There isn’t any in Sam. He’s just saying what he means. “Reasonable,” he says. “I’m an employee. You have a right to check up on me, especially since I’m going to be around your kids and in your house. Probably the smartest thing you could do, to be honest.”
“Did you check up on me?” I ask.
That surprises him. He sits back a little and glances my way. Shrugs. “I asked around,” he says. “I mean, in the does-she-pay-her-bills kind of way. If you mean did I Google you, no. When women do that to men, I assume it’s a precaution. When men do it to women, it looks . . .”
“Stalkery,” I finish for him. “Yes. So what was the word about town about me, then?”
“Like I said: standoffish,” he says with a laugh. “Same as me, actually.”
I offer my beer bottle, and we clink glass. For a moment we just drink. The scullers reach the far dock. The rowboats have already made port. The fancy cabin cruiser is the last one out on the water, and across the still air I can hear laughter. The lights come on in the boat and reveal four people. A snippet of faint music drifts to me. Three of them are dancing as the pilot heads the cruiser in to a private dock on the other side of the lake. Lifestyles of the rich and bored.
“Think they’re drinking champagne?” Sam asks me, straight-faced.
“Dom Pérignon. With caviar.”
“Savages. I like mine with smoked-salmon toast. But only on days ending with a y.”
“Mustn’t overindulge,” I agree, in my best posh New England accent. I have a pretty good one, from Mother. “So common to be intoxicated on good champagne.”
“Well, I wouldn’t know, because I’ve never had the good stuff. I think I had a glass of cheap shit at a wedding once.” He holds up his beer. “This is my version.”
“Your son’s pretty great, you know.”
“I know.” I smile into the growing evening, not quite at him. “I know.”
We finish our beer, and I collect the empties. I pay Sam his day’s wages and watch as he walks the short distance up the hill to his cabin. I watch the lights come on inside his front room, glowing red through the curtains.
I go back inside to put the glass in the recycling, and I find the kitchen quiet and clean. The kids are off to their neutral corners, as they so often are.
It’s a nice, quiet evening, and all I can think of, as I lock up and set the alarms, is that it can’t possibly last.
But it does. It surprises me more than anything that the next day—Saturday—goes smoothly. Fewer alerts on Sicko Patrol. No visits from the police. I get more work. Sunday, too. Monday the kids are back in school, and at promptly 4:00 p.m., Connor and Sam Cade are up on the roof, hammering away. Lanny gripes that it’s driving her crazy, but turning up her headphones solves that minor issue.
A good day slips into another good day, then a week. School lets out, much to the delight of my kids, and Cade becomes a fixture, joining us for breakfast, then taking Connor up to finish the roof. Once that project is complete, they start on replacing the rotten wood trim around the windows and doors. I retire to the office for work and Sicko Patrol, and it feels . . . almost comfortable, having someone around I can trust, at least a little.
By Sunday, there’s a new coat of paint on the exterior of the house, and a lot for me to clean up after, but I’m not displeased. Far from it. I’m breathless, paint-spattered, and happier than I’ve been in a while, because Lanny, Connor, and Cade are just as dirty and tired, and we’ve accomplished something real together. It feels good.
I find myself smiling in an entirely unguarded way at Sam that day, and when he smiles back, it’s just as open and free, and I have a sudden flashback to the first time Mel smiled at me. I realize in this moment that Mel’s smiles were never open, never free. For all that he played the good husband, the perfect father, it was Method acting to him. Never break character. I can see the difference in the way that Sam talks to the kids, in the way he makes mistakes and corrects them, says goofy things and smart things, and is a real, natural human.
Mel was never those things. I’ve just never had a good mirror to hold him against to see the differences. My father was mostly absentee, and not very warm; children were there to be seen, not heard. I’ve come to realize that when Mel found me, he read that thirst in me . . . and the need to fill it. He must have studied for the part. There were times his mask slipped, and I remember every one of them . . . the moment when I got angry at him about missing Brady’s third birthday party was the first. He’d turned to me with such sudden, vicious violence that I’d recoiled against the refrigerator. He hadn’t hit me, but he’d held me there, hands on either side of my head, and stared at me with a kind of empty blankness that had terrified me then, and still had the power to do it now.
Even when Mel had been perfect in his camouflage, he’d been shallow. His calm had felt stretched and unnatural, and so had his affection.
When he’d gone into his workshop, I imagine that was where the real Mel had come out. He must have lived for the closing of that door, the turning of that dead bolt.
As much as I watch Sam, I don’t see any of that. I only see a person. A real person.
It makes me ill and sad to realize how little I understood what was right in front of me, right in bed with me, the entire nine years of my marriage. It was my marriage. Not ours. Because it had never been a marriage to Melvin Royal.
I’d been a tool, like the saws and hammers and knives in his workshop. I’d been his camouflage.
It is terrifying and soothing to understand this, at long last. I never let myself think about it much, but seeing Sam, seeing the kids around him, makes me realize everything that was wrong and artificial in my marriage.
I don’t tell Sam this, of course. That would be one hell of a strange conversation, especially since I am in no way going to tell him who I really am. Hell, no. But it means something that the kids like him. They’re both so smart, and I know that building this safe place for them to grow and do better—it’s important. Risky, but necessary. I’m still willing to run if I have to, but not until it’s necessary.
So far, all’s quiet. Quieter than it’s ever been.
By the middle of June, Connor and Sam have the house looking fantastic, and Sam is teaching my son the basics of construction. They’re planning on leveling the ground out back. Pouring concrete and putting down posts. Lanny hovers on the outskirts of it, making suggestions, until suddenly she’s into it, too, intently watching as Sam draws out plans with an architect’s eye.
It’s a long-term project. Nobody’s in any hurry about it. Least of all me. Work keeps coming in on my freelance businesses, to the point that I’m turning things down. I can afford to be picky, and to charge accordingly, and my reputation is growing. Things are definitely looking up.
I don’t depend on the income from my online work, of course, not completely. I don’t have to, because Mel did one thing right: in that awful storage locker where he kept his horrific journals, his trophies, he also kept his escape plan.
A duffel bag full of cash.
Nearly two hundred thousand, the inheritance from his parents’ estate that he’d told me he’d invested in a mutual fund. It sat for years in his storage shed, waiting for him to sense it was time to bolt. He’d never had the chance to take it. He was arrested at work, and he never spent another day as a free man.
I turned in the contents of that storage locker to the police, of course I did, but before I did that, I picked up that bag and put it in the trunk of my car. I drove far across town to one of those strip mall mailbox stores and opened up a box in a fake name—made up on the spot—and then took the duffel bag to a UPS location far across town to ship it to my new PO box. It was terrifying. I thought I’d get caught, or worse, that someone would open the box and the money would disappear without a trace. I couldn’t have complained about it.
But it did arrive. I tracked the progress online, and I paid extra to have the mail center hold it for me until I could pick it up. Good thing I did, because just two days later, despite my cooperation with the police, I was arrested, jailed, and awaiting trial.
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