stillhouse lake - Page 16


“Mom, don’t stay out there!” he says, and I worry that he won’t lock the doors after all. That he’ll hesitate and get dragged out. So I open the door and trigger the locks, which thunk down solidly. Then I roll up the windows to leave him, Lanny, and the keys inside.

I turn with the tire iron in my right hand, the multipurpose flash in my left, to wait for the pickup truck to get closer.

It doesn’t make it. Halfway down the hill they hit something, skid sideways, and I watch as the men in the back throw themselves out, yelling, as the truck overbalances on the downhill side. One screams in a way that makes me think he’s broken something, or bent it pretty badly, but the other two bounce up the boneless way drunks have. The truck rolls over in a long screech of metal and a cymbal crash of shattering glass, but it doesn’t keep going down the hill. It stops on its side, tires spinning, engine still roaring like the driver hasn’t the good sense to take his foot off the gas. The three inside start yelling for help, and the two still upright from the truck bed scramble to help them. They nearly overbalance the whole thing and send it tumbling farther downhill. It’s a bit of a comedy.

I see the Johansens’ SUV suddenly start up and peel out hastily on the road, as if they just remembered they are late to their own party. I’m assuming they faint at the sight of blood. Even mine. I know they won’t be calling the police, but it hardly matters. Connor’s already done it. All I need to do, I tell myself, is to keep anyone hostile occupied until the lights and sirens show up. I haven’t done anything wrong.

Not yet, anyway.

One of the drunk guys peels off and heads my direction, and I find myself tremendously not surprised that it’s the one from the range, Carl. The one who insulted Javi. He’s yelling something at me, but I’m not really listening. I’m just trying to see if he has a gun. If he does, I’m sunk; not only can he kill me from where he stands, but he can claim I attacked him with my handy tire iron and it was self-defense. I know Norton well enough to guess how that will go. They’ll hardly pause for five minutes before they acquit the bastard, even if my kids give testimony. I was in fear for my life, he’ll say. The standard defense of murderous cowards. Problem is, it’s also the defense for legitimately frightened people. Like me.

A relief: he doesn’t seem to have a gun, at least, not that I can see, and he’s hardly the type to be coy about it. He’d be waving it around if he had it, which makes my tire iron into a real threat.

He pauses, and I realize that Connor is hammering at the window of the Jeep, trying to make me look at him. I risk a glance. His face looks desperately pale. I hear him yell, “I called the cops, Mom. They’re coming!”

I know you did, sweetie. I give him a smile, a real smile, because this might be the last time I get to do that.

Then I turn on the drunk guy, whose other friend is heading toward us now, and I say, “Back the fuck off.”

They both laugh. The one who’s just arrived is a little broader and a little taller, but he’s also even more drunk and has to hang on to the first guy as rocks turn under his feet. Keystone Kops, but deadly serious about the violence they’d like to do.

“You fucked up our truck,” he says. “Gonna have to pay for that, you murdering bitch.”

Back at the overturned truck, the passenger-side door is creaking up like the hatch in a tank, but unlike a tank—and I could have told these idiots this—car doors aren’t designed to flip back and lie flat. The attempt to throw the door up and out of the way causes it to hit the hinge point and rebound at the man pushing it with vicious speed.

He yelps and lets go of the sides of the truck just before his fingers are crushed. It’d be funny if I weren’t scared shitless and responsible for two innocent children, whereas these jackasses aren’t even responsible for their own selves.

When the two facing me decide to rush me, I flip the stun function switch on the flashlight and keep it pointed away from me as I activate it. It’s still like a brick to the face; the strobing, asymmetric, incredibly bright lights and the ear-shattering shriek are bad enough behind the thing, much less ahead of it.

It knocks Carl and his friend flat on their asses, mouths open in frantic yells I can’t hear over the din. I feel a bitter, fantastic rush of adrenaline that makes me want to smash the hell out of them with the tire iron and make sure, absolutely sure, that these assholes never threaten my children again.

But I don’t. I’m on the thin, shivering edge of it, but what stops me is the idea that I’ll just prove Prester right. Prove myself a murderer. Local blood on my hands. As quickly as they’d acquit someone else for shooting me, they’d strap me down for the needle if I hit these guys when they’re down. It’s really all that keeps me standing there, holding the strobe and siren on them instead of finishing this for good.

Even though I’m blinded by the strobes, I know the police are coming when Connor rolls the window down next to me and grabs my arm. He’s pointing down at the road, and when I look that way, I see a cruiser pulling up with its light bar slashing the night. I see two figures get out and start toiling up the hill toward me, flashlights bobbing and illuminating startling patches of green brush and bone-pale rocks.

I shut the flashlight’s defense mode down and keep the halogen beam fixed on the two drunks, who are now struggling up to their knees, spitting mad. They’re still holding hands to their ears. One of them leans over and throws up a gush of pale beer, but the other—Carl—keeps his gaze fixed hard on me. I see the hate in it. There’s no reasoning with him. And no way to feel safe.

“Police are coming,” I tell him. He looks over, like he didn’t notice—and he probably hadn’t—and a flash of pure rage makes me tighten up my grip on the tire iron again. He wants to hurt me. Maybe kill me. And maybe he wants to take his fury out on the kids.

“You fucking whore,” he says. I think about what a satisfying crunch the tire iron would make coming in contact with his teeth. He’s five foot eight of bad breath and shitty posture, and I can’t think I’m taking a light out of the world if I end him. But I suppose he has people who love him.

Even I have that much.

Officer Graham is the first to make it to my side. I’m glad to see him; he’s bigger and taller, and he looks like he could intimidate the spine out of just about anyone if he wanted to give it a try. He takes in the situation, frowns, and says, “What the hell is going on?”

It’s in my best interest to get my story in first, and I’m quick off the mark. “These idiots decided to pay me a not-so-friendly visit,” I say. “They blocked us into the driveway. Somebody—probably them—vandalized the house. I tried to go cross-country, but a rock took out my steering. I didn’t have a choice. I had to try to keep them away from my kids.”

“Lying bitch—”

Graham extends a hand toward the drunk without taking his gaze off me. “Officer Claremont will be taking your statement,” he tells him. “Kez?”

Graham’s partner tonight is a tall, lean, African American woman with close-cropped hair and a no-nonsense briskness. She leads the two drunks over to the wrecked pickup and calls for rescue and an ambulance to get the three from the cab and the one broken farther up the hill. They’re babbling at her in high-pitched, urgent, slurring voices. I don’t imagine she’s enjoying herself.

“So all this came with no provocation at all, is what you’re saying,” Graham says.

I turn back to look at him, then lean into Connor’s open window to kiss his forehead. “Lanny? You all right, sweetheart?”

She gives me a thumbs-up and tilts her head back to help slow down the bloody nose.

“Mind putting down the tire iron?” Graham says in a dry voice, and I realize I’m clutching it tightly, as if I’m still facing threats. My thumb is resting on the stun function button of the flashlight, too. I ease myself back from that invisible cliff and lay both things down next to the Jeep, then take a couple of steps away. “Okay. Good start. Now, you said these boys blocked you in. You had words with them?”

“I don’t even know them,” I say. “But I guess the information is out about my ex. I’m assuming you know.”