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I’m not angry at Mom anymore, I realize. I’m sad. I’m disappointed. I’m confused.

“You okay?” Dahlia asks me quietly.

“I don’t know.” I swallow, and it hurts, and my eyes burn. “I—my mom and I had a fight. I said some things. I was pretty cruel.”

She leans over to look down at me. “I yell at my mom all the time.”

“No, it’s—I think I really hurt her. And maybe she deserved it, I don’t know anymore. But . . .” I can’t help it. I start to cry, and I roll on my side and hate that I’m crying and that Dahlia can see me doing it, but it feels good when she touches my shoulder and ruffles my hair and rubs her hand in slow circles on my back.

“You’re a good person, Lanny Proctor,” she whispers in my ear. “You’ll get it right. Okay?”

“Okay.” I gulp back tears. I’m weeping for a lot of things: Mom lying to us; me cutting her to pieces with words; this ruined house that used to be such a sanctuary. I’m even crying because I’ve lost Dahlia, but I haven’t lost her at all. Stupid. I feel stupid.

Dahlia knows how to snap me out of it.

The pillow hits my nose, and I claw it off and yell, “Hey!”

“No more sad face. Time to get happy, girlfriend!”

I’m half-angry with her, and half-giddy. I taste tears and laughter at the same time. I grab the pillow and smack her with it, and we wrestle for it, and then I’m on top of her, and we’re looking at each other, and she’s laughing like a dropped silver bell and I think . . . I think . . .

I don’t think.

I just kiss her.

It’s like everything explodes into quiet around me, and all I can feel is her, her lips (so much softer than the boys I’ve kissed, smaller, sweeter), her body arching up against mine, our breasts pressing together under the layers and layers of cloth, and God, this feels like the best moment of my life. Like until this moment I’ve been doing it all wrong, and finally I’ve figured out something so important it makes everything fall into place inside me. It’s wonderful, and it’s terrifying, too. I’m shaking with the shock of what I’ve done, and I pull back, wondering if Dahlia’s going to scream at me and call me names now.

She doesn’t scream. She doesn’t cry or yell. She’s smiling like she’s just waking up from the most wonderful dream, and she’s looking at me that way—the way that Javier looks at Kezia, the way Sam has sometimes looked at my mom, and my breath catches because I was right, it’s beautiful. It feels beautiful.

“Well, hello, I’ve been wondering when you’d finally get around to that,” Dahlia says, which makes me laugh in panic and wonder. Her lazy, lovely smile fades. “I’ve been crying myself to sleep since you left. Did you know that?”

“No. Why?” I mean it honestly, because this is all coming at me fast, and I can’t quite get hold of it.

“Because I love you, fool.” She grabs the pillow and whacks me with again, which makes my hair fly in my face, and I start to laugh, and she kisses me again.

It’s still stupid. I know it’s stupid. And dangerous. But it doesn’t feel wrong.

I don’t feel wrong anymore.

 

 

16

GWEN

Everything’s wrong. I feel like I’ve been cut open and emptied of everything that matters, and I can’t even say that it hurts, because what I feel is . . . nothing. No anger, no fear, no rage, no love, nothing but echoing silence from my head and my heart.

Not a person, but a shell of one. Maybe I’ve always been a shell, because if those videos are real, then I’ve never been who I thought I was.

Sam’s driving. He says, after a long, rough silence, “Where do you want me to drop you?” It’s clear he doesn’t even want to say that much, from the abrupt tone of it. I swallow hard and shut my eyes.

“So that’s it,” I say. “We’re finished now.”

“We’ve been finished since Atlanta,” he says. “Did you honestly think anything else?”

God, it hurts, but at the same time I can’t deny that he’s right. Clearly, he ought to get the fuck away from me; he can’t tell who I am anymore, or even what I am. For all Sam knows I could be some secret accomplice of Melvin’s, or working against him, or some weird, psychotic combination of the two. “I understand,” I say. I mean that.

I’m off balance. The loss of my kids has taken my world away. I don’t care where he leaves me—by the side of this country road, or in the middle of a city. He could shoot me and dump me in the ocean, and I don’t think I’d care. I feel dead inside. I want my kids, and my kids don’t want me, and how do you live after that?

Sam says nothing to me for a long time. We let the miles hiss away beneath the tires as we take the turnoff away from Norton and back toward the freeway. The numbness doesn’t go away, but something else begins to grow. It’s a wild sense of recklessness. Purpose. If I can’t protect my kids one way, I will protect them another.

Absalom has made me into the worst kind of enemy: one with nothing to lose, and nothing left to fear. The only hold Melvin had on me was my kids, and if their safety is out of my hands, then there’s no longer any reason for me to be careful.

Or invisible.

I ask Sam, “How far to the next town?”

“Half an hour to one big enough to matter,” he says. “Why?”

“Drop me off,” I say. “He’ll find me.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Melvin will find me. I’ll make sure he does.” I can imagine how it would go: a moment of inattention, and suddenly he’s there. He’s on me, beating me down or shocking me senseless. I’ll wake up the way his victims do: helpless, suspended, terrified, in agony. And the pain won’t stop until I die from it. “I just need to make sure you find him and kill him. I don’t care what he does to me. I can get him out in the open for you.”

“You don’t mean that.”

“I do. He’ll keep me alive as long as he can, so you should have time. Even if it’s too late to save me, he’ll keep my body with him, after; he won’t run until he’s satisfied. I’d be the last, Sam, even if you can’t get to me before it’s done. You can stop him. I can make him take his time, make it last until you find him. He cannot get to my kids. That’s all that matters to me now.”

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