Except for the heroin epidemic, I think but don’t say. “Well, it’s 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, don’t be afraid to call, okay?”
“We will,” Lanny says, before I can, and I see that she’s studying Officer Graham with a shine in her eyes. I resist the urge to sigh. She’s 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 Connor’s hand, too. “And you’re Connor, of course. I’ll 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 he’s forgotten something, while I’m disarming the alarm to let him out. “I heard you go to the range, Gwen. You keep your guns here?”
“Mostly,” I say. “Don’t worry. They’re all in gun safes.”
“And believe me, we know gun safety,” Lanny says, rolling her eyes.
“I’ll bet you’re both good shots,” he says. I don’t like the quick brother-sister look Connor and Lanny exchange; the fact that I’ve not allowed them to touch my guns, or to learn to shoot, is a constant bone of contention between us. It’s bad enough that I run panic drills in the middle of the night. I don’t want to add loaded weapons to the mix. “I’m there evenings on Thursdays and Saturdays. I’m teaching my boys.”
It isn’t quite an invitation, but I nod and thank him, and he’s 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?”
“You, ah, been in there?”
“We got a locksmith out to open it up. There wasn’t anything inside it. Just some water bottles.”
“Huh. I’d 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. I’d 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. “He’s 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. It’s okay,” I tell him, staring right into his eyes to make sure he understands that I’m being honest. “I’m sorry I’ve been such a terrible mom to you recently. Both of you. I’m sorry about my freak-out over the alarm. You shouldn’t have to tiptoe around your own home, afraid of when I might blow up at you. I’m so sorry, honey.”
He doesn’t 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 you’re so tense all the time,” she tells me, and he looks relieved that she said it for him. “Mom. I saw the letter. You’ve got a right to be paranoid.”
She must have told Connor about the letter, because he doesn’t ask, and he doesn’t 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. “Don’t 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 they’re 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, he’d 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. He’d clean up and come out smiling, and I never knew the difference. I hadn’t even wondered about any of it. It had seemed harmless, just his hobby. He’d always needed alone time, and I’d given it to him. He’d said he kept the outer door padlocked because he had valuable tools.
And I’d 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 it’s ever been before. My smart, savvy kids, just the way they are. Our home that we’ve 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.
That’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t lose it. Somebody took it.”
“Do you know who?”
“Yeah,” he says. “I think Kyle took it.”
“Graham,” he says. “Officer Graham’s kid. The taller one, you know? He’s thirteen.”
“Honey, it’s okay if it fell out of your pocket or your backpack. It was an accident. I promise, I’m not going to bust you for it, all right? You don’t have to accuse anybody just to—”
“You’re not listening, Mom,” he says fiercely. “I didn’t 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 couldn’t get it unlocked. Maybe his dad caught him with it. I don’t know.” He hesitates. “Or . . . maybe he got what he wanted off it. Like Lanny’s number. He was asking me about her.”
That’s normal, of course. A boy asking about a girl. Maybe I’d misinterpreted her friendliness toward Officer Graham. Maybe I hadn’t 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?