“No. Because about two seconds after you open an account, it’ll be full of selfies. Location tagged.” The toughest thing in this image-obsessed day and age was trying to keep the kids’ images off the Internet. There are eyes always searching for us, and those eyes never close. They don’t even blink.
“God, you’re such a pain in the ass,” Lanny mutters. She hunches in on herself to stare out the window at the lake. “And of course we have to live at the ass-crack of nowhere because you’re so paranoid. Unless you plan on packing us up and moving us to someplace even more redneck.”
I let the paranoid part slide past, because it’s true. “You don’t think the ass-crack of nowhere is beautiful?”
Lanny says nothing. At least she doesn’t have a smart comeback, which is a minor victory. I take every victory I can get these days.
I steer into the gravel driveway and bounce the Jeep up the hill to the cabin, and Lanny is out the passenger side before I’ve even pulled the parking brake. “The alarm’s set!” I shout after her.
“Duh! Isn’t it always?”
Lanny’s already inside, and I hear the rapid tones of the six-digit code being punched. The interior door slams before I can hear the all-clear signal, but Lanny never gets it wrong. Connor does, sometimes, because he’s not as careful about it—always thinking of something else. Funny how the two of them have changed places in four years. Connor’s now the one with the rich interior life, always reading, while Lanny lives with her armor bolted proudly on the outside, begging for trouble.
“You’re on laundry duty!” I say as I enter after Lanny, who, of course, is already slamming her bedroom door. Emphatically. “And we’re going to have to talk about this sooner or later! You know that!”
The surly silence behind the door disagrees. It doesn’t matter. I never give up when it’s important. Lanny knows that better than anyone.
I reset the alarm and then take a moment to put my stuff away, stash everything in its proper place. I like to have order, so that I never have to waste a moment in an emergency. Sometimes I turn the lights out and run crisis drills. There’s a fire in the hall. What’s your escape route? Where are your weapons? I know it’s obsessive and unhealthy.
It’s also practical as hell.
I mentally rehearse what I’d do if an intruder broke in the garage door. Grab knife from block. Rush forward to block him in the door. Stab stab stab. While he’s reeling, slice the tendons at the ankles. Down.
Always, in my rehearsals, it’s Mel coming for us—Mel, looking exactly the same as he had in the trial, wearing a charcoal-gray suit his lawyer had bought, with a blue silk tie and pocket square that matched his denim-colored eyes. He looks like a well-dressed, normal man, and the disguise is perfect.
I hadn’t been in the crowd at his court appearance, where everyone reported he’d looked like a perfectly innocent man; I’d been locked up, awaiting my own trial. But a photographer had captured him at just the right moment as he turned and looked at the crowd, the victims’ families. He still looked the same, but his eyes had gone flat and soulless, and seeing that picture had given me the eerie feeling that something cold and alien was inside of that body, staring out. That creature hadn’t felt the need to hide anymore.
When I imagine Mel coming for us, that’s what’s staring out of his face.
Exercise done, I make sure all the doors are locked. Connor has his own code, and when he comes home, I’ll listen for the tones and the reset. I can tell if it’s wrong, or if he forgets. The key fob to set the whole system to alert and ring in the Norton Police Department is constantly with me in my pocket. My first action in any emergency.
I sit down at the computer in the bedroom I’ve made my office. It’s a smallish room, with a narrow closet that holds winter clothes and supplies, and it’s dominated by a battered, magnificent rolltop desk I rescued from an antiques shop my first day in Norton. The date penciled on the drawer puts it at 1902. It’s heavier than my car, and someone had used it as a workbench at some point, but it’s so large that it comfortably holds computer, keyboard, and mouse, plus a small printer.
I enter my passcode and hit the target to start the search algorithm running. This is a relatively new computer, bought fresh when I got to Stillhouse Lake, but it’s been customized with all manner of black-hat goodies by a hacker who goes by the name Absalom.
In the days and weeks and months after Mel’s trial, while I sat in jail and endured my own legal torment, Absalom had been one of a huge baying pack of online abusers to go after me, analyzing every aspect of my life for hints of guilt.
After I was acquitted, though, the firestorm really started.
He’d unearthed every detail of my life and made it available online. He’d organized troll armies to relentlessly attack me, my friends, my neighbors. He’d found even my most distant relatives and doxed their addresses. He’d hounded the two cousins that Mel still had living and driven one of them to the brink of suicide.
But he’d drawn the line when the trolls he pushed in my direction went after my kids instead.
I’d gotten a remarkable message from him just after that hideous campaign started, a heartfelt e-mail that talked about his own childhood traumas, his own pain, and how he’d pursued me to banish his own demons. The train he’d started couldn’t be stopped; the crusade had taken on a life of its own. But he wanted to help me, and what was more, he could help me.
By that time we’d been on the run out of Wichita, desperate and uncertain, and having him offer a hand? That had been the turning point. That had been the moment I’d retaken control of my life, with Absalom’s help.
Absalom isn’t my friend. We don’t chat, and I suspect he still hates me on some level. But he helps. He builds false identities. He finds me safe havens. He does what he can to control the constant online harassment. When I get a new computer, he images it from backups he keeps in a secure cloud, so I don’t lose data. He writes the custom search algorithms that allow me to keep track of the Sicko Patrol.
For this favor, of course, I pay him money. No need to be pals. We keep it strictly business.
While the search is running, I make a cup of hot tea with honey and sip it with my eyes shut, gathering myself for the challenge. I always keep certain things within reach as I do this: A loaded gun. My cell phone, ready to speed-dial Absalom if there’s an issue. And last but not least, a plastic garbage bag into which I can throw up, if necessary.
Because this, this thing: this is hard. It’s like sticking my head into a blast furnace, a writhing fury of mindless hatred and vile fury, and I am always shaken and scorched when I back away.
But it has to be done. Daily.
I feel the tension spiral down from my head, slithering like a cold serpent along my spine, my shoulders, and coiling heavily in my stomach. I’m never fully prepared when the search results come back, but today, as ever, I try to be calm, observant, distanced.
There are fourteen pages of results. The top link is new; someone’s opened a thread on Reddit, and now the gruesome descriptions, speculations, and howls for justice are ginning up again. I grit my teeth and click the link.
Where’s Melvin’s Little Helper these days? Would love to pay that church lady hypocrite bitch a visit. They like to call me church lady because our family had been a member of one of the larger Baptist churches in Wichita, though Mel was spotty on attendance. I’d usually been there with the kids. There are plenty of ironic pictures posted on that theme—split screens of me and the kids at church, crime scene photos of the dead woman in the garage.
On Sunday mornings, Mel had usually excused himself by saying he had things to do in the workshop.
Things to do. I have to close my eyes for a moment, because there’s a hidden monster’s joke in those words. He’d never thought of the women he’d tortured and murdered as people. He thought of them as objects. Things.
I open my eyes, take a breath, and move on to the next link.
Hope Gina and her kids get raped and ripped and hung up like meat so people can spit on them. Mutilating Mel don’t deserve a family. That one’s accompanied by a crime scene photo of someone else’s kids shot and dumped in a ditch. The callous hypocrisy is breathtaking. This troll is exploiting someone else’s personal horror to make his point about mine. He doesn’t care about children.