I finally look at him. “You killed people, though.”
Mr. Esparza’s hands are steady when he picks up another part and cleans it, but he’s looking at me. I can only stand a second of that, and I watch his hands instead. “Yeah,” he says. “Es verdad. You know what that means?”
“Right. I killed people. And I’ll kill again if I have to, to protect others. But having that ability, that’s a responsibility, and I can’t take it lightly.”
“But it’s not that way for my dad.”
“No,” he agreed. “It’s not. For him, it’s fun. He likes it. And that’s why your mom is so careful with you. Understand?”
“He wouldn’t kill me, though.”
Mr. Esparza doesn’t say anything to that. He lets me think about it. Everything he’s said makes sense. I know he’s right. But at the same time, it’s not what I feel. I feel like Dad . . . cares.
“How long do you think we’re going to have to stay here?” I ask. That makes his smooth, practiced motions hesitate for a second. He’s done cleaning now. He’s starting to put the gun back together.
“I don’t know.” At least he’s honest about it. “But however long it is, you’re going to be safe here. I promise.”
“Who’s the better shot, you or Ms. Claremont?”
“I am. It’s my job. Hers is solving crimes. But she’s pretty good.”
“Will you teach us to shoot? Me and Lanny?”
“If your mom agrees,” he says. “And if you want to learn.”
I nod, and I think for a couple of seconds. Then I stand up, dislodging Boot’s head from my leg. “Can I just walk around in the yard? I don’t want to be inside all the time.”
“Sure, just don’t go outside the fence without me, okay?”
I nod. “Me and Lanny need to have something to do that isn’t just . . .”
“Sitting around inside? Yeah, I know that,” Mr. Esparza says. When he sighs, it comes out in a thick, misty plume. “I’m working on it. Maybe we’ll do some camping, fishing, that stuff. What do you think?”
I think it sounds cold and lonely, but he’s trying, and I nod. “Maybe we can go to another town and see movies sometime? Like, Knoxville?”
“Maybe,” he says. “Hey, if you’re staying out here, put your coat on. Gloves, too. I don’t want you catching cold.”
“That’s not how you catch cold,” I tell him, very seriously. “You have to get a virus.”
He laughs. “I know. But it’s still good advice.”
I go back inside, put on my coat and gloves, and when I go out, Mr. Esparza is done reassembling the shotgun, and heads back inside to get warm. Boot doesn’t seem bothered at all by the chill, but then, he’s wearing fur. He happily jumps off the porch and runs around with me. We play fetch for a while, and then I sit down on the far side of a tree trunk. I pick the side of the house that has the fewest windows. Boot paces around, looking at me. I guess other people find him scary—I know Lanny does—but to me he’s comfort. He doesn’t look at me like I’m a bomb about to go off, or somebody about to break like a soap bubble. He thinks I’m normal.
It’s good to have some privacy. No one looking at me, monitoring how I’m feeling. They all want to help, I know that. But I don’t want it. Not right now.
I’m far enough from the cabin that nobody can hear me with the windows closed. With the tree at my back, they can’t stare at me, either. Boot flops down beside me and puts his head on my leg again, and I pet him for a few minutes.
I finally slip my hand in my pocket and take out the phone and the battery. I turn it over and over in my fingers. I know it’s bad. Real bad.
But I’m half-bad anyway, right? My dad’s half of me. He has a monster inside.
Having a phone that connects me directly to Dad is a little like playing with matches. It’s thrilling and scary at the same time, and yet once you start, you can’t stop yourself.
Until you get burned.
I’ve thought about what would happen if I called him. I’ve imagined what he’s going to say to me. How his voice will sound. How surprised and pleased he’ll be to know I kept the phone. Hello, son, he’ll say to me. I knew you could do it.
I still remember him saying that to me—I knew you could do it—when he taught me to swim at the local pool. I was scared to death, but he stayed with me. Held me up while I thrashed at the water until I could stay up by myself. He taught me how to float on my back.
He also took me swimming out at one of the lakes where they later said he put dead people. I know I should hate that, but I remember what a good day it was, how happy he was to take me out on the boat, how we’d do backflips off into the cold, murky water and race each other in laps around the boat. He let me win. He always let me win.
The reason I remember all that so clearly is that he was almost never paying attention, so when he was, when he was really Dad, those were the brightest, happiest days of my life.
It only occurs to me now that Mom and Lanny were never with us for swimming. It was always him and me. It never occurred to me to ask why.
Don’t do it, I tell myself again. I’ve been thinking it constantly. Give Mr. Esparza the phone. Or Ms. Coleman. It might help catch Dad and send him back to jail.
But if I do that, it just means Dad’s one step closer to death.
I look at Boot. “Hungry?” I’m sort of joking, and sort of not. “Help a fella out?” At least if the dog eats the phone, it won’t be my fault. None of it would.
He licks his chops and drops his head to my thigh again. Not interested.
I slip the back open and put the battery in. I turn it on, watching the dancing HELLO, and wait until the screen comes up. You don’t have long, I tell myself. Figure out what you want to do, and do it.
I don’t want to call him. I’m not ready to call him. It’s too much.
So instead, I start typing a text.
hi dad i miss u
I stare at it for a long time. I can feel Boot’s drool soaking into my pants. It’s getting even colder, and I can see my breath on every exhale. I start counting, one breath for every letter I just typed.
Then I start deleting.
hi dad i miss
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