Kezia puts her hand on my shoulder. The warmth of it feels shocking, radiating against my face. I’ve gotten very chilled, I realize. Shock. I’m shivering without really feeling it. “Come on,” she tells me. “They’re not here. Come on out.”
I don’t want to. I feel that leaving this strange, chilly sanctuary is admitting something huge. Something I want to hide from, like a child pulling covers over my head.
Irrationally, insanely, I suddenly want Mel. It horrifies me, but I want someone to turn to, someone who might share this feeling of emptiness. Maybe I don’t want Mel. Maybe I want the idea of him. Someone who shares my grief, my fear, our children. I want his arms around me. I want Mel to tell me it’ll be all right, even though that Mel is a lie, was always a lie. Even then.
Kezia pulls me out. We leave the secret room open, and I sink down in one of the kitchen chairs—the one Lanny sat in at breakfast. Everything has a memory attached to it—the fingerprints on the wood of the table, the mostly empty salt shaker that I asked Connor to refill but he forgot.
One of Lanny’s skull-themed hair clips lies discarded on the floor under the chair, a single, silky strand still caught in the hinge. I pick it up and hold it loose in my hand, and when I lift it to my nose, I can smell the scent of her hair. It brings tears to my eyes.
Sam’s sitting next to me now, and his hand is lying limply close to mine. I don’t know when he sat down; it’s as if he’s just appeared, like time jumped. Reality collapsing again. Everything feels distant now, but the warmth of his skin radiates into me like sunlight, even half an inch away.
“Gwen,” he says. After a short delay to process that yes, that’s my name, I’ve taught myself to believe it’s my name, I raise my head and meet his gaze. Something in it steadies me. Brings me an inch or two up from the darkness, into something that’s at least faintly hopeful. “Gwen, we’re going to find them, okay? We’re going to find the kids. Do you have any idea—”
He’s interrupted by the ringing of my cell phone. I grab for it with frantic, clawing hands, slap it down on the table, and answer the call on speakerphone without even glancing at the caller ID. “Lanny? Connor?”
I don’t recognize the voice that answers. It’s a man’s voice, I think, but it’s been run through a synth program to disguise it. “You think you got away with your crimes, you sick bitch? You can run but you can’t hide, and when we get to you, you’re going to wish your fucking husband had strung you up and skinned you alive!”
It catches me off guard and knocks the breath out of me, and I can’t move for a second, can’t think. Sam sits back as if he’s been physically punched. Kezia, leaning over, draws away. The venomous glee in the words, even with the processed flatness of the voice, is shocking.
It feels like half an hour before I can find words, but it can’t be more than a heartbeat, and then I scream, “Give me back my kids, you bastard!”
There’s silence on the other end of the phone. As if I’ve caught him out. As if I’m not following some kind of script. Then the synthesized voice says, any surprise stripped from the words by the algorithms that change it, “What the fuck?”
“Are they all right? If you’ve hurt my kids, you son of a bitch, I will find you, I will rip you apart—” I’m standing up now, leaning over the phone on stiffened arms, and my voice is sharp enough to cut, loud enough to shatter.
“I didn’t—uh—fuck. Shit.” The call disconnects with a crackle, and the calm musical beeps of the phone telling me it lost the signal. I sink down in the chair, grab the phone, and swipe to the caller ID. It was a blocked number, of course.
“He didn’t know,” I say. “He didn’t even know they were gone.” I should have seen this coming; my address was out in the open. Someone who got close to me leaked it, took pictures. Mel must have distributed my number, too. I can expect a torrent of calls like this: death threats, rape threats, threats to kill my children and pets, torch my house, torture my parents. I’ve been through it before. There isn’t much that shocks me anymore, in the Sicko Patrol world. I also know, as the police remind me every time I report it, that most of these sad, sick little men will never follow through on their vicious promises. Their enjoyment comes from psychological damage.
The troll didn’t hang up because he felt guilty for doing this to me. He was caught by surprise and was afraid of being swept up in a kidnapping investigation. The upside is, he won’t call back.
But there will be a thousand others in line behind him.
Kezia interrupts my thoughts by taking the phone out of my hand. She says, “I’ll answer for you until we decide how to handle this, okay?” And I nod, even if I know it’s a ploy to grab my phone as evidence. Sam averts his gaze as if he’s ashamed. I wonder if he left a few angry messages on my voice mail, back in the day. Sent me a few rage-filled e-mails from an anonymous account. He wouldn’t have done the truly sociopathic ones; his would have been stuffed with pain and real loss and justified anger.
I wish now that he’d put his name on them, that we’d been honest with each other, understood each other, seen each other from the beginning.
It doesn’t take long for the police to arrive. Things get busy. We’re ushered outside as the police thoroughly check the house and start the process of investigation. Prester arrives with another, younger detective—apart from him, they all seem too young to have any experience—and shakes his head when he sees me standing there with Kezia and Sam. The fact that Sam’s with us raises his eyebrows, and I see him recalculating things, revising all his earlier judgments and assumptions. I wonder if this puts me and Sam back in a box together as conspirators.
If it does, that would have an ugly ring of authenticity to it. We do have a past, even if I hadn’t known it. We do know each other. We do like each other now, on some level. It makes my head hurt, trying to think like Prester, but I have a notion that he’s already seeing us in a very different light.
“Tell me everything,” Prester says.
Once I start, I can’t stop.
I don’t want to leave the house, though I don’t want to be here, either . . . It no longer feels like our safe space, our haven. It feels spoiled, cracked open like that house back in Wichita to reveal something ugly at its center. Not Mel’s evil this time. The house is no longer a home because of the cold absence . . . the absence of the one thing that makes any kind of home for me.
I sit outside on the porch with Prester, who quizzes me and Sam in great detail, with Kezia nearby to add her confirmations as needed. I imagine the timeline he’s sketching out in his notebook. I wonder where the red star goes on it, the moment someone came into my home and ripped my heart out. He must also believe that I could have done it, but I no longer care about that. They have to be found.
I have to believe they’re okay—scared, but okay. That the blood is stage blood, or animal blood, put there to terrify me. That a ransom call will come. That anything, anything is true but what I instinctively, horribly believe.
I give Prester the cell phone numbers for my kids, and he gives them to Kezia; she comes back half an hour later to say, “The phones are off and not pinging on GPS.”
“No surprise,” he says. “Any TV-watching moron knows to ditch the damn phones these days.” He shakes his head a little and closes his notebook. “I’ve got every cop in the county out looking, Ms. Proctor, but meanwhile, I need you to tell me what happened this morning after Officer Claremont ate breakfast with you.”
“I already told you.”
“Tell me again.” His eyes are cool and remorseless, and I hate him with a clear, pointed fury in that moment, as if he’s the one holding my children, hiding them from me. “Because I need to understand exactly how this happened. After seeing the officer off, what did you do?”
“Locked the door. Reset alarms. Washed dishes. Got the call from Mel. Grabbed my shoulder holster, my gun from the safe, the box to put it in. My hoodie.”
“And did you knock on the kids’ doors? Tell them where you were going?”
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