“The principal would much rather discuss it in person. Your daughter will need to be picked up from the office. She’s been suspended from classes for a week.”
“A week? What did she do?”
“As I said, the principal would prefer to talk face-to-face. Half an hour?”
Half an hour doesn’t give me time to take a shower and get rid of the smell of the range, but maybe that’s for the best. Having a gunpowder perfume probably wouldn’t hurt me in this particular situation. “Fine,” I say. “I’ll be there.”
I say it calmly. Most mothers, I think, would have been angry and upset, but in the great history of disasters in my life, this hardly deserves a raised eyebrow.
As soon as I hang up, my phone buzzes with a text, and I figure it will be Lanny, trying to get her side of the story out fast before I hear the less charitable official version.
It isn’t Lanny, though, and as I crank up the Jeep, I see my son’s name glowing on the screen. Connor. I swipe and read the text, which is terse and to the point: Lanny in fight. 1. It takes me a second to translate that last bit, but of course the number one equals won. I can’t decide whether he’s proud or frantic: proud that his sister held her own, or frantic that it might get them booted out of school again. It’s a valid fear. This past year has been a brief, fragile peace between unpacking boxes and packing them again, and I don’t want it to end so soon, either. The kids deserve a little peace, and a sense of stability and safety. Connor already has anxiety issues. Lanny acts out on a regular basis. None of us is whole anymore. I try not to blame myself for that, but it’s hard.
It damn sure isn’t their fault.
I text back a quick reply and put the Jeep in reverse. I’ve changed vehicles frequently over the past few years, from necessity, but this one . . . I love this one. I bought it cheap for cash on Craigslist, a quick and anonymous purchase, and it’s just the right thing for the steep, woody terrain around the lake, and the hills that stretch up toward misty blue mountains.
The Jeep is a fighter. It’s seen hard times. The transmission needs work, the steering’s a little off. But scars and all, it has survived, and it still keeps rolling.
The symbolism isn’t lost on me.
It bucks a little as I steer down the steep hill, passing through cool pine shade and into blazing noonday sun again. The shooting range sits on an overlook, and as I turn onto the road that leads down, the lake slips gradually into view. Light shatters and scatters on the ripples and shifts of the deep blue-green water. Stillhouse Lake is a hidden gem. Used to be an expensive gated community, but with the financial crunch, the community’s funds cratered, and the gates now stand permanently open, the guardhouse at the entrance empty except for spiders and the occasional raccoon. Still, the illusion of wealth lingers here: a scattering of high, fancy houses, though many of the other dwellings are more along the lines of smaller cabins now. There are boaters on the water, but it’s far from crowded even in today’s fine weather. The dark pines scratch at the sky as I speed past them down the narrow road, and the sense of finally being right strikes me again.
I haven’t found many places in the past few years that felt even a little safe, and certainly none that felt like . . . like home. But this place—the lake, the hills, the pines, the half-wild remoteness—eases the part of me that never really relaxes anymore. The first time I’d seen it, I’d thought, This is the place. I put no stock in past lives, but it felt like recognition. Acceptance. Destiny.
Damn it, Lanny, I don’t want to have to leave this behind so soon because you can’t learn to blend. Don’t do this to us.
Gwen Proctor is the fourth identity I’ve had since leaving Wichita. Gina Royal lies dead in the past; I’m not that woman anymore. In fact, I can hardly recognize her now, that weak creature who’d submitted, pretended, smoothed over every ripple of trouble that rose.
Who’d aided and abetted, however unconsciously.
Gina’s long dead, and I don’t mourn her. I feel so distant that I wouldn’t recognize the old me if I passed her on the street. I’m glad I’ve escaped a hell I had hardly even recognized when I was burning in it. Glad that I’ve pulled the kids out, too.
And they, too, have reinvented themselves—even if they’ve been forced to. I’ve let them pick their own names each time we had to move on, though I’ve had to regretfully reject some of the more creative efforts. This time they are Connor and Atlanta—Lanny, for short. We almost never slip up and use our birth names anymore. Our prisoner names, Lanny calls them. She isn’t wrong, though I loathe that my kids have to think of their early lives this way now. That they have to hate their father. He deserves that, of course, but they don’t.
Choosing their own names is all the control I can give my children as I drag them town to town, school to school, putting distance and time between us and the horrors of the past. It isn’t enough. Can never be enough. Kids need security, stability, and I haven’t been able to give them any of that. I don’t even know if I ever can give them that.
But I’ve kept them safe from the wolves, at least: the most basic and important job of a parent, to keep her offspring from being eaten by predators.
Even the ones I can’t see.
The road glides me around the lake, past the cutoff to our house. Not the house, as I usually think of such things, but finally our house. I’ve grown attached. That isn’t long-term smart, but I can’t help it; I’m tired of running, of temporary rented addresses and new fake names and new imperfect lies. I had an opportunity: I’d been given a heads-up about this place and scored the house for cash at an incredibly poorly attended bankruptcy auction a year ago. Some financed-to-the-hilt family had built it as their rustic dream getaway, then abandoned it to squatters, and the place had been a wreck. Together, the kids and I had cleaned it, repaired it, and made it into our own. We’d painted the walls in our own colors—bold ones, in Connor’s room at least. That, I thought, is a sure sign we’re making it a real home: no more beige walls and rental-property bland carpets. We are here. We are staying.
Our house, best of all, has a built-in safe room. For the sake of Connor’s enthusiasm, I call it our Zombie Apocalypse Bugout Shelter, and we’ve fixed it up with zombie-fighting gear and signs that read NO ZOMBIE PARKING, TRESPASSERS WILL BE DISMEMBERED.
I wince and try not to think too deeply about that. I hope—and I know it’s a vain hope, really—that all Connor knows about death and dismemberment comes from watching TV shows and films. He says he doesn’t remember much from the old days, when he was Brady . . . or at least, that’s what he tells me when I ask. He never went back to school in Wichita after that day, so the schoolyard bullies had no chance to scream the story at him. He and Lanny went into the custody of my mother out in Maine, in a remote and peaceful place. She’d kept her computer locked up in a cabinet and used it only sparingly. The kids hadn’t found out much during that year and a half; they’d been kept away from magazines and newspapers, and the only TV in the house had been under my mother’s strict control.
Still, I know the kids have found ways to dig up at least some of the details about what their father did. I would have, in their place.
It’s possible that Connor’s current zombie apocalypse obsession is his cryptic way of working things out.
Lanny’s the one I really worry about. She was old enough to remember a lot . . . The accident. The arrests. The trials. The hushed and hurried conversations my mother must have had on the phone with friends and enemies and strangers.
Lanny must remember the hate mail that poured into my mom’s mailbox.
But what I worry about most is how she remembers her father, because like it or not, believe it or not, he had been a good father to his kids, and they had loved him with their entire hearts.
He’d never been that man, not really. Being a good father was just a mask he’d worn to hide the monster underneath. But that didn’t mean the kids have forgotten how it felt to be loved by Melvin Royal. Without meaning to, I remember how warm he could seem, how safe. When he gave his attention, he gave it completely. He’d loved them, and me, and it had felt real.