I force down the need to argue, to kick Mike out and grab the wheel and drive until I find her. Because he’s right.

Slow down. Cut loose. Reset.

Because that’s the only way we’re going to find Gwen now.

We need to get ahead of them.



21

CONNOR

I hear Lanny go into the bathroom. She likes to take a shower at night, and I wait until I hear the water running before I shut and lock my door, pull out the Brady phone, and turn it on. It takes a full minute to come up and search for a signal, and I get a barely audible chime when it’s ready. The sound of running water will cover my voice, as long as I keep it quiet.

I go in my closet and shut the door. The clothes and blankets in here will muffle things more. I don’t want anybody hearing me. The dark feels comforting, and when I put in the battery and turn on the phone, the TV-blue glow of its screen throws everything into sharp shadows around me. I sit down, cross-legged, and lean against folded blankets in the corner. The closet’s made of cedar, and the warm, sharp smell of it makes me want to sneeze.

I can’t do this, I think, but the bad thing is, I know I can. I know I have to. I have questions, and I want to hear his voice when he answers them. Lying in texts is easy. Maybe it’s not so easy on the phone.

I dial the only number in the phone book. My heart is pounding so hard my chest hurts.

It rings, and rings, and then it goes to a voice mail that just has a mechanical voice that says, Please leave a message, and I hang up. I feel hot and sweaty and disappointed, and at the same time, I feel relieved. I tried, and he didn’t even answer. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do it again. That was hard enough.

Being in the closet feels like being sealed off from the world. It’s weird and kind of peaceful. I’m wondering how long I can stay in here before someone comes looking when the phone buzzes in my hand, and I almost drop it. I answer the call and say, “Hello?” My voice sounds high and uncertain and quiet. It’s less sure than I am that this is the right thing to do.

Dad says, “Hey, son, I’m sorry. I couldn’t get to the phone in time. Thank you for calling me. I know that’s a big step for you to take.” He sounds like he’s been running. I imagine he had the phone across the room, maybe in a coat pocket, and it was ringing and ringing and then stopped when he reached for it. If he’s out of breath, he cared enough to hurry to get it. That means something. I think.

“Hi,” I say. I’m not quite ready to call him Dad, not like out loud. “Maybe I shouldn’t have called . . .”

“No, no, this is good,” he tells me. I hear something like a door slamming. I hear wind over the phone speaker, like he’s stepped out into the open. “Are you alone?”

“Yeah.”

“Good.” He pauses for a second, and I hear his breath. “How are you?”

“Okay.” I know I should say something more than that, try to really talk to him, but suddenly now that he’s on the other end of the line it feels wrong. The fantasy was better than the reality. So I rush on. “It’s cold out, maybe going to snow or something. I was out for a while today.”

“Did you go for a walk?”

“No. I just went out.”

“You should get out more, Brady. You should go explore. Go for a hike, if you’re somewhere that’s possible. I always used to like hiking.”

I’m not like him, not a loner who goes off on adventures. I like stories where I’m part of a team, where I’m important not because I can run fast or fight well, but because I’m smart and clever and can solve a problem when someone else can’t. I wonder if he would understand that. “Yeah,” I say, because I don’t want to disagree with him. “I guess. I could take the dog.”

“Do you have a dog now?”

“Boot,” I say. “He’s a rottweiler.”

“He know any tricks?”

“He can fetch and lie down and roll over,” I say. “I’m teaching him to shake hands.”

“Is he a good hunting dog?”

“I don’t know.”

“You like to go hunting?”

There’s something about the way he says that . . . I don’t know. It feels ugly. So I hurry past it, the way you’re supposed to hurry past a graveyard at night. “No, I just—I got lost, and Lanny and—” I stop myself, because I almost used Javier’s name. “Lanny got Boot to help find me.” I wasn’t lost, not really. After watching that video, I’d been so angry and hurt that I just wanted to leave. But I hadn’t gotten far before I realized I didn’t have anywhere to go. Dumb. I should have kept going. “So I guess he can hunt. He’s a good dog, and he’s smart, too.”

“I like dogs,” Dad says. “Not cats. I always think of dogs as boys, and cats as girls. Don’t you?”

I don’t know what to say to that. It sounds weird, like he wants to go somewhere with that, and I don’t want to follow. It doesn’t feel right. I shift position, and hangers clink above me. The smell of cedar is tickling my nose. “I called because I need to ask you something,” I say. I’ve only just now realized that I’m going to do this, really do it. I feel sick, but I make myself do it anyway. “You know how they said Mom, uh, helped you kill those ladies?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Did she?”

“Kiddo, I’m sorry. I just—son, I believe you’re old enough to know the truth. You’ve been lied to most of your life about me, didn’t I tell you that? But what’s worse is that it’s your mother who’s been doing the lying. She’s no innocent, believe me. I felt like you should start to know what really happened when you were little.”

The way he says it makes me feel stupid for being upset about what I saw. Like I should be better than that. Stronger. “Okay,” I say. “Well, I watched the video, you know that.”

“And you made sure they didn’t know you have this phone, right?”

“Just like you said,” I told him.

“And your sister saw the video, too?”

“Yeah.” I wish I hadn’t done that. I hate seeing her cry, and I hate seeing her not cry when she should want to. But I needed her to know what I did: that Mom couldn’t be who she said she was.

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