“Good question,” she says, rolling over on her side to look at me. It silences the last of my laughter. “Why is it?”
“You know why,” I tell her.
“Just once, I’d like to hear you say it.”
“Because there are dead people standing between us,” I say, and instantly, all that brightness is gone, and the truth is so frightening that it feels like a ghost, sending my skin into shivers and goose bumps. “My sister, for a start.”
She doesn’t flinch from it. “And all those women I should have been able to help. Even Melvin’s half brother—he committed suicide, did you know that? Between the small-town shunning and the Internet basement heroes, he couldn’t take it anymore.” She swallows, and I wish I hadn’t started this now. “The last post he put up on his social media said that it was my fault, that if I’d been a good enough wife, Melvin wouldn’t have—”
“That’s bullshit,” I interrupt. I sound angry, and I don’t mean to. “It was never your fault. Blaming you was just petty.” I let a second go by. Then another, because I’m standing on the precipice of admitting something I never intended to. I take the plunge. “I tracked Melvin’s brother. Just like I tracked you. I knew where he lived. I knew where all of you lived.”
Gwen freezes, and I can see that she hesitates. She doesn’t really want to ask, but as always, she doesn’t turn away, either. “Did you send him hate mail, Sam?”
I’m staring at the irregular, rusty water stain on the ceiling. It looks like Australia. My hesitation lasts too long before I work up the courage to say, “Yeah, I did. I sent some to you, too. Seemed easy, at the time. Felt like justice. But all it was doing was destroying you in slow motion, one envelope at a time. And I’m sorry for that, God, Gwen, I’m sorry.”
My voice sounds painfully raw on that last, and I know she can hear that. And know that it’s as genuine as the laughter that started this.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Gwen stand up. She sits on the edge of my bed and takes my hand. In a Hollywood movie, the music would come up, we’d kiss, and all of a sudden passion would explode and there’d be some soft-porn montage, all gold-lit skin and awkward angles.
But this is real, and it hurts, and instead of that, I just tell her, half in a whisper, about the hate I used to feel. It’s like lancing an infected wound. I tell her about how I obsessed about exacting bloody justice. It isn’t romantic. It’s appalling. But as with the laughter, when it’s done, there’s a strangely clean feeling in the air.
She squeezes my hand at the end and says, “You were hating him all that time. Not me. At least now we’ve both set our targets right.”
There’s a rare grace in what she’s just done. It’s forgiveness, and pity, and understanding, and without even thinking about it, I move her hand to my mouth and gently kiss her fingers. I could sketch every inch of her from memory. The shape of her hand is burned on mine in tactile perfection.
I let her go. I don’t say anything. I can’t.
Gwen waits for a few seconds, and when I don’t move, she goes back to her bed. I hear the covers rustle. Dark takes over when she switches off the light.
I sleep badly, and my dreams are haunted by a figure jumping from the roof of a six-story building in downtown Topeka. I’d read the newspaper articles about the suicide. Melvin’s brother had gone to work, dressed in a brand-new suit. He’d walked up to the roof and removed his tie and shoes. He’d left them in a neat arrangement with his watch, wallet, and a letter apologizing to his boss for the mess before stepping off the roof on a cloudless June day, two years ago.
But when I see the face of the man in my dreams as he falls, it’s not Melvin’s brother.
After a full day at the public library ransacking their shelves and the Internet—and paying robber-baron rates for printouts—we have a folder that’s remarkable for its thinness, but it’s all the info we’ve found on both Markerville and Arden Miller. There are fourteen Arden Millers that we’ve located, but only two in Tennessee, and one of them is in a nursing home—not likely to be the one we’re looking for. The Arden Miller that’s left is a tall redhead, thirty-three years old, who for someone that age has a strange absence of social media. We’ve found a few photos tagged with her in them, but not many, and in none of them is she plainly visible. In the best one, she’s wearing a floppy sun hat and giant sunglasses and is partly turned from the camera, holding the hat against a breeze.
I have no idea why we’re looking for her, or why in God’s name she’d be living out in the middle of nowhere in a town deserted for forty years.
Or, for that matter, why Mike Lustig wants us to look for her, except that there is some connection to my ex-husband’s case.
We spend the night again at Motel Hell, and I thank God that we’ve eased the tension between us; it feels cleaner now. Simpler. And when I sleep, for the first time in a long time, I feel safe. That’s quite an achievement, since the French Inn feels like it’s been the silent witness to hundreds of crimes over the years.
The next day, the drive out to Markerville takes us into remote areas of wilderness, where it would be easy to believe you’re the only one left on earth, except for the ever-present contrails of planes passing far overhead as they glide the atmosphere. The route takes a series of progressively narrower and more forbidding turnoffs, heading up into hills that are rough and unforgiving for hikers and SUVs alike.
I’ve been doing rough calculations on mileage, and I warn Sam when we’re close; we pull over and park the truck off a little dirt track, behind trees. It’s well concealed from the road, and we take a hiker’s route up toward where Markerville once stood. According to the records, it had never actually thrived; when the railroad had stopped coming, the few businesses that had opened there failed, and most residents moved on or died clinging to their broken-down houses. The last casualties were the post office/general store and the antiques store, which had apparently been left abandoned with the doors open and a TAKE WHAT YOU WANT sign on the window. We’d found a clipping mourning the town in the self-satisfied way that city dwellers have about the woes of rural folk, and then . . . nothing.