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I don’t want to lose Javi’s good opinion. But I will, for the sake of my kids’ future and safety. I absolutely will.

I get out and walk to the gate, where I’m greeted by a muscular bristle of brown-and-black fur. The dog comes armed with a fusillade of barks as loud as the gun range. The rottweiler stands waist-high to me, but when he puts his front paws on the top of the fence, he’s as tall as I am. He looks like he could rip me to dog food in under ten seconds, and I am very careful to stop where I am and make no threatening moves. I don’t make eye contact. Dogs can take it as aggressive.

The barking brings Javier to the door. He’s wearing a plain gray T-shirt, soft from years of laundry, equally well-worn jeans, and a pair of heavy boots, which is sensible out here in the country, where timber rattlers and old, forgotten pieces of metal are equal risks to unprotected feet. He’s also drying his hands on a red dish towel, and when he sees me, he grins and whistles. At the sound of the whistle, the dog backs off and retreats to the porch, where it lies down, panting happily. “Hey, Ms. Proctor,” Javi says, coming to open the gate. “Like my security system?”

“Effective,” I say, eyeing the dog carefully. It seems perfectly friendly now. “I’m sorry to bother you at home, but I guess you have a cargo van for sale . . . ?”

“Oh. Oh yeah! Almost forgot, to be honest. Used to belong to my sister, but she dumped it on me when she joined up and shipped out last year. I’ve got it back here in the garage. Come on back.”

He leads me around the side of the cabin, past a chopping block for firewood with an ax still embedded in the stump and an old, weathered outhouse. I cast it a look, and he laughs. “Yeah, not in use for decades. I poured concrete in the hole and floored it and use it for tool storage now. But you know, I like preserving the past.”

He must, because garage is a generous description. What I actually see is a barn that looks as vintage as the outhouse—original to the property, I think. Horse stalls have been knocked down to fit in a long, blocky cargo van. It’s an older model, the paint gone milky and matte instead of shiny, but the tires are in good shape, which is important to me. Spiders have chained the whole thing to the ground in a wispy net. “Shit,” Javi says, picking up a broom to scythe through the silky webbing. “Sorry. Haven’t checked it in a while. They can’t get inside it, though.”

That sounds more aspirational than factual, but I don’t let it bother me. He retrieves a key from a hook on the wall, opens the door, and starts the van up. It catches almost immediately, and the engine sounds well tuned and smooth. He lets me climb in, and I like what I see. Middling mileage, all the gauges reading clear. He flips the hood to let me take a look, and I check the hoses for any signs of cracking or crumbling.

“Looks great,” I say, reaching in my pocket. “Trade me for the Jeep and a thousand cash?”

He blinks, because he knows how much I’ve put into the Jeep; for a start, I’ve installed the gun safe in the back, which he helped me source. “No. Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

“No offense, but . . . why? That’s a sweet trade. Terrain you have around the lake, the Jeep’s a better vehicle.”

Javi isn’t stupid, which is a little unfortunate right now. He knows he’s getting the better part of this deal, and there is little to no reason for me to be swapping an environmentally appropriate Jeep for a big, clumsy cargo van . . . Not at Stillhouse Lake.

“Honestly? I don’t ever go off-roading, really,” I tell him. “And I’m thinking of moving, eventually. If I do, we have way too much stuff for the Jeep. The van makes more sense.”

“Moving,” he repeats. “Wow. I didn’t know you were thinking about that.”

I shrug, keeping my eyes on the van and my expression as neutral as I can. “Yeah, well, things happen; you can’t always predict what comes next. So. What do you think? Want to take a look at the Jeep?”

He waves that aside. “I know the Jeep. Look, Ms. Proctor, I trust you. I need a thousand to give my sister, and I keep the Jeep. She’ll be fine with that.”

I take out my wallet and count out the money. It’s less than I expected to pay, and I’m relieved. More for us to use when we have to reinvent ourselves, create new names and backgrounds.

Javi accepts, and we sign over titles to each other; I’ll have to get the ownership switched officially later, but for now, that’ll do. He writes a receipt for me, and I make one for him while sitting at his small kitchen table. He still has the dish towel over his shoulder, and I notice that it matches a red-and-white checked one on a rack over the sink. The place looks clean and orderly, with just a few ornaments and colors among the beiges and dark browns. He still has suds in one side of the dual sink. I caught him washing dishes as I arrived.

It seems like a nice place. Calm. Centered, like Javi himself.

“Thanks for everything,” I tell him, and I mean it. He’s treated me well since the beginning. It matters, in a life like mine, where I was never treated as just myself . . . I was always my father’s daughter, then Melvin’s wife, then Lily and Brady’s mother, and then—to many—a monster who’d escaped justice. Not a person in my own right, ever. It has taken work to get to this point where I feel entirely myself, and I cherish it. I like being Gwen Proctor because real or not, she is a full and strong person, and I can rely on her.

“Thanks for this, Gwen. I’m real happy about the Jeep,” Javi says, and I realize that for the first time he’s called me by my first name. In his mind we’re now equal. I like it. I extend my hand, and we shake, and he holds on just a little longer than is necessary before he says, “Seriously. You in some kind of trouble? Because you can tell me if you are.”

“I’m not. And I’m not looking for a knight to come riding to the rescue, Javi.”

“Oh, I know. I just want to make sure you know you can always ask me if you need help.” He clears his throat. “Some people, for instance, don’t want anybody to know where they’re going when they leave town. Or what they’re driving. And I’m cool with that.”

I send him a curious look. “Even if I’m wanted?”

“Why, are you guilty of something? On the run from something?” His tone sharpens just a bit, and I see that it bothers him.

Yes, and yes. But the guilt is nebulous, not actual, and I’m not on the run from the law. Just from the lawless. “Let’s just say I might have someone trying to find me when I leave,” I say. “Look, you do what you gotta do. I’m not about to ask you to go against your ethics, Javi. I swear. And I promise you, I haven’t done anything wrong.”

He nods slowly, considering it. He finally realizes he’s still got the dish towel, and I like the self-deprecating grin as he flips it toward the sink, where it lands in a heap. I wish he hadn’t done it, because suddenly, strikingly, it looks like a disembodied lump of bloody flesh, out of place in this clean kitchen. I let out my breath slowly, hands flat on the table.

“You passed all the background checks to get your carry permit,” he says. “Far as I know, you’re legal as hell, so I got no problem telling people I don’t know where you go when you leave here, and I don’t have to tell them about the van. Don’t ask, don’t tell, you hear me?”

“I hear you.”

“Got a few buddies who live off the grid. You know how to do that?”

I nod without telling him how long I’ve been moving, running, avoiding. Without telling him anything at all, which he likely doesn’t deserve. Javi is trustworthy, nothing but, and yet I can’t bring myself to disclose things to him about Melvin, about myself. I don’t want to see him disappointed.

“We’ll be okay,” I tell him, and manage to summon up a smile. “This isn’t our first rodeo.”

“Ah.” Javi sits back, dark eyes going even darker. “Abuse?”

He doesn’t ask by whom, or whether it’s me, the kids, or all of us. He just leaves it there, and I slowly nod, because it’s true, in a way. Mel had never conventionally abused me; he’d certainly never hit me. He’d never even verbally abused me. He had controlled me, in a lot of ways, but I’d just accepted that as a normal part of married life. Mel had taken care of the finances, always. I’d had money available and credit cards, but he’d kept meticulous records, spent lots of time reviewing receipts and questioning purchases. At the time, I’d just thought he was being detail-oriented, but now I see that it was a subtle form of manipulation, of making me both dependent and hesitant to do anything without consulting him. But still within a normal range of marital behavior, or so I’d believed.

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