“Well, Mom, he lured me into a rape van with a puppy.”
“I’m 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. Don’t 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—” I’m shocked not only by what he says but also by the anger behind it. I haven’t realized how much my son has taken his anger and turned it on me until this moment. It’s understandable, of course; why wouldn’t he? I’m here to represent the shitty life he leads, every day.
It begs a larger question. I do treat every person I meet with suspicion—and men more than women. I do that out of sheer self-preservation. But I realize now that in doing so, I’ve appeared unreasonable in my son’s 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, he’s his father’s child.
It breaks my heart and shatters the pieces, and I feel tears gather in my eyes. I blink them away.
“I’ll get an ice pack for that nose,” I tell him, and leave.
I run into Lanny in the kitchen. She’s making lunch—enough for all of us, I see, a pasta chicken dish that she’s spicing with great abandon. She’s 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. “Didn’t want to interrupt mommy-son time.”
“Thanks, honey,” I say, and I mean it. “Looks tasty.”
“Oh, you’ll definitely taste it,” she says cheerfully, continuing her stirring while I deliver Connor’s ice pack. He’s already laser-focused on the game, so I leave it next to him and hope he’ll remember to use it before it melts.
“Lanny,” I say, as I set the table. “You should go back to school this afternoon. I’ll call in an excuse for you.”
“Ha. No. I’m staying here.”
“Don’t you have an English test?”
“Why do you think I’m staying here?”
“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.”
There’s 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 Javier’s house.
I also think that running almost ensures another stir of interest, and eventual links to our real identities. Maybe we don’t need to pull up our tentative roots quite so quickly. Maybe I’m overreacting, the way I did when I pointed a gun at my own son not so long ago.
I’m 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 we’re 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.
It’s 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 husband’s crimes, but I tell myself that it isn’t an uncommon way to dispose of a body. I’ve 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 Mel’s 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.
It’s your fault I’m 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; they’d missed nothing. But what they hadn’t known about, and I hadn’t 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 Mel’s arrest, and I’d gotten a call from the storage unit. Apparently—ironically—he’d put the home phone number on the account.
That voice mail had led me to the storage locker, and I’d opened it up to find a bewildering array of folded women’s 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.
I’d only taken one single look before I’d dropped the book on the floor and rushed to call the police. I couldn’t bear even what I’d learned from that glance.
Mel’s charges went from a single count of abduction, torture, and murder to multiple counts. The clerk’s 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, Mel’s voice says in my mind, and I shiver to reject it, reject him. When he does, you think they won’t look at you? Won’t investigate? Take your picture? This ain’t the old days, Gina. Reverse image search can bring the wolves right to your door.
I know that voice isn’t really Mel, and I also know it’s right. The longer we stay here, the more we risk being pulled into Detective Prester’s investigation, and that’s 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. He’s 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 isn’t a bad idea.
I take a deep breath and call Javier. I tell him I’ll make time soon to make the swap, Jeep for van, but there’s no real hurry. He’s okay with that.
It feels like a plan.
But some part of me also knows that it’s really not enough.
I have learned not to trust anyone. Ever. I spend the night at the computer, turning up everything I can about Sam Cade—who is, indeed, an Afghanistan air force vet. He’s not on any sex offender registry, has no criminal record, and even has a good credit rating. I check the popular ancestry sites; often somebody’s name pops up in a family tree, and it’s a good way to check out their history. But his family isn’t enrolled.
Cade’s got a couple of social media accounts and a sort of boring dating profile on a match service, though it’s several years out of date. I doubt he’s 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 doesn’t seem rabidly fanatical about anything.