“Hey, that’s not true,” Lanny says. “You’ve got the Geek Squad playing nerd games with you. And what about Kyle and Lee, those Graham kids? They’re always asking you to do things . . .”
“I said I don’t have any friends. Just people I play games with is all,” Connor says. There’s an edge to his voice I haven’t heard before, and I don’t like it. At all. “I don’t like the Graham kids, either. I just pretend I do so they don’t beat me up again.”
From the look on my daughter’s face, she didn’t know that until this moment, either. I think that Connor must have confided in Sam, and that with Sam’s betrayal, Connor has no more use for his secret. I feel frozen. I remember the stiff way Connor held himself when he was around the Graham boys. I remember his warning, that first time, about how he hadn’t lost his phone, that one of them must have taken it. I hate myself for not questioning that. In the rush of events, in my worry about what Mel was doing and the murder, I’d forgotten. I’d let my son down.
When Sam found him with the bloody nose, the bruises, that was the work of the Graham brothers.
I grit my teeth and don’t say anything for the rest of the drive. Lanny and Connor don’t seem to want to talk, either. I pause at the entrance to the driveway, put the Jeep in park, and turn to face them. “I can’t fix what’s gone wrong for us. It’s just happened. I don’t know whose fault it is, and I don’t really care anymore. But I promise you one thing: I’m going to take care of you. Both of you. And if anybody tries to hurt you, they’re going to have to come through me first. Understand?”
They do, but I can see it doesn’t soothe something in them that’s still wire-tense. Lanny says, “You’re not always here, Mom. I know you want to be, but sometimes we have to look out for each other, and it’d be better if you’d let me have the code to the . . .”
I know what she wants: access to the gun safe. And I’m not willing to do it. I never wanted this. I never wanted to raise my kids to have to be gunslingers, warriors, child soldiers.
As long as I have the power to protect them, I won’t allow it.
I put the Jeep in gear in the fraught silence and crunch up the gravel road to our house.
As the headlights hit it, I see blood. That’s all I see in the first rush of recognition: a vivid red splash over the garage door, splatters and whorls and drips. I brake hard, throwing us all against restraints. The halogens pick it out, and I realize the red probably isn’t blood at all; it’s too red, too thick. It’s still wet and glimmering in the lights, though, and as I watch I see one of the drips is still lengthening its descent.
It hasn’t been long since this happened.
“Mom,” Connor whispers. I don’t look at him. I’m staring now at the words scrawled on our windows, across the brick, on the front door of our house.
“Mom!” Connor’s hand grips my shoulder, and I hear the panic in my son’s voice, the very real fear. “Mom!”
I jam the Jeep in reverse and spray gravel, rocketing down the driveway toward the road. I have to brake suddenly, because there are vehicles in the way. Two of them. A mint-condition, dust-free Mercedes SUV and a dirty jacked-up truck that might be red under the mud coating. They’ve blocked us in.
The Johansens, the nice, quiet couple from up the hill, the ones I introduced myself to when I moved in . . . they’re in their SUV, not looking at me. Staring at the road, as if blocking my fucking driveway is an accident. As if they’re not involved.
The asshole in the muddy red truck and his friends have no such scruples. They’re happy to be noticed. There are three of them getting out of the extended cab, and another three sloppily crawling out of the bed of the truck. Drunk, from the lack of coordination, and pretty thrilled about it, too. I recognize one of them. He’s the jackass from the range, Carl Getts, the one Javier blackballed for bad behavior.
They start walking toward us, and I realize with a chill that I have my kids with me and I am unarmed, and Jesus, the cops haven’t even bothered to leave a cruiser in the neighborhood to watch out for harassment. So much for Prester’s good intentions, if he ever had any. Less than a day out from being hauled in and we’re already in fear of our lives.
This is why I drive the Jeep.
I slam it into low gear, go uphill a bit, and then take it on a bouncing course down the steep slope, over wild grassland littered with buried, jutting stones. I steer around the worst of it, but I have to speed up as I realize that the truck’s driver and crew are piling back in. He’s got four-wheel drive, too. He’ll be coming after us, fast as he can. I need to put distance between us.
I need my gun, I think desperately. I don’t have a weapon in the safe at the back right now. I’d taken it out in preparation for trading the Jeep to Javier. Doesn’t matter, I tell myself. Depending on anything or anyone else is bad. I have to rely on myself, first, last, and always. That’s the lesson Mel taught me.
First, I have to get us to safety. Second, regroup. Third, get my kids away from this place, however that has to happen.
I almost, almost, make it to the safety of the road.
It happens like this: I have to twist the wheel sharply to avoid a jutting boulder that’s hidden by a clump of thick weeds, and in doing so, I run the right wheel into a wide, unseen gully. The whole Jeep tips, and for a heart-stopping moment I think about the high incidence of rollover crashes, and then we bounce up and back out even before Lanny’s sudden yelp hits my ears, and I think, We’re okay.
We’re not okay.
The left wheel hits and glances off a half-buried rock, and we veer over it. I hear the metallic crunch of collision, and the whole steering assembly shudders out of my hands, jumping wildly. I grab hold again, heart thudding in a steady staccato race, and realize that the axle’s broken. I’ve lost control of the front wheels and the steering.
I can’t go around the next rock, which is big enough to smash us right in the center of the Jeep’s hood and send us all flying forward into the restraints, hard enough to leave bruises, and I know the airbags deploy because I feel the puff of it against my face, the impact, the burning smell of the propellant. My face hurts and feels hot from the rush of blood and friction. I’m more aware of surprise than pain, but my first instinct is not for myself. I twist in my seat to look frantically at Lanny, at Connor. They both seem dazed but okay. Lanny makes a little whimpering sound and probes at her nose. It’s bleeding. I realize I’m bleating questions at them—are you all right, are you okay—but I’m not even listening for answers. I’m grabbing up handfuls of tissues to press to the flow of blood from her nose even as I’m looking anxiously at Connor. He seems okay, better than Lanny, though he has a red mark on his forehead. The flaccid white silk of a deflated airbag is draped over his shoulder. Side curtain airbags, I remember. Lanny’s deployed, too, which is why her nose is bleeding.
Mine might be, too. I don’t care.
I compose myself enough to remember that we didn’t just accidentally get into a car wreck, that there’s a truck full of drunken men rambling over this same hillside, hunting us. I’ve screwed up. I’ve put my children in mortal danger.
And I have to fix it.
I scramble out of the Jeep and almost fall. I catch myself on the door and realize I’m trailing fat drops of blood in a ragged line down the front of my white shirt. Doesn’t matter. I shake my head, sending red drops flying, and fumble my way to the back of the Jeep. I do have two things: a tire iron and an emergency flashlight that strobes disorienting white and red with a flick of a switch. It even has a built-in piercing alert signal. The batteries are fresh, because I changed them out just last week. I grab it and the heavy iron curve of the toolbar, and before I slam the driver’s-side door again, I find my cell phone and pitch it to Connor, who seems more together. “Call 911,” I tell him. “Tell them we’re being attacked. Lock these doors.”
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