He suddenly pulls the truck over to the side of the road in a rattle of gravel, and the chassis rocks as a fast-moving eighteen-wheeler blasts past, then another. He puts the gearshift in park and turns in his seat to face me. I can’t tell what he’s thinking, until he says, “Goddammit, Gwen. If you’re telling the truth about that video—” He closes his eyes for a second, and then I recognize the expression, finally. It’s a frozen, distant look of someone who’s staring into the face of something awful. I wonder if I have it, too. “You need to be there for your kids if you didn’t do those things. You know that.”
I’m doing nothing but thinking about the kids. Thinking about Lanny staring into my face and rejecting me once and for all. My children deserve my last, best effort to preserve them, even if it takes me away from them forever. I can’t prove that I’m innocent. But I can save them, whether they believe in me or not.
“This is the right way,” I tell him. “It’s the only way.”
“I can’t let you do it.”
“You can’t stop me.”
He shakes his head and says, “Your best bet is to go back to Rivard. Rivard gets to Absalom. Absalom leads to Melvin. You don’t have to do it this way.”
“That takes too long.”
“You can’t put yourself out there like some . . . sacrificial goat.”
“Why not?” I turn toward him, and I see him flinch from what he sees there. “If I’m already dead to the people I love, I might as well die for them.”
It’s bleak, and it makes perfect sense to me. I think that for the first time Sam Cade really pities me now, as if I’m broken. But I’m not. I’m forged hard out of pieces, like a bar of solid steel. There’s nothing soft left.
I’m too broken to be broken anymore.
“If you want to leave me here, then do it,” I tell him. “I’ll go it alone. But I’m going after Melvin Royal. It’s all he’s left me in the world to care about.”
He swallows. I don’t know the last time I’ve seen Sam unsure, but here it is, right now. I have a thousand-miles-away view of the desire I felt for him before, the hopeless wish that we could cross the minefield between us and let the past go, just for a while.
But the past never leaves us. It’s in every breath, every cell, every second. I know that now.
“God, Gwen,” Sam whispers. “Don’t do this. Please don’t.”
I unbuckle my seat belt, open the door, and step out into the cold, misty air. Rain’s on the way, the kind of wintry stuff that turns to ice in the blink of an eye. Black ice, the kind you can’t see coming. The kind that spins your life out of control and into disaster.
I start to walk in the direction that traffic is headed, along the side. It’s a dangerous spot to be on foot; there isn’t much shoulder between the gravel and the road surface, and on the right, the land drops in a steep curve. Nothing beyond but the sharp points of trees.
Everything hurts. There is nothing safe, nothing good, nothing kind anymore. If I fall, it won’t hurt me. If Melvin cuts me, I won’t bleed. I’m not here. I’m not here.
When Sam puts his arms around me from behind, I fight. I struggle. From the passing cars and trucks, it must look like he’s attacking me, but no one stops. No one cares.
I scream. It goes up and into the misty air and is swallowed up like it never existed, and everything crashes in and down, and I am crushed under the weight of a grief so large that it’s the earth itself.
I have a wild desire to run into the constant traffic, and I should. I should just end it in a blare of horns and lights and squealing brakes and blood, but that doesn’t save my kids.
“Easy,” Sam is saying, his lips close to my ear. He’s holding me too tight for me to break free. “Easy, Gwen. Breathe.”
I’m breathing, but it’s too fast. I feel light-headed. Sick. The world is gray and nothing matters, but his body is warm and solid and holding me here, to life. To pain.
I hate him for it.
And then the hate melts, and what’s underneath is something raw and hurt and desperately grateful. My panting slows. I stop fighting him.
The tears start slowly, just a trickle, and then a flood, and then he loosens his grip enough to let me turn and lean on him. He’s always let me lean on him, and I have never deserved that grace. I don’t deserve it now. His presence is the only thing that’s real in this mist, fog, pain, ice.
“I’ve lost my kids,” I gasp out between sobs. “Oh God, my kids.” The pain is in my heart, in the empty space of my womb where they grew, and it’s so primal that I don’t know how to live through it.
“No, you haven’t,” he tells me, and I feel the scrape of his beard stubble as he presses his cheek against mine. “You haven’t lost anybody. But do you really want their mom killed by their dad? Do you think that saves them? I know what it feels like to be the survivor, and it turned me inside out. Don’t do that to them.” I feel him swallow. “Don’t do it to me.”
We stand there in the cold, buffeted by traffic and smothered by mist, for a very long time, and then I say, “I’ll try.” I mean, I’ll try to live.
I almost believe it.
Just because Sam doesn’t want me to fling myself into traffic, or give myself up to Melvin, doesn’t mean our friendship is healed. I don’t know if there is anything between us anymore. The bridges we’d built, out of time and care and kindness . . . those are ruins, and the rapids run deep.
We drive for about an hour, and the silence hangs heavy, until Sam says, “We need gas. Food wouldn’t hurt, either.”
I can’t imagine eating, but I nod. I don’t want to argue. I’m afraid the slightest disagreement will send us both tumbling down the river, out of control.
He pulls off at a truck stop, one of the big chain affairs that accommodates dozens of cars and features extravagant convenience-store selections, plus a sit-down restaurant and showers for tired long-haulers. We take a booth in the diner and eat chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes, and the food revives me a little.
“Are you going back to Stillhouse Lake?” I finally ask him. “Or . . . home?” I don’t know where his home is, I realize. We’ve never really talked about where he’s from.
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