I take out my cell phone and dial 911. There isn’t any choice. This is at my door.
As I listen to the rings, I think about the inescapable, horrible fact that the body has been down there under the surface, waiting, slowly rising like a lazy, ghostly bubble until it finally breaks the water’s smooth hold. It floated there last night while I talked to Javier. It floated there while I slept. It might have been lurking farther below the surface on the night I sat on the porch with Sam Cade and drank beer and talked about Melvin Royal.
The woman in the boat throws up again, weeping.
I finally get an answer on the emergency line. I don’t think about what I’m saying, but I describe the scene, the location, give my name. I know I sound too calm, and that will hurt me later when people review the recording. They ask me to stay on the line, but I don’t. I hang up and pocket my cell instead as I try to think.
One dead, horribly mutilated woman could have been an awful coincidence. Two have to be a plan. The police will be here soon, and when they come, I’ll be taken in. This time the questions will come in earnest.
I’m going to be arrested.
I’m going to lose my kids.
A text alert sounds, and I take out my phone to see it’s from Absalom’s anonymous number. I swipe to read it.
It’s just a link. I click it, and watch as the screen fills with the blocky design of a message board. I don’t take note of which one, I just blow up the text to read the initial post.
It’s about me.
FOUND: ONE MURDERING BITCH! YA BOY, I TRACKED DOWN MELVIN’S LITTLE HELPER! PICTURES AND EVERYTHING. SOLID INTEL. HIS SPAWN ARE WITH HER, SO SHE DIDN’T DROWN THE LITTLE BASTARDS YET. EVEN BETTER: THERE’S A MURDER!!! DEETS LATER.
There is a flood of replies, hundreds of them, but the original poster is teasing the info, giving nonanswers, hints, denying rumors. And then, about five swipes of my finger down the scroll, he drops one deadly piece of solid fact.
BITCH IS HIDING OUT IN THE VOLUNTEER STATE.
That must have sent at least half the readers scrambling for Google, but I know it instantly. He knows I’m in Tennessee. That means he almost certainly knows I’m at Stillhouse Lake. He likely has the same pictures that Melvin has seen, or he’s the original source of them.
My chess move didn’t work with my murdering ex-husband. He’s dropped the hammer, and right now I imagine him lying on his bunk, laughing. Imagining my safety being stripped away, like strips of skin. Masturbating at the thought of it.
The agony of it is breathless.
I feel weightless for a moment. Not quite falling, not quite stable. It’s out. We’re out. All my work, all my running, all the hiding . . . it’s done. The Internet is forever.
Trolls never forget.
I hear sirens in the distance. The police are on their way. The dead girl floats in steady dips and bobs, hair twisting and swirling like slow smoke. The rowboat is now moving away, making for the dock; the fisherman must have finally snapped out of his trance. When I look up, I see his face has gone a sickly, pre-heart-attack color, and he’s rowing with furious strength. His wife is slumped against him, looking nearly as bad. These are people whose safe, normal world has broken underneath their feet, and they’ve fallen into a darker place. The place where I live.
I can see the police car lights cresting a distant hill, heading out from Norton.
I text Absalom. Doesn’t matter now. I’m about to be arrested.
There’s an endless space before his reply comes with a sharp vibrating buzz to announce it, like an angry wasp before the sting. Fuck. Did you do it?
He has to ask. Everyone has to ask.
I text back No and turn off the phone again. As the rowboat bumps hard against the dock—almost a crash—I toss a line to the fisherman. It hits his wife, which I didn’t intend, but she doesn’t seem to even notice.
I sense someone else watching now, and I turn my head.
Sam Cade is standing on his porch, about two football fields away. He’s wearing a red-and-black checked bathrobe and slippers, and he’s staring at me. At the traumatized boaters. I sense his attention move to the body in the lake, then back to me.
I don’t look away. Neither does he.
He turns and walks back into his cabin.
I help the older woman out of the boat, then her husband, and sit them down on a bench nearby as I run back to the house for warm blankets. I’m pulling those around their shoulders as the first police cruiser scrapes to a halt a few feet away, lights strobing urgently but siren silent now. Behind it comes the boxy sedan, and I’m not surprised to see Detective Prester behind the wheel. He looks like he hasn’t slept at all.
I feel dead. Numb. I straighten up as he exits the vehicle. Two other younger uniformed officers get out of the cruiser. Neither one is Officer Graham, but I recognize them from around the Norton beats. There are more on the way, a whole stream of cars heading toward us now. There’s a feeling of inevitability about this dawn. I know I should be afraid, but I’m not; somehow, all that fear has gone away after seeing this poor woman in the lake, abandoned and destroyed. As if this has been coming all along, and on some level, I’ve known it.
I see Prester approach, and I turn to him to say, “Please make sure my kids are all right. Someone’s leaked our location to the Internet. They’ve had death threats. Real ones. I don’t care what happens to me right now, but they have to be safe.”
His face is set and hard, but he nods quietly. He pauses next to me and looks at the two unfortunates who were in the boat. I turn away as he questions them. I look at Sam Cade’s cabin, and before too long, I am rewarded; I see him come out again, dressed in faded jeans and a plain gray T-shirt. He locks his door—both locks, I notice—and slowly descends the steps to walk toward us. The patrol officers haven’t managed to set up a cordon yet, and there’s not really a need. Sam walks straight across and stops just a few feet from me. We don’t speak for a moment, and he puts his hands in his jeans pockets and rocks back and forth, staring not at me, but at the bobbing body in the lake.
“Want me to call anybody?” He asks it of the empty air, as if he’s asking the dead girl. I’m not really looking at him, either. It’s a conversation in which neither of us is willing to commit. So typical of both of us.
“I think that’s a little late,” I say, and I mean that for the dead girl and me both. We’re both lost and adrift now, exposed to the world without any hope of shelter. I’m instantly ashamed of myself for thinking of us as being in any way alike, though. I didn’t spend hours, maybe days, suffering at the hands of a sadist and then experience the horror of dying at his hands. I’d only been married to one. “I told Prester, but if you could just make sure he looks after Connor and Lanny—the word’s gotten out, Sam. About where we are. Did you do that?”
He snaps his attention to me with a suddenness that feels completely natural. I can see the pulse of surprise, the shift in the way he feels. “Did I what?”
“Did you dox me out on the Internet?”
“Of course I didn’t!” he blurts with a frown, and I believe him. “I wouldn’t do that, Gwen. No matter what. I wouldn’t put you or the kids at risk like that.”
I nod. I don’t really think it was him, though he’d be a logical suspect. No, I imagine some bright bulb in the Norton Police Department decided to get some righteous, anonymous justice on. Could even be a clerk. Anyone in the chain of discovery with knowledge of my old identity, ending with Detective Prester. I can’t even really blame them. Nobody’s forgotten Melvin Royal.
Nobody’s forgotten Melvin’s Little Helper, either. There’s a certain rabid, unhealthy fascination people have with male serial killers, but female accomplices are hated so much more. It’s a toxic stew of misogyny and self-righteous fury, and the simple, delicious fact that it’s okay to destroy this woman, where it’s not okay to destroy others.
I can never be forgiven for being innocent, because I’ll never be innocent.
Sam looks away again, and I think, somewhat irrationally, that he wants to tell me something. Confess something. He rocks back and forth some more, says nothing, and then he shakes his head and starts to walk away, toward my house.
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