There are three doors off the main room: bathroom (one, oh God), and two small bedrooms. I throw my bag on the first bed I see and collapse facedown on it. Take in a deep breath.
It smells like pine and crisp linen, and I hug the pillow for dear life. That, at least, is right. Very right.
“Hey,” says Connor from the doorway. “Where am I supposed to sleep?”
“Don’t care,” I mumble into the pillow. “I claim this land for Atlanta.”
“Don’t be a b—”
“If you say the word I’m thinking, I’m going to kick your ass, Connor.”
“Meanie,” he says instead, which is kiddie enough to make me laugh, especially the dignified way he says it. “I need to sleep somewhere.”
“You get the other room,” says Mr. Esparza from behind him, and a quick glance shows me he’s smiling. “The bigger room, since Lanny already picked this one.”
“Hey!” I get up fast, but I’m too late; Connor is already scrambling for the other room. I glare through a veil of black hair at Mr. Esparza. “Not fair!” He shrugs. “Wait . . . where are you sleeping?”
“Couch,” he says. “It’s okay. I’m used to worse, and it folds out into a decent bed.”
He thinks like Mom, who always takes the room closest to the door . . . putting herself between us and whatever might be coming.
“Hope you don’t snore,” I shoot back.
“Oh, I do,” he says. “Like a wood chipper. Hope you have earbuds.”
I think he’s kidding. Maybe. I don’t want to ask in case he isn’t. I just flop back on the bed like I’ve been shot and stare at the ceiling. Pretty bland. The room is . . . blah, but clean, and it smells nice. I have a couple of personal things in the bag. Connor has a buttload of books. Maybe I can steal some.
Mr. Esparza turns away, and I see Mom stepping inside the main room with Sam Cade. “Javi, you’re sure this is okay?” She suddenly sounds uncertain. Which is not like Mom. “I know this is a ridiculous favor to ask. I’m putting you in danger, and putting you out at the same time . . .”
“It’s fine,” Mr. Esparza says. “Be nice to have some guests for a while. Look, this cabin might look like a shack, but it’s reinforced. I’ve got alarms and lights. I’ve got Boot and guns and training. They’re going to be okay. I’m going to see to that.” He pauses, and I see the look he gives Sam. I’m not sure what it means. “Going after your ex is a dumbass idea, Gwen.”
“Yeah, it is,” she says. “But I spent years hiding, and look what happened. He manipulated me. He put me right where he wanted me. But he’s on the run now, and hunted, and I am not letting him come after my kids again.”
This is the first time I’ve heard Mom say it so directly. I mean, I know that’s on her mind; she needs to be between us and him. I get it. I’m just worried about what is going to happen.
Mom comes into my room and sits down on the bed next to me. I don’t want to have The Goodbye Talk, so I start unpacking.
“You always unpack first thing, everywhere we go,” Mom says, and I hesitate as I’m folding up a shirt. “Did you know that?”
“Whatever,” I say. I open the dresser drawer. It’s empty, lined with cedar that wafts up in a warm cloud. I’m going to smell like a tree. Awesome. I stash my pile of underwear and socks, then put shirts in the second drawer.
“Connor never does,” Mom says. “He leaves everything in the bag.”
“Yeah, well, he’s always ready to run. I like to feel like I’m not.” Even though I am. Even though I know exactly where everything I have is, and I can have my bag packed in less than a minute in an emergency.
I take the rest of the shirts out of the bag and refold the wrinkles out, then put them away.
“I thought you’d gotten rid of all of those,” she says, and I realize she’s talking about the faded Strawberry Shortcake T-shirt that I’m putting away. It looks weird, I admit, in my gloomy drawer full of blacks and reds and navy blues. I’m not a Strawberry Shortcake kid anymore. I’m wearing loose cargo pants with zippers and flapping rings, a big bowling shirt, black, with a giant embroidered sugar skull on the back. My hair is dyed the color of midnight, and worn long and straight. I didn’t put on any eyeliner today. I miss it.
“Yeah, well, I like the way the shirt feels,” I tell her, then shut the drawer on the girl I used to be. “There. Home sweet home. You’re dumping us here for how long?”
There are spikes in it, but she doesn’t flinch. “I don’t know. I know it’s going to be hard, but I need you not to contact your friends in Norton. All right?”
Yeah, right, like any of my friends would want to talk to me now. I’m not just the Town Weirdo. I’m evil by association. Besides, they’re all in school. “What are we supposed to do about classes?”
“I’m sorry,” Mom says. “I know how much this hurts. But it’s temporary. Javier and Kezia will make sure you get lessons while I’m gone. I’m hoping it’ll be a week, maybe two at the most. But I need you to—”
“Be responsible, take care of Connor, yeah, yeah, I know.” I roll my eyes, because we’re clearly at that part of the conversation. “Hey, maybe we can hunt our own food. That’ll be fun. Squirrel soup. Yummy.”
I dig into the bag. On top is a picture of the three of us, laughing, standing in front of the cabin on Stillhouse Lake. Sam took it. It was a good day. I set it on top of the dresser and stand there, fidgeting with it, trying this angle and that. My mom hasn’t taken my bait. I’m not surprised. I finally say, “You told us you weren’t going to shoot Dad.”
“I’m not setting out to do that,” she says, which is pretty honest, all things considered.
“I wish you would,” I say. “I wish he was dead already. They should have killed him back in Kansas. That’s why they call it death row, right?” I try hard to keep my voice even and my shoulders from hunching in. “He’s going to murder somebody else, isn’t he? And maybe us, if he can.”
“That’s not going to happen.” Mom says it gently. I can tell she wants to give me a hug, but she’s become an expert at Lanny Language, and she stays at arm’s length. I don’t want a hug. I want a fight. She’s not going to give it to me, which sucks. “He’s going to be caught, and he’s going back to jail. And when it’s time, then the state will carry out his sentence. That’s the right way to do it. Otherwise it’s just revenge.”
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