The rain starts five minutes later. A hesitant patter at first, and then a steady soft knocking on the roof, and then a thick curtain that shimmers off the edges of the porch. I hope Sam made it home before it hit. I hope the downpour doesn’t wash the garden away.
I sit in the quiet, listening to the constant roar of the rain, and I finish my beer.
I’m in trouble, I think.
Because I’ve never felt this vulnerable before. Not since I was Gina Royal.
It takes a while. Slowly, almost imperceptibly over the last of the hot, muggy summer, Sam and I relax our guards, put aside our armor. We allow brushes of hands without flinching, smiles without premeditation. It feels real. It feels solid.
I finally begin to feel fully human.
I don’t fool myself that Sam can fix what’s broken in me. I don’t think he deludes himself about it, either. We’re both scarred—I have been able to tell that from the beginning. Maybe only the truly damaged can accept each other in the way we do.
I think about Mel less and less.
I’m glad when the temperature starts to cool on the slippery side of September. School reconvenes, and Connor and Lanny both seem happy. Whoever Connor’s bullies were (and he’s never confessed to me), his growing pack of friends more than makes up for it. They arrive every Thursday evening for their D&D game, which goes on well into the late hours. I’m delighted by their enthusiasm, their passion, their joy in imagination. Lanny pretends she thinks it’s gross, but she doesn’t; she starts checking fantasy books out of the library, and she lends them to him when she’s done. She stops calling him Squirtle since his friends said they thought it was cool.
At the end of September, Sam and I sit in the late, late evening in the living room, watching an old movie. The kids are long off to bed, and I have a glass of wine in my hand, leaning against his warmth. It’s is a sweet delight, this quiet peace. I’m not thinking, in that moment, about Mel, or about anything at all. The wine helps ease the constant, vigilant anxiety in me, and it blurs the fear, too.
“Hey,” his voice says quietly by my ear. The tickle of his breath is a tease. “You still awake?”
“Very much,” I say, then take another drink. He takes the glass from my hand to drain it. “Hey!”
“Sorry,” Sam says. “I need a little courage right now. Because I’m going to ask you something.”
I freeze. I can’t breathe. I can’t swallow. I can’t run. I just sit, waiting for the mask to come off.
He says, “Do you mind if I kiss you, Gwen?”
My mind is blank. A snowfield on a glacier, cold and smooth and empty. I’m stunned by the silence inside, the sudden and violent recession of fear.
And then I feel warm. It happens in an instant, as if the warmth was there, waiting, all the time.
I say, “I’ll mind if you don’t.”
It’s a tentative thing at first, until we both get our confidence and our bearings. His lips are soft and strong at once, and I can’t help but remember Mel’s kisses, always somehow plastic. There’s none of that studied movement. Sam kisses like someone who means it. He tastes of the rich, dark cherry flavors of the Bordeaux. Everything about that kiss makes me realize how little I know about life, how much I lost in marrying Melvin Royal. How much time I’ve wasted on him.
Sam is the one to break it, and he pulls back, breathing hard, saying nothing at all. I lean against him. He puts his arms around me, and instead of feeling confined, I feel included. Protected.
He whispers in my ear, “Shh,” and I don’t say anything else. It occurs to me that maybe he’s as afraid of this as I am.
I walk him outside after the movie. When he kisses me again at the foot of the house steps, it feels like a wonderful promise of better things to come.
A letter arrives from the remailing service the next day. I feel my pulse jump, but I’m not as anxious as before. I still take all the usual precautions: I slit the envelope open carefully, wear my blue nitrile gloves, and use utensils to unfold and hold open the paper.
This one is the second kind in the cycle, which I expected. Mel’s words are blandly normal, like the mask of humanity. He talks about the books he’s reading (he’s always been a big reader, generally of obscure philosophy and the sciences); he laments the wretched, tasteless food in the cafeteria. He says he’s fortunate to have friends who put money in his commissary account, so he can buy things to make his prison experience more pleasant. He talks about his lawyer.
But then . . . with a quiet curl of disquiet, I realize something is different about this letter. Something new.
When I get to the bottom, I see it. It’s a stinger in the tail, and when it strikes me, it plunges its barb in deep.
You know, sweetheart, the thing I most regret is that we never got to have that house by the lake that you and I talked about so often. It sounds like paradise, doesn’t it? I can almost see it, you sitting on the porch in the moonlight, watching the lake at night. That image gives me peace. I hope you’re not sharing it with anyone else but me.
I think about the nights I’ve sat out there on my porch, drinking my evening beer and watching the ripples across the lake in the sunset. That image gives me peace, he says. I hope you’re not sharing it with anyone else but me.
He’s seen us—a photograph, at least. Seen me and Sam together on the porch.
He knows where we are.
I flinch and drop the two spoons I’m holding to pin the letter down. When I look up, Connor is standing on the other side of the kitchen counter, staring at me. Behind him are Billy, Trent, Jason, and Daryl, his Thursday-night friends. I’ve forgotten what night it is. I’d intended to make Rice Krispies marshmallow treats, and I’ve forgotten that, too.
I quickly fold up the note, slip it back into the envelope, and strip off the gloves to three-point them in the corner trash can. I slip the envelope in my back pocket and say, “Boys, how about some snacks?” And they all cheer.
All except Connor, who’s gone still and quiet, watching me. He knows something’s wrong. I try a smile to reassure him, but I can tell he isn’t fooled. With a sick sense of desperation, I try to order my thoughts while I whip together the marshmallow cream and Rice Krispies into their sticky pan, to the delight of the young men. My mind isn’t on it, or on them, or on anything but what to do.
Run, all my instincts are screaming at me. Just get the van. Put the kids in it. Run. Start over. Make him find you again.
But the cold fact is that we have run. We’ve run and run and run. I’ve forced my children into an unnatural, damaging life that’s cut them off from family, friends, even from themselves. Yes, I’ve done it to save them, but at what cost? Because looking at where they are now, a full year into being settled, I see them blooming. Growing.
Running cuts them off at the roots, again, and sooner or later, everything good in them will turn stunted and stained from it.
I don’t want to run anymore. Maybe it’s the house, which has become—despite my best efforts—home. Maybe it’s the lake, or the peace I feel here.
Maybe it’s the fragile, breakable, careful attraction I finally feel to a good man.
No. No, I’m not running, goddamn you, Mel. Not again. It’s time to trigger a plan that I set in place a long time ago, one I’d hoped never to have to use.
As the boys eat their gooey snacks and roll dice, I step out and call a number that Absalom gave me years ago. I don’t know whom it belongs to, and I don’t even know if it will work at all. It’s a failsafe, a nuclear option. Onetime use, and I paid dearly for it.
It rings, rings, goes straight to voice mail. There’s no greeting, just a beep.
“This is Gina Royal,” I say. “Absalom says that you’ll know what I need done. Do it.”
I hang up, feeling sick and dizzy, as if I’m standing on the edge of a very steep drop. That name, Gina Royal, it makes me feel like I’m falling backward, into darkness and a time I’d rather never existed. Makes me feel like all the progress I’ve made has been an illusion, something Melvin could take away from me anytime he wanted.