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But he hasn’t seen the pictures I get when I go through the Sicko Patrol postings.

It’s a hobby of a particular subset of online stalkers. Some of them are very good at Photoshop. They take gruesome crime scene photos and graft our faces onto victims. They alter images on child pornography so I see my daughter and son brutalized in unimaginable ways.

The one that haunts me, and I know will always haunt me, is the image of a young boy Connor’s age mutilated and left lying in a tangle of blood-soaked sheets in his own bed. That one popped up recently with a caption: God’s justice for murderers.

It’s right that Connor’s angry at me. It’s fine that he feels unfairly blamed and hemmed in by stupid, unnecessary, paranoid rules. I can’t help that. I must defend him from very real monsters.

But I can’t explain that to him. I don’t want to have to show him that world, the reality that runs like a black river underneath this one. I want him to stay in the world where a boy can collect comics and put fantasy posters on his walls and dress up like a zombie for Halloween.

I say nothing. I stand up, when my legs are capable, and pick up the gun. I walk out and shut the door quietly behind me.

Through it, my son yells, “Wait until I tell Social Services!” I think he’s joking. I hope.

I walk to the gun safe, put the Sig back in, and lock it away before I call my daughter and tell her to come home. I reset the alarm as I do. Habit.

I’ve just finished the call when I pick up the mail and carry it to the kitchen. I badly need water; my mouth has a dry, metallic taste like old blood. As I’m drinking, I sort through the circulars, charity pleas, local business mailings. I pause on something that doesn’t belong: a manila envelope with my name and address printed on the outside and a postmark from Willow Creek, Oregon. That’s my last remailing service. So whatever’s inside has followed a long, broken trail to reach me.

I don’t touch it. I open a drawer and take out a pair of blue nitrile gloves. I slip them on before I carefully, neatly slit open the top of the envelope and pull out the other one, business-size, that sits within it.

I recognize the return address in a flash and drop that envelope unopened to the counter. It isn’t a conscious decision, no more than if I’d realized I was holding a live cockroach.

The letter is from El Dorado, the prison where Mel is held waiting for his execution day. It’s been a long wait, and the lawyers tell me it’ll be at least ten years before his appeals are exhausted. And Kansas hasn’t carried out an execution for more than twenty years. So who knows when his sentence will finally be imposed. Until it is, he sits and thinks. He thinks a lot about me.

And he writes letters. There’s a pattern to them that I’ve figured out, and that is why I don’t immediately touch this one.

I stare at the envelope for a long time, and it catches me by surprise when I hear the front door open and the alarm starts beeping. Lanny’s fast fingers cancel and reset.

I don’t move from where I am, as if the envelope might attack if I don’t stare it down.

Lanny puts the keys in the potted plant and walks past me to open the fridge and pull out a bottled water, which she cracks and gulps thirstily before saying, “So, let me guess. Brain-dead Connor forgot to turn on the alarm. Again. Did you shoot him?”

I don’t answer. I don’t move. From the corner of my eye, I’m aware she’s staring at me, and that her body language shifts as she realizes what’s going on.

Before I can guess what she’s planning, my daughter grabs the envelope off the counter.

“No!” I turn on her, but it’s too late; she’s already sliding a black-painted fingernail under the flap and ripping it open, revealing pale paper inside. I reach out to snatch it away. She steps back, agile and angry.

“Does he write to me, too? To Connor?” she asks me. “Do you get these a lot? You said he never wrote!” I hear the betrayal in her voice, and I hate it.

“Lanny, give me the letter. Please.” I try to sound authoritative and calm, but inside I am drowning in dread.

She focuses on my hands, sweating inside the blue gloves. “Jesus, Mom. He’s already in jail. You don’t have to preserve any damn evidence.”

“Please.”

She drops the torn envelope and unfolds the paper.

“Please don’t,” I whisper, defeated. Sick.

Mel has a schedule. He’ll send two letters that are perfectly, wonderfully the old Mel I married: kind, sweet, funny, thoughtful, concerned. They will show exactly the man he pretended to be, down to the last, loving declaration. He doesn’t protest his innocence, because he knows he can’t do that; the evidence was never in doubt. But he can, and does, write about his feelings for me and the children. His love and care and concern.

Two times out of three.

But this is the third letter.

I see the exact moment when all her illusions are ripped away, when she spots the monster in those carefully inked words. I see her hands tremble, like the needle of a seismograph signaling an earthquake. I see the numb, scared look in her eyes.

And I can’t bear it.

I take the paper from her suddenly unresisting hand, fold it shut, and drop it on the counter. Then I put my arms around her. She’s stiff for a moment, and then she melts against me, face hot against mine, fine little shakes convulsing her body like wild current.

“Shh,” I tell her, and stroke her black hair as if she’s six years old, a child scared of the dark. “Shh, baby. It’s okay.”

She shakes her head, pulls away, and walks to her room. She closes the door.

I look at the folded paper and feel a surge of hate so strong that it nearly tears me apart. How dare you, I think to the man who’s written those words, who’s done that to my child. How dare you, you fucking bastard.

I don’t read what Melvin Royal has written to me. I know what it says, because I’ve read it before. This is the letter where the mask comes off, and he talks about how I’ve disappointed him, taken his children away and poisoned them against him. He describes what he’ll do to me if he ever has a chance. He’s inventive. Descriptive. Repellently direct.

Then, as if he hasn’t threatened to brutally murder me, he switches gears and asks how the kids are doing. Says he loves them. And of course he does, because in his mind, they’re just reflections of himself. Not real people in their own right. If he meets them now, recognizes they’re not the little plastic dolls he loved before . . . they’ll become other. Potential victims, like me.

I put the letter back in the envelope, pick up a pencil, mark the date on it, and put the envelope back in the larger remailing service packaging. I feel better once that’s done, as if I’ve disposed of a bomb. Tomorrow I’ll send the entire package back, marked NO SUCH ADDRESS, and the remailing service will have preexisting instructions to FedEx it to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent in charge of Melvin’s case. So far, the KBI hasn’t been able to figure out how he gets those letters past the prison’s normal screening process. I still hold out hope.

Lanny is wrong about why I put on the gloves. It isn’t to preserve evidence. I wear them for the same reason doctors do: to prevent infection.

Melvin Royal is a contagious, fatal disease.

The rest of the day is deceptively quiet. Connor says nothing about the incident in his bedroom; Lanny says nothing, period. The two of them boot up a video game, and while they’re at it, my time is my own. I make dinner, like a normal mother. We eat in silence.

The next day, Lanny stays locked in her room, since she’s banned from the classroom. I decide not to interfere; I can hear her binge-watching a TV show. Connor’s off to school. It itches at me to have him go alone to the bus stop, and I watch from the window until he climbs on board. It would irritate him beyond measure if I actually walked him there and waited.

When he returns that afternoon on the bus, I step out to greet him but cover it by pretending to poke around in the small flower garden at the front of the house, as if his arrival is completely incidental. He gets off the bus, heavily burdened by his backpack, and two other boys pile off after. The three of them talk, and for a second I worry about bullies, but they seem friendly. The strangers are both blond, one about Connor’s age and one a year or two older. The older one is alarmingly tall and broad, but he gives Connor a friendly wave and grin, and I watch the two of them jog off to take the trail to the left. They certainly don’t belong to the Johansens, who are an older couple with grown kids who’ve visited them exactly once since I’ve been here. No, they must be Officer Graham’s kids. Graham is a uniformed member of the Norton police force. Unlike me, Graham’s family is Old Tennessee; from what I’ve heard, he’s the last of several generations of solid country people who had property here at the lake well before it ever turned into the playground of the wealthy. I still need to drop by, introduce myself, assess the man, and try to start a quiet alliance. I might need law enforcement on my side at some point. I’ve tried a couple of times but gotten no answer at the door. That’s understandable. Cops work odd hours.

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