That’s clever and heartbreaking at the same time.

Connor turns and heads off to his room.

“Wait! Connor! Did you reset the alarm?”

“Of course,” he calls back without stopping. His door closes with finality, but no force. Lanny returns with her rice cakes and energy drink and flops into the small chair in the corner of my office. She puts the energy drink down and gives me a mock salute.

“All present and correct, Master Sergeant,” she says. Then she slumps at an angle functionally impossible for anyone over twenty-five. “I’ve been thinking. I want to get a job.”

“No.”

“I can help with the money.”

“No. Your job is to be in school.” I have to bite my lip to keep from complaining that my daughter used to like school. Lily Royal had liked school. She’d been in drama class and a programming club. But Lanny couldn’t stand out. Couldn’t have interests that made her special. Couldn’t make friends and tell them anything approaching the truth. No surprise it made school hell for her.

“This girl you got into the fight with,” I say. “You understand it can’t happen? Why you can’t get into these things?”

“I didn’t get into it. She started it. What, you want me to lose? Get the shit beat out of me? I thought you were all about self-defense!”

“I want you to walk away.”

“Oh, sure, you would. That’s all you do, walk away. Oh, I’m sorry. I mean run.”

There’s nothing quite as scorching as a teenager’s contempt. It has a breathless sting, and it lingers for a very long time. I try not to let her see she’s scored points, but I don’t trust myself to speak. I pick up the teacup and head for the kitchen, the comfort of running water to rinse away the dregs. She follows, but not to hit at me again. I can tell by the way she’s hanging back that she regrets having said it and isn’t quite sure how to take it back. Or even if she wants to.

As I put the teacup and saucer in the dishwasher, she says, “I was thinking of going out for a run . . . ?”

“Not alone you don’t,” I say, which is automatic, and then I realize she was counting on it. A nonapology apology. I hate even giving up the control of letting them ride the school bus, but venturing out on their own around the lake? No. “We’ll go together. I’ll change.”

I change into leggings and a loose T-shirt over a sports bra, heavy socks, good running shoes. When I come out, Lanny is stretching lithely. She has on a red sports bra, no shirt, and black leggings with harlequin patterns down the sides. I just look at her until she sighs, grabs a T-shirt, and pulls it on.

“Nobody else runs in T-shirts,” she grumbles at me.

I say, “I’m going to want that Ramones shirt back. It’s a classic. And I’ll bet you can’t name a single song.”

“‘I Wanna Be Sedated,’” Lanny immediately shoots back. I don’t respond. Lily had been medicated a lot, that first half year after The Event. She hadn’t been able to sleep for days, and when she finally had fallen into a restless doze, she’d woken up screaming, crying for her mother. The mother who was in prison. “Unless you’d prefer ‘We’re a Happy Family’?”

I say nothing, because her song choices are completely on point. I turn off the alarm, open the door, and call for Connor to reset it. He grunts from somewhere down the hall, and I have to hope he means yes.

Lanny rabbits ahead, but I catch up at the end of the gravel drive, and we head east on the road at a good, loose lope. It’s a perfect time of day, with the air warm, the sun low and friendly, the lake calm and dotted with boats. Other joggers pass us heading the other direction, and I open up the pace, Lanny pulling easily up. Neighbors wave at us from porches. So friendly. I wave back, but it’s all surface, this trust. I know if these good people knew who I really was, knew whom I’d married, they’d be just like our old neighbors . . . distrustful, disgusted, afraid to be anywhere near us. And maybe they’d be right to be afraid. Melvin Royal casts a long, dark shadow.

We’re halfway around the lake before Lanny, gasping, calls a halt to lean against a swaying pine. I’m not winded yet, but my calf muscles are burning and the points of my hips ache, and I stretch and keep up a light in-place jog while my daughter catches her breath. “You okay?” I ask. Lanny gives me a filthy look. “That’s a yes?”

“Sure,” Lanny says. “Whatever. Why do we have to make this so Olympic-level?”

“You know why.”

Lanny looks away. “Same reason you signed me up with that Krav Maga freak last year.”

“I thought you liked Krav Maga.”

She shrugs, still studying some fronds down by her shoes. “I don’t like thinking I need it.”

“Neither do I, baby. But we have to face facts. There are dangers out there, and we need to be ready. You’re old enough to get that.”

Lanny straightens up. “Okay. Guess I’m ready. Try not to run me lame this time, Terminator Mom.”

That’s hard for me. While I was still Gina, but after The Event, I’d taken up running, and it had been grueling and exhausting until I built up my strength. Now, when I stop holding myself back, I run like I feel breath on my neck, as if I’m running for my life. It’s not healthy or safe, and I’m well aware that driving myself that hard is a form of self-punishment, and also an expression of the fear I live with every day.

I forget, despite my best efforts. I’m not even aware of Lanny falling back, gasping, limping, until I’m around a curve and realize that I’m running alone in the shadow of the pines. Not even sure where I lost her.

I end up stretching against a tree and, finally, perching on a handy old boulder as I wait. I see her in the distance, walking slowly, limping a bit, and I feel a surge of guilt. What kind of a mother am I, running a kid into the ground like that?

That sixth sense I’ve developed suddenly drenches me in adrenaline, and I straighten up and turn my head.

Someone’s there.

I catch sight of a person standing in the shadows of the pines, and my nerves—never calm—go tight. I slide off the boulder and into a ready stance, and I face the shadow head-on. “Who is it?”

He gives me a dry, nervous laugh and shuffles out. It’s an old man, skin like dark, dry paper, gray whiskers, gray curls tight against his scalp. Even his ears droop. He leans heavily on a cane. “Sorry, miss. Wasn’t meaning to worry you. I was just looking at the boats. Always like the lines of them. Never was much of a sailor, though. I spent my time on dry land.” He wears an old jacket with military patches on it . . . artillery patches. Not World War II, but Korea, Vietnam, one of those less clear-cut conflicts. “I’m Ezekiel Claremont, live right over there up the hill. Been here since half forever. Everybody this side of the lake calls me Easy.”

I’m ashamed for assuming the worst, and I advance and offer my hand. He has a firm, dry grip, but his bones feel fragile beneath it. “Hi, Easy. I’m Gwen. We live up over there, near the Johansens.”

“Aw, yeah, you’re some new folks. Nice to meet you. Sorry I haven’t been up that way, but I don’t do as much walking these days. Still healing up since I broke my hip six months back. Don’t get old, young lady—it’s a pain in the ass.” He turns as Lanny lurches to a stop a few feet away and braces herself, bent over with her hands on her thighs. “Hello. You okay, there?”

“Fine,” Lanny gasps. “Peachy. Hi.”

I don’t quite laugh. “This is my daughter, Atlanta. Everybody calls her Lanny. Lanny, this is Mr. Claremont. Easy, for short.”

“Atlanta? I was born in Atlanta. Fine city, full of life and culture. Miss it sometimes.” Mr. Claremont nods decisively to Lanny, who returns the gesture after a guarded look at me. “Well, I’d better get myself on home. Takes me a while to get up that hill. My daughter keeps after me to sell my place and move somewhere easier to get around, but I’m not ready to give up this view just yet. You know what I mean?”

I do. “You going to be okay?” I ask, because I can see his house, and it’s an impressive distance uphill for a man with a bad hip and a cane.

P/S: Copyright -->www_Novel12_Com

***