“What do you want me to do?” Mom finally asks. She sounds defeated now. She’s given up. I wait to feel good about it, because I should, but I just feel empty. The anger that’s been driving me is starting to drain away. All that’s left is silence and ruin, and I’ve never felt so alone in my entire life.

“I need you to go, Gwen,” Javier says. “Don’t come back until this is over and you’ve got real proof of what you’re claiming. You shouldn’t be around your kids right now. It’s not healthy.” That surprises me, somehow. I didn’t think he’d be on our side. Or that Kezia would, really. But they’re standing with us, against Mom.

It helps.

Mom can’t believe it, either. “Javi—”

“If you can prove what you say, that Absalom is behind this, then we can talk,” Kezia says. “I’ll be the first to say I was wrong. But right now, I’d be a fool not to believe what’s right in front of my face, and what I see is you helping Melvin Royal carry some poor girl in to cut up. If that’s true, any part of true, you don’t deserve to ever see these kids again.”

Mom puts a hand to her mouth, like she might scream, or vomit. The look on her face—shock, panic, I don’t know. But she’s in pain. I don’t care, I tell myself fiercely. Good. I hope it hurts.

“If I’m really what it shows on that video, why am I out hunting for him now?” Mom asks. Her voice is shaking so badly it sounds like it might fall apart. “How does that even make sense?”

“Makes sense if you’re trying to get back to him and join up,” Kezia replies, and that stops my mom cold. It also makes me feel sick to my stomach, because maybe it’s true. Maybe Mom and Dad have always been working together. Maybe whatever sick thing they had is still there.

“I’m not,” Mom says. It sounds weak. It sounds like a lie, and I start to hate her all over again.

“Yeah, you say. Maybe all this innocent-victim act was a lie from the start, and Absalom had you right all along. Which is another reason to keep these kids away from all that mess.”

One image suddenly comes through to me, and it stops the flood of anger inside me. Mom, coming down the steps in Lancel Graham’s basement. The horror on her face when she realized what she was looking at.

The joy when she saw me and Connor, unharmed.

It doesn’t make sense with everything else, and it’s the truest moment I know, the moment where I saw, really saw, how much she loved us both. Mom came for us in that dark place when I thought we were going to die alone. She was bleeding and wounded, and she’d fought her way back to save us.

That isn’t something a liar and a killer does. Is it?

Maybe she does love us, I think. And then, But maybe she just loves Dad more. That’s an awful thought, one that makes my stomach drop, and I put my arm around Connor. I can’t take any chances. I have to protect him. And that means I have to make Mom go away.

I’m tired all of a sudden. I just want to curl up in a ball on my bed and cry.

Mom’s scarf slips enough that it reveals a whole universe of bruises—dark red spots, threads of broken blood vessels connecting them. Somebody’s hurt her, and for a second I’m scared, and I’m worried for her, and I have to stop myself from feeling that because she’s a liar and she probably deserved it.

My head hurts, and I hate this—I hate all of it. So I say, “Just get out, Mom. We don’t want you.” I meant to say, We don’t want you here, but it came out the way I really felt it. We don’t want you. It’s the worst thing I could say to her, and I know that. I really do.

Mom draws in a sharp breath and puts a hand on her stomach, like I’ve stabbed her there. Her lips form my name, but she doesn’t say it out loud. Maybe she can’t.

Kezia says, “Lanny’s right. Go. Don’t come back until this is over.”

“I swear to you, I’m going to protect these kids like they’re my own,” Javier adds. “I’m going to protect them from every kind of threat, and right now, that includes you. Get me?”

Mom’s eyes fill up with tears, but she doesn’t cry. She says, “That’s all I want.”

And then she looks at us, and I can tell she wants to come to us, hug us, cry. I can feel her need to do that shivering in the air around her, like thunder.

I can feel my whole body craving it, too, because bodies are stupid; they just want to be loved. But I’m better than that. I’m stronger. Mom taught me to be stronger, and I am. No matter how much it hurts, I just stare at her and will her to go away.

And Mom leaves.

She leaves.

I wait for her to look back, but she doesn’t. The door shuts behind her. Even though I wanted her to go, demanded it, the fact that she did it still feels like she betrayed us all over again. My stomach hurts. My chest feels tight. Nothing’s good anymore, nothing in the whole world.

I keep my arm around Connor, holding him close. He usually squirms away when I do that, but not now. My hug is telling him, I’m here, I’m with you, I’m not letting go of you.

It’s saying, I’m not like her.

We’re all quiet for a while. I guess Sam was waiting outside, because we hear the engine start, and the gravel crunch, and when it’s gone, Kezia lets out a deep, gusting sigh and says, “Damn. I’m sorry. That was rough. You kids okay?”

I nod. Connor doesn’t do anything. He’s staring down at the floor, wearing that mask he gets when he’s just too overwhelmed to feel anything at all. I don’t know what this is going to do to him, but I know it can’t be good. Kezia turns to Javier, and though she says it quietly, I hear her anyway. “I can’t leave now. I’ll call Prester.”

“You can’t keep tap-dancing around him on this,” he says. “Kez, he already checked in here, trying to figure out what was making you and me take so much time off work. He’s either worried about you, or suspicious. Neither one’s good. You haven’t been a detective long enough to get a free pass. Go to work.”

She gazes at him for a long moment, then shakes her head. “No, I have a better idea.”

“Kez. Querida.”

“I’m serious.”

Javier shakes his head, but he doesn’t say no when she pulls out her phone and dials. I watch her numbly as she walks back and forth. My anger’s gone now. It’s like it left with Mom, and all I have left is a chilly, empty space where my guts should be. I sink down on the couch and pull the heavy knitted afghan from the back to wrap around my shoulders, because I’m shivering now.

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