“You know how to party, Sam.”
“Damn right I do.”
He gives me a full, sweet smile and leaves to walk up the hill toward his small cabin. I watch him go, hardly aware that I’m smiling, too. It feels normal.
Normal, I think, as the smile finally fades, is so dangerous now. I’d been fooling myself into thinking I could live in that world, but my world is the one beneath, the one in the shadows, the one where nothing is safe or sane or permanent. I’d almost forgotten that with Sam. If I stay here, I am helping my kids, but I’m risking everything, too.
There are no good answers, but this time I’m not just going to be strong. I’m hitting back.
The next day I take an eye-wateringly early morning flight from Knoxville to Wichita, where we once lived, and from there I drive a rental car to El Dorado. It’s got a strangely industrial feeling, like a large manufacturing campus surrounded by miles of nothing, but there’s no mistaking what it really is once you see the shimmering fences around it in a lace ruff of razor wire. I’ve never been here before. I don’t know how to do this. The air smells different, and it reminds me of my old life, my old house that’s long gone. It was foreclosed on by the bank while I was in jail. A month after that, someone had set it on fire and burned it to ruins. There’s a memorial park there now.
When I want to punish myself, I look at the spot where I once lived on Google Maps. I try to overlay the house on top of the park from memory. It seems to me that the large stone memorial block sits in the center of what had once been Mel’s garage and killing floor. That seems appropriate.
I don’t take the detour to look on the way to El Dorado. I can’t. I am focused on one thing and one thing only as I follow instructions from the guard on where to park, what I can take inside with me. I’ve left my Glock locked in my Jeep’s gun safe back in Knoxville, and all I have with me now are the clothes on my body, a preloaded cash card for $500, phone and tablet computer, and my old Gina Royal ID.
I endure the sign-in process, where my ID is scrutinized, my fingerprints are taken, and I am subjected to stares and whispers from not just the prison staff but other women coming to see family. I don’t meet anyone’s gaze. I am an expert at being remote. The guards are certainly interested. I’ve never been to see Melvin before. They’ll be hotly discussing it up and down the corridors.
Next, everything but my clothes is taken and stored in a guard station, and then I’m strip-searched; it’s a humiliating, invasive process, but I grit my teeth and get through it without complaint. This is important, I think. Mel likes to play chess. This move, this visit, is my checkmate. I can’t afford to flinch at the cost of making it.
Dressed again, I’m shown to another waiting room, where I pass the time reading a dog-eared gossip magazine left by some woman before me. It’s an hour before a guard appears to summon me on—he’s young and hard-faced, this one, with sharply clinical eyes. African American. A bodybuilder, I think. Nobody I’d want to cross.
He leads me into a small, claustrophobic booth with a stained, worn counter, a chair, a phone fastened to the cubicle wall. Scratched, thick Plexiglas for a barrier. There’s a whole row of booths, and desperate people sit hunched in every one of them, searching for some peace, some humanity in a place that offers none of that. I hear whispers of conversation as I go. Momma’s not feeling right . . . brother’s been locked up for driving drunk again . . . Can’t afford to pay the lawyer this time . . . I wish you could come home, Bobby, we miss you.
I sink into the chair without feeling it, without thinking, because I’m looking through the cloudy plastic barrier at Melvin Royal. My ex-husband. The father of my children. A man who swept me off my feet with charm and grace, who proposed to me in a swinging bucket on top of a Ferris wheel at the state fairgrounds—and it doesn’t escape me now that he’d waited until I was stranded and isolated to do it. I’d thought it wildly romantic at the time. I can guess he found it fun to imagine me plummeting to the ground, or arousing to have me completely at his mercy.
Everything he’s done is tainted now to me. Every smile was just mechanics. Every laugh was manufactured. Every public sign of affection was just that: for the public.
And always, always, the monster lay just under the surface of it all.
Not a large man, Mel. Deceptively strong, but we learned at the trial that he still relied on tricks and guile to lure women in close, and stun guns and zip ties to keep them under control once he had them. He’s put on weight, a soft, shivering layer of fat over those long muscles, and it’s blurred the once-sharp line of his jaw. He was vain about his looks. And about mine. He always wanted me to be trim and neat and reflect well on him.
There’s not much else I can recognize easily about him right now, because he’s been beaten to shit. I let myself gaze at the destruction, the ripening bruises, the cuts, his right eye completely closed, his left just barely cracked open. There are ugly red bruises around his throat, and I can see the clear outlines of fingers. His left ear is heavily bandaged. When he reaches for the phone, I see that several of his fingers are broken and taped together for healing.
I can’t tell you how happy all this makes me.
I pick up the phone and hold it to my ear, and Mel’s voice comes out raspy, but controlled as ever. “Hello, Gina. It took you long enough.”
“You look great,” I tell him, and to my surprise, my voice sounds entirely normal. I’m shaking inside, and I don’t even know if it’s from visceral fear or savage joy at seeing him hurt. He says nothing. “No, seriously. That’s really a good look on you, Mel.”
“Thanks for coming,” he says, as if he fucking invited me. As if it’s a dinner party. “I see you got my letter.”
“I see you got my answer,” I tell him, and I lean forward to make sure he can clearly see my eyes. The coldness burning in them like dry ice. He makes me afraid, constantly afraid, but at the same time, I am completely unwilling to let him see that. “This was a warning, Mel. Next time you play with me, you fucking die. Is that clear enough? Do we need to have another round of bullshit threats?”
He doesn’t seem afraid. He has the same indifference that I remember from the arrest, the trial, the sentencing—though there’s that one particular picture of him looking over his shoulder in the courtroom that betrays the monster in his eyes. It’s chilling precisely because it’s true.
He hardly seems to be listening to me. The noise in his head, the fantasy, must be very strong right now. I wonder if he’s imagining taking me apart as I scream. Taking our kids apart, too. I think he probably is, because the pupil that I can see has contracted to a greedy little pinpoint. He’s like a black hole: not even light can escape. “You must have bought yourself some friends in here,” he says. “That’s good. Everybody needs friends, don’t they? But you surprise me, Gina. You were never good at making friends.”
“I’m not fucking playing with you, asshole. I came to make sure you understand that you need to forget about me and leave us alone. We are not connected. Not in any way. Say it.” My palms are sweating—one grips the phone, the other is pressed on the stained counter. I can’t see his eyes very well. I need to see his eyes to see what’s looking out of them.
“I know you didn’t mean for me to be hurt like this, Gina. You’re not a cruel woman. You never were.” His voice. God. It’s exactly like the one in my head, still. A perfectly calm, reasonable sort of voice, with a hint of compassion. He’s practiced it, I’m certain of that. Listened to himself. Adjusted it to hit just the right notes. Predator camouflage. I think about all those nights we sat side by side, his arm around my shoulders as we watched movies or talked. About the nights I curled up to his warmth in our bed, and he said something in that same, soothing tone.
You fucking liar.
“I meant it,” I tell him. “Every bruise. Every cut. Get it through your head, Mel, it doesn’t work on me anymore.”
“This . . . charade.”
He’s silent for a while. I could almost believe I’d hurt his feelings, if I legitimately thought he had any. He doesn’t, none that I’d recognize in any way, and if I managed to bruise them as much as his flesh, I wouldn’t care at all.