They’re not surprised. I think they must remember how, after my acquittal and before we left Kansas, I slept every night on the old sofa in the bare living room of the rented house with a gun right at my side. We had bricks smashed through the windows, and once a flaming bottle that guttered out without starting a fire. Vandalism was a constant fact of life before we’d moved for the second time.
And I’d known then, like now, that I couldn’t rely on the neighbors for help. Or the police.
The shower feels like heaven, like a sweet, normal, warm respite from the hell of the day. I towel-dry my hair and put on a fresh sports bra and underwear; then I find the softest pair of sweatpants I have, plus a microfiber shirt and socks. I want to be as fully dressed as possible, except for my running shoes, which I’ve rigged up with elastic ties so I can slip them on in an emergency. The couch is comfortable enough, and I keep my gun tucked just where I can reach it, pointed away from me. Too many paranoid people have failed to practice trigger safety.
To my surprise, I fall asleep, and I don’t even dream. Maybe I’m too tired. I wake up to the soft beep of the automatic coffeemaker as it brews the morning pot, and I make a groggy mental note to tell Lanny that if I get arrested again, to turn the damn thing off. It’s still dark outside. I find my shoulder holster and put it on over my shirt, tuck the gun inside, and go to pour my coffee. I’m in my stocking feet and very quiet, but even so, I hear the creak of a door opening down the hall.
It’s Lanny. I know at a glance she didn’t sleep much, because she’s already dressed in black cargo pants and a half-ripped gray T-shirt with a skull on it and a black tank showing through the gaps. Two years from now, I think, I’ll have to fight with her to keep the tank top on under it. She’s brushed out her hair but not straightened it, and the faint natural wave in it catches the light as she moves. The reddened bruising under her eyes has turned a rich crimson, verging on brown, and her nose is a little swollen but not as much as I’d feared.
Even with the damage, she’s beautiful, so beautiful, and I catch my breath on an unexpected pain and have to busy myself stirring sugar into my coffee so I don’t show her the emotion. I don’t even know why I’m feeling it. It comes as an overwhelming, warm wave that makes me want to destroy the world before it can hurt her again.
“Move,” Lanny says, annoyed, and I edge out of the way as she yanks a cup from the shelf. She checks it—an automatic thing for her, from the time she was twelve and found a cockroach in a cup in a rental house—and then splashes coffee in. She drinks hers black, not because she likes it but because she thinks she should. “So. We’re still alive.”
“Still alive,” I agree.
“You check the Sicko Patrol?”
I dread doing it, but she’s right. That’s the next step. “I will in a bit.”
She lets out a bitter laugh. “I guess I won’t be going to school.”
She isn’t dressed for it, I think, and of course she’s right. “No school. Maybe it’s time for homeschool.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s great. We’ll never get to leave the house ever again. Federal background checks on the UPS guy before we let him deliver a package.”
She’s in a foul mood, spoiling for a fight, and I raise my eyebrows. “Please don’t,” I tell her, which makes her glare. “I’m going to need your help, Lanny.”
That merits an eye roll on top of the glare, which is a neat trick I suspect only a teen girl can truly master. “Let me guess. You want me to take care of Connor. As per, Warden. Maybe you should give me a badge and you know . . .” She gestures at my shoulder holster, vaguely but significantly.
“No,” I tell her. “I want you to come with me and help me go through the e-mails. Get your laptop. I’ll show you what to do. And when we’re done with that, we’ll talk about next steps.”
She’s momentarily at a loss for words, which is a new thing, and then she puts her cup down, swallows, and says, “About time.”
“Yes,” I agree. “It is. But believe me, I wish I could keep it away from you forever.”
It’s a tough morning’s work, slowly acclimating her to the levels of depravity she’ll encounter, and showing her how to sort and categorize them. I prequalify what I send her; no rape porn or Photoshops of our faces onto murder victims. I can’t do that to her. She might see it soon enough, but only because I can’t help it, not because I allow it.
There’s a tsunami of hatred this morning, and even with two of us culling through it and reporting it back to the various abuse agencies, it takes a long, long time. Most of it’s fairly regular stuff—death threats. One finally makes her stop and roll her chair away from her laptop, hands coming away as if she’s touched something dead. She looks at me wordlessly, and I see something flame out inside her. A little bit of hope. A little bit of faith that the world could still be kind, even to us.
“They’re just words,” I tell her. “From small men who are brave on the other side of a keyboard and an Internet handle. But I know how you feel.”
“It’s awful,” she says in a voice that sounds more like a little girl than the adult she’s trying to be. She clears her throat and tries again. “These people are vile.”
“Yes,” I say in agreement, putting my hand on her shoulder. “They’ll never care whether or not you were hurt by what they said, or even if you read it; it was all about writing it for them. It’s natural to feel afraid and violated by all this. I feel that way all the time.”
“But?” My daughter knows there’s a but.
“But you have the power,” I tell her. “You can turn off this computer and walk away anytime. They’re pixels on a screen. They’re assholes who might be halfway around the world, or on the other side of the country, and even if they’re not, the odds are astronomically on your side that they’ll never do anything that doesn’t involve shouting at a computer screen. Okay?”
That seems to steady her. “Okay,” she says. “And . . . if they beat the odds?”
“Then that’s why you have me, and I have this.” I touch the shoulder holster. “I don’t like guns. I’m not a crusader. I wish guns were harder to get, and I could rely on a cattle prod and a baseball bat. But that’s not the world we live in, baby. So if you want to start learning to shoot, we’ll do that. And if you don’t, that’s good, too. I’d rather you didn’t, believe me, because your chances of getting shot are a hell of a lot better if you’re armed. I do this as much to draw fire away from you as I do to return it. Understand?”
She does, I can see that. For the first time, she sees the weapon I’m carrying as much as a danger as a shield. Good. It’s the hardest lesson for someone who’s been taught guns are the answer . . . that they’re only the answer to a pure, simple, direct set of problems: killing someone.
I never want her to have to do it. I don’t want to have to do it.
I get her laptop back online, and we’re both silently working when Connor appears in the doorway, yawning, still in his pajama pants. He has a wide, blackening bruise on his shoulder, but other than that, he seems fine. He blinks at us and tries to finger-comb his hair straighter. “You’re both up,” he says. “Why isn’t there breakfast?”
“Shut up,” Lanny says, but it’s a reflex. “Such a boy. Learn to make pancakes, not like it’s rocket science.”
He yawns and gives me a mournful look. “Mom.” I see he wants to be treated, today, like a child, to be coddled and pampered and made to feel safe. It’s the opposite of Lanny, who wants to face things head-on. And that’s fine, too. He’s younger, and it’s his choice. And hers, too.
I take a break from the torrential acid bath of hate and go whip up pancakes from a mix, add fresh pecans that I need to use up anyway, and we’re in the middle of what feels like a startlingly normal breakfast when there’s a decisive sort of knock on our disfigured front door.
I get up. Lanny has already put her fork down and half risen out of her chair, but I motion her down. Connor stops chewing and stares at me, and my mind is racing with the possibilities. Today, of all days, we face a whole new set of risks. It could be the mailman. It could be a guy with a shotgun ready to blow my face off the second he sees it. It could be someone’s left me a mutilated pet on the doorstep. There’s no way to tell without looking, and I get my tablet and try to boot it up, then remember that it’s dead. Battery’s drained. Damn technology.
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