He cares about revenge.

I run through the rest in a sickening rush.

You see his daughter? Lily? I’d bump that til its cold.

Burn them alive and put em out with piss.

I got an idea, find some working outhouse and drown the kids in shit. Then send her directions on where to find them.

How can we make her suffer? Suggestions? Anybody got eyes on the bitch?

On and on and on. I leave Reddit, go to Twitter, find more threats, more hate, more vitriol—just in concise, 140-character bites. Then the blogs. 8chan. The true crime message boards. The websites that are shrines to Mel’s crimes.

On the message boards and websites, the deaths of innocent young women are casual drive-by entertainment. Historical information. At least those armchair detectives aren’t very threatening; Mel’s family is just a footnote to the real story for them. They’re not dedicated to our destruction.

The ones who are more interested in us, in Melvin Royal’s missing family . . . those are the ones who could be dangerous.

And there are hundreds, maybe thousands of them—all competing to outdo one another with terrible new ways to punish me and the kids. My kids. It’s a sick horror show, devoid of even a shred of conscience. None of them recognize that they’re talking about people, real people who can be hurt. Who bleed. Who can be murdered. Or if they do recognize that, they absolutely don’t give a shit.

There are some, an unnerving skim of this unholy broth, who are true, cold sociopaths.

I print it all out, highlight usernames and handles, and begin cross-referencing in the database I keep. Most of the names on the list are old hands at this; they have, for whatever reasons, fixated on us. Some are newer, zealous acolytes who’ve just stumbled on Mel’s crimes and are looking to exact some retribution “for the victims,” but it’s really got nothing at all to do with Mel’s victims. I rarely see any of their names mentioned. To this particular crop of vigilantes, the victims didn’t matter alive, and they don’t matter now. It’s an excuse to let their vilest impulses out to play. These trolls are no different from Mel in many ways—except that unlike him, they probably won’t act on those impulses.

Probably.

But then, that’s why I keep the gun sitting next to me, to remind me that if they do, if they dare come near my kids, they’ll pay the price. I will not let anyone hurt them ever again.

I pause in reading, because whoever the psychopath is behind the handle fuckemall2hell, he’s stumbled over a careless piece of court paperwork that has one of our older addresses. He’s publicly posted the street address, looped in victims’ families, called reporters, sent out downloadable posters that have our pictures on them, with the words MISSING: HAVE YOU SEEN THESE PEOPLE? It’s a tactic these savages have adopted recently, trying to play on genuine humanity and concern. He’s preying on the better instincts of people to rat us out so that predators can reach us more easily.

I’m more worried for the innocent people now living at that address he’s distributed, though. They might not have any idea what’s coming. I send an anonymous e-mail to the detective in the area—a grudging ally—to let him know the address is being passed around again, and I hope for the best. Hope that the family living in that house doesn’t wake up to packages of rancid meat and dead animals nailed to their door, to a flood of torture porn, to terrifying threats in their inboxes and mailboxes and on their phones and at their work. I clearly remember the shock of discovering the flood of abuse being leveled at my empty house, even though I was safely in jail and the kids had been spirited away to Maine.

If the current residents have kids, I pray they aren’t targeted. Mine were. Signs on telephone poles. Their pictures sent to pornographers as models. There are no limits for the hate. It’s free-floating, a toxic cloud of moral outrage and mob mentality, and it doesn’t care who it hurts. Only that it does.

The address that this particular troll has uncovered is a dead end; it can’t lead him to our door, or our new names. There are at least eight broken trails between where he points and where I now sit, but that doesn’t comfort me. I’ve gotten good at this out of sheer necessity, but I’m not them. I don’t have the same rancid drive. All I want to do is survive—and keep my kids as safe as I can.

I finish checking, shake the stress out of my arms and hands, drink the cold tea, and stand up to pace the office. I want to hold on to the gun as I do, but that’s a terrible idea. Unsafe and paranoid. I stare at the quiet gleam of it, the safety it promises, though I know that’s a lie, too, as much a lie as any Mel ever told me. Guns don’t keep anyone safe. They only equal the playing field.

“Mom?”

A voice from the doorway, and I turn too quickly, heart hammering, glad that I don’t have the gun now because surprising me is a bad idea, and it’s Connor standing there, book bag dragging at his right hand. He doesn’t seem to notice that he’s startled me, or he’s so used to it he doesn’t care.

“Is Lanny okay?” he asks me, and I force a smile and nod.

“Yes, sweetie, she’s fine. How was school?” I am only half listening, because I’m thinking that I didn’t hear him come in, didn’t hear the code, didn’t hear the reset. I’d been too deep in concentration. Dangerous. I should be more aware.

He doesn’t answer the question anyway. He gestures at the computer. “Did you finish the Sicko Patrol?”

It catches me by surprise. I say, “Where did you hear that?” But I answer my own question. “Lanny?”

He shrugs. “You’re looking for stalkers, right?”

“Right.”

“Everybody gets mean stuff on the Internet, Mom. You shouldn’t take it so seriously. Just ignore them. They’ll go away.”

That, I think, is a maddening thing to say on so many levels. As if the Internet is a fantasy world, inhabited by imaginary people. As if we’re ordinary people in the first place. And most of all, it’s such a young male thing to say, this automatic assumption of safety. Women, even girls of Lanny’s age, don’t think that way. Parents don’t. Older people don’t. It reveals a certain blind, entitled ignorance to how dangerous the world really is.

It occurs to me, a little sickly, that I’ve helped him form that attitude because of how I’ve insulated him. Protected him. But what else can I do? Constantly terrify him? That can’t help.

“Thanks for the opinion I didn’t ask for,” I tell him. “But I’m all right with doing this.” I sort the papers and file them. I’ve always kept both electronic and paper records; in my experience, the police are more comfortable with paper. It feels like proof to them in a way that data on a screen doesn’t. In an emergency, we might not be able to pull data in time, anyway.

“Sicko Patrol completed,” I say, then shut and lock the file drawer. I drop the key in my pocket. It’s attached to the alarm fob, and it’s never out of my possession. I don’t want Connor or Lanny to go through those files. Not ever. Lanny has a laptop of her own now, but I have strict parental controls enabled. Not only does it not give her the results, but I’ll be alerted—and have been—when she tries to search keywords about her father, the murders, or anything related to it.

I can’t risk giving Connor a computer quite yet, but the pressure to give him online access is growing at an impressive rate.

Lanny flings her door open and flits past the office, dodging Connor on her way down the hall. She’s still wearing her goth pants and Ramones T-shirt, black hair fluttering in the breeze. Heading to the kitchen, I guess, for her typical afternoon snack of rice cakes and energy drink. Connor stares after her. He doesn’t look surprised. Just resigned. “All the sisters in the world, and mine has to dress like somebody out of The Nightmare Before Christmas,” he says. “She’s trying to make herself not as pretty, you know.”

It’s a surprising insight from a kid his age. I blink, and it strikes me hard that beneath her oversize pants and shaggy hair and corpse makeup, Lanny is pretty. Growing into her bones, turning tall and hinting at curves. As a mom, I always think of her as beautiful, but now others will, too. The edgy style keeps people at a distance and changes the standards by which she will be judged.

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