I call Sam, and he tells me all’s well there. It all sounds like a normal, placid day. Uneventful.
Normality sounds like heaven, unattainable and forbidden. I’m all too aware how much power Mel still has over us. How he found us, I don’t know and probably never will. He’s got a source; that’s clear enough. Whoever is passing him information might not even be aware of the harm they’re doing. He’s a good liar. He’s always been a master manipulator. He’s a virulent virus loose on the world, and I should have used my shot at him to just kill the son of a bitch. If I call Absalom to set up something more final, it’ll cost more than I can safely pay. I know that. And when it comes to buying a murder, even the murder of a man on death row . . . there’s something in me that balks. Maybe it’s just a fear that I’ll be caught, and my kids will be left alone in the world. Helpless and unprotected.
I’m extra cautious on the rest of the drive, hyperaware of possible people trailing me, yet desperate to get home now. Every minute I’m gone is another minute I’m not there to protect my children, to act as their shield. I use express drop-off for the rental car. Security seems to take an eternity, and I want to scream at the idiots who don’t know how to take their shoes off, or their laptops out, or their phones from their pockets.
It doesn’t matter, because once I’m through, I find the flight out to Knoxville has been canceled. I have another two-hour wait for the next flight, and I find myself calculating the distance. I have a frantic impulse to drive it, to be doing something, but that would take even longer, of course.
I have to wait, and I do it sitting by a plug, charging my tablet. I watch the feed from the house as the sun starts to set and the picture adjusts to a grainier grayscale image. I flip to the inside camera and find that Sam is sitting on the sofa with a glass in his hand, watching TV. Lanny is making something in the kitchen. I don’t see Connor, but he’s probably in his room.
I keep watching the outside of the house. In case of . . . anything. I keep the display on even as the flight finally boards, and reluctantly thumb it off when the flight attendant tells me to disable the Internet function. I’m trying not to think about what might happen during the time I’m in the air. It’s not a very long flight, but it’s long enough. I pull the tablet out as soon as the sign indicates I can, hook it up to the costly airplane Wi-Fi, and check again.
It’s all peaceful. Eerily calm. I think about Mel’s bloody smile, and I find myself shivering like I’m freezing. Maybe I am. I turn off the overhead air and ask for a blanket, and I watch the tablet’s slow, glitching feed throughout the flight, until we’re heading in to the airport.
It takes forever to get to the gate and deplane. I am watching the cameras the whole, shuffling way up to the door, and the instant I’m through, I stow the tablet and run down the jet bridge tunnel, dodging other passengers, and sprint through the terminal toward the exit. I feel the hot breath on the back of my neck, again. I feel something like the light graze of snapping teeth.
Then I’m outside in the humid darkness and looking frantically for where I parked my Jeep. When I find it, I check the cameras again, and then I leave the tablet up and active on the passenger seat as I speed away from the airport and head toward Stillhouse Lake. I call Sam and tell him I’m on the way.
Whenever it’s safe on the drive, I snatch glimpses of the camera feeds, as I reassure myself that my children are all right, that no one has gotten to them . . . All the way, I remember that ghostly, ghastly smile on Mel’s broken face.
That smile tells me he’s not done.
That we’re not done.
Darkness already has a firm hold as I make the turn on the road out to Stillhouse Lake. I go too fast, speeding around the inky turns, hoping no one is walking this path tonight, or driving with lights off.
They aren’t. It’s quiet, and I pull into my driveway with a sense of relief, which is paradoxical because this home, this sanctuary, isn’t safe anymore. It’s an illusion. It’s always been an illusion.
Sam Cade is sitting on the porch drinking a beer as I pull up and shut off the Jeep’s headlights. I reach for the tablet to shut it off, only to find that the battery’s completely drained. I stow it and take a couple of breaths to compose myself. Somehow, I never expected to arrive and find everything okay.
Even though that was my fondest hope.
I get out and walk up to join Sam on the porch; he silently hands me a cold Samuel Adams, which I twist open and swig gratefully. It tastes wonderfully like coming home.
“That’s a hell of a quick trip,” he says. “Everything okay?”
I wonder what kind of vibe I’m giving off that he’d ask. “Yeah. I think so. Just some business I needed to take care of. It’s done.” No, it isn’t. Nothing is done. I thought he’d get the message, but instead he wasn’t even worried. He isn’t afraid of me.
That means I’d better be afraid of him. Again.
“Well. We got the deck frame built out. A few more days to put the boards down and waterproof, and it’ll be ready to use.” He hesitates, then says, “Gwen, the police came around about an hour ago. Said they wanted to reinterview you about, you know, the girl in the lake. I told them you’d call.”
My stomach lurches, but I nod and hope that I seem just fine with that. “I guess they’re still grasping at straws about the dead woman. I was hoping they’d settle that by now.” Or is this something new? Something courtesy of Mel?
“Guess nothing’s settled, since they haven’t caught the killer,” he says. He takes another drink. “You’re not holding back anything, are you?”
“No. Of course not.”
“I only ask because I didn’t like the feeling they gave me. Just be careful when you talk to them, okay? Maybe take a lawyer along.”
A lawyer? My first impulse is shock and rejection, but then I reconsider. It might be a good idea. I could confess everything about my past to an attorney, and he’d have to keep it under seal. Maybe finally unburdening myself would feel good. And maybe it wouldn’t. If I still can’t fully trust Sam with all my secrets, trusting some country lawyer out of Norton would be nearly impossible. It’s a small town. People talk.
I change the subject. “How are the kids?”
“All fine. Pizza for dinner. They’ve got homework. Not too happy about it. The homework, I mean. They were really into the food.”
“Well, that’s normal.” I suddenly realize that I’m starving; I’ve gone without anything more solid than coffee and a soft drink all day. “Any pizza left?”
“With two kids? You’re dreaming if you think they didn’t finish a large all by themselves.” Sam smiles a little. “But I ordered two for that very reason. Just needs a little heating up.”
“Sounds like heaven. Join me?”
So we find ourselves sitting at the kitchen table in companionable silence as I eat two slices and think about a third. Lanny breezes in from her bedroom to grab an energy drink and steal a slice. She raises an eyebrow and says, “You’re back.”
“Don’t sound so thrilled.”
She rounds her eyes and flutters her hands and pitches her voice into the annoying, saccharine level. “You’re back! Oh, Mom, I missed you so much!”
I nearly choke on my pizza. She smirks and retreats to her room, slamming the door even though she doesn’t need to. That makes Connor stick his head out. He sees me and gives me a quiet grin. “Hi, Mom.”
“Hi, honey. You need any help with your homework?”
“Nah, I got it. It’s easy. I’m glad you’re back.”
From him, it sounds sincere, and I smile back with real warmth. The warmth fades as Connor withdraws back into his room, and I’m faced with a stark reality: Mel knows where we are. He knows. He talked about Brady. Specifically about my son.
The answer’s obvious. Javier has the van ready. All I have to do is drive the Jeep over and pick up the van, load us up, and go. Find a new place to start over. We can use the emergency IDs I have buried in the geocache fifty miles from here; I’ve also split part of the money there, and I’ll leave it for now. I have better than thirty thousand with me, still. I’ll have to pay Absalom in Bitcoin to get us new, clean papers and backstories once we burn these identities, and that’ll cost us another ten thousand, at the least. From the ease with which he does it, I can only think he works for some shadowy spy agency where false identities are as common as junk mail.
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