods decisively to Lanny, who returns the gesture after a guarded look at me. Well, Id better get myself on home. Takes me a while to get up that hill. My daughter keeps after me to sell my place and move somewhere easier to get around, but Im not ready to give up this view just yet. You know what I mean? I do. You going to be okay? I ask, because I can see his house, and its an impressive distance uphill for a man with a bad hip and a cane. Fine, fine, thank you. Im old, not decrepit. Not yet. Besides, the doctor says its good for me. He laughs. Whats good for you never feels good, my experience. Boy, is that true, Lanny agrees. Nice to meet you, Mr. Claremont. Easy, he says, starting his way up the hill. You run safe, now! We will, I say, then turn a sweaty grin on my daughter. Race you the rest of the way. Come on! Im practically dead here! Lanny. Ill walk, thanks. You run if you want. I was kidding. Oh. 2 Weve almost made it home again when my phone pings with a text message. Its an anonymous number, and hackles immediately go stiff at the back of my neck. I come to a stop and step off the road. Lanny gleefully jogs on by. I swipe and open. Its from Absalom; it has his cryptic little text signature as the first character: ?. Then, Are you anywhere near Missoula? He never asks exactly where we are, and I never tell. I type back, Why? Somebodys posted a thing. Looks like they got it wrong. Ill try to head off and divert. Bad for whoever theyre tagging. CY?. That was Absaloms standard signoff, and sure enough, no more pings arrive. I assume he uses disposable phones, just as I do; his number changes every month like clockwork, always unrecognizable, though his symbol usage is totally consistent. I cant afford that many burners, so mine stays the same for six months at a time, the kids phones for a year. A little stability in an unstable world. The second that someone gets close, though, I burn everythingphones, e-mail accounts, everything. If theres a second close call around our location, Absalom notifies me, and we pack up and go. Thats been our routine for the past few years now. It sucks, but were used to it. We have to be used to it. I realize Im looking forward to receiving that treasured concealed carry permit in the mail with an almost physical hunger. Im not one of those jackasses who feel the need to strap an AR15 to their back to pick up groceries; those people live in a dystopian fantasy where theyre the heroes in a world full of threats. I understand them, in a way. They feel powerless, in a world full of uncertainty. But its still a fantasy. I live in the real world, where I know that the only thing that stands between me and a thriving, violent, organized bunch of angry men could be the sidearm I carry. I dont need or want to advertise that fact. I dont want to use it. But Im ready and willing. Im fully committed to our survival. Lannys celebrating wildly up ahead, and I let her have her victory. We stop at the mailbox for the days haul of mostly junk mail. Lannys stopped limping by now, charley horse smoothed away, but she continues to pace as I sort through the envelopes. Im just a couple in when I realize that someones walking toward us down the road, and I feel my body shift into a balanced stance, a different state of alertness. Its the man from the gun range, the one whod de-escalated Carl Getts from murder to general mayhem. Sam. Im surprised to see him here, on foot. Have I ever glimpsed him around here before? Maybe at a distance. He looks vaguely familiar in this context. I must have seen him out walking or jogging, like so many others. He continues walking in our direction, hands in his pockets, headphones in. When he sees me watching him, he gives me a vague wave and nod and keeps walking right past us, heading the opposite of the route we took around the lake. I keep my attention fixed on him until he goes over the slight rise that branches off to the upper homesthe Johansens, a little above ours, then Officer Grahams placeand he disappears. Just taking a walk. But where is he coming from? Its probably obsessive that I feel I need to know. As we enter the house, I turn to enter the alarm code. My fingers touch the keypad before I realize that I dont need to enter the code, because the alarm isnt beeping. It isnt on. I freeze, standing in the doorway, blocking my daughters way in. She tries to push past, and I give her a fierce, wild look and put my finger to my lips, then point to the keypad. Her face, pink from the exercise and sun, goes tense, and she steps back, and back again. I keep an extra set of car keys in the potted plant just inside the door, and now I scoop them out and toss them to her as I mouth, Go! She doesnt hesitate. Ive trained her well. She turns and runs for the Jeep, and I shut and lock the front door behind me. Whatevers inside, I want to keep it focused on me. I put the mail on the closest flat surface, careful not to make much noise, and the house lays itself out for me, all my options running fast through my mind. Its only four steps to the small gun safe under the couch. I kneel down and press my thumb to the lock, and the door springs open with a small, metallic click. I pull out the Sig Sauer. Its my favorite and most reliable weapon. I know its loaded and ready, one in the chamber, and I keep my pulse slow and my finger off the trigger as I move quietly across to the kitchen, the hallway, down. I hear the Jeep start up and pull away with a hiss of tires on gravel. Good girl. She knows to keep driving for five minutes and, if I dont give her the all-clear, to call the police, then head for our rendezvous point almost fifty miles away and dig up a geocached stash of money and fresh IDs. If she has to, she can disappear without us. I swallow hard, because now Im alone with the fear that something terrible has happened to my son. Im drawing close to my bedroom. When I steal a look inside, I see nothing out of order. Its just as I left it, down to the shoes tumbled carelessly in the corner. Lannys bedroom is next on the same side, across from the main bathroom that we share. For an awful moment I think someones ransacked her room, but then I realize that I never checked it before heading out to the range this morning, and shed left the bed unmade, discarded clothes slumped over half the floor. Connor. The pulse in my temples throbs faster, and all my self-control cant slow it down. Please, God, no, dont take my baby, dont. His door is shut. Hes put up a KEEP OUT, ZOMBIE INSIDE sign, but when I carefully, slowly try the handle I realize that it isnt locked. I have two choices: enter fast or slow. I enter fast, banging the door open, gun coming up in a smooth arc as I brace myself with a shoulder against the rebounding wood, and I scare my son half to death with the whole production. Hes lying on his bed, headphones on and music audible from where I stand, but the percussive bang of the door against the wall brings him bolt upright, clawing the headphones off. He yells when he sees the gun, and I instantly lower it, but not before I see blind terror in his eyes. Its gone in a second, replaced by boiling fury. Jesus, Mom! What the hell? Im sorry, I say. My pulse is hammering perversely much faster now, responding to the adrenaline dumped into my bloodstream by the shock. My hands are shaking. I put the weapon down carefully on his dresser, ejection port up, barrel pointed away from both of us. Range rules. Honey, Im sorry. I thought I dont want to say it out loud. I manage to drag in a trembling breath and sink down to a crouch, hands pressed to my forehead. Oh God. You just forgot to turn it on when we left. I hear the music shut off in midscream, the headphones clatter to the floor. The bed creaks as Connor sits on the edge of it, looking at me. I risk a glance at him, finally. My eyes feel red and hot, though Im not crying. I havent in a long time. The alarm? I forgot to turn it on? He sighs and bends forward, as if he has a sore stomach. Mom. Youve got to stop going off the rails; youre going to kill one of us, you know that? Were out here in the middle of nowherenobody else even locks their doors! I dont answer. Hes right, of course. I have overreacted, and not for the first time. I have pointed a loaded gun at my child. His anger is understandable, and so is his defensiveness. But he hasnt seen the pictures I get when I go through the Sicko Patrol postings. Its a hobby of a particular subset of online stalkers. Some of them are very good at Photoshop. They take gruesome crime scene photos and graft our faces onto victims. They alter images on child pornography so I see my daughter and son brutalized in unimaginable ways. The one that haunts me, and I know will always haunt me, is the image of a young boy Connors age mutilated and left lying in a tangle of blood-soaked sheets in his own bed. That one popped up recently with a caption: Gods justice for murderers. Its right that Connors angry at me. Its fine that he feels unfairly blamed and hemmed in by stupid, unnecessary, paranoid rules. I cant help that. I must defend him from very real monsters. But I cant explain that to him. I dont want to have to show him that world, the reality that runs like a black river underneath this one. I want him to stay in the world where a boy can collect comics and put fantasy posters on his walls and dress up like a zombie for Halloween. I say nothing. I stand up, when my legs are capable, and pick up the gun. I walk out and shut the door quietly behind me. Through it, my son yells, Wait until I tell Social Services! I think hes joking. I hope. I walk to the gun safe, put the Sig back in, and lock it away before I call my daughter and tell her to come home. I reset the alarm as I do. Habit. Ive just finished the call when I pick up the mail and carry it to the kitchen. I badly need water; my mouth has a dry, metallic taste like old blood. As Im drinking, I sort through the circulars, charity pleas, local business mailings. I pause on something that doesnt belong: a manila envelope with my name and address printed on the outside and a postmark from Willow Creek, Oregon. Thats my last remailing service. So whatevers inside has followed a long, broken trail to reach me. I dont touch it. I open a drawer and take out a pair of blue nitrile gloves. I slip them on before I carefully, neatly slit open the top of the envelope and pull out the other one, business-size, that sits within it. I recognize the return address in a flash and drop that envelope unopened to the counter. It isnt a conscious decision, no more than if Id realized I was holding a live cockroach. The letter is from El Dorado, the prison where Mel is held waiting for his execution day. Its been a long wait, and the lawyers tell me itll be at least ten years before his appeals are exhausted. And Kansas hasnt carried out an execution for more than twenty years. So who knows when his sentence will finally be imposed. Until it is, he sits and thinks. He thinks a lot about me. And he writes letters. Theres a pattern to them that Ive figured out, and that is why I dont immediately touch this one. I stare at the envelope for a long time, and it catches me by surprise when I hear the front door open and the alarm starts beeping. Lannys fast fingers cancel and reset. I dont move from where I am, as if the envelope might attack if I dont stare it down. Lanny puts the keys in the potted plant and walks past me to open the fridge and pull out a bottled water, which she cracks and gulps thirstily before saying, So, let me guess. Brain-dead Connor forgot to turn on the alarm. Again. Did you shoot him? I dont answer. I dont move. From the corner of my eye, Im aware shes staring at me, and that her body language shifts as she realizes whats going on. Before I can guess what shes planning, my daughter grabs the envelope off the counter. No! I turn on her, but its too late; shes already sliding a black-painted fingernail under the flap and ripping it open, revealing pale paper inside. I reach out to snatch it away. She steps back, agile and angry. Does he write to me, too? To Connor? she asks me. Do you get these a lot? You said he never wrote! I hear the betrayal in her voice, and I hate it. Lanny, give me the letter. Please. I try to sound authoritative and calm, but inside I am drowning in dread. She focuses on my hands, sweating inside the blue gloves. Jesus, Mom. Hes already in jail. You dont have to preserve any damn evidence. Please. She drops the torn envelope and unfolds the paper. Please dont, I whisper, defeated. Sick. Mel has a schedule. Hell send two letters that are perfectly, wonderfully the old Mel I married: kind, sweet, funny, thoughtful, concerned. They will show exactly the man he pretended to be, down to the last, loving declaration. He doesnt protest his innocence, because he knows he cant do that; the evidence was never in doubt. But he can, and does, write about his feelings for me and the children. His love and care and concern. Two times out of three. But this is the third letter. I see the exact moment when all her illusions are ripped away, when she spots the monster in those carefully inked words. I see her hands tremble, like the needle of a seismograph signaling an earthquake. I see the numb, scared look in her eyes. And I cant bear it. I take the paper from her suddenly unresisting hand, fold it shut, and drop it on the counter. Then I put my arms around her. Shes stiff for a moment, and then she melts against me, face hot against mine, fine little shakes convulsing her body like wild current. Shh, I tell her, and stroke her black hair as if shes six years old, a child scared of the dark. Shh, baby. Its okay. She shakes her head, pulls away, and walks to her room. She closes the door. I look at the folded paper and feel a surge of hate so strong that it nearly tears me apart. How dare you, I think to the man whos written those words, whos done that to my child. How dare you, you fucking bastard. I dont read what Melvin Royal has written to me. I know what it says, because Ive read it before. This is the letter where the mask comes off, and he talks about how Ive disappointed him, taken his children away and poisoned them against him. He describes what hell do to me if he ever has a chance. Hes inventive. Descriptive. Repellently direct. Then, as if he hasnt threatened to brutally murder me, he switches gears and asks how the kids are doing. Says he loves them. And of course he does, because in his mind, theyre just reflections of himself. Not real people in their own right. If he meets them now, recognizes theyre not the little plastic dolls he loved before . . . theyll become other. Potential victims, like me. I put the letter back in the envelope, pick up a pencil, mark the date on it, and put the envelope back in the larger remailing service packaging. I feel better once thats done, as if Ive disposed of a bomb. Tomorrow Ill send the entire package back, marked NO SUCH ADDRESS, and the remailing service will have preexisting instructions to FedEx it to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent in charge of Melvins case. So far, the KBI hasnt been able to figure out how he gets those letters past the prisons normal screening process. I still hold out hope. Lanny is wrong about why I put on the gloves. It isnt to preserve evidence. I wear them for the same reason doctors do: to prevent infection. Melvin Royal is a contagious, fatal disease. The rest of the day is deceptively quiet. Connor says nothing about the incident in his bedroom; Lanny says nothing, period. The two of them boot up a video game, and while theyre at it, my time is my own. I make dinner, like a normal mother. We eat in silence. The next day, Lanny stays locked in her room, since shes banned from the classroom. I decide not to interfere; I can hear her binge-watching a TV show. Connors off to school. It itches at me to have him go alone to the bus stop, and I watch from the window until he climbs on board. It would irritate him beyond measure if I actually walked him there and waited. When he returns that afternoon on the bus, I step out to greet him but cover it by pretending to poke around in the small flower garden at the front of the house, as if his arrival is completely incidental. He gets off the bus, heavily burdened by his backpack, and two other boys pile off after. The three of them talk, and for a second I worry about bullies, but they seem friendly. The strangers are both blond, one about Connors age and one a year or two older. The older one is alarmingly tall and broad, but he gives Connor a friendly wave and grin, and I watch the two of them jog off to take the trail to the left. They certainly dont belong to the Johansens, who are an older couple with grown kids whove visited them exactly once since Ive been here. No, they must be Officer Grahams kids. Graham is a uniformed member of the Norton police force. Unlike me, Grahams family is Old Tennessee; from what Ive heard, hes the last of several generations of solid country people who had property here at the lake well before it ever turned into the playground of the wealthy. I still need to drop by, introduce myself, assess the man, and try to start a quiet alliance. I might need law enforcement on my side at some point. Ive tried a couple of times but gotten no answer at the door. Thats understandable. Cops work odd hours. Hey, kid. How was school? I ask Connor as he trudges past me. I pat the soil I disturbed more firmly back around a spray of blooms. Fine, he says, without enthusiasm. Ive got a paper due tomorrow. On what? He hitches his backpack into a more comfortable position. Biology. Its okay. Ive got it. Do you want me to read it when youre done? Im okay. He goes inside, and I stand up to rub the dirt from my palms. I worry about him, of course. Worry about the scare I gave him (and myself) yesterday. Worry about whether or not he needs more counseling. Hes turned into such a quiet, introverted kid, and it scares me as much as Lannys outbursts. I dont know what hes thinking most of the time, and every once in a while I see a look, a tilt of his head, that reminds me so strongly of his father that I go cold inside, waiting to see that monster look out of his eyes . . . but Ive never seen it. I dont believe that evil is inherited. I cant. I make a pizza for dinner, and weve all eaten and are watching a movie together when the doorbell rings, followed by a loud, brisk knock. It makes my throat seize up, and I come off the couch in one convulsive leap. Lanny starts to get up, and I urgently motion her back, silently gesturing for her and Connor to go down the hall. They look at each other. The knock bangs again, louder. It sounds impatient. I think about the gun in its safe under the couch, but then I slowly ease the curtain back and peek outside. Police. There is a uniformed officer on our front porch, and the old feeling of anxiety threatens to drown me for a moment. Im Gina Royal again. Im back on our old Wichita street, my hands cuffed behind my back, looking at the handiwork of my husband. Listening to myself scream. Stop, I tell myself, then let the word ring through my body like Javis cease-fire command at the gun range. I disarm the alarm and open the door, not allowing myself to think about what could happen next. A big, pale policeman is standing there, sharply dressed and creased and polished. Hes a foot taller than I am and broad in the shoulders, and he has that wary, unreadable look Im so familiar with. Comes standard-issue with badges. I smile at him despite the wail of panic going on inside me. Officer. How can I help you? Hi, Ms. Proctor, right? Sorry to drop in like this. My son told me your boy lost this on the bus today. I figured Id return it. He hands over a small silver flip phone. Connors, I recognize it instantly. I color-code the kids phones, so they dont mix them up and I can tell at a glance which is which. I feel a flash of anger at my son for being careless, and then one of real fear. Losing a phone means losing our tight control of information, though the only numbers he has programmed in are to his friends here, to me, and to Lanny. Still. Its a breach in our wall. A lapse of attention. I dont say anything in a timely fashion, not even thank you, and Officer Graham shifts a little. He has a strong-boned face, clear brown eyes, and an awkward little smile. Ive been meaning to stop over and say hello. But look, if this is a bad time No, no, of course not, Im sorry, II mean, thank you for returning this. Lanny has reached forward and paused the movie by now, and I step aside to let him come in. As he does, I shut the door and, by sheer reflex, rearm the system. Can I offer you some refreshment? Its Officer Graham, right? Lancel Graham, yes, maam. Lance, if were not being fancy. He has a solid, old-school Tennessee accent, the kind that comes from never venturing far from your doorstep. If youve got some iced tea, thatd go down nice. Of course. Sweet tea? Is there any other kind? He has his hat off immediately and self-consciously rubs his head, disordering his hair. Sounds wonderful. Ive had a long, thirsty day. Im not used to liking someone instinctively, and he seems to be working hard to charm me. It puts me on my guard. Hes going out of his way to be polite, respectful, and he has a way of carrying himself that minimizes his broad frame and muscles. Probably damn good at his job. Theres a certain timbre in his voice; he can probably talk down an angry suspect without laying a finger on anyone. I dont trust snake charmers . . . but I like the easy smile he gives my kids. That goes a long way. It occurs to me then that I should be damn grateful that its a cop whos brought back this phone. Its password-protected, of course, but in the wrong hands, knowledgeable hands, it could have done damage. Thanks so much for returning Connors phone, I say as I pour Officer Graham iced tea from a pitcher in the fridge. I swear, hes never lost it before. Im glad your son found it and knew who it belonged to. Im sorry, Mom, my son says from the couch. He sounds subdued and anxious. I didnt mean to lose it. I didnt know it was gone! Most tweens, I think, would miss their phone if parted from it for thirty seconds, but my kids are forced to live in an alien world, one where they cant use their phones for much beyond the basics. No such thing as smartphones, to them. Of the two of the kids, Id have said Connor was more into the tech; he had buddies, geeky buddies, who texted him, at least. Lanny was . . . less social. Its okay, I tell him and mean it, because, God, Id busted on my poor son enough for a lifetime this week. Yes, hed forgotten to set the alarm. Yes, hed lost his phone. But that was normal life. I needed to ease up and stop acting like every single lapse was lethal. It was stressing me, and all of us, out. Officer Graham perches on one of the barstools at the counter to sip his tea. He looks comfortable enough and gives me a friendly grin as he raises eyebrows in appreciation. Good tea, maam, he says. Hot day out in the squad car. I can tell you this goes down well. Anytime, and please, call me Gwen. Were neighbors, right? And your sons are Connors friends? I glance at Connor as I say it, but his expression is closed. He is turning his phone over and over in his hands. I think with a stab of guilt that he is probably worried what kind of rant Ill tear off on once the company is gone. It comes to me with ruthless clarity that Ive been far too militant with my kids. Weve finally settled in a nice place, surrounded by peace. We dont have to act like hunted animals now. There are eight broken trails between the address the troll discovered online and us. Eight. Its time to stand down from red alert, before I damage my kids irreparably. Lancel Graham is looking around the place now with a curious expression. Youve sure done a great job with this house, he says. I was told it got trashed, right? After the foreclosure? God, it was a total mess, Lanny says, which startles me; she usually isnt one to voluntarily jump into a conversation with a stranger. Especially a uniformed one. They destroyed everything they could. You should have seen the bathrooms. Utterly gross. We had to wear white plastic suits and face masks to even go in there. I puked for days. Must have been kids partying here, then, Graham says. Squatters would have had a little more care for the place, unless they were high all the time. Speaking of that, I should tell you that even out here, we have our own drug problems. Still some meth cooking going on up in the hills, but mainly the big business is heroin these days. And Oxy. So you keep an eye out. Never know whos using or pushing. He pauses in the act of raising his glass to his lips. You didnt find any drugs in here when you were clearing up? Whatever we found, we tossed, I tell him, which is entirely true. I didnt open any boxes or bags. Everything went out that wasnt nailed down, and half of that we pried up and replaced. I doubt theres anything hidden around here now. Good, he says. Good. Well, thats most of my job around here in Norton. Drugs and drug-related robberies, some drunk driving. Not a lot of violent crimes, thankfully. You came to a good place, Ms. ProctGwen. Except for the heroin epidemic, I think but dont say. Well, its always nice to meet neighbors. Strong ties make the community better, right? Right. He drains his tea, stands, and pulls a card from his pocket, which he lays down on the counter and taps with two fingers, as if nailing it in place. My numbers are on there. Work and cell. You have any trouble, any of you, dont be afraid to call, okay? We will, Lanny says, before I can, and I see that shes studying Officer Graham with a shine in her eyes. I resist the urge to sigh. Shes fourteen. Crushes are inevitable, and he looks like the poster child for what workouts can do. Thanks, Officer. Sure thing, Miss Atlanta, she tells him, and stands up to offer her hand. He gravely shakes it. She never calls herself Atlanta, I think, and nearly choke on my sweet tea. Pleased to meet you. Graham turns and shakes Connors hand, too. And youre Connor, of course. Ill tell my boys you said hi. Okay. Connor, by contrast to his sister, is quiet. Watchful. Reserved. Still holding on to his phone. Graham puts his hat back on and shakes my hand last of all; then I walk him to the door. He turns, as if hes forgotten something, while Im disarming the alarm to let him out. I heard you go to the range, Gwen. You keep your guns here? Mostly, I say. Dont worry. Theyre all in gun safes. And believe me, we know gun safety, Lanny says, rolling her eyes. Ill bet youre both good shots, he says. I dont like the quick brother-sister look Connor and Lanny exchange; the fact that Ive not allowed them to touch my guns, or to learn to shoot, is a constant bone of contention between us. Its bad enough that I run panic drills in the middle of the night. I dont want to add loaded weapons to the mix. Im there evenings on Thursdays and Saturdays. Im teaching my boys. It isnt quite an invitation, but I nod and thank him, and hes on his way in another few seconds. He stops in the open door again and looks at me. Can I ask you something, Ms. Proctor? Sure, I say. I step out, because I sense he wants it private. Rumors say this house had a safe room, he says. That true? Yes. You, ah, been in there? We got a locksmith out to open it up. There wasnt anything inside it. Just some water bottles. Huh. Id always thought someone was stashing something in there, if it even existed. Well. He points back to where he left his card on the counter. You call me if you need anything. He leaves without more questions. Something tight and animal-hot eases up in me as I lock the door again, enter the code, and walk back toward the couch. Having a strange man in my house makes me itch all over. It reminds me of evenings spent on the couch with my kids. With Mel. With the thing that wore Mel as a disguise. Id never seen through it. Oh, he could be cold and uninterested and cross, but any human in the world has those flaws. What Mel really was . . . that was different. Or was it? Would I even know? Mom, Lanny says. Hes kinda hot. You should check that out. Throwing up in my mouth, Connor says. Wanna see? Quiet, I tell them, settling in between them on the couch. I reach for the remote, then turn and look at my son. Connor, about the phone. He braces for impact and opens his mouth to apologize. I put my hand over his, and the cell he still holds tightly in it, as if it might get away. We all make mistakes. Its okay, I tell him, staring right into his eyes to make sure he understands that Im being honest. Im sorry Ive been such a terrible mom to you recently. Both of you. Im sorry about my freak-out over the alarm. You shouldnt have to tiptoe around your own home, afraid of when I might blow up at you. Im so sorry, honey. He doesnt know what to say to any of that. He looks helplessly at Lanny, who leans forward, brushing dark hair from her face and hooking it behind one ear. We know why youre so tense all the time, she tells me, and he looks relieved that she said it for him. Mom. I saw the letter. Youve got a right to be paranoid. She must have told Connor about the letter, because he doesnt ask, and he doesnt seem curious. On impulse, I reach over and take her hand. I love these kids. I love them so much it steals my breath and squeezes me flat, and at the same time, it makes me feel weightless and exalted. I love you both, I say. Connor comfortably shifts and reaches for the remote control. We know that, he says. Dont go all unicorns pooping rainbows on us. I have to laugh. He presses the Play button, and we sink back into fiction again, warm and comfortable together, and I remember when they were so little I could rock Connor in my arms while Lanny fidgeted and played next to me. I miss those sweet moments, but theyre also tainted. Those moments happened back in Wichita, in a home I thought was safe. While I played family time, Mel had so often been absent. In his garage. Working on his projects. And every once in a while, he made a table, a chair, a bookcase. A toy for the kids. But in between those things, in that locked workshop, hed let his monster loose while we were just ten feet away, lost in the wonder of a movie or the shouting fun of a board game. Hed clean up and come out smiling, and I never knew the difference. I hadnt even wondered about any of it. It had seemed harmless, just his hobby. Hed always needed alone time, and Id given it to him. Hed said he kept the outer door padlocked because he had valuable tools. And Id swallowed every word of it. Living with Mel was nothing but lies, always lies, no matter how warm and comforting they had seemed. No, this is better. Better than its ever been before. My smart, savvy kids, just the way they are. Our home that weve rebuilt with our own hands. Our new, reborn lives. Nostalgia is for normal people. And for all we pretend, as hard as we can ever pretend, we will never, ever be normal again. I pour a glass of scotch and go outside. Thats where Connor finds me half an hour later. I love the quiet hush of the lake, the moonlight on the water, the sharp crispness of stars overhead. Soft breezes sway and whisper the pines. The scotch provides a nice counterpoint, a memory of smoke and sunlight. I like finishing the day this way, when I can. Connor, still in his pants and a T-shirt, slides into the other chair on the porch and sits in silence for a moment before he says, Mom. I didnt lose my phone. I turn toward him, surprised. The scotch sloshes a little in the tumbler, and I put it aside. What do you mean? I mean, I didnt lose it. Somebody took it. Do you know who? Yeah, he says. I think Kyle took it. Kyle Graham, he says. Officer Grahams kid. The taller one, you know? Hes thirteen. Honey, its okay if it fell out of your pocket or your backpack. It was an accident. I promise, Im not going to bust you for it, all right? You dont have to accuse anybody just to Youre not listening, Mom, he says fiercely. I didnt lose it! If Kyle stole it, why would he give it back to you? Connor shrugs. He looks pale and tense, old for his age. Maybe he couldnt get it unlocked. Maybe his dad caught him with it. I dont know. He hesitates. Or . . . maybe he got what he wanted off it. Like Lannys number. He was asking me about her. Thats normal, of course. A boy asking about a girl. Maybe Id misinterpreted her friendliness toward Officer Graham. Maybe I hadnt spotted a sudden infatuation. Maybe she just wanted to get to know his son. She could do worse, I thought. But what if he did steal the phone? How is that okay? You could be wrong, baby, I say. Not everything has to be a threat, or a conspiracy. Were okay. Well be okay. He wants to tell me something else, I can see it in his body language. Hes also afraid that Ill be angry at him. I hate that Ive made him afraid to tell me things. Connor? Sweetie? Whats bothering you? I He bites his lip. Nothing, Mom. Nothing. My sons worried. Ive created a world for him where defaulting to a conspiracy theory makes sense to him. Is it okay if I just . . . stay away from them, though? Kyle and his brother? If you want to. Of course. But be polite, all right? He nods, and after a second I pick up my scotch again. He stares out at the lake. I dont need friends anyway. Hes too young to say that. Too young to even think it. I want to tell him that he should make all the friends he can, that the world is safe and no one will ever hurt him again, that his life can be full of joy and wonder. And I cant tell him that, because it isnt true. It might be true for other people. Not for us. Instead, I finish my scotch. We go inside. I set the alarm, and once Connor is in bed, I take all my guns to the kitchen table, lay out the cleaning kit, and make sure that Im ready for anything. Like practicing my aim, cleaning my weapons feels soothing. Feels like putting things right again. I need to be ready, just in case. Lanny spends the rest of her suspension acing her homework and reading, headphones blasting, though she does go running with me twice. She even does it voluntarily, though by the end of the run shes swearing shell never do it again. On Saturday we call my mother. Its a family ritual, the three of us gathered around my disposable phone. I have an app built in that generates an anonymous Voice over IP number, so that even if anyone is reviewing my moms call logs, the number wont lead them anywhere close. I dread Saturdays, but I know the ritual is important for the kids. Hello? My mothers calm, slightly fragile voice reminds me of her advancing years. I always picture her as she was when I was younger . . . Healthy, strong, tanned, lean from all her swimming and boating. She lives in Newport, Rhode Island, now, having left Maine behind. She had to move before my trial, and twice after it, but finally people are leaving her alone. It helps that Newport has that New England closed-in attitude. Hi, Mom, I say, feeling the uncomfortable pressure in my chest. How are you? Im fine, honey, she says. She never says my name. At sixty-five years old, shes had to learn to be so cautious about talking to her own child. So glad to hear your voice, sweetheart. Everything okay there? She doesnt ask where we are, and she never knows. Yes, were fine, I tell her. I love you, Mom. Love you too, sweetheart. I ask her about her life there, and she talks with false enthusiasm about restaurants and picturesque views and shopping. About taking up a scrapbooking hobby, though what she can scrapbook about me I have no idea. The reams of articles about my monstrous ex? My trial? My acquittal? Its almost as bad if she doesnt include any of that, and only has my pictures up to my wedding, pictures of the kids, without any context for our lives. I wonder what kind of decorations Hobby Lobby sells to ornament the pages dedicated to serial killers in a scrapbook. Lanny leans over to say, in a bright voice, Hi, Grandma! And when my mother responds, I hear the shift in that faraway voice . . . Real warmth. Real love. Real connection. It skips a generation, or at least, it skipped over me. Lanny loves her grandmother, and so does Connor. They remember those dark, awful days after The Event, when I was dragged off to jail and the only light left for them was my mom, whod swept in like an angel. Shed rescued them into something like normalcy, at least for a while. Shed been a lioness in their defense, fending off reporters and the curious and vindictive with sharp words and slammed doors. I owe her for that. I almost miss it when she says, So, kids, what are you studying in school right now? It seems like a safe question, and it should be, but as Connor opens his mouth I realize that one of his classes is Tennessee history, and I quickly interrupt. Classes are going well. She sighs, and I can hear the exasperation in it. She hates this. Hates being so . . . vague. And how about you, dear? Have you got any new hobbies? Not really. Thats the extent of our conversation. We were never quite close, she and I, even when I was a child. She loves me, I know, and I love her, but it isnt the kind of attachment that I see in other people. Other families. Theres a kind of polite distance between us, as if were strangers who happened to end up together. Its odd. But I owe her everything, even so. Shed never expected to have to keep my children for nearly a year while the prosecution tried to build a case for my guilt. They called me Melvins Little Helper, and my presumed involvement in Melvins crimes rested completely on the testimony of one gossipy, vindictive neighbor looking for attention. She claimed shed seen me help Melvin carry one of his victims from the car into the garage one evening. I never had. I never would. I hadnt known a thing, ever, but it was horrifying and maddening to realize that no one, absolutely no one, believed that. Not even my own mother. Maybe part of the open wound between us stems from that moment when shed asked me, with such revulsion and horror in her face, Honey, did you do this? Did he make you do this? Shed never insisted it was a lie, never denied I was capable of atrocity. Shed only sought to find a reason for it, and that was incredibly hard to understand then, or now. Maybe it was the lack of attachment shed had to me as a child, and I to her; maybe she could so easily believe the worst because she felt shed never really known me at all. I will never, ever do that to my children. I will defend them with complete devotion. None of this is their fault. My own mother has always blamed me. Well, she told me at one point, you wanted to marry that man. The reason the trolls are so viciously devoted to my pursuit is that they really believe that Im guilty. Im a vicious, predatory killer who managed to evade justice, and now theyre the ones who can administer the punishment. On some level I understand it. Mel swept me off my feet with romantic gestures. He took me to beautiful dinners. Bought me roses. Always opened doors for me. Sent me love letters and cards. I really did love him, or at least I thought I did. The proposal was thrilling. The wedding was fairy-tale perfect. In a few months, we were pregnant with Lily, and I thought I was the luckiest woman in the world, someone whose husband earned enough to let her stay home and lavish her children with love and care. And then, gradually, his hobby had crept in. Mels workshop had started small: a workbench in the garage, then more tools, more space, until there wasnt room for even one car, much less two, and hed built the carport and taken the entire garage as his space. I hadnt loved it, especially in the winter, but by then Mel had taken out the garage door, built a back wall, and added a door that he kept padlocked and dead bolted. Expensive tools. Id never noticed anything that had sounded odd, except once. It would have been around the death of his next-to-last victimhed told me that a raccoon had gotten into the workshop from the attic and died in the corner, and it would take a while for the smell to air out. He used lots of bleach and cleaners. I believed every word of it. Why wouldnt I? But I still think I should have known, and in that, I understand the trolls anger. My mother is saying something that, by the tone, is directed again to me. I open my eyes and say, Sorry, what? I said, are you making sure the kids are getting swimming lessons? I worry that youre not, given the . . . the problems you have. My mother adores the waterlakes, pools, the sea. Shes half mermaid. It was especially horrifying to her that Melvin disposed of his victims in water. Its especially horrifying to me, too. My stomach clenches when I even think of dipping a toe in the lake that I admire so much from a distance. I cant even take a boat out on that calm surface without thinking of my ex-husbands victims, weighted down and chained to the bottom. A silent, rotting garden, swaying in the slow currents. Even drinking tap water makes me gag. The kids arent really interested in swimming, I tell my mom, without the slightest inflection of dismay that she brought up the subject at all. We do run pretty often, though. Yeah, the path around Lanny starts, and lightning-fast, I reach out and hit the mute button. She realizes her mistake in the next instant. Shed been about to say the lake . . . And even though there are thousands of lakes in the country, its a clue. We cant afford even that much. Sorry. I unmute. I mean, we run outside a lot, Lanny says. Its nice. Its hard for her not to be able to provide any detailsthe temperature, the trees, the lakebut she leaves it at that. Generic. My mother knows enough not to push. Its a sad fact of life. Ive wondered before what their life was like without me; my own experience behind bars was hell, constantly burning with fear for my kids. I thought from the glad way they always greeted these phone calls that Grandma represented something peaceful in their livesa vacation from the awful reality theyve been shoved into. At least, I hope thats what it is. I hope that my kids arent that good at lying, because that, too, is a Melvin Royal signature trait. Mom spins tales of Newport and the coming summer, and we cant reciprocate with what the weather will be like near us; she knows that, and the conversation is mostly one-sided. I wonder if she gets anything out of these calls, really, or if its a duty for her. She might not have bothered if it had only been me, but she truly does love my kids, and they love her back. The kids faces dim a little when I end the call and put the phone away until next time. Lanny says, I wish we could Skype or something, so we could see her. Connor immediately frowns at her. You know we cant, he says. Theyd figure stuff out from Skype. I see it on cop shows and things. Cop shows arent reality, dumb-ass, Lanny shoots back. You think CSI is a documentary? Easy, you two, I say. I wish we could see her, too. But this is good, right? Were good? Yeah, Connor says. Were good. Lanny says nothing. Sicko Patrol the next day yields nothing much new, but then again, Ive grown so accustomed to the general horror of it that Im not sure if Id recognize new if it bit me. I do some freelance editing work, then some freelance web design work, and Im deep into an especially demanding piece of coding when a brisk knock strikes the front door. Despite my startled flinch, the sound reminds me of the way Officer Graham knocks, so I am cheerful when I head to answer it. Sure enough, as I check to see who it is, I see Lancel Grahams face. After the first rush of relief, I hope he hasnt misunderstood my warm welcome the other night, or seen it as an opportunity. Im not in a place that needs romance. I had enough of that with Mels letter-perfect seduction, his model-husband performance art. I dont trust myself that way anymore, and I cant bring myself to allow the lowering of barriers that comes with even the most casual of relationships. Im busy thinking about that as I disarm the system and open the door, but that train of thought hardly even leaves the station. Theres something different about him this time. Hes not smiling. Hes also not alone. Maam. The man standing behind him is the one who speaks first. Hes an African American man of medium height who has the build of a former football player, going soggy around the middle. Hes got a sharp-edged haircut and heavy-lidded eyes, and the suit looks hard-worn and off the rack on its best day. Hes got a tie on, too, a blunt, red thing that just slightly clashes with the gray of the jacket. Im Detective Prester. I need to speak to you, please. It isnt a question. I freeze in place and involuntarily look back over my shoulder. Connor and Lanny are both in their rooms, and neither of them has come looking. I step out and shut the door behind me. Detective. Of course. What is it? Thank God, I dont have to fear for the safety of my children in that moment. I know where they are. I know theyre safe. So this, I think, must be about something else. I wonder if hes dug around and put the trail together to connect Gwen Proctor to Gina Royal. I hope to hell not. Can we sit down a moment? I indicate the chairs on the porch, instead of letting them inside, and he and I settle into them. Officer Graham lingers at a distance, watching the lake. I follow his gaze, and my heart speeds up with a kick. The usual fleet of pleasure craft is absent today. Instead, there are two boats out near the middle of the calm surface, both painted in official blue-and-white colors, with light bars on top that strobe slow, red flashes. I see a diver in scuba gear pitch backward over the side of the second one. A body was found in the lake early this morning, Detective Prester says. Was hoping you might have seen something out there last night, heard something? Anything out of the ordinary? I scramble to order my thoughts. Accident, I think. Boating accident. Somebody out at night, drunk, tips over the side . . . Im sorry, I say. Nothing unusual. You hear anything after dark last night? Boat engines, maybe? Probably, but thats not really unusual, I say. Im trying to remember. Yes. I heard something around nine, I think. Long after dark, which falls early behind the pines. But there are people here who go out to enjoy the stars. Or do some night fishing. Did you happen to look outside at any point? See anyone around the lake or on it? He looks tired, but theres a sharpness behind that facade, one I wouldnt want to play around trying to avoid. I answer him as honestly as I can. No, I didnt. Im sorry. I was working really late last night on the computer, and my office window looks up the hill, not down. I didnt go outside. He nods and makes some notes in a book. Hes got a quiet sort of confidence, the kind that makes you want to relax around him. I know thats dangerous. Ive been lulled into underestimating police before, and I suffered for it. Anybody else in the house last night, maam? My kids, I say. He glances up, and his eyes flash dark amber in the sunlight. Unreadable. Behind that disguise of the tired, slightly frayed, overworked man, hes sharp as a scalpel. Can I talk to them, please? Im sure they dont know anything Please. It would seem suspicious not to agree, but Im tense and anxious as hell. I dont know how Lanny and Connor will react to being questioned again; theyd been subjected to many, many interviews during the course of Mels trial, and my own, and even though the Wichita police had been careful about it, it left scars. I dont know what kind of traumas it will tear open. I try to keep my voice calm. Id rather not have them questioned, Detective. Unless you think its absolutely necessary. I think it is, maam. For an accidental drowning? His amber eyes fix on me, and they seem to glow in the light. I feel them probing into me like searchlights. No, maam, he says. I never said it was accidental. Or a drowning. I dont know what that means, but I feel the pit open under me, I feel the drop. Something very bad has just begun. And I say, in half a whisper, Ill get them. 3 Connor goes first, and the detective is gentle with him, good with kids. I see the gleam of a wedding ring, and Im glad that he isnt like the cops back in Kansas. My kids had developed a real fear of police, and for very good reason; theyd seen the anger of the ones whod arrested Mel, an anger that had only increased as the depth and breadth of his crimes was revealed. Those police had known not to take it out on small children, but some of it had spilled over. Inevitably. Connor seems tense and nervous, but he gives his answers in short, effective sentences. He hasnt heard anything exceptas Id saidmaybe a boat engine out on the water around nine at night. He didnt look out, because it isnt unusual. He doesnt remember anything out of the ordinary at all. Lanny doesnt want to say anything. She sits silently, head down, and nods or shakes her head but wont speak until the detective finally turns to me in exasperation. I put a hand on her shoulder and say, Sweetheart, its okay. Hes not here to hurt anybody. Just tell him anything you might know, okay? I say that, of course, confident that she doesnt know anything, no more than Connor or I do. Lanny shoots me a doubtful look from a veil of dark hair and says, I saw a boat last night. I am rooted to the spot in shock. I shiver a little, even though the days air is warm, the birds singing. No, I think. No, this cant be happening. My daughter cant be a witness. A sick abyss opens at my feet, and I imagine her on the stand, testifying. Cameras flashing. Pictures in newspapers, and immediately, the headlines. SERIAL KILLERS DAUGHTER WITNESS IN MURDER TRIAL Well never get away again. What kind of boat? Detective Prester asks. How big was it? What color? It wasnt very big. A small fishing boat, like She thinks, then points to one thats bobbing at a dock not far away. Like that one. White, I could see it from my window. Can you recognize it if you see it again? Shes already shaking her head by the time he finishes. No, no, it was just a boat, like a hundred other ones. I didnt see it real well. She shrugs. Looked like every other one around here, honestly. If Prester is disappointed, he doesnt look it. Doesnt look excited, either. So, you saw the boat. Good. Lets back up. What made you look outside? Lanny sits for a moment, thinking, then says, I guess it was the splash? That gets his attention, and mine. My mouth goes dry. Prester leans forward a bit. Tell me about that. Well, I mean, it was a big splash. Big enough that I heard it. But my room faces the lake, you know, at the corner of the house. I had my window open. So I heard a splash when the engine cut out. I thought maybe somebody fell in, or jumped in. People go skinny-dipping out there sometimes. And you looked out? Yeah. But all I saw was the boat. It was just sitting there. There was somebody in it, I guess, because after a couple of minutes the engine started up again. I couldnt really see them. She takes in a deep breath. Did I see somebody dumping a body? Prester doesnt answer that. Hes busy writing in his notebook, fast scratches of pen on paper. He says, Did you see where the boat went after the engine started? No. I shut the window; it was getting too windy outside. I pulled the curtain and went back to reading. Okay. How long would you say you heard the engine run before it was turned off again? I dont know. I put my earbuds in. I fell asleep and they were still in. My ears were sore this morning. My music played all night. God. I cant swallow. I stare at Prester, willing him to say something comforting, something like, Its okay, kid, nothing happened, its all just a mistake, but he doesnt. He doesnt confirm or deny. He just clicks his pen, puts it back in his pocket with the notebook, and stands up. Thank you, Atlanta. Thats real helpful. Ms. Proctor. I cant say anything to him. I just nod, like Lanny does, and we watch as he and Graham rendezvous back at the dust-filmed black sedan parked in our driveway. They talk, but I cant make out a word, and theyre positioned so we cant see their faces. I sit down and put my arm around my daughter, and for once, she doesnt shrug it off and move away. I gently rub my palm back and forth across her shoulder, and she sighs. This isnt good, Mom. Not good. I should have said I didnt see anything. I thought about lying, I really did. I think thats probably true; I dont see how what she saw advances the investigation at all. She couldnt identify the boat, hadnt seen anyone to recognize, and telling Prester anything just means that hell check us out in more detail. I pray that Absaloms work on our new identities will hold up. I cant be absolutely sure of that, and any scrutiny, any leaks could have dire consequences. We should get out of here before something happens. I think about that. I vividly imagine the flurry of packing. We have a fair amount of stuff now, and I cant ask my kids to continue to abandon everything they love; we have to take things, and that means more room than the Jeep can provide. Wed need something larger. A van, probably. I can trade for one, but my cash supply isnt unlimited, and my credit is carefully managed under my new identity, with only one card, and only to prop up the illusion. We cant just pull out at a moments notice, drift away without a trace. It will take a day, at least, to get everything organized. I realize with a shock that for all my paranoia, I havent considered this worst-case scenario: how to pull us safely and quickly out of this home, this place. A days delay might be nothing to most people, but it could mean the difference between life and death to us. The Jeeptoo small for an immediate evacuationwas a sign Im putting down roots and getting comfortable, and its the wrong time for that. Dammit. Lanny, I realize, has been watching me. Watching my face as I think this through. She says nothing until Officer Graham and Detective Prester are in the sedan and backing down the drive in a whisper of pale dust, and then she says in a dead little voice, So I guess we pack, right? Just what we can carry? I hear the damage Ive done to them both in her flat intonation. Shes become resigned to the terrible, inhuman idea that she can never have friends, or family, or even favorite things, and shes learned to live with that at the tender age of fourteen, and I cant. I cant do it to her again. This time we wont run. This time I will trust Absaloms false identities. This time I will bet on normal life for once, and not rip my childrens souls apart to save their physical bodies. I dont like it. But that has to be my decision. No, sweetheart, I tell her. We stay. Whatever comes, I tell myself, we arent running away from it. I avoid any encounters for the next few days, quite successfully. Our runs around the lake are done at a pace that discourages others from chatting, and I dont do any neighborly visiting. Im not the cookie-baking kind of mother on my best daysnot anymore. That was Gina, God rest her soul. Lanny goes back to school, and though I wait tensely for the phone to ring, she isnt in trouble again in the first few days. Or the next. The police dont return for another chat, and slowly, slowly, my anxiety levels begin to gear down. Its the following Wednesday that I get a text from Absalom, marked with his standard ? as a signature. Its just a web address, and I type it into the browser on my computer. Its a newspaper story from Knoxville, quite a bit distant from us, but its about Stillhouse Lake. MURDER AT ISOLATED LAKE COMMUNITY STUNS RESIDENTS My mouth goes dry, and I shut my eyes for a moment. The letters glow randomly against my eyelids, and I cant seem to banish them, so I open and look again. The headlines still there. Beneath, with no reporter byline, sits a story that must have been cribbed from a wire service, and I slowly scroll down past blinking reminders to subscribe, to read the weather, to buy a heating pad and a pair of high-heeled shoes. I finally arrive at the text of the story. It isnt much. When residents of the small town of Norton, Tennessee, woke to the news of a body in local Stillhouse Lake, no one expected it to be a murder. We just thought it was a boating accident, said Matt Ryder, manager of the local McDonalds restaurant. Maybe a swimmer who had a cramp and drowned. I mean, that happens. But this? Just cant believe it. This is a good little town. Good little town describes Norton well. Its typical of the area, a sleepy village struggling to reinvent itself for the modern age, where the Old Tyme Soda Palace occupies space next to SpaceTime, an Internet caf? and coffee bar. One caters to nostalgia for a time gone by. The other strives for all the conveniences of a much larger town. On the surface, Norton looks successful, but digging deeper reveals a problem facing many rural areas: opioid addiction. Norton, by best estimates of local law enforcement, has a significant addiction problem, and drug trafficking is common. We do our best to control the spread of it, said Chief of Police Orville Stamps. Used to be meth cooking was the worst of it, but this Oxy and heroin problem is something else. Harder to find, and harder to stop. Chief Stamps believes that drugs could have played a factor in the death of the still-unidentified woman, whose body was found floating in Stillhouse Lake last Sunday morning. She is described as a Caucasian with short red hair, between eighteen and twenty-two years of age. She has a small scar that indicates removal of a gall bladder, and a large, colorful tattoo of a butterfly on her left shoulder blade. At press time, there was no official identification, though sources inside the Norton Police Department say there is a strong likelihood the victim is from the area. Officials are keeping silent on the cause of the womans death, though they have classified it as homicide and are interviewing residents of the lakeside communitya formerly exclusive, wealthy area fallen, like most of the state, on harder timesto discover who, if anyone, might have information to lead to the identity of the victim or killer. They believe that the body was placed into the water after death and say the killer attempted to weigh it down. Pure luck it didnt work, said Chief Stamps. She was roped to a concrete block, but the propeller of the boat must have cut one of the ropes when he started the engine, and up she came in the end. The Stillhouse Lake area was known as a rustic retreat for locals until the mid-2000s, when a development company sought to reinvent the lake as a high-end refuge for upper-middle-class and upper-class families seeking lakefront second homes. The effort was only partially successful, and the gates to Stillhouse Lake are now open to anyone. Many of the wealthy have fled to more exclusive enclaves, leaving behind retirees, original residents, and empty homes sold at foreclosure auctions. While its known among residents to be a peaceful place, the influx of new residentsrenters and buyershas made some uneasy. I have to believe that somebody up there saw something, Chief Stamps said. And somebody will come forward to give us what we need to solve this case. Until then, nights on peaceful Stillhouse Lake will remain as they always have been . . . dark. I roll my chair back, as if retreating from the article. Its about us. About Stillhouse Lake. But even more than that, what strikes me is what likely caught Absaloms attention as well . . . the way the killer weighed down the body. And the age and description of the victimit rings some kind of bell, something distant, but I cant lay hands on a memory to go with it. It also sounds eerily like the young women Melvin abducted, raped, tortured, mutilated, and buried in his own watery garden. Tied to concrete blocks. I try to get control of myself, my racing mind. Its a coincidence, obviously. Disposing of a body in water is hardly unique, and most smart killers try to weigh them down to delay discovery. Concrete blocks, I remember from Melvins trial, arent unusual, either. But that description . . . No. Young, vulnerable women are the favorite target of many serial killers. Not definitive in any way. And theres nothing to say it is a serial killer. Could have been a suspicious death gone wrong, a panic to hide a body. An inexperienced, unprepared murderer who hadnt planned to kill at all. The story more or less alludes to drugs, and there is a drug problem in Norton; we heard that from Officer Graham. The murder must be, as suggested, tied to that. Nothing to do with us. Nothing to do with Melvin Royals crimes. But murder practically at your front door? Again? Its a terrifying prospect, for many reasons. I fear for my kids personal safety, of course. But I also fear for the torment that well go through if we are branded, again, as Royals. Id made the decision to stay and tough it out, but that is harder now, in the face of this story. The Sicko Patrol will notice. Theyll dissect every detail. Look for photos. I cant control pictures others take; no doubt I appear in the background of someones shot at the park, or the parking lot, or the school. If I dont, then Lanny does, or Connor. This has just made staying extraordinarily risky. I text back to Absalom. Whyd you send? Similarities. You saw, right? I didnt tell Absalom where wed settled, but I suspect he knows. I had to file paperwork to buy this house under the identity he made for me. Itd be childs play for him to find out my exact address. He was the one who sent me lists of likely destinations when Id had to flee last time. Still, it helps me to think he doesnt know, or care, where exactly we are. Hes never betrayed us. Hes only helped us. But that doesnt mean I can bring myself to trust him completely. Doesnt seem relevant, I tell him. Weird tho. Keep an eye? Wilco. Absalom ends the conversation, and I sit for a long time, staring at the words on the computer screen. I wish I could feel some sympathy for the poor, dead, unknown woman who was found in the lake, but shes just an abstract. A problem. I can only think that her death leads to pain for my kids. I was wrong to make a knee-jerk decision to stay here. Never close off escape. Thats been my mantra for years now, and its pure survival instinct. Im not reversing my decision, exactly, but this article, the similarities to my ex-husbands crimes . . . its woken something uneasy in me that Ive learned to heed. I wont uproot my kids on a whim and run, but I damn well need to make plans to do an emergency bugout in case things turn ugly. Yes, I do owe it to my kids to provide them a stable upbringing . . . but even more than that, always, I owe them safety. I no longer feel the safety I did before, in the face of that story. It doesnt mean Im running. But it means I need to prepare. I quickly Google vans available for purchase in the area and come up gold: theres a large cargo van for sale or trade just a few miles away, in Norton. I think ahead to packing materials. We have collapsible plastic crates for some things, but Ill need to add a few more from the local Walmart. I try to avoid big-box stores, since it means being recorded on surveillance cameras, but there isnt a whole lot of choice around Norton, unless I want to make the drive into Knoxville for supplies. I look at the clock and decide there isnt time to be DEFCON One paranoid. I grab a large-billed trucker hat with no logo on it and a pair of large sunglasses. I make sure my clothes are as anonymous as possible. Best I can do as a disguise. As Im retrieving cash from the safe, I hear the honk of the post office delivery van down the drive and look out. Hes finished filling my box, and I go out to grab the contents, still thinking hard about what has to be done to prep for an emergency. Selling the house wouldnt come into the calculation; it would have to be done post-move anyway. Id have to pull the kids out of school without warning or explanation, again. But other than those considerations, we dont have a hell of a lot of ties to break, really. Ive kept us mobile for so long, keeping things light is still natural for all of us. Id thought this would be the place where wed get to break that cycle. Maybe it still is, but I need to be practical. Escape needs to be a viable option. Always. Step one is getting the van. Theres an official-type letter in my mess of circulars and junk mail. State of Tennessee. I rip it open and find my license to carry. Thank God. I put it in my wallet immediately, dump the rest of the junk mail in the trash, and retrieve my gun and shoulder holster from the safe, too. Feels good, putting it on, feeling the weightand knowing that unlike other times Ive worn it, I actually have the paper to show Im legally allowed. Ive practiced drawing out of this holster many times, so theres nothing odd about it at all. Feels like an old friend at my side. I add a light jacket to conceal the gun and head out in the Jeep to buy the van. Its a long drive into the country outside Norton, and though Ive printed turn-by-turn directionsthe downside of refusing to join the smartphone revolution is a reliance on maps and paperits still a confusing mess to get to the listed destination. Theres a reason, I think, that scary movies are so often set out in the woods; theres a brooding, primitive power out here, a sense of being made so small and vulnerable. The people who thrive here are strong. It catches me by surprise to find, once Ive arrived at the address of the van for sale, that the name on the mailbox of the 1950s-era cabinsmall, sturdy, rustic as hellis ESPARZA. Norton, and Stillhouse Lake, isnt an area that boasts a large Hispanic population, and I realize that it has to be Javier Esparzas home. My range instructor. Former marine. I feel instantly comforted and at the same time strangely guilty. I wont cheat him, of course, but I hate to imagine his disappointment, his anger if he finds out later just who I am. If the worst happens, I bug out, and he wonders if Im fleeing in the van he sold me for even worse reasons than being married to a serial killer. I dont want to lose Javis good opinion. But I will, for the sake of my kids future and safety. I absolutely will. I get out and walk to the gate, where Im greeted by a muscular bristle of brown-and-black fur. The dog comes armed with a fusillade of barks as loud as the gun range. The rottweiler stands waist-high to me, but when he puts his front paws on the top of the fence, hes as tall as I am. He looks like he could rip me to dog food in under ten seconds, and I am very careful to stop where I am and make no threatening moves. I dont make eye contact. Dogs can take it as aggressive. The barking brings Javier to the door. Hes wearing a plain gray T-shirt, soft from years of laundry, equally well-worn jeans, and a pair of heavy boots, which is sensible out here in the country, where timber rattlers and old, forgotten pieces of metal are equal risks to unprotected feet. Hes also drying his hands on a red dish towel, and when he sees me, he grins and whistles. At the sound of the whistle, the dog backs off and retreats to the porch, where it lies down, panting happily. Hey, Ms. Proctor, Javi says, coming to open the gate. Like my security system? Effective, I say, eyeing the dog carefully. It seems perfectly friendly now. Im sorry to bother you at home, but I guess you have a cargo van for sale . . . ? Oh. Oh yeah! Almost forgot, to be honest. Used to belong to my sister, but she dumped it on me when she joined up and shipped out last year. Ive got it back here in the garage. Come on back. He leads me around the side of the cabin, past a chopping block for firewood with an ax still embedded in the stump and an old, weathered outhouse. I cast it a look, and he laughs. Yeah, not in use for decades. I poured concrete in the hole and floored it and use it for tool storage now. But you know, I like preserving the past. He must, because garage is a generous description. What I actually see is a barn that looks as vintage as the outhouseoriginal to the property, I think. Horse stalls have been knocked down to fit in a long, blocky cargo van. Its an older model, the paint gone milky and matte instead of shiny, but the tires are in good shape, which is important to me. Spiders have chained the whole thing to the ground in a wispy net. Shit, Javi says, picking up a broom to scythe through the silky webbing. Sorry. Havent checked it in a while. They cant get inside it, though. That sounds more aspirational than factual, but I dont let it bother me. He retrieves a key from a hook on the wall, opens the door, and starts the van up. It catches almost immediately, and the engine sounds well tuned and smooth. He lets me climb in, and I like what I see. Middling mileage, all the gauges reading clear. He flips the hood to let me take a look, and I check the hoses for any signs of cracking or crumbling. Looks great, I say, reaching in my pocket. Trade me for the Jeep and a thousand cash? He blinks, because he knows how much Ive put into the Jeep; for a start, Ive installed the gun safe in the back, which he helped me source. No. Seriously? Seriously. No offense, but . . . why? Thats a sweet trade. Terrain you have around the lake, the Jeeps a better vehicle. Javi isnt stupid, which is a little unfortunate right now. He knows hes getting the better part of this deal, and there is little to no reason for me to be swapping an environmentally appropriate Jeep for a big, clumsy cargo van . . . Not at Stillhouse Lake. Honestly? I dont ever go off-roading, really, I tell him. And Im thinking of moving, eventually. If I do, we have way too much stuff for the Jeep. The van makes more sense. Moving, he repeats. Wow. I didnt know you were thinking about that. I shrug, keeping my eyes on the van and my expression as neutral as I can. Yeah, well, things happen; you cant always predict what comes next. So. What do you think? Want to take a look at the Jeep? He waves that aside. I know the Jeep. Look, Ms. Proctor, I trust you. I need a thousand to give my sister, and I keep the Jeep. Shell be fine with that. I take out my wallet and count out the money. Its less than I expected to pay, and Im relieved. More for us to use when we have to reinvent ourselves, create new names and backgrounds. Javi accepts, and we sign over titles to each other; Ill have to get the ownership switched officially later, but for now, thatll do. He writes a receipt for me, and I make one for him while sitting at his small kitchen table. He still has the dish towel over his shoulder, and I notice that it matches a red-and-white checked one on a rack over the sink. The place looks clean and orderly, with just a few ornaments and colors among the beiges and dark browns. He still has suds in one side of the dual sink. I caught him washing dishes as I arrived. It seems like a nice place. Calm. Centered, like Javi himself. Thanks for everything, I tell him, and I mean it. Hes treated me well since the beginning. It matters, in a life like mine, where I was never treated as just myself . . . I was always my fathers daughter, then Melvins wife, then Lily and Bradys mother, and thento manya monster whod escaped justice. Not a person in my own right, ever. It has taken work to get to this point where I feel entirely myself, and I cherish it. I like being Gwen Proctor because real or not, she is a full and strong person, and I can rely on her. Thanks for this, Gwen. Im real happy about the Jeep, Javi says, and I realize that for the first time hes called me by my first name. In his mind were now equal. I like it. I extend my hand, and we shake, and he holds on just a little longer than is necessary before he says, Seriously. You in some kind of trouble? Because you can tell me if you are. Im not. And Im not looking for a knight to come riding to the rescue, Javi. Oh, I know. I just want to make sure you know you can always ask me if you need help. He clears his throat. Some people, for instance, dont want anybody to know where theyre going when they leave town. Or what theyre driving. And Im cool with that. I send him a curious look. Even if Im wanted? Why, are you guilty of something? On the run from something? His tone sharpens just a bit, and I see that it bothers him. Yes, and yes. But the guilt is nebulous, not actual, and Im not on the run from the law. Just from the lawless. Lets just say I might have someone trying to find me when I leave, I say. Look, you do what you gotta do. Im not about to ask you to go against your ethics, Javi. I swear. And I promise you, I havent done anything wrong. He nods slowly, considering it. He finally realizes hes still got the dish towel, and I like the self-deprecating grin as he flips it toward the sink, where it lands in a heap. I wish he hadnt done it, because suddenly, strikingly, it looks like a disembodied lump of bloody flesh, out of place in this clean kitchen. I let out my breath slowly, hands flat on the table. You passed all the background checks to get your carry permit, he says. Far as I know, youre legal as hell, so I got no problem telling people I dont know where you go when you leave here, and I dont have to tell them about the van. Dont ask, dont tell, you hear me? I hear you. Got a few buddies who live off the grid. You know how to do that? I nod without telling him how long Ive been moving, running, avoiding. Without telling him anything at all, which he likely doesnt deserve. Javi is trustworthy, nothing but, and yet I cant bring myself to disclose things to him about Melvin, about myself. I dont want to see him disappointed. Well be okay, I tell him, and manage to summon up a smile. This isnt our first rodeo. Ah. Javi sits back, dark eyes going even darker. Abuse? He doesnt ask by whom, or whether its me, the kids, or all of us. He just leaves it there, and I slowly nod, because its true, in a way. Mel had never conventionally abused me; hed certainly never hit me. Hed never even verbally abused me. He had controlled me, in a lot of ways, but Id just accepted that as a normal part of married life. Mel had taken care of the finances, always. Id had money available and credit cards, but hed kept meticulous records, spent lots of time reviewing receipts and questioning purchases. At the time, Id just thought he was being detail-oriented, but now I see that it was a subtle form of manipulation, of making me both dependent and hesitant to do anything without consulting him. But still within a normal range of marital behavior, or so Id believed. There had been one part of our lives that was strikingly not normal, but that was a personal, private hell that Id been forced to relive under police questioning. Was it abuse? Yes, but sexual abuse between married people is a tangled topic at best. Lines blur. Mel liked what he called breath play. He liked to put a cord around my neck and choke me. Hed been careful about using a soft, padded thing that left no real marks behind, and hed been an expert at its use. Id hated it and often talked him out of it, but the one time Id outright refused, Id seen a flash of something . . . darker. I never said no again. He never choked me hard enough to make me pass out, though it had come very close. And I endured it, over and over, never knowing that while he was starving me for oxygen during sex, he was imagining his women in the garage, fighting the noose as he raised and lowered them off the ground. It might not have been abuse, but there isnt any doubt in my mind that it felt wrong. Looking back, the thought that he was using me to play out his murders, over and over again . . . its chilling, and sickening. We dont want to be found by someone, I say. Lets leave it at that, okay? Javi nods. I can tell this isnt his first rodeo, either. As a range instructor, hes probably seen plenty of frightened women seeking comfort in their own self-defense. He also knows that a gun cant protect you unless you protect yourself mentally, emotionally, and logically. Its the punctuation at the end, not the paragraph. Im just sayin that if you dont have good paper, I know some people, he says. People who can be trusted. They help out shelter victims starting new lives. I thank him, but I dont need his trusted strangers. I cant trust them. All I want is the cargo van and the receipts, and Ill be on my way. Its a step toward departing, and Im sad about it, but I also know its necessary to be ready. Once I have the van, I have control. We can, if necessary, be long gone before the people hunting us can get organized enough to track us to our doorstep. Well have warning and a good means of escape. I can sell the van for cash in Knoxville and use another identity to buy something else. Break the trail again. At least, thats what I tell myself. Im getting up from the table when my phone rings. Well, vibrates, since I generally keep it in quiet modeIve seen too many movies where victims brainlessly forget and their ring tones give them away to their killers. I reach for it and see Lannys name pop up. Well. I cant say I havent been expecting it. Lannys acting out is, I think, only going to get worse. Maybe its for the best we get moving sooner rather than later. I can homeschool instead, wherever we land. When I answer, Lanny says, in a tense and unnaturally flat voice, I cant find Connor, Mom. I dont understand for a few seconds. My brain refuses to consider the possibilities, the horrible truth of it. Then my breath becomes concrete, heavy in my chest, and I feel like I will never breathe again. I gain control again and say, What do you mean, you cant find him? Hes in class! He skipped, she says. Mom! He never skips! Where would he go? Where are you? I went looking for him to give him his stupid lunch, because he forgot it on the bus again. But his homeroom teacher said he wasnt there and he never showed up for class at all. Mom, what do we do? Is he Lanny was starting to panic now, her breath coming too fast, her voice trembling. Im at home, I came home because I thought maybe he came back here, but I cant find him . . . Honey. Honey. Sit down. Is the alarm on? What? Iwhat does that matter? Bradys not here! In her distress, my daughter is calling her brother by his birth name, something she hasnt done for years. It sends a shock through me, hearing his name from her. I try to stay calm. Lanny. I want you to go turn on the alarm if it isnt on right now and then sit down. Take deep, slow breaths, in through your nose, out through your mouth. Im on my way. Hurry, Lanny whispers. Please, Mom. I need you. Shes never said that before, and it drives a knife deep into me and cuts out something soft and vulnerable and vital. I hang up. Javi is already on his feet, watching me. You need some help? he asks me. And I nod. Well take the Jeep, he says. Its faster. Javi drives like the road is a combat zonefast and aggressive, nothing smooth about it. I dont mind him taking the wheel; Im not sure Im in any shape right now to do it. I hang on hard through bumps he doesnt slow down for. The jolts rattling through me are nothing compared to the constant, jittery terror, and I can think of nothing but Connors face. The vision of him lying bloody and dead in his bed haunts me, even though I know he isnt there. Lanny checked the house, and he isnt therebut where is he? The question goes silent in my mind as Javi pulls the Jeep to a sliding stop in the driveway of our house. I am still now. Ready, the way Im ready on the range with a target in the distance. I climb out of the Jeep and head for the door, unlock it, and quickly disarm the siren just before Lanny flings herself on me. I hug my daughter, inhale the scent of strawberry shampoo and clean soap, and think about how far I will go to protect her from anything, anyone, who wants to hurt her. Javi enters after me, and Lanny breaks free with a gasp, taking a step back in defense. I dont blame her. She doesnt know him. Hes just a stranger looming in her doorway. Lanny, this is Javier Esparza, I tell her. Javi is the instructor over at the shooting range. Hes a friend. She raises her black eyebrows a little at that, momentarily amazed because she knows I dont trust people lightly, but she doesnt waste time on it. I checked the house, she says. He isnt here, Mom. I cant see he came back at all! Okay, lets take a breath, I say, though I want to scream. I go to the kitchen, where I keep a list of phone numbers pinned to the wall?my sons teachers, and the home and cell numbers of his friends parents. Its a short list. I start dialing, starting with the friends. My anxiety ramps up with every ring, every answer, every negative. When I put the phone down after the last call, I feel hollow. Lost. I look up at Lanny, and her eyes are huge and dark. Mom, she says. Is it Dad? Is it No, I say, an instant and unthinking rejection. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Javier noting it. He already believes that Im running from someone; this just confirms it. But Mel is in prison. Hes never getting out, except in a pine box. Im more worried about other people. Angry people. The Internet trolls, not to mention the justifiably enraged relatives and friends of the women Mel tormented and murdered . . . but how did they find us? Still, I flash back to the pictures from just a few days ago, of the faces of my children Photoshopped onto bloody, destroyed bodies, onto suffering, abused bodies. If they had him, I think, they would have taunted me by now. Its the only thing that keeps me sane. You were supposed to walk him to class after you got off the bus, Lanny, I say. She flinches and drops her gaze from mine. Lanny? II had things to do, she says defensively. He went on ahead. It was no big deal She stops, because she knows that it is a big deal. Im sorry. I should have. I got off the bus with him. He was being an asshole, and I yelled at him to go to class, and I went across the street to the convenience store. I know Im not supposed to. From the bus, Connor would have walked across the grassy triangle between the schools to the middle building. It would have been more likely for him to run into bullies than abductors, though there would have been plenty of parents dropping off kids outside the guard station entrance. I dont know. I dont know what he did, what happened to him once Lanny turned away. Mom? Maybe . . . She licks her lips. Maybe he just went somewhere by himself. I fix her with a long look. What are you saying? I She looks away and seems so uncomfortable that I want to shake it out of her. Im able to stop myself. Barely. Sometimes he goes off by himself. He likes to be on his own. You know. Maybemaybe thats where he went. Gwen, Javi says. This is serious business. You should call the police. Hes right, of course hes right, but weve already drawn the polices attention once. If my son, of all people, has been sneaking away, being on his own . . . that frightens me in a way I cant even explain. His father liked to be on his own. Lanny, I say, I need you to think now. Is there some special place he goes to be alone? Anyplace at all? In Norton? Around here? She shakes her head, clearly frightened, clearly feeling guilty for having walked away from him this morning. For having failed in her duty as an older sister. I dont know, Mom. Around here, he likes to go up in the woods. Thats all I know. Its not enough. Javi says, quietly, Ill drive around and see what I can spot, if you want. Yes, I say. Please. Please do that. I swallow hard. Ill call the police. Its the last thing I want to do. Its a dangerous move, just as dangerous as having Lanny as a potential witness to a body disposal; we need shadows, not spotlights. But every second I waste could be a second that Connor, hurt or (God forbid) taken, stands in real danger. Javi heads for the exit. I start to dial the phone. We both pause as a knock sounds on the door. Javi gives me a look over his shoulder, and when I nod, he swings it open. The alarm chimes but doesnt go off. In the panic, Id forgotten to reset it. Standing on the doorstep is my son, with an inadequately wiped bloody nose, and a man I barely recognize. Connor! I rush forward, past Javi, to grab my son in a hug. He makes a gurgling sound of protest, and some of his blood smears on my shirt, but I dont care. I let go and go to one knee to look at his damage. What happened? Got in a fight, I guess, says the man whos brought my son back to me. Hes medium height, medium weight, sandy dark-blond hair cut short, but not as short as Javis. He has an open, interesting face and eyes that lie steady on the two of us. Hi. Sam Cade. I live up the ridge? I finally remember him from two different sightings: first, hed stepped in at the gun range against Carl Getts, and second, Id seen him walking down the road below our house, earbuds in, waving quietly to us. He offers a hand. I dont take it. I usher my son inside, where Lanny grabs his arm and drags him off to see that his nose is cleaned up as it drips more dark blood. Javi stands quietly, arms folded, a silent presence that feels very, very comforting right now. What are you doing with my son? It comes out sharp, urgent. I see Cades Adams apple bob as he swallows, but he doesnt take a step back. I found him sitting on the dock. I walked him home. Thats it. I glare at him, because Im not sure that I can believe him. Still. Hes brought Connor home, and Connor doesnt seem afraid of him. Not in the least. I remember you, from the gun range. Right? Theres still a sharp edge to my voice. Right, he says. My tone has brought a slight flush to his cheeks, but hes working not to sound defensive. Im renting the cabin up the hill there, the one up to the east. Just here for six months or so. And how do you know my son? I just told you, I dont, he says. I found him sitting on the dock. He was bleeding, so I cleaned him up and brought him home. The end. I hope hes okay. Hes matter-of-fact, but his voice is getting firmer. He wants this to be over. How exactly did he get hurt? Cade sighs, looks up at the sky as if searching for patience. Look, lady, I just was trying to be nice. For all I know, you hit the kid. Did you? Im taken aback. No! Of course not! But hes right, of course. If Id found a kid sitting with a nosebleed, Id wonder if he was running from abuse at home. Ive come at this all wrong, and too aggressively. Im sorry. I should be thanking you, Mr. Cade, not giving you the third degree. Please. Come inside, Ill make you some iced tea. Iced tea, in the South, is the hallmark of hospitality. Shorthand code for making someone welcome, and the all-purpose apology. Did Connor tell you anything about what happened? Anything at all? He just said it was kids at school, Cade says. He doesnt follow me in. He stands on the outside, looking in. Maybe Javis silent presence is warning him off, I dont know. I make the glass of tea and bring it to the door. He accepts, though he holds it as if hes not quite sure what its for. Takes a tentative sip. I can instantly tell this is not a man whos used to the Southern traditions, because the sweetness of it surprises him. He doesnt quite make a face. Im sorry, I didnt even ask your name . . . Im Gwen Proctor, I say. Connors my son, obviously, and you saw my daughter, Atlanta. Javi clears his throat. Gwen, I should probably get going. Im going to walk to the range; Ive got a bike there I can ride home. You bring the Jeep back and pick up the van whenever you want. He puts the keys on the coffee table and nods to Sam Cade. Mr. Cade. Mr. Esparza, Cade says. I cant leave a stranger standing here with my iced tea glass in his hand, obviously, and Im not ready to run off and leave Lanny and Connor at home alone, either. So I let Javier go, though I hold him back for a moment to look him in the face. Javi. Thank you. Thank you so much. Glad it worked out, he replies, and then hes gone past Cade, ambling down the drive, then kicking into an easy, loping run toward the gun range on the ridge. Marine, I remember. This is just a quick jaunt for him. No effort at all. I return my attention to Cade, who is looking after Javi with an expression I cant read. Lets sit out here? I make it a question. He seems to think about it, then eases down into a chair on the porch. He perches on the edge of it, ready to bounce up and go at any moment. His sips of tea seem more polite than appreciative. Okay, I say. Im sorry. Lets start over. Im sorry for accusing you ofwell, of anything. That wasnt fair. Thank you for helping Connor. I really appreciate it. I was freaking out. Cant imagine, he says. Well, they wouldnt be kids if they didnt make it a mission to freak out parents, right? Right, I say, but its a hollow sort of agreement. That might be true of normal kids. Mine are different. Theyve had to be. I cant believe he didnt call me, thats all. He should have called me. I think Cade hesitates, like hes thinking about a line he doesnt want to step across. I think he was just ashamed. He didnt want his mom to know he lost a fight. I manage a hollow, shaky laugh. Is that normal for boys? He shrugs, which I take to mean yes. Javiers a marine. You might want to ask him to show the kid a few moves. I thank him, but inwardly Im thinking that Sam Cade can also handle himself; hes compact, but not small, and he has a lithe tension in him that makes me think hes had experience at being picked on, and hitting back. Where Javi is so visibly military that someone would have to be blind to miss it, Cade comes across as a normal guy, but with an edge. On impulse, I say, Army? He glances at me, startled. Hell, no. Air force. Once upon a time, he says. Afghanistan. What gave it away? You just leaned a little hard on the word marine, I say. Yeah, okay, guilty of interforces rivalry. His smile, this time, is unguarded, and I like him better for it. The advice stands, though. In an ideal world, sure, he wouldnt have to fight back. But the only thing more certain than death and taxes is bullies. Ill consider it, I say. His body language is slowly relaxing, one muscle at a time, and he takes a deeper drink of the tea. So, you said youre only in the cabin for six months, is that right? Thats pretty short. Writing a book, he says. Dont worry, I wont bore you to death with the plot or anything. But I was between jobs, and I thought this would be the perfect place to come for peace and quiet before I head off to the next thing. Whats the next thing? He shrugs. I dont know. Something interesting. And probably far away. Im not much for being settled. I like . . . experiences. I would give anything to be settled, and to avoid more experiences, but I dont tell him that. Instead, we sit in awkward silence for a moment, and as soon his glass is empty, he stands up to go like hes been released from a trap. I shake his hand. He has a rough palm, like someone whos done plenty of hard work in his life. Thanks again for bringing Connor home, I say. He nods, but I realize he isnt looking at me. Hes stepped back, and is looking at the outside of the house. What? Oh, nothing. Just thinking . . . you really should get those roof shingles fixed before the rain comes. Youre going to have a hell of a leak. I hadnt noticed, but hes right; one of the many spring storms has blown a sizable patch of roofing away, leaving fluttering tar paper exposed. Dammit. Know any good roofers? I dont mean it. Im still half out the door, mentally planning our escape for when its necessary. But he, of course, takes me seriously. Not a single one around here. But Ive done some roof work in my day. If you just want a repair, I can do it for you cheap. Ill think about it, I tell him. Look, Im sorry, but I need to see to my son. Thank you for being . . . so kind. That seems to make him uncomfortable. Sure, he says. Okay. Sorry. He rocks back and forth for a moment, as if debating saying something else, then casts me a quick glance. Let me know. Then hes gone without a backward look, hands in his pockets, head down and shoulders loose. He doesnt look back. I gather up the glasses and go back inside the house, and just as Im closing the door I see that Cade has paused a little bit up the hill to look back. I raise my hand silently. He raises his. And I shut the door. I wash out the glasses and knock on Connors door. After a long moment he says, Come in, and I find him sprawled on his bed, game controller on his chest, all his attention on the screen across the room. Hes playing some kind of racing game. I dont interrupt him. I sink down on the edge of his bed, careful not to block his view, and wait until his in-game vehicle crashes. He pauses the game before I reach out to smooth hair back from his forehead. Hes going to have an impressive bruise, I think, but no black eyes or thered already be darkening from burst capillaries. Theres another mark on his left cheek, just where a right-hander would have punched him, and I see raw scrapes on the palms of his hands, where he must have broken his fall. The knees of his blue jeans are abraded and bloodied. Does it hurt? I ask him. He shakes his head mutely. Okay, sorry, I have to do this. I lean over and touch his nose, pushing and moving it to make sure that I dont feel anything strange. There isnt any break; Im certain of that. Ill schedule a doctors appointment in the next few days just to make sure, though. Mom, enough! Connor pushes my hand away and picks up his game controller, but he doesnt start the game again. Just fiddles with it idly. Who was it? I ask him. He shrugs. Not as if he doesnt know, of course, but he doesnt want to tell. He says nothing, but he doesnt start the new game, either. If he didnt want to talk, I think, hed have the thing roaring at top volume. Standard avoidance technique these days. Youd tell me if you were in trouble, wouldnt you? I ask him. That draws his focus, just for a moment. No, I wouldnt, he says. Because if I did, youd just pack us up and move us again, right? That hurts. It hurts because its true. Javis left me the Jeep, but I still have to go trade it for the van, and the instant I pull that big, white beast into our driveway, my son will be proven right. Worse: now hes going to believe hes caused it to happen, as if his getting hit by bullies is forcing me to uproot the family. I hope Lanny doesnt decide to blame him, too, because theres no viciousness like that of a teen girl deprived of something she wants. And she wants to stay here. I know that, even if she doesnt. If I decide to move us again, it wont be because of anything you or your sister have done, I tell him. Itll be because its the best, safest thing for us all. Okay, kid? We straight? Straight, he says. Mom? Dont call me kid. Im not a kid. Im sorry. Young man. Its not like this is the first time I got punched. Wont be the last. Its not the end of the world. After another few seconds of fiddling, he puts the controller aside and rolls toward me, head propped up on his hand. In his letters, does Dad ever say anything about us? Lanny must have told him something, but she couldnt have told him all of itcertainly not what shed read in that vile message. So I choose my words carefully. He does, I say carefully. Sometimes. And why wont you at least read that part to us? Because that wouldnt be fair. I cant just read you the part where he pretends to be a good dad. He was a good dad. He didnt pretend about that. My son says it with perfect calm, and it hurts, hurts like a piece of iron shoved in where my heart should be. And of course hes right, from his perspective. His dad loved him. Thats all he ever saw, or knew; his dad was great, and then his dad was a monster. There was never any middle ground, no adjustment period. He saw his dad that morning of The Event, hugged him, and by that evening his father was a murderer, and he wasnt allowed to mourn him, miss him, or love him, ever again. I want to cry. But I dont. I say, Its okay to still love the times you had with your dad. But he was more than just your dad, and that other part . . . that other part was, and is, nothing you should love. Yeah, Connor says, thumbing his game back on. He isnt looking at me. I wish he was dead. That hurts, too, because I wonder if hes just saying it because he knows that I wish it, too. I wait, but he doesnt pause the game again. I say over the roar of the sound effects, Youre sure you wont tell me who hit you? And why? Bullies, and no reason. Jeez, leave it, Mom. Im fine. Would you like to learn some moves from Javi? Or I almost say Mr. Cade, but I stop myself. I just met the man. I dont really know how Connor feels about him. I dont know how I feel about him. Im not starring in some teen movie, he tells me. It doesnt work like that in real life. By the time I get any good Ill be graduated. Yeah, but think of the epic graduation fight, I tell him. Middle of the school auditorium? Everybody cheering while you take down your bullies? He pauses the game. More like me ending up bloody and in the hospital, and all of us getting charged with assault. They never show you that part in the movies. I dont quite know how to phrase it, so I say, Connor . . . how did you meet Mr. Cade today? Well, Mom, he lured me into a rape van with a puppy. Connor! Im not stupid! He flings that at me like a knife, and I admit, it startles. I start to speak, but he runs right over me, never taking his eyes off the screen as the image of a car shifts lanes, speeds, jumps, rounds corners. I got beat up, I walked home, I sat on the dock, and he just asked me if I was okay. Dont make it some freaky Serial Dad creeper thing, all right! He was just nice! Not every guy in the world has to be an asshole! I never Im shocked not only by what he says but also by the anger behind it. I havent realized how much my son has taken his anger and turned it on me until this moment. Its understandable, of course; why wouldnt he? Im here to represent the shitty life he leads, every day. It begs a larger question. I do treat every person I meet with suspicionand men more than women. I do that out of sheer self-preservation. But I realize now that in doing so, Ive appeared unreasonable in my sons eyes. After all, if I distrust those people, especially men, will I eventually look at him the same way? He has to wonder. After all, hes his fathers child. It breaks my heart and shatters the pieces, and I feel tears gather in my eyes. I blink them away. Ill get an ice pack for that nose, I tell him, and leave. I run into Lanny in the kitchen. Shes making lunchenough for all of us, I see, a pasta chicken dish that shes spicing with great abandon. Shes a good cook, if a little liberal on flavors. When I open the freezer, she hands me an ice pack already prepared. Here, she says, rolling her eyes. Didnt want to interrupt mommy-son time. Thanks, honey, I say, and I mean it. Looks tasty. Oh, youll definitely taste it, she says cheerfully, continuing her stirring while I deliver Connors ice pack. Hes already laser-focused on the game, so I leave it next to him and hope hell remember to use it before it melts. Lanny, I say, as I set the table. You should go back to school this afternoon. Ill call in an excuse for you. Ha. No. Im staying here. Dont you have an English test? Why do you think Im staying here? Lanny. Okay, Mom, I get it, fine, whatever. She turns the burner off on the stove with an unnecessarily violent snap of her wrist and bangs the skillet down on a hot pad on the dinner table. Eat up. Theres no use arguing. Go get your brother. She does that without complaint, at least, and lunch is good. Filling. Even Connor seems to like it enough to try to smile, though he winces and probes at his swollen nose afterward. I place phone calls, Connor and I drive Lanny to school, and I think longingly again about the van that waits at Javiers house. I also think that running almost ensures another stir of interest, and eventual links to our real identities. Maybe we dont need to pull up our tentative roots quite so quickly. Maybe Im overreacting, the way I did when I pointed a gun at my own son not so long ago. Im well aware that my paranoia is part of my huge, overwhelming desire to never give up control, ever again. And I know that same impulse could be hurting my children. Like Connor, caught between uncomplicated childhood love and adult hate, and nowhere to stand in between. Like Lanny, defiant and furious and ready to take on the world, but far too young to do it. I need to think of them. What they need. And as I stand in the hallway and wipe tears from my cheeks, I realize that what they might need right now is for me to stand my ground and trust that were going to get through this. Not just another hopeless late-night flight, another town, another set of names to memorize until none of them are real anymore. Their childhood has been incinerated. Destroyed. And running is one more log on that fire. Its ironic that there are protection programs for witnesses, but not for us. Never for us. But the body in the lake. It nags at me, having this spotlight focused so close to us. There are similarities to my husbands crimes, but I tell myself that it isnt an uncommon way to dispose of a body. Ive done that research, obsessively, trying to understand Melvin Royal, trying to understand how that killer could be the man I thought I knew and loved. I can hear Mels mental whisper again: The smartest ones are never found out. I never would have been, except for that stupid drunk driver. Our lives would have gone on just the same. That is almost certainly true. Its your fault Im where I am, though. That was completely true. Mel would have been convicted of one murder, of course. But it was my fault his true depth of evil had been finally unmasked. Everything in our house had been gone over by the police, of course; theyd missed nothing. But what they hadnt known about, and I hadnt either, was that Mel had taken out a storage locker in the name of my long-dead brother. I only found out about it because the preloaded credit card associated with the account had run out after Mels arrest, and Id gotten a call from the storage unit. Apparentlyironicallyhed put the home phone number on the account. That voice mail had led me to the storage locker, and Id opened it up to find a bewildering array of folded womens clothing, purses, shoes. Small plastic bins, neatly labeled with victims names, that contained the contents of their purses and pockets and backpacks. And the journal. It was a three-ring notebook, a leather presentation binder. It was filled with lined notebook paper densely covered in his neat, angular writing . . . with printed photographs. Each victim had a section. Id only taken one single look before Id dropped the book on the floor and rushed to call the police. I couldnt bear even what Id learned from that glance. Mels charges went from a single count of abduction, torture, and murder to multiple counts. The clerks voice had gone hoarse before it was over, or so the newspaper accounts read. By that time, I was back in jail awaiting my own trial. In a rare display of spite, Mel had refused to exonerate me from his crimes, and a zealous, fame-hungry neighbor had claimed she saw me carrying something she thought might have been a body . . . though my attorney had picked that apart and gotten me an acquittal. Eventually. This man will kill again, Mels voice says in my mind, and I shiver to reject it, reject him. When he does, you think they wont look at you? Wont investigate? Take your picture? This aint the old days, Gina. Reverse image search can bring the wolves right to your door. I know that voice isnt really Mel, and I also know its right. The longer we stay here, the more we risk being pulled into Detective Presters investigation, and thats a sure, slow fuse to blow up our semisettled life. But taking this home away from Connor now would make his bitterness, his self-protective, guarded anger, that much worse. Hes only just begun to relax, to feel part of something. Taking that away because we might be found out is cruel. Still. Having the van ready isnt a bad idea. I take a deep breath and call Javier. I tell him Ill make time soon to make the swap, Jeep for van, but theres no real hurry. Hes okay with that. It feels like a plan. But some part of me also knows that its really not enough. 4 I have learned not to trust anyone. Ever. I spend the night at the computer, turning up everything I can about Sam Cadewho is, indeed, an Afghanistan air force vet. Hes not on any sex offender registry, has no criminal record, and even has a good credit rating. I check the popular ancestry sites; often somebodys name pops up in a family tree, and its a good way to check out their history. But his family isnt enrolled. Cades got a couple of social media accounts and a sort of boring dating profile on a match service, though its several years out of date. I doubt hes even checked it for a long time. His posts are the normal kind of wry observations clever people make, with a support-the-military bent, but in a mostly nonpolitical way, which is a bit of a miracle. He doesnt seem rabidly fanatical about anything. Im looking for dirt, and I dont find any. I could contact Absalom and have him deep-dive it, but the fact is, I rely on him for very specific services, the ones strictly to do with Mel and the stalker posse. If I abuse our fragile, faceless relationship, I could lose a vital resource. Checking out a neighbor probably isnt a good use of Absaloms time. Probably. Until I have some better reason to suspect Cade beyond my normal garden-variety paranoia, I can leave it. As long as he avoids me, Ill avoid him. Still, its a little disquieting that when I step outside my front door, I realize that I can see his front porch from here. Ive noticed it before, of course, but when we moved in, the cabin was empty, and Id never found anyone at home when Id come around the lake on my runs. Were in direct eyeline, though his cabins modest and tucked in among the trees by the road. I can see the glow of lights in the front windows through red curtains. Sam Cade, like me, is a night owl. I sit in the quiet, listening to the owls and distant rustling of the trees. The lake ripples quietly and reflects shattered moonlight. Its beautiful. Its also very late, and I finish my drink and go to bed. I take Connor to the doctor to get his x-rays. He has bruises, but nothings broken, and Im supremely grateful for that. Lanny goes with us, though shes in silent mutiny the entire time, glowering at me and anyone who gives her a second look with equal displeasure. I ask Connor again if hell talk about the person who hit him, but hes a well of silence. I let it go. When hes ready to tell me, he will. I think about making the offer to both of them for more self-defense classes; Javier does teach one at the local gym. I make sure, as we pass the gym, to mention it. Neither of them says a word. So. Its that kind of day. We eat out at the local diner, which is always a treat for me because of the fluffy meringue pies that they bake fresh daily, and while were out, I see Javier Esparza, who comes in, slides in at a table not far away, and orders lunch. He sees me and nods, and I nod back. Hey, kids? Im going to have a quick word with Mr. Esparza. Lanny gives me a glare. Connor frowns and says, Dont sign me up for anything! I promise not to and slide out of the booth. Javier sees me coming, and as the waitress sets down his coffee, he indicates the chair across from him. I slip into it. Hey, he says, then takes a sip from his cup. Whats up? The kid okay? Connors fine, I tell him. Thank you again for jumping to the rescue so quickly. De nada. Glad he didnt need it. Mind if I ask you a question? He glances up at me and shrugs. Shootwait, hang on. The waitress is back, delivering a bowl of soup and a piece of coconut meringue. Okay. He waits for that last until shes out of earshot and clearly minding her own business, and although I dont need the caution, I appreciate it. You know Mr. Cade? Sam Cade? Sam? Yeah. Sure. Not a bad shot, for a chair force guy. Chair force? I like it better than flyboy. I mean, they do most of their work sitting down. Javier grins to show theres no real ill will. Cades all right. Why? He bothering you? No, nothing like that. I justit was odd, having him show up with Connor. I wanted to be sure . . . Javier takes it seriously. He thinks about it for a moment, idly spooning his soup and letting it fall back to splash in the bowl, then finally takes a mouthful as if hes reached a decision. Everybody I know who knows him, likes him, he says. Doesnt mean he cant be bad, you know, but my instinct says hes okay. Why, you want me to look into it? If you can. Okay. One good thing about being the range master: I know damn near everybody in this town. Only Sams new to town, hadnt he said that? He hasnt been here all that long, and hes planning on leaving at the end of a six-month lease. Looking back on it, that seems troubling. Like someone staying a step ahead of trouble. Or, again, Im just utterly, hopelessly paranoid. Why do I care? I can avoid him easily enough; I managed not to run into Cade before, and I can duck him going forward. He offered to do some work on my house, I say to Javier, as some sort of excuse. Yeah, hes good with that, he says. He put a new roof on my cabin right after he moved in. I think he used to work with his dad in construction, and the price was good. Better than I would have gotten in town, and none of the local guys can nail shingles on straight. And they cant shoot for shit, either. I wasnt trolling for a testimonial, but I got one. Well, some part of me says, quite reasonably, the roof still has to get fixed. Thanks, I tell Javier. He waves his spoon at me to dismiss that. Us outsiders got to look out for each other, he tells me. And I think he believes it . . . that he and I are the same kind of outsiders. Were not, of course. But its a little comforting to imagine. I leave him to his pie and go back to minechocolate meringuejust in time, because Lanny and Connor have started shaving bits off the side of the slice and hoping I wont notice. Theyve already finished theirs. Do not touch the pie, I tell them sternly, which gets me a shared look and eye roll. Lanny licks her fork. Thats a crime. Back in the old days, I would use the words hanging offense. I wonder if theyve ever noticed that I stopped. I eat my pie, and we head back to Stillhouse Lake. That afternoon, I take a short walk up the hill to the neat little rustic box of Sam Cades place and knock. Its 3:00 p.m., which around the lake seems a reasonable time to come calling, and sure enough, I catch him in the cabin. Sam seems surprised to see me, but he manages to keep it polite. He hasnt shaved, and the golden stubble on his chin glints in the light. Hes got on a lightweight denim shirt, old jeans, and waffle-stomper boots, and he waves me inside as he heads back toward the kitchen I can clearly see over a pass-through counter. Sorry, he says. Close it, will you? Ive got pancakes to turn. Pancakes? I echo. Seriously? At this hour? Never too late or too early for pancakes. If you dont believe that, you can turn around and go, because we are never going to be friends. Its a funny, quirky thing to say, and I find myself laughing while Im closing the door behind me. The laugh dies as I realize Ive stepped inside a cabin with a man I hardly know, and the door is closed, and anything can happen now. Anything. I take a quick look around. Its small, and he doesnt have much: a couch, an armchair, a laptop parked on a small wooden desk that fits in the corner. The laptops lid is up, and the display shows one of those northern lights wavy screensavers. Sam has no television that I can see, but a nice vinyl stereo setup, with an impressive record collection that must be hell to move with. Bookcases on one wall, crammed full. Not the lifestyle Ive developed, where nothing is cherished or necessary. I get a real sense of him having . . . a life. Small, self-contained, but real and vital. The pancakes smell delicious. I follow him into a small galley kitchen and watch as he teases one loose from the pan and flips it in the air with the showmanship and dexterity of someone whos practiced that move a lot. Its impressive. He puts the pan back on the gas fire and gives me an unguarded smile. So, he says. You like blueberry pancakes? Sure, I say, because I do, not because of the smile. I am immune to the smile. That offer you made about helping me out with the house?is that still on the table? Absolutely. I like working with my hands, and that roof needs replacing. We can negotiate a good price. If the blueberry pancakes are your negotiating move, it might not work. I ate pie today. Ill take my chances. He watches the pancake thats on the fire and removes it when its perfectly toasted. It gets added to a pile of three already done, and he hands me the plate. No, no, you made those for you! And Ill make some more. Go on, eat. Theyll just get cold while I make the next set. I use the butter and syrup set out on the table, and when he says its fine, I pour myself a cup of coffee from the pot thats on the warmer. Its strong, and I add a swirl of sugar. Im halfway through the pancakesand damn they are warm, fluffy, and tasty, with sweet/tart bursts of flavor from the fresh blueberrieswhen he pulls up a chair across from me and gets his own coffee. Theyre okay? he asks. I swallow the bite Ive taken and say, Where the hell did you learn to cook? These are amazing. He shrugs. My mom taught me. I was the oldest, and she needed the help. Something comes across his face when he says that, but hes looking down at the pancakes, and I cant tell if its wistfulness, or a sign that he misses her, or something else entirely. Then the moments gone, and he digs in with real appetite. Works with his hands, loves to cook, decent to look at . . . I start to wonder why hes on his own out here at the lake. But then, not everybody conforms to the love/marriage/baby life path. I dont regret my kids. I only regret the marriage that produced them. Still, I can understand the lonely, solitary life better than most. And how harshly others can judge it. We eat in companionable silence for the most part, though he asks me about the budget for the roof and discusses the possibility of putting a nice deck on the back of the house, which is something Ive been thinking of in my rich fantasy life. Its a big stepnot just repairing the house, but actually improving it. It sounds suspiciously like putting down real roots. We haggle easily over the roof repair pricing, and I balk at the deck. Commitment is not my strong suit. Nor, I suspect, is it Sam Cades, because when I ask how long hes going to be around, he says, Not sure. My lease is up in November. I might be heading on. Depends on how I feel. I like the place, though, so well see. I wonder if hes including me in the place. I scan him for signs of flirting, but I dont read any. He seems like a human dealing with a human, not a man sniffing around after a maybe-available woman. Good. Im not looking for a relationship, and I cant stand pickup artists. I finish my pancakes before him and, without asking, take my sticky plate and fork and cup to the sink, where I hand-wash them squeaky clean and put them on the drain board. Theres no automatic dishwasher. He doesnt say anything until I reach for the cooled pan and the batter bowl. No need, he says. Ill take care of that, but thanks. I take him at his word and turn to look at him as I dry my hands on a lemon-yellow dishtowel. He seems perfectly at ease, focused on his pancakes, which are on the verge of disappearing. I say, What are you really doing here, Sam? He arrests the motion of his fork and leaves the pancake bite dripping syrup in the air for a few seconds, then deliberately finishes the journey to his mouth. He chews, swallows, takes a deep swig of coffee, and then puts his fork down to push back in his chair and meet my gaze. He looks honest. And a little pissed. Writing. A. Book. I think the question is, what are you? he asks me. Because damn if I dont think youve got a hell of a lot of secrets, Ms. Proctor. And maybe I shouldnt get involved, even if its just climbing all over your roof for money. Your neighbors dont know much about you, you know. Old Mr. Claremont round the lake, he says youre skittish. A little standoffish. I cant say I disagree with him, even if you did sit like a good guest and eat my pancakes and make decent conversation. His response, I think, is a marvel of deflection. I feel defensive, when just an instant ago I was on offense, hoping to score some kind of telling reaction in the event that Sam Cade isnt who he claims to be. Instead, hes turned the mirror on me and put me on my back foot, and I . . . admire that. Dont trust it, per se, but oddly enough I give him points for it. Im almost amused as I say, Oh, Im standoffish, all right. And as to why Im here, I guess its none of your business, Mr. Cade. Then lets just keep our mysteries, Ms. Proctor. He scrapes up some syrup and sucks it off the fork, then carries his dishes toward the sink. Excuse me. I step aside. He washes things with efficient motions, takes on the batter bowl and the pan and spatula. I let the running water fill the silence, cross my arms, and wait until he shuts the tap off, slots items in the drain board, and picks up the dish towel to dry off. Then I say, Fair enough. Ill see you tomorrow about the roof. Nine in the morning all right? His expression, still calm and mobile and unreadable, doesnt shift much when he smiles. Sure, he says. Nine it is. Cash the end of every day until Im done? Sure. I nod. He doesnt make an effort to shake my hand, so I dont offer, and I let myself out. I walk down the steps of his cabin and pause on the downhill winding path to take in a slow breath of thick lake air. Its muggy and heavy out here in the slow Tennessee heat. When I let my breath out, I still smell the pancakes. He really is an amazing cook. The kids only have another week of school left, which brings with it the stress of last-minute tests. Connor stresses, that is. Lanny doesnt. I see them off on the bus at 8:00 a.m., and by nine Ive made some coffee and put out a box of store-bought pastries, since I cant hope to compete with Cades pancakes. He knocks promptly on the hour, and I let him in for coffee and crullers, and we work out what hell need to do the repairs. He takes cash up front to get supplies, and heads back up to his cabin; I see him go past fifteen minutes later in an old but powerfully built pickup whose primary color is Bondo gray, with patches of faded green. I check the Sicko Patrol while hes gone. Nothing new presents itself. I count the number of posts, and its down again . . . I keep a frequency chart in Excel, tracking the interest our names have online, and Im pleased to find that as Melvins atrocities are outdone by othersby lust killers, spree killers, fanatics with a cause, jihadistssome of our stalkers seem to be losing interest. I hate to use the phrase getting a life, but its possible they are. That theyre moving on. Maybe, someday, we can, too. Its a faint hope, but any hope at all is a new feeling for me. Cade returns just as Im printing off the slender list of new stuff and filing it away; I have to leave a couple queued to the printer, which always worries me, but theres no choice. I close and lock my office door and go out to meet him. Hes already setting up a ladder against the roof, making sure its safely anchored in the grass. Hes got a load of tar paper, shingles, and a tool belt that hes securing around his waist, dangling tack hammers and bags of nails. Hes even got a battered trucker hat on to keep the sun off, and a bandanna trailing out the back to cover his neck. Here. I hand him a closed aluminum water bottle with a carabiner clip. Ice water. You need any help? Nope, he says, looking up at the rise. I should be able to get this side finished before dark. Ill take a break around one. Ill have lunch for you, I tell him. Then . . . Ill leave you to it? Sounds good. He clips the water bottle to his belt and picks up the first load, which hes fitted with a rope carry that he fits over his shoulders like a bulky backpack. I hold the ladder as he swarms up it, moving as if hes carrying a load of feathers, and step back to make sure hes surefooted up there. He is. The pitch of the roof hardly seems to faze him at all. Sam waves, and I wave back, and as I turn to go back inside I see a police car cruising by, moving slow with tires crunching gravel. Its driven by Officer Graham, who nods to me when I lift a hand in greeting and speeds up to head up toward the Johansens cutoff, toward where his place sits farther back. I remember that he sort of half invited me to join him one evening for shooting practice, but I also think about the fact hes going to have his kids with him . . . and I dont want to bring mine. So I make myself a mental promise to drop by with a tin of cookies or something that makes me seem more . . . peaceful. But not interested. By lunchtime, Ive completed two client jobs and posted for more work; one pays by the time Ive made the spaghetti and meatballs and salad, and Sam Cade comes down to eat with me over the small dinner table; the other client pays by the end of the day, which is a welcome change. I have to chase a lot of payments. The sound of Cade up on the roof is weirdly comforting once I get used to it. Im a little surprised when I hear the alarm sound its sharp repeated warning beeps, and the punching of the code to stop it. Were home! yells Lanny from down the hall. Dont shoot! That was mean, Connor tells her, and then I hear an oof, as if shes thrown a sharp elbow at him. It was! Shut up, Squirtle. Dont you have nerd things to do? I leave the office and head down to greet them; Connor pushes by me without saying a word, face dark, and slams the door of his room firmly. Lanny shrugs when I meet halfway to her room. Sensitive, she says. What? Its my fault? Squirtle? Its a Pok?mon. Theyre kind of adorable. I know its a Pok?mon, I tell her. Why are you calling him that? Because he reminds me of one, with his hard shell and soft underbelly. Its a nonanswer, and she shrugs, all loose shoulders and rolling eyes. Hes just pissed because he blew his test I got a B! Connor shouts through the door. Lanny raises one eyebrow in a sharp arc. I wonder if shes practiced that in front of a mirror. See? He got a B. Clearly hes losing his edge. Enough, I say sharply, and as if to punctuate it, there are three percussive raps on the wood overhead. Lanny yelps, and I realize that Cade is now working at the back of the house, and she and Connor wouldnt have seen him from the front as they came in. Its all right, I tell them, as Connor throws open his door, eyes gone wide and blank with panic. Thats just Mr. Cade. Hes on the roof replacing shingles. Lanny draws in a deep breath and shakes her head. She pushes past me to go into her room. Connor, on the other hand, blinks and shifts to something quite different: interest. Cool. Can I go help him? I consider that. I consider the risk of my son tumbling off the edge of a roof, falling off a ladder . . . and then I weigh that against the hunger I see in him. The need to be around an adult male, one who can show him things I cant. Who can represent something other than the pain, fear, and horror his father does now. Is it smart? Probably not. But its right. I swallow all my worry and force a smile as I say, Sure. I wont lie, I spend the next few hours outside, clearing up all the mess that Cade and Connor are cheerfully throwing down and watching for any sign that my son might get overconfident, overbalance, and get himself hurtor worse. But hes fine. Nimble, well balanced, having the time of his life as Cade shows him the science of how to create a solid, overlapping roof pattern. It heals me a little inside to see the fierce, real smiles that Connor flashes, and the genuine pleasure hes taking in doing the work. This, I think. This is a day he will remember: a good day. Its one of those memories that will pave the way to better things for him. I hate it, just a little, that Im not the one to share in it directly. My son doesnt look at me with the same hero worship, and I think he never will. What we have is real love, but real love is messy and complicated. How can it not be, with our history? Its easy for him to be with Sam Cade, and for that, Im grateful. I shut up, clean up, and while the heats a bit much for me, the works good and healthy. We eat dinner together around the table, though Cade insists hes not fit for company as is; Lanny has taken over the kitchen and sternly commands him to go home, get cleaned up, and come back, and I can tell hes amused by having this fierce goth child ordering him around while wearing a flowered apron. He leaves and returns, freshly showered. His hairs still damp and clinging to his neck, but hes in a clean shirt and jeans. Deck shoes, this time. Lanny has made lasagna, and we dig in with real hunger, the four of us; its delicious, layered with explosions of flavors, all fresh except for the pasta, which shes conceded to buy from the store. Connor is incredibly voluble about all that hes learned today . . . not at school, but how to hammer in a nail straight with one sharp blow, how to line up shingles, how to keep your balance on an incline. Lanny, of course, rolls her eyes, but I can see shes happy to see him in this mood. So Connor did okay, I say when my son takes a breath, and Sam, his mouth full of lasagna, nods, chews, and swallows. Connors a natural, he says. Great work today, pal. He offers a hand, and Connor high-fives it. Next time, we tackle the other side. Barring wind or rain, we should be done in a few more days. Connors face falls a little at that. Butwhat about the wood? Mom? The wood on the side of the house where its rotted? Hes right, I say. Weve got some rot. Probably need to replace trim thats gone bad, too. Okay. Three days. Sam forks up another healthy mouthful of lasagna, dangling strings of cheese. Might be a whole week if you want to spring for that deck on the back. Yes! Mom, please? Can we do the deck? Connors look is so earnest that it hits me like a tide, and washes away any last, lingering disquiet I have. Ill still trade Javi for the van, but if I was looking for a reason to stay, its here. Here in my sons eyes. Ive been worrying about his introspection, his solitary nature, his silent anger. For the first time Im seeing him open up, and it would be cruel and wrong to cut that off purely for a what if. A deck would be nice, I say, and Connor raises both arms in a victory pose. Sam? Would you mind doing the work late, after Connor gets off school? Sam shrugs. I dont mind, but itll go slower. Might take a month if we only put in half days. Thats okay, Connor rushes to say. I only have another week of school. Then we can work all day! Sam Cade lifts his eyebrows and sends me an amused look, and I raise my own and take a bite of my food. Sure, Sam says. If your mom says its okay. But only when shes here. Sams not a stupid man. He knows how touchy I am, how guarded. And he knows a single dude barging into a family is likely to be suspect of many unpleasant things. I can read it in his face that hes well aware, and has no trouble playing by whatever rules I set up. I have to admit: its to his credit. Dinners a complete success, and while the kids are happily clearing up the mess, Sam and I take our beers out to the porch. The heat of the day is finally giving way to a cooling breeze coming off the lake, but the humiditys something I might never quite get used to. The beer delivers a crisp, autumnal note, even though were not even to deep summer yet. A few boats are skimming the lake as the orange sunset fades outa four-person sculling craft, a fancy cabin cruiser, and two rowboats. Everyones heading for shore. Sam says, You do a background check on me? Its a surprise, and I pause, beer bottle halfway to my lips, and shoot him a look. Why would you say that? Because you seem like a woman who does background checks. I laugh, because its true. Yes. Hows my credit rating? Pretty solid. Thats good. I really ought to check that more often. Youre not angry? He takes a pull on his drink. He isnt looking at me at all. His attention seems completely on the boats out in the water. No, he finally says. A little disappointed, maybe. I mean, I think of myself as a really trustworthy sort of guy. Lets just say Ive trusted the wrong people before. I cant help but think of the difference between how Sam Cade just reacted, and how I imagine Melvin would have reacted if hed been sitting here, having just met me. Mel would be angry. Offended. Hed blame me for not automatically trusting him. Oh, hed have covered it up, but Id have felt the stiffness in his manner. There isnt any in Sam. Hes just saying what he means. Reasonable, he says. Im an employee. You have a right to check up on me, especially since Im going to be around your kids and in your house. Probably the smartest thing you could do, to be honest. Did you check up on me? I ask. That surprises him. He sits back a little and glances my way. Shrugs. I asked around, he says. I mean, in the does-she-pay-her-bills kind of way. If you mean did I Google you, no. When women do that to men, I assume its a precaution. When men do it to women, it looks . . . Stalkery, I finish for him. Yes. So what was the word about town about me, then? Like I said: standoffish, he says with a laugh. Same as me, actually. I offer my beer bottle, and we clink glass. For a moment we just drink. The scullers reach the far dock. The rowboats have already made port. The fancy cabin cruiser is the last one out on the water, and across the still air I can hear laughter. The lights come on in the boat and reveal four people. A snippet of faint music drifts to me. Three of them are dancing as the pilot heads the cruiser in to a private dock on the other side of the lake. Lifestyles of the rich and bored. Think theyre drinking champagne? Sam asks me, straight-faced. Dom P?rignon. With caviar. Savages. I like mine with smoked-salmon toast. But only on days ending with a y. Mustnt overindulge, I agree, in my best posh New England accent. I have a pretty good one, from Mother. So common to be intoxicated on good champagne. Well, I wouldnt know, because Ive never had the good stuff. I think I had a glass of cheap shit at a wedding once. He holds up his beer. This is my version. Hear, hear. Your sons pretty great, you know. I know. I smile into the growing evening, not quite at him. I know. We finish our beer, and I collect the empties. I pay Sam his days wages and watch as he walks the short distance up the hill to his cabin. I watch the lights come on inside his front room, glowing red through the curtains. I go back inside to put the glass in the recycling, and I find the kitchen quiet and clean. The kids are off to their neutral corners, as they so often are. Its a nice, quiet evening, and all I can think of, as I lock up and set the alarms, is that it cant possibly last. But it does. It surprises me more than anything that the next daySaturdaygoes smoothly. Fewer alerts on Sicko Patrol. No visits from the police. I get more work. Sunday, too. Monday the kids are back in school, and at promptly 4:00 p.m., Connor and Sam Cade are up on the roof, hammering away. Lanny gripes that its driving her crazy, but turning up her headphones solves that minor issue. A good day slips into another good day, then a week. School lets out, much to the delight of my kids, and Cade becomes a fixture, joining us for breakfast, then taking Connor up to finish the roof. Once that project is complete, they start on replacing the rotten wood trim around the windows and doors. I retire to the office for work and Sicko Patrol, and it feels . . . almost comfortable, having someone around I can trust, at least a little. By Sunday, theres a new coat of paint on the exterior of the house, and a lot for me to clean up after, but Im not displeased. Far from it. Im breathless, paint-spattered, and happier than Ive been in a while, because Lanny, Connor, and Cade are just as dirty and tired, and weve accomplished something real together. It feels good. I find myself smiling in an entirely unguarded way at Sam that day, and when he smiles back, its just as open and free, and I have a sudden flashback to the first time Mel smiled at me. I realize in this moment that Mels smiles were never open, never free. For all that he played the good husband, the perfect father, it was Method acting to him. Never break character. I can see the difference in the way that Sam talks to the kids, in the way he makes mistakes and corrects them, says goofy things and smart things, and is a real, natural human. Mel was never those things. Ive just never had a good mirror to hold him against to see the differences. My father was mostly absentee, and not very warm; children were there to be seen, not heard. Ive come to realize that when Mel found me, he read that thirst in me . . . and the need to fill it. He must have studied for the part. There were times his mask slipped, and I remember every one of them . . . the moment when I got angry at him about missing Bradys third birthday party was the first. Hed turned to me with such sudden, vicious violence that Id recoiled against the refrigerator. He hadnt hit me, but hed held me there, hands on either side of my head, and stared at me with a kind of empty blankness that had terrified me then, and still had the power to do it now. Even when Mel had been perfect in his camouflage, hed been shallow. His calm had felt stretched and unnatural, and so had his affection. When hed gone into his workshop, I imagine that was where the real Mel had come out. He must have lived for the closing of that door, the turning of that dead bolt. As much as I watch Sam, I dont see any of that. I only see a person. A real person. It makes me ill and sad to realize how little I understood what was right in front of me, right in bed with me, the entire nine years of my marriage. It was my marriage. Not ours. Because it had never been a marriage to Melvin Royal. Id been a tool, like the saws and hammers and knives in his workshop. Id been his camouflage. It is terrifying and soothing to understand this, at long last. I never let myself think about it much, but seeing Sam, seeing the kids around him, makes me realize everything that was wrong and artificial in my marriage. I dont tell Sam this, of course. That would be one hell of a strange conversation, especially since I am in no way going to tell him who I really am. Hell, no. But it means something that the kids like him. Theyre both so smart, and I know that building this safe place for them to grow and do betterits important. Risky, but necessary. Im still willing to run if I have to, but not until its necessary. So far, alls quiet. Quieter than its ever been. By the middle of June, Connor and Sam have the house looking fantastic, and Sam is teaching my son the basics of construction. Theyre planning on leveling the ground out back. Pouring concrete and putting down posts. Lanny hovers on the outskirts of it, making suggestions, until suddenly shes into it, too, intently watching as Sam draws out plans with an architects eye. Its a long-term project. Nobodys in any hurry about it. Least of all me. Work keeps coming in on my freelance businesses, to the point that Im turning things down. I can afford to be picky, and to charge accordingly, and my reputation is growing. Things are definitely looking up. I dont depend on the income from my online work, of course, not completely. I dont have to, because Mel did one thing right: in that awful storage locker where he kept his horrific journals, his trophies, he also kept his escape plan. A duffel bag full of cash. Nearly two hundred thousand, the inheritance from his parents estate that hed told me hed invested in a mutual fund. It sat for years in his storage shed, waiting for him to sense it was time to bolt. Hed never had the chance to take it. He was arrested at work, and he never spent another day as a free man. I turned in the contents of that storage locker to the police, of course I did, but before I did that, I picked up that bag and put it in the trunk of my car. I drove far across town to one of those strip mall mailbox stores and opened up a box in a fake namemade up on the spotand then took the duffel bag to a UPS location far across town to ship it to my new PO box. It was terrifying. I thought Id get caught, or worse, that someone would open the box and the money would disappear without a trace. I couldnt have complained about it. But it did arrive. I tracked the progress online, and I paid extra to have the mail center hold it for me until I could pick it up. Good thing I did, because just two days later, despite my cooperation with the police, I was arrested, jailed, and awaiting trial. The box with the duffel bag inside was still there almost a year later when I was acquitted. Collecting dust in the back corner of the store, which thankfully was still in business. Small miracles. Id spent half of it on our safety, shelter, and identities before Stillhouse Lake. This house had come remarkably cheap at auction, but Id spent twenty thousand buying it and ten thousand more fixing it up. Still, I have enough, with the income Im pulling in now, to spend a little. I imagine Mel will be furious about the loss of his carefully hoarded fortune, and that makes me very, very happy. It soothes me to think Im using that money to pay for a new life. When Cade offers to help me out with the garden, which Ive let run wild, I take him up on it, with the provision that he let me pay him for it. Which he does. We spend hours together discussing the plans, choosing the specific varietals, planting them together. Building stone borders and rambling paths. Putting in a small pond and stocking it with little, darting goldfish that shimmer in the sun. And little by little, I become aware that I trust Sam Cade. It isnt any specific moment I can point to, or anything he says or does. Its everything he says, does, is. He is the calmest, easiest man Ive been around, and every time I see him smile, or talk to my kids, or talk to me, I realize how poor my choices were before. How barren my life was with Melvin Royal. It had looked full. It was as lifeless as the moon. Before Im even aware of it, two more weeks go by. My garden looks like something a home and garden magazine would feature, and even Lanny seems relatively happy. She moderates her goth to something edgy but cool, and lo and behold, my daughter tells me one day that shes made a friend. Online at first, but she asks, with her usual blend of aggressive reluctance, if Id drive her to meet Dahlia Brown at the movies. Dahlia Brown, the girl she punched out at school. Im dubious about this turn of events, but when I meet Dahlia, she seems to be a nice girl, tall and a little awkward with it, and self-conscious of her braces. The boyfriend, turns out, dumped her over the metal in her mouth. Best thing that could have happened to her. Connor and I sit in the back of the theater, and Dahlia and Lanny sit together, and by the time Dahlia comes home with us for dinner, she seems to be entirely at ease. So is Lanny. That becomes a regular thing, the movies, as summer wears on: Lanny and Dahlia together, besties. Dahlia picks up the black nail polish and emphatic layers of eye makeup, and Lanny adopts Dahlias style of flowing floral scarves. By mid-July, the girls are thick as thieves, and theyve attracted two more friends. Im on my guard, of course; one young man is full goth, with a pierced septum, but his boyfriend is helplessly preppy, and they seem wonderfully good together. And wonderfully funny, which is a good thing for my daughter, too. Connor seems much different, too. His D

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