There had been one part of our lives that was strikingly not normal, but that was a personal, private hell that I’d been forced to relive under police questioning. Was it abuse? Yes, but sexual abuse between married people is a tangled topic at best. Lines blur.
Mel liked what he called breath play. He liked to put a cord around my neck and choke me. He’d been careful about using a soft, padded thing that left no real marks behind, and he’d been an expert at its use. I’d hated it and often talked him out of it, but the one time I’d outright refused, I’d seen a flash of something . . . darker. I never said no again.
He never choked me hard enough to make me pass out, though it had come very close. And I endured it, over and over, never knowing that while he was starving me for oxygen during sex, he was imagining his women in the garage, fighting the noose as he raised and lowered them off the ground.
It might not have been abuse, but there isn’t any doubt in my mind that it felt wrong. Looking back, the thought that he was using me to play out his murders, over and over again . . . it’s chilling, and sickening.
“We don’t want to be found by someone,” I say. “Let’s leave it at that, okay?”
Javi nods. I can tell this isn’t his first rodeo, either. As a range instructor, he’s probably seen plenty of frightened women seeking comfort in their own self-defense. He also knows that a gun can’t protect you unless you protect yourself mentally, emotionally, and logically. It’s the punctuation at the end, not the paragraph.
“I’m just sayin’ that if you don’t have good paper, I know some people,” he says. “People who can be trusted. They help out shelter victims starting new lives.”
I thank him, but I don’t need his trusted strangers. I can’t trust them. All I want is the cargo van and the receipts, and I’ll be on my way. It’s a step toward departing, and I’m sad about it, but I also know it’s necessary to be ready. Once I have the van, I have control. We can, if necessary, be long gone before the people hunting us can get organized enough to track us to our doorstep. We’ll have warning and a good means of escape. I can sell the van for cash in Knoxville and use another identity to buy something else. Break the trail again.
At least, that’s what I tell myself.
I’m getting up from the table when my phone rings. Well, vibrates, since I generally keep it in quiet mode—I’ve seen too many movies where victims brainlessly forget and their ring tones give them away to their killers. I reach for it and see Lanny’s name pop up. Well. I can’t say I haven’t been expecting it. Lanny’s acting out is, I think, only going to get worse. Maybe it’s for the best we get moving sooner rather than later. I can homeschool instead, wherever we land.
When I answer, Lanny says, in a tense and unnaturally flat voice, “I can’t find Connor, Mom.”
I don’t understand for a few seconds. My brain refuses to consider the possibilities, the horrible truth of it. Then my breath becomes concrete, heavy in my chest, and I feel like I will never breathe again. I gain control again and say, “What do you mean, you can’t find him? He’s in class!”
“He skipped,” she says. “Mom! He never skips! Where would he go?”
“Where are you?”
“I went looking for him to give him his stupid lunch, because he forgot it on the bus again. But his homeroom teacher said he wasn’t there and he never showed up for class at all. Mom, what do we do? Is he—” Lanny was starting to panic now, her breath coming too fast, her voice trembling. “I’m at home, I came home because I thought maybe he came back here, but I can’t find him . . .”
“Honey. Honey. Sit down. Is the alarm on?”
“What? I—what does that matter? Brady’s not here!”
In her distress, my daughter is calling her brother by his birth name, something she hasn’t done for years. It sends a shock through me, hearing his name from her. I try to stay calm. “Lanny. I want you to go turn on the alarm if it isn’t on right now and then sit down. Take deep, slow breaths, in through your nose, out through your mouth. I’m on my way.”
“Hurry,” Lanny whispers. “Please, Mom. I need you.”
She’s never said that before, and it drives a knife deep into me and cuts out something soft and vulnerable and vital.
I hang up. Javi is already on his feet, watching me. “You need some help?” he asks me. And I nod.
“We’ll take the Jeep,” he says. “It’s faster.”
Javi drives like the road is a combat zone—fast and aggressive, nothing smooth about it. I don’t mind him taking the wheel; I’m not sure I’m in any shape right now to do it. I hang on hard through bumps he doesn’t slow down for. The jolts rattling through me are nothing compared to the constant, jittery terror, and I can think of nothing but Connor’s face. The vision of him lying bloody and dead in his bed haunts me, even though I know he isn’t there. Lanny checked the house, and he isn’t there—but where is he?
The question goes silent in my mind as Javi pulls the Jeep to a sliding stop in the driveway of our house. I am still now. Ready, the way I’m ready on the range with a target in the distance. I climb out of the Jeep and head for the door, unlock it, and quickly disarm the siren just before Lanny flings herself on me.
I hug my daughter, inhale the scent of strawberry shampoo and clean soap, and think about how far I will go to protect her from anything, anyone, who wants to hurt her.
Javi enters after me, and Lanny breaks free with a gasp, taking a step back in defense. I don’t blame her. She doesn’t know him. He’s just a stranger looming in her doorway.
“Lanny, this is Javier Esparza,” I tell her. “Javi is the instructor over at the shooting range. He’s a friend.”
She raises her black eyebrows a little at that, momentarily amazed because she knows I don’t trust people lightly, but she doesn’t waste time on it. “I checked the house,” she says. “He isn’t here, Mom. I can’t see he came back at all!”
“Okay, let’s take a breath,” I say, though I want to scream. I go to the kitchen, where I keep a list of phone numbers pinned to the wall―my son’s teachers, and the home and cell numbers of his friends’ parents. It’s a short list. I start dialing, starting with the friends. My anxiety ramps up with every ring, every answer, every negative. When I put the phone down after the last call, I feel hollow. Lost.
I look up at Lanny, and her eyes are huge and dark. “Mom,” she says. “Is it Dad? Is it—”
“No,” I say, an instant and unthinking rejection. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Javier noting it. He already believes that I’m running from someone; this just confirms it. But Mel is in prison. He’s never getting out, except in a pine box. I’m more worried about other people. Angry people. The Internet trolls, not to mention the justifiably enraged relatives and friends of the women Mel tormented and murdered . . . but how did they find us? Still, I flash back to the pictures from just a few days ago, of the faces of my children Photoshopped onto bloody, destroyed bodies, onto suffering, abused bodies.
If they had him, I think, they would have taunted me by now. It’s the only thing that keeps me sane.
“You were supposed to walk him to class after you got off the bus, Lanny,” I say. She flinches and drops her gaze from mine. “Lanny?”
“I—I had things to do,” she says defensively. “He went on ahead. It was no big deal—” She stops, because she knows that it is a big deal. “I’m sorry. I should have. I got off the bus with him. He was being an asshole, and I yelled at him to go to class, and I went across the street to the convenience store. I know I’m not supposed to.”
From the bus, Connor would have walked across the grassy triangle between the schools to the middle building. It would have been more likely for him to run into bullies than abductors, though there would have been plenty of parents dropping off kids outside the guard station entrance. I don’t know. I don’t know what he did, what happened to him once Lanny turned away.
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