“If Cade did this,” I tell him, “then you nail his ass to the wall. For God’s sake, do it.”
He sighs. He’s in for another long day, and I can tell he knows it. He reads the file folder again, flipping pages, and I let him think about it.
When he finally stands up, he gathers his files and pictures. I can see he’s made a decision, and sure enough, he holds the door open for me and says, “Your kids are down the hall to the right, in the break room. Sam drove them here in your Jeep. Take ’em home. But don’t leave town. If you do, I’ll make it my personal mission to set the FBI on your trail, and I will ruin whatever life you’ve got left. Understand me?”
I nod. I don’t thank him, because he’s not really doing me any favors. He realizes that he’s got precious little to hold me on, if anything, and a good defense attorney—like, say, one from Knoxville—would knock his case into the trash without even breaking a sweat, especially with Sam Cade right there hiding in plain sight. Christ, I even feel a little sorry for Prester in that moment.
But not enough to hesitate. I am out the door in a second, rushing past the small bullpen room of the Norton Police Department. I see Officer Graham filling in some paperwork, and he looks up as he sees me pass. I don’t nod or smile, because I’m too fixed on the break room door. It’s clear glass with miniblinds hanging at a cockeyed angle, and through the gap I see Lanny and Connor sitting together at a square white table, dispiritedly picking at a bag of popcorn sitting open between them. I take a breath, because seeing them alive and fine and unharmed feels so good it physically hurts.
I open the door and step in, and Lanny stands up so fast her chair skids backward across the tile and nearly tips over. She rushes to me and remembers that she’s the oldest just in time to not throw herself into my arms. Connor blasts past her and flings himself at me instead, and I hug him fiercely and open one arm to her, and she grudgingly accepts. I feel the stabbing relief start to melt, replaced with something sweeter, warmer, kinder.
“They arrested you,” Lanny says. Her voice is muffled against me, but she pulls away to look directly at me on the last word. “Why did they do that?”
“They think I might be responsible for—”
I don’t finish the thought, but she does. “For the murders,” she says. “Sure. Because of Dad.” She says it like it’s the most logical conclusion in the world. Maybe it is. “But you didn’t do it.”
She says it with casual conviction, and I feel a swell of love for her, for that unthinking trust. She’s usually so suspicious of my motives that having her grant me this one thing means more than I can begin to comprehend.
Connor pulls away, then, and says, “Mom, they came and got us! I said we shouldn’t go, but Lanny said—”
“Lanny said we’re not getting into a stupid fight with the cops,” Lanny supplies. “Which we didn’t. Besides, they didn’t come for us, exactly. They just couldn’t leave us there alone. I made them bring the Jeep. So we’d have a way home.” She hesitates for a moment and tries to make the next question look casual. “Um . . . so did they tell you why they want to talk to Sam? Was it something you told them?”
I don’t want to open up the subject of what their father did, how many people he destroyed, how many families he shattered, including his own . . . but at the same time, I know I have to explain. They’re not little children now, and things—I know this instinctively—are about to get a whole lot worse for all of us.
But I’m reluctant to destroy Sam Cade in their eyes. They like him. And as far as I could tell, he liked them, too. But then again, I thought he liked me.
Maybe he is part of the murder plot that has cost those two girls their lives. I still can’t see Sam killing them, even now, and yet . . . yet I can easily understand how grief and rage and pain pushes someone past limits they never think they’d cross. I destroyed the old Gina Royal and rebuilt myself from her ashes. He’s focused his anger outward, at me—at his imaginary enemy. Maybe the young women were, to him, collateral damage, cold military math to reach an objective. I can almost, almost believe that.
I blink. Connor’s looking at me with real worry, and I wonder how long I’ve wandered off in my thoughts. I’m so tired. Despite the sandwich, I find I’m starving, and I need to pee so badly I wonder if my bladder will burst before I can make it to the bathroom. Funny. All these were unimportant details until I knew the kids were safe.
“We’ll talk on the way home,” I tell him. “Quick pit stop and then we’ll go. Okay?”
He nods, a little doubtfully. He’s worried about Sam, I think, and I hate to break his heart, again. But this one isn’t my fault.
I make it to the toilet in time and shiver and cry silently as I sit there. By the time I’ve washed my face and hands and taken some deep breaths, the face staring back at me from the mirror almost looks normal. Almost. I realize that I need to get a haircut and renew my hair color; a few gray hairs are starting to make an unwelcome appearance. Funny. I always thought I’d die before I got old. That’s a whisper from the old Gina, who’d seen the day of The Event as the end of her entire life. I hate the old Gina, who’d somehow naively believed in the power of true love and the smug certainty that she was a good woman, and her husband was a good man, and that it was something she deserved without putting out any effort at all.
I hate her even more now that I realize I’m still, even after all this, very much like her.
The drive home starts in silence, but I can tell it’s weighted. The kids want to know. I want to tell them. I just don’t quite know how to find the words, so I reach out and fiddle with the Jeep’s radio knobs, jumping from new country to southern-fried rock to old country to what sounds like tinny folk music, until Lanny reaches forward and switches it off with a decisive punch of her finger. “Enough,” she says. “Come on. Spill. What’s the deal with Sam?”
Dear God, I don’t want to start this, but I swallow that impulse of cowardice and say, “Sam’s sister—it turns out that Sam isn’t who he said he was. Well, he is, but he didn’t tell us the whole truth.”
“You’re not making any sense,” Connor tells me. He’s probably right. “Wait, is Sam’s sister in the lake? Did he kill his sister?”
“Hey!” Lanny says sharply. “Let’s not jump right to killing sisters, okay? Sam didn’t kill anybody!”
I wonder why I didn’t see it before, because right now, with a single glance over at her face, I can see that she’s irate, agitated, and truly defensive. She’d had an instacrush on Officer Graham, but this is different. This I read not as a crush, but as a need. Sam, who’s been quietly in her life, being strong and kind and steady? He’s the next-best thing she has to a father.
“No,” I tell her, and reach out to squeeze her hand just for a second. I feel her tense up as I do. “Of course he didn’t. Connor, they took him to the police station because they found out he has a connection to us. From before.”
Lanny draws away to press against the vehicle’s door. I see Connor sit back, too. “Before?” my son asks quietly. His voice trembles slightly. “You mean, like, when we used to be other people?”
“Yes.” I’m guiltily relieved I don’t have to lead them to it. “When we lived in Kansas. His sister . . . his sister was one of the people your father killed.”
I don’t tell them his sister was the last one. Somehow that makes it even worse.
“Oh,” Lanny says in a small voice. It sounds empty. “So. He followed us here. Didn’t he? He was never really our friend. He wanted to watch us. Hurt us because he was angry about what Daddy did.”
Oh God. She called him Daddy. It cuts deep and leaves me feeling frantic with anguish. “Honey—”
“She’s right,” Connor says from the back. When I glance in the rearview mirror, I see him staring out the window, and in that moment he looks quite chillingly like his father. So much that I stare for too long and have to correct a little sharply back into my lane as we drive up the winding road to the lake. “He wasn’t our friend. We don’t have any friends. It was stupid to think we did.”