That’s our old minivan. I have a visceral memory of being in that vehicle, of driving it on the day that everything went wrong. That feeling of the world turning over sweeps through me again. I don’t know why Rivard is showing me this, but I’m afraid.
The minivan triggers the motion light at the back of the house. Whoever’s filming moves jerkily and gets an angle on the driveway as the vehicle pulls beneath the carport at the end. It’s dark under the canopy. Brake lights flash, then go dark, and when the door opens, the video zooms forward and jumps around before fixing on the person getting out of the driver’s side.
It’s Melvin. Younger than the last time I saw him. Eerily present. He glances around, and as he does, I think, He looks so normal. Just a normal man in a checked shirt and dad jeans. Just a normal monster.
Then I realize that someone is getting out of the other side of the truck, and that someone is me.
No. It’s Gina Royal.
She looks different than I do. Her hair is longer, curled, and styled. She’s wearing a dress (he always liked me in dresses) that looks pale blue in the dim light. Heels. I don’t remember the dress, but I feel sick to my stomach, looking at Gina, at a person I used to be. Her head is down. Her shoulders are rounded. I never, ever thought I was an abused wife; I never even saw the way he controlled me, bullied me, manipulated my life. But it’s clear to me now as I look at the woman I used to be. Like seeing a ghost.
Melvin opens the rear door of the van and says something. Gina moves to the back, and I’m struck by a weird sense—the strangest yet—of unreality.
What am I seeing? I don’t remember this. Any of it.
Melvin reaches in and slides something out.
It’s a woman. A limp, unconscious woman. Her long hair sways as he lifts her under the arms, and Gina Royal picks up her feet. The young woman is wearing a gray top and blue shorts and running shoes, and Gina’s grip fastens around the girl’s ankles. She almost drops the weight as she fumbles to get the minivan’s door closed.
I am numb. Silent. Stunned by a sense of utter wrongness.
Because I didn’t do this.
It never happened.
And yet, I recognize the house. The vehicle. Melvin. Myself. The motion lights that snap on as I help Melvin Royal carry a victim into our house.
The numbness shatters as the light falls full on the face of the woman not-me is helping to carry in, and I hear Sam’s groan, a deep, low sound like someone has reached inside and torn it out of him. It’s his sister. Callie.
This isn’t right, I think. My head feels odd and weightless, and the world is wrong; everything is wrong. I am not this. I have never been this.
The video goes dark.
Rivard closes the laptop and hands it back to his assistant with a calm nod of thanks.
I want to scream. Choke the bastard. Vomit. But instead I just sit, numb and frozen, waiting for the world to make sense again. Could I have? No. No, I would remember. I would know. I don’t remember this.
I am not Melvin’s Little Helper.
I finally lick my dry lips and say, “That isn’t me.” My voice sounds faint and weak and not my own. “It’s not me.” I feel cold and alone. I feel like I’m falling to the center of the earth.
“That was my sister,” Sam says. “That was Callie—” Unlike me, Sam doesn’t sound cold. He sounds hot, boiling, barely in control. I feel the sofa shift as he launches to his feet and stalks away. I don’t turn to look, because I can’t. I can’t see the horror and revulsion in him right now. Rivard’s pale eyes follow his progress. “Is that real?”
“No,” I say. “It can’t be. I didn’t do that. Sam, I—”
“Is that real?” It’s a shout, raw and horrifying, and it isn’t directed at me, but I still flinch. He’s talking to Rivard. If I turn just a little, I’ll be able to see Sam’s face. But I can’t look. I don’t look.
“No, I don’t believe that it is,” Rivard says calmly. “I believe this is an escalation of their ability to fake evidence. Still, you should know that this piece of artful fakery is out there on the dark web. So far, not many people have seen it, and fewer still understand what it implies.” He activates the controls on his sleek, expensive wheelchair, and behind him, the big double doors open. Chivari holds one side. The security man, Dougherty, holds the other. I sit and watch, not sure what I’m supposed to do now, as Rivard turns his chair in a neat half circle. He stops and slowly rotates it back to meet my eyes. “Mr. Sauer discovered that one of Absalom’s primary sources of income is making and selling a variety of false evidence . . . such as the falsified video of molestation they used against my son. When you called today, I purchased this particular piece of special-effects artistry from them.”
“You . . . you bought it.” I don’t know what’s happening. I feel ill and cold. “Why would you do that?”
“Perhaps I should say I purchased a copy. Because I believe in having leverage against those I don’t know, and I don’t know you, Ms. Proctor. Or you, Mr. Cade. Absalom clearly created this video with a plan, I believe, to discredit you should you ever decide to come against them. I can stop them by offering to buy it outright, remove it from the market; the price is tremendous, but if you cooperate with me, I will pay it and ensure your safety. In return, here is my price: go to Carl David Suffolk and tell him that I want to speak with him. Tell him that I am willing to offer him a great deal of money to that end. I will give you a sealed message to give him regarding his payment. I believe it will induce him to accompany you back.”
“Why? What are you going to do with him?”
“If it leads you to the rest of Absalom, and your ex-husband, what do you care?” he asks me. “I understand you might need a moment. Mr. Dougherty will see you back downstairs when you’re ready. Good day, Ms. Proctor. Mr. Cade.”
I don’t want him to go. I don’t want those doors to close. I don’t want to be left alone, in silence, with Sam.
The minefield we reached across before, the one we didn’t cross, has grown to miles of deadly traps, and I’m afraid to even look at him now. I sit back on the couch and wait for him to say something. He doesn’t. The silence is unbearable.
Finally, I say, “Sam, I—”
“We should go.” The words are an iron bar, slamming into my stomach, and I can’t breathe. “We should find Suffolk. If anyone ever sees that video, you’re finished.”
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