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I don’t like it, but the voice is right, too. I don’t want to have to think about how I was the reason my dad got killed, put down like a sick dog. Because this time, I would be the reason if I turned over this phone.

He trusted me not to do that. He trusted me.

I’ve had the phone on too long. I quickly press and hold the “Power” button until the screen says, in cheesy waving letters, Goodbye, and little pixeled fireworks go up, and the whole screen goes black. I pull out the battery. My hands are shaking.

I didn’t send him a message. I didn’t call him. I didn’t do anything wrong, but I feel sick and light-headed and I’m shaking all over like I’ve caught the flu.

I almost fall off the bed when Lanny knocks on the door. It sounds super loud, but it isn’t, I realize in the next second. She’s being nice. She says, “Hey, Connor? I’m going to make Rice Krispies treats. The kind with peanut butter and chocolate, your favorite. You want to come help me?” There’s a beat of silence. “I’m sorry, Squirtle.”

I desperately want my sister right now. I want to not feel so alone and out of control. So I shove Dad’s now-inactive phone back in my pocket, open the door, and give her what I’m sure is a totally dumb smile. It feels fake on my face. “Okay,” I say, then shut my door behind me. “As long as I get the first three squares.”

“First two.”

“I thought you were sorry.”

“Two says I’m sorry. Three says I’m stupid.”

It feels all right. Everything should feel all right here; Mr. Esparza is outside on the porch, reading a book, and Ms. Claremont is getting ready to go to work for a few hours. The house is warm and friendly and full of smiles.

I feel like I’m the one who’s wrong, like the phone in my pocket is a bomb just waiting to go off and destroy everything.

I look at Ms. Claremont as she picks up her bag. She gives me a quick, wide smile that fades when she looks at me closely. Lanny’s moving to get stuff out of the kitchen cabinets, so her back is turned, and I’m not trying to look happy anymore.

“Connor?” Ms. Claremont keeps her voice low. “You okay?”

I could do it. I could take the phone out of my pocket and hand it to her and confess everything, right now. This is my chance.

But I think about the documentary I saw on YouTube about a man strapped down on a table in prison, and poison put in his arm so he died, and I think about my dad.

And I say, “I’m fine, Ms. Claremont.”

“Kez,” she tells me, again. She’s said that the last four times. Maybe she really means it.

“Kez,” I say, then force another smile out. “I’m okay. Thanks.”

“Okay, but if you’re not, you know I’m a call away, right?”

My fingertips tap the phone in my pocket. “I know.”

 

 

7

GWEN

Sam’s tourist pamphlet is worth its weight in gold. There’s a perfect candidate for our stop for the night, and when I check the folded paper map, I find that it’s about twenty miles away—far enough to be off the radar, and couples oriented enough to be the last place Melvin—or Absalom, for that matter—would look. Desperately charming, I think.

When we arrive there, we find that’s exactly the right description. It’s lovely and neat and perfectly trimmed, with a small parking lot. It’s too dark to see beyond the lights mounted outside, but I imagine the mist rises heavy in the mornings to give the whole place a magical look. It looks like a typical B and B sort of establishment, an expensive hobby for retired financial analysts who sink a fortune into renovating an old but magnificent house in the middle of nowhere. They’ve certainly spared no expense, I find as we walk inside: it’s clean, gracious, full of well-kept antiques. It smells of fresh oranges.

The lady standing behind the antique counter is not what I expect. Midthirties, I think. She’s of Indian extraction, wearing a truly lovely sari of royal blue trimmed in ornate gold, her hair drawn back in a neat bun, and she smiles with real welcome. “Hello,” she says. “Welcome to Morningside House. Are you looking for a room?” Her voice carries a slight, crisp midwestern accent, without any trace of a southern drawl. There’s a very slight shadow beneath the smile, a little wariness in her eyes. I wonder how hard life has been for her here in deep redneck country. Very, I imagine.

“Yes, thanks,” Sam says, stepping up as she opens a register book. He scribbles down names, but in unreadable scrawl. “One room’s fine. Two beds.”

She gives us a quick once-over, reconsidering whatever her earlier presumption had been. “Ah. Well. Unfortunately, all my one-room arrangements have a single bed. But I do have a two-bedroom suite.” She lifts her hand to indicate the nearly empty parking lot and gives a sad little shrug. “I can offer you a substantial discount.”

She names the shockingly cheap price, and we pay it in cash, which she doesn’t seem to find too strange. She doesn’t ask for identification. She’s probably sick to death, I think, of people demanding to see her own. On impulse, I hold out my hand to her. She looks at it in surprise, then takes it and shakes. “Thanks for making us welcome,” I tell her. “This is a beautiful place.”

She brightens and beams as she looks around at the carefully tended room. “Yes, we like it,” she says. “My husband and I bought it five years ago. We spent two years renovating. I’m glad you like it.”

“Very much,” I say. “I’m Cassandra, by the way.” I choose a name at random, and it doesn’t escape me that it’s out of a Greek tragedy.

“Aisha,” she tells me. “My husband, Kiaan, is in the back—” She has to break off, because a door behind the counter slams open, and a small figure rushes out and skids to a halt when he spots us. A heartbreakingly cute little boy, with wide dark eyes and a shy smile that he immediately hides in the folds of his mother’s sari.

She sighs and picks him up with that automatic grace of mothers everywhere, then balances him against her hip. “And this is Arjun,” she says. “Say hello, Arjun.”

He utterly refuses this, with the stubbornness of a typical kid his age, but he stares at me and Sam with undisguised fascination. I wave to him, and he gives a little hand wave back before hiding his face again. But he’s still smiling. I remember that age so well, and it almost hurts. I feel the weight of Connor in my arms suddenly. The familiar pressure on the point of my hip. The soft caramel smell of his hair and skin.

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