I hope it cost him plenty, the bastard.
I can’t stay in the house. I feel suffocated, desperate, angry. I pace the living room for a while, and then I call Kezia Claremont at the number she’s left to ask her to please, for the love of God, keep an eye on my kids.
“Look out your window,” she says. I do, pulling the living room curtain aside, and I see her car is still sitting in the driveway. She waves. “What’s up?”
I tell her about Mel’s call, and she gets cool, all business, noting down the number as I read it off—he didn’t bother to block it—and saying she’ll check into it. I have no doubt it’ll be a dead end. Even if they find the phone, it doesn’t matter. He’s proven he can reach out from behind those bars whenever he wants. Next time it won’t be him. It’ll be someone else doing his bidding.
“Kezia . . .” I’m vibrating with tension, sick with it. “Can you stay here and watch the house for about an hour?”
“Sure,” she says. “It’s my free time. Nice day and all. Why? He give you some specific threat?”
“No. But—I need to go. Just for a little while.” I feel trapped in here. I’m on the verge of a meltdown, and I know it. I need to get some space, enforce some control. “Hour at the most.” I need to flush the confrontation with Mel out of my system before it turns toxic.
“No problem,” she tells me. “I’m making phone calls anyway. I’ll be right here.”
I tell the kids I’ll be back and that Kezia is right outside, and I make them swear they won’t open the door while I’m gone. We go over emergency procedures. The kids are quiet and watchful; they know something’s wrong with me, and it scares them. I can see that.
“It’ll be okay,” I tell them. I kiss Lanny on the head, then Connor, and they both let me without wiggling out of the embrace. That’s how I know they’re worried.
I grab a plastic locking gun case and put my weapon in, clip removed and chamber cleared. I leave the shoulder holster on, but empty. I put a zip-up hoodie on to cover it and stash the case in a small backpack.
“Mom?” It’s Lanny. I pause with my hand on the alarm pad, ready to deactivate. “I love you.” She says it quietly, but it hits me like a tsunami, and I’m knocked down inside, drowned in a storm of emotion so violent I can’t even breathe. My fingers tremble on the buttons of the keypad, and for a second I’m blinded with tears.
I blink them away, turn, and manage to smile at her. “I love you, too, honey.”
“Come back soon,” she says. I watch as she goes to the knife block and takes one. She turns and goes back to her room.
I want to scream. I know I can’t do it here. I punch in the code, get it wrong, try again, and deactivate. The door’s open almost before it’s safe, but I’ve timed it right, just barely, and I reset the alarm as I exit, then lock the door. There. My kids are secure. Protected. Kezia is on the phone as I pass, and she nods to me as she makes notes in a spiral book.
I kick it into a run. Not a jog, a flat-out sprint down the drive, every step just on the edge of balance, the edge of control. One wrong move will send me sprawling, probably break a bone, but I don’t care, I don’t care, I need to drive the poison of Melvin Royal out of my system.
I run like I’m on fire.
I hit the road and keep running clockwise, up the incline. With the hood up, I’m just another anonymous runner at the lake. I pass a few other people, some walking, some at the docks, and I get a few glances for my speed, but nothing else. I pass Sam Cade’s cabin on the right but I don’t pause; I pour more energy into my muscles, grinding off the tension, and make it all the way to the top of the ridge, where the range parking lot provides a welcome, flat, easy surface. I slow down and walk to let my muscles slow their burn. I walk in circles. My hoodie is soaked with sweat, heavy with it, and I still feel the rage screaming inside me.
I’m not letting Mel win. Not ever.
I pull my hood down before I open the range door—simple courtesy, as well as caution—and nearly run into Javier, who’s standing in the way, back to the door as he pins something up on the bulletin board. This is the store area, where they sell ammunition, hunting gear, bow hunting supplies . . . even camouflage-colored popcorn. The young woman manning the counter is named Sophie, and she’s a seventh-generation Norton native. I know because she told me, at length, the day I signed up here. Talkative and friendly.
She takes one look at me, and her face closes up shop. No small talk here, not anymore. She has the tense, glassy look of someone willing to grab an under-the-counter weapon and blast away at a second’s notice.
I say, “Mr. Esparza,” and Javier finishes putting the last thumbtack into a poster and turns to look at me. He’s not surprised. I’m sure, with his excellent spatial awareness, he knew exactly who I was the second I opened the door.
“Ms. Proctor.” He doesn’t look unfriendly, like Sophie, just politely blank. “Better not be anything in that holster. You know the rules.”
I unzip the hoodie to show him that it’s empty, and sling the backpack off to show him the gun case. I can see him hesitate. He could refuse to allow me on the premises—it’s his right, as range instructor, to do that for any reason, anytime. But he just nods and says, “Bay eight at the end is open. You know the drill.”
I do. I grab hearing protection from the rack and move quickly past the turned backs of other shooters, all the way to the end. Perhaps not so coincidentally, bay eight’s overhead light seems darker than the rest. I usually shoot in the bays closer toward the door; this, I remember, is the spot Carl Getts was using that day Javi busted him for improper range procedure. Maybe it’s where he puts the pariahs.
I lay out my gun and clips and put on the heavy earmuffs; the relief from the steady, percussive explosions is visceral, and I finish loading with smooth, calm motions. This, for me, has become like meditation, a space to let emotions trickle away until nothing exists but me, the gun, and the target.
And Mel, who stands like a ghost in front of the target. When I’m shooting, I know exactly who I’m killing.
I destroy six targets before I feel clean and empty again, and then I lower the gun, clear the clip and chamber, and put the weapon down, ejection port up, pointed downrange. Exactly as I should do.
As I do, I realize the shooting has stopped. It’s silent in the range, which is shocking and weird, and I quickly strip off the earmuffs.
I’m alone. There’s not a single person left in the bays. There’s just Javier at the end by the door, watching me. Because of where he’s standing, I can’t see his face that clearly; he’s right under one of the spots, which glares bright on the top of his head, shimmering on close-cropped brown hair, and casts his expression into shadow.
“Guess I’m not that great for business,” I say.
“No, you’re fantastic for business,” he replies. “Sold so much ammo the past few days I had to restock twice. Too bad I don’t own a gun store. I could retire just on this week. Paranoia sells.”
He sounds normal, but something about this feels strange. I load everything into my gun case and lock it, and I’m shoving it back into the backpack when Javier takes a step forward. His eyes are . . . dead. It’s unsettling. He’s not armed, but that doesn’t make him any less alarming. “Got a question for you,” he says. “It’s pretty basic. Did you know?”
“Know what,” I say, though there’s really only one question he could be asking.
“What your husband was doing.”
“No.” I tell him the absolute truth, but I have zero hope that he’ll believe me. “Mel didn’t need or want my help. I’m a woman. Women are never people to someone like him.” I zip up the backpack. “If you’re going to do some vigilante justice here, get on with it. I’m not armed now. I couldn’t take you even if I was, and we both know it.”
He doesn’t move. Doesn’t speak. He’s just regarding me, assessing me, and I remember that like Mel, Javier knows what it means to take a life. Unlike Mel, the reason for his anger right now doesn’t come from selfishness and narcissism; Javier sees himself as a protector, as a man who fights for right.