Melvin expects me to run; he said as much. But everyone runs from the monster. Everyone except the monster slayer, a voice in my head says. Not Mel’s, this time. My own. It sounds calm, and cool, and utterly capable. Don’t do this. You’re happy here. Don’t let him win. You have the upper hand, and he knows it. He doesn’t want to die, and you can always, always pull that trigger.
I think about it, finishing the pizza and the beer. Sam watches me, but he hasn’t broken the silence, hasn’t asked. I like that he doesn’t.
I finally say, “Sam . . . I have something to tell you. If you walk away, that’s okay; I won’t blame you at all. But I need to trust someone, and I’ve decided that it’s going to be you.”
He looks ever so slightly taken aback, and he says, “Gwen—” I sense he wants to tell me something, and I wait, but it doesn’t come. Finally, he shakes his head. “Okay. Hit me.”
“Outside,” I say. “I don’t want the kids overhearing.”
We go out into the coolness and settle in the chairs together. There are wisps of cloudy vapor coming off the lake tonight, rendering it eerie and mysterious. The moon’s only half, but it rides a clear sky scattered with stars, like a country road sign that’s been shotgunned. It’s bright enough to see each other.
I don’t look at him as I start, though. I don’t want to see the moment of realization. “My real name isn’t Gwen Proctor,” I tell him. “It’s Gina Royal.”
I wait. His body language, from the corner of my eye, doesn’t change. He says, “Okay.” And I realize he must not know the name.
“I used to be the wife of Melvin Royal. You might remember him. The Kansas Horror?”
He takes in a sharp breath and sinks back in the chair. Puts his beer to his lips and drains it dry, then sits silently, turning the bottle in his hands. I hear a ripple from the lake. Someone’s out in the fog, I guess. No engines. They’re rowing. It’s a dark night for it, but some people like the dark.
“I was put on trial as an accessory,” I tell him. “They called me Melvin’s Little Helper. I wasn’t. I didn’t know anything about what he did, but that hardly mattered; people sure wanted to believe it. I was married to a monster, sleeping in his bed. How could I have not known?”
“It’s a good question,” Sam says. “How?” There’s something hard in his voice. It hurts.
I swallow hard, and I taste metal on the back of my tongue. “I don’t know, except . . . he was good at pretending to be a human being. A good father. God help me, I didn’t see it coming. I just thought he was . . . eccentric. That we’d drifted apart, like married couples do. I only found out when the SUV ran through the wall of the garage, and they discovered the last victim there . . . I saw her, Sam. I saw her, and I can never, ever forget what it was like.” I stop and look at him. He’s not facing me. He’s watching the lake ripples, the fog rising. His face is so blank that I can’t get any sense at all of what he feels. “I was acquitted, but that doesn’t mean much. The people who believe I’m guilty won’t let go. They want to punish me. And they have. We’ve had to move, run, change our names more than once.”
“Maybe they have a point,” he says. It sounds different. Rigid and harsh, now. “Maybe they still think you’re guilty.”
“I’m not!” It aches now, this place inside where I’d thought hope might eventually grow. I can feel it dying in real time. “And what about my children? They don’t deserve any of this shit. Ever.”
He’s silent for a long, long time, but he isn’t standing up and leaving. He’s thinking. I don’t know what he’s going over in his head, and I think half a dozen times he’s going to speak, but then he thinks differently, and the moment’s gone.
When he does say something, it isn’t what I expect. “You must worry about being tracked down. By the victims’ families.”
“Yes. All the time. It’s hard for me to trust anyone, ever. You understand why? We finally have a home here, Sam. I don’t want to run away from it. But now—”
“Did you kill her?” he asks me. “The girl in the lake? Is that why you’re telling me this now?”
I’m speechless. I stare at his profile, and I can’t form words. I feel numb, the way one does after a deep injury. I’ve made a terrible mistake, I think. Stupid, stupid woman. Because I would have never guessed Sam would make that turn, that fast.
“No,” I finally say, because what else can I say? “I’ve never killed anyone. I’ve never hurt anyone.” That isn’t quite true, I think. I remember Mel’s bruises and cuts, the bitter satisfaction I got today from seeing the damage. But it’s true except for that one special case. “I don’t know how I can convince you of that.”
He doesn’t answer. We sit in the well of silence for a while. It’s not comfortable, but I’m not willing to be the one to end it, either.
Sam finally does. “Gwen, I’m sorry. Should I still call you—”
“Yes,” I tell him. “Always. Gina Royal is long dead, as far as I’m concerned.”
“And . . . your husband?”
“Ex-husband. Alive, in El Dorado prison,” I tell him. “That’s where I went today.”
“You still visit him?” I can’t miss the revulsion in it. The betrayal, as if I’ve shattered some image he’s held of me. “God, Gwen . . .”
“I don’t,” I tell him. “This is the first time I’ve seen him since he was arrested. I’d rather slit my wrists than look at him, believe me. But he threatened me. He threatened my kids. That’s what I’m trying to tell you: he’s found out where we are, God knows how. All he has to do is drop a word to one of the people who’ve been stalking us. I had to see him to make it very clear that I wouldn’t play this game with him.”
“And how’d that go?”
“About like I expected,” I say. “So I have a big decision to make. Run or stay. I want to stay, Sam. But . . .”
“But it’d be a whole lot smarter to go,” he says. “Look, I have no idea what you’re going through, but I wouldn’t be as worried about an ex in prison as I would . . . relatives of the victims. They lost a family member. Maybe they think if he loses one, that’s justice.”
I do worry about that. I worry about real, righteous grief and anger. I worry about the sterile, uncaring malice of the Sicko Patrol, for whom it’s just an exercise in sociopathy. I worry about everyone. “Maybe,” I tell him. “God. I can’t even say I don’t understand that, because I do.” I stop and take another pull of my beer, just to rid myself of the bad taste. “Mel’s on death row, but it’ll be a long time before they ever strap him to a table, and I think he’ll kill himself just before that happens. He won’t want to give up that control.”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t run,” Sam says. “That’s what he expects, to keep you scared and on the move.” He pauses and finally puts the bottle down on the floor of the porch. “Are you? Scared?”
“Out of my mind,” I tell him. With Mel, I’d have said, Out of my fucking mind. It’s odd. I cursed like a sailor in Mel’s presence, because he’d brought out the rage bottled inside me, but I have no wish to use that language around Sam. I don’t feel so defensive. I don’t need the shield. “I won’t say I don’t care what happens to me; of course I do. But my kids. They have enough to deal with, just being the children of someone like . . . him. I know it’s better for them to stay, but how do I take that risk?”
“Do they know? About their father?”
“Yeah. Most of it. I try to keep the horrible details from them, but . . .” I shrug helplessly. “Age of the Internet. Lanny probably knows almost everything by now. Connor—God, I hope not. It’s hard enough for an adult to handle knowing the worst. I can’t imagine what it would do to someone his age.”