There was something eerily hypnotic about driving at night. The wheel felt warm and almost alive under her hands. She felt alive, for the first time in a long time. Energy jittered through her veins, anticipation like metal pressing on her tongue—so sharp she could taste it. The night was dark, but in the morning everything, everything would be new and wonderful. She could imagine the sunrise washing everything pink and yellow and perfect. She just had to make it through to the other side. And she could. Morning was within reach, and she was ready. Thinking of that gave her real peace, for the first time in a long while. Peace cracked in half when she heard a rustle from the back seat, then a fretful cough, then an intake of breath. She felt a surge of raw, tired fury. Don’t cry, don’t you dare cry .
The first wail was loud enough to shatter glass, and just an instant later came the out-of-tune chorus of the second child. She felt her whole chest collapse under the weight of sheer, brutal frustration. Her eyes blurred with tears, and she wiped them away as she thought, It’s okay, it’s okay, it will all be okay, you know what to do. She reached out with a trembling hand and switched on the radio, turned it up, and forced herself to keep breathing, breathing as the children shrieked. Hush, sweeties, she mouthed, but didn’t say because she couldn’t be heard anyway, and they wouldn’t understand. Morning was on the way. She tried to imagine the dawn glowing on that black horizon, guiding her into the future. The music would help. It had to help. She drove into the long, cold tunnel of the night, listening to screams until screams turned to hiccups, then slowly died to fretful, mewling cries, and finally back to silence. She turned the music down and took a left turn from the narrow, lightless road onto another, watching the GPS on her cell phone; it was the only way to navigate out here in the wilderness. Rural Tennessee was as black as the bottom of a well this time of night.
No communities to speak of anywhere close; she could just make out a faint glow on her left that would be Norton, most likely. She was up in the sparsely populated foothills—some paranoid compound types hoarding guns, maybe a few old family cabins that hung on by hunting their own food. Nobody to note her passing by. She’d made this drive a solid, patient routine. Nights and nights and nights like this, always the same schedule. Plenty of rural roads, less-traveled paths. She didn’t mind. The girls were always so difficult to settle, all her neighbors knew that. She’d seen them giving her that look, that can’t you keep them kids quiet look, so many times. She stared in the rearview mirror at the babies, and felt tears come.
Hopeless, helpless, angry tears. I love my kids. I do. This is for the best. Tomorrow would be different. Tomorrow, everything would be right. She just had to hang on to that. She coasted the car to a gentle stop and rolled the window down. The sound of frogs hit her first: a chorus so loud it felt like a drill in her ear. The road she was on was paved, but only just, and fraying at the edges into sediment and mud.
No way to turn around. It stank out here, in the pit of the night. Murky water and rot. Not clean, like the lakes. This place was pitted with old, stagnant ponds, rank with algae. Folks stayed away for a reason. She sat and hummed tunelessly to herself and listened to the night chorus for the longest time. The girls were quiet, and when she looked in the rearview mirror, she saw their angelic little faces relaxed and calm in sleep. I should just turn around and forget, she thought. But the truth was, if she did, if she drove on home, she’d be out here again—tomorrow, next week, next month.
She knew herself too well to think she was going to change that much. The flutter in her stomach, the itch to move on . that was so strong now it was just unbearable. Only the driving had helped these past few weeks. It wouldn’t help much longer. The flash of headlights in the distance caught her by surprise, and she almost gasped. Then she sighed in relief, because it meant the waiting was done. Now she felt an upswell of excitement, of promise, of morning on the horizon. “It’s going to be all right,” she sang to her babies. They barely shifted in their sleep.
“Momma’s going to take care of everything.” She just had to choose to be strong. 1 GWEN It all starts so sweetly, because on Friday night, the adoption papers come through. Sam Cade, my lover, my partner, is now officially the father of my two children, Lanny and Connor Proctor. And when the court documents arrive, we sit down with the kids, and we all eat cake and cry and hug, and there is so much love, so much, that it fills me to bursting. And the whole weekend seems wonderful. Better than ever. But I wake up in the dark predawn hours of Monday with a pounding heart and the instant, heavy conviction that something is wrong. There’s a faint, bloody taste in the back of my throat, the residue of a nightmare that slips into fog before I can remember it. Except for the whisper, the last soft word.
Gina. My old name, dead to me now because Gina Royal, the ex of a serial killer, is a memory, a ghost. And I know that dream voice so well that I feel a rush of adrenaline flood my veins. I have to tell myself that it isn’t real, can’t be real, that my exhusband, Melvin Royal, is dead and gone and rotting in the ground. But my body doesn’t care about logic. It just reacts to him in ways that I can’t control . even if he’s just a product of my haunted imagination. I know why he’s haunting me. He doesn’t like being replaced in the lives of his children. But Melvin Royal, monster, doesn’t deserve to be remembered at all.
Burn in hell, Melvin. I breathe until my pulse slows, the taste goes away, the adrenaline shakes subside. Finally, I glance at the clock. It’s 4:00 a.m. I turn slightly and feel Sam’s warmth next to me; my lover isn’t getting up yet, and he’s gently snoring. Undisturbed. I try curling into him, our bodies fitting together like puzzle pieces. It ought to bring me some kind of peace, take me back to dreamland. But I feel a restless prickle of hair at the back of my neck.
The nightmare is gone, but something’s still not right. I’ve learned to pay attention to primal instincts. They’ve saved my life more than once. I slide out of bed without waking him—or so I think, until I’m reaching for the closed bedroom door. Sam’s voice, when it comes, is completely alert. “Is it the kids?” “I don’t know,” I tell him. “I’m just checking. Probably nothing.” I don’t want to tell him about the dream. Melvin’s a shadow that always lies between us, for good reason.
And the dream has nothing to do with my current anxiety. “Well, I probably could use a glass of water anyway,” he says in a no-big-deal tone. He’s already up, shoving feet into shoes. I’ve done it, too—reflex, always be ready to run. It’s spring, but early morning’s still chilly; I feel the cool air on my bare legs as I swing open the bedroom door. I’m instantly disoriented. This isn’t my hallway. It’s too wide, and the carpet’s the wrong color. I feel wildly out of time and place, and then it all steadies around me. I’m remembering the old house, the one on Stillhouse Lake.
We’ve moved. The lake house, currently rented out, is on the market but hopefully will sell in the next couple of months. We’re in Knoxville now. A new house. New, friendly neighbors. Good schools. Everything is fine. Except the insistent pull at the back of my neck tells me it’s not. Gina, Melvin’s whisper says from the back of my mind. You can run all you want.
But you can never run far enough. You’re dead, I tell him. That’s far enough. The hallway’s dark, just night-lights along the baseboard to illuminate the way. Connor’s room is first on the right from ours; I ease his door open a crack and see that my son is not asleep. He’s sitting up, staring into the darkness. He turns, and his face is pale. “Did you hear it?” he asks me in a low whisper. He’s not my little boy anymore, except in moments like this; he’s got the growth of fifteen. I still want to take him in my arms and rock him, but I don’t.
I’m starting to realize how difficult it is that even my youngest isn’t a baby anymore. That I have to let him grow up. “It’s okay,” I tell him. Sam’s behind me in the doorway. “We’ve got this. You know the plan?” He nods. He does. Everybody in this house knows the plan. I close his door, and I hear him get up and throw the interior deadbolt I installed for safety. Good.
Step one: delay an intruder from getting into his room. Step two: if the all clear doesn’t come within a few minutes, hit the silent-alarm button that signals an alert straight to the Knoxville police. Step three: Get out through his bedroom window, run for help. Don’t stop for anyone or anything. We all know the plan because there’s always a chance we’ll have to use it. I go to the bathroom. It’s dark, but I check the window anyway. Firmly closed and locked and too small for most intruders to slip through. Then I continue to my daughter’s bedroom. It’s also dark, but when I open it up, I catch a whiff of fresh, damp outside air.
Her window’s closed, but it hasn’t been for long. Dammit. I flip on the light, and Lanny—Atlanta, but no one except teachers uses her full name—groans and turns over to glare at me. She’s still wearing club makeup—dark glitter around her striking eyes, painted silver stars on her cheeks. She’s dyed her hair into a shimmering rainbow of colors. “What?” she snaps, and groans into her pillow. “Mom!” I have to swallow a volcanic explosion of frustration and anger and fear. “Where were you?” “Nowhere.” “Lanny. You obviously just came in.
You left your window out of the alarm circuit, again. Do you know what kind of danger you’re exposing your little brother to when you do that?” Sometimes, that appeal works. Not tonight. She rolls up in her covers and throws the pillow over her head. “Would you just leave me alone? It was a good day, why do you have to ruin everything?” My daughter is seventeen-going-on-thirty, and there’s not a lot I can do about it. She knows it’s not safe out there. She’s determined not to care, or to prove that she can handle whatever comes at her. It terrifies me. It also exhilarates me that my child is so strong, when fear of losing her isn’t tearing me apart. But she’s not an adult yet, and I know I have to find a way to keep her in line for another year until she can freely make her own choices.
Her own ghastly mistakes that I can’t prevent, and consequences I can’t save her from. That’s the hell of being who we are: the normal stumbles of most girls her age are different for the child of Melvin Royal. Stakes are always, always higher. I want to roll my children in Bubble Wrap and set them safely on a shelf and never, never let the world chip and crack them. But they’re not made of porcelain, and no matter how strong that protective desire might be, I have to fight it. I have to relax my grip, not tighten it. I can yell at her, but I’ve tried that before. Lanny, like me, is stubborn. I’ll have to be smarter, not louder. I’m acutely afraid that my independent, brave, smart, sometimes reckless daughter might just .
leave. Run away. And on her own, she’ll be unprotected. I need to find a way to keep her with us just a little while longer. I know I have to face losing her to the world, whatever danger that brings. But not yet. “We’ll talk later,” I say. She groans again, this time in rejection of the whole idea. I shut the door and leave her without another word. When I turn, Sam’s watching me with level, calm intensity, and when I sigh, he just shakes his head.
He understands. Better than I have any right to expect. “Do you think she was out with Vee?” he asks me. “Probably,” I tell him. Vee—Vera Crockett, late of the rotten little town of Wolfhunter, Tennessee—became our responsibility not long ago, but Vee has never let anyone rule her for long. After just a few weeks living with us here in Knoxville, she pushed for emancipated-minor status; thing is, she had it anyway because she’s never obeyed anyone’s rules, and if I hadn’t helped her get it legally, she’d have just taken off and lived rough. Again. So we helped, and at least it ensured that Legally Emancipated Vee stayed relatively close in case of trouble. Vee’s a girl with a lot of damage, but I do have faith in her. She’s not broken.
At least not any more than the rest of us. And it’s exactly right for Vee—the same age as my daughter—to have talked Lanny into sneaking out and clubbing, against strict house rules. “Maybe I should take it out on Vee,” I say. “Without her, Lanny wouldn’t be taking these kinds of risks.” “Look in the mirror and tell me where she gets her risk-taking gene again?” “Well, Vee’s enabling her.” “I’m not saying what they get up to is safe, but at least we know that Vee’s a survivor. She’ll fight like hell to protect Lanny. You know that. And you’re going to have to let Lanny live her life, eventually.” I do.
That’s the hell of it. I knock the all clear on Connor’s door, and Sam and I settle on the couch in the living room. I feel rather than hear his long sigh. “Girls,” he says. “God, I love them, and at the same time I have no idea what to do at times like this. Is that stupid?” “Normal,” I say, and lean into his embrace. “Girls are tough at this age. Regretting signing those papers already?” “Never. Not for a second.” He moves hair back from my forehead, a gentle touch I would have flinched away from a few years ago.
But now, it soothes something inside me. “Were you that tough at her age?” I have to laugh a little. Bitterly. “I was a good little rule-follower with strict churchgoing parents. I didn’t even own a pair of blue jeans. No drinking, no drugs, no boyfriend, no clubs.” I’d hit eighteen—or more accurately, eighteen had hit me—like a runaway bus. I’d been utterly unprepared for the charm onslaught of a controlling older man who targeted me the way a lion targets a slow gazelle. Melvin Royal had been the ideal suitor, according to my parents. He’d played the role to perfection because he knew exactly what he wanted: a captive child-wife he could isolate and train as he wanted her to be.
And that’s who I became. I’d worked so hard to lose any semblance of who I was, who I could be, and became exactly what Melvin Royal required. I’d thought that was happiness. Until it all collapsed in such horror. Then I had to find out who I really was. What I could really do. Sam kisses my temple, and I blindly turn toward him until our lips meet. I don’t like thinking about my earlier life. Melvin’s whisper is always there, far too close. The kiss turns deeper, sweeter, and I focus on it to try to push away the memories.
Until he breaks it with a regretful sigh and leans his forehead against mine. “I need sleep,” he tells me. “Sorry. Early lesson in a few hours.” “I know,” I say. He’s working currently as a flight instructor, teaching private clients on small aircraft, but he’s also taking classes of his own and getting recertified on commercial jets. Busy man, but he’s here, against all the odds. And I’m no longer afraid to say that I love him. Like everyone in our house, the two of us are damaged. He’s the brother of a serial killer’s victim.
I was a serial killer’s wife. Our traumas hit head-on the day a drunk driver crashed into the house I shared with Melvin Royal, and that accident uncovered not just Sam’s sister’s body but a path of horror that stretched out for years. That crash made wreckage of both our lives, but in very different ways. We’ve come to terms with the legacy of Melvin Royal from both sides, and built a relationship over that dark, angry scar. It still bleeds, sometimes. And it always, always aches. “Go back to sleep,” I tell him, and kiss him again. It’s regretful, but sweetened with the promise of a future. He hugs me and slips back to bed. I’m too restless to try to rest, tempting as it is; I’d only toss and turn and disturb him.
I head quietly back to our office. Benefit of a new house: more room. Sam’s got his desk, I have mine, and as I shut the door and turn on the lights, it’s another déjà vu moment: my battered old desk, my old filing cabinets, a clean and different room wrapped around them. I’ve mounted pictures on the walls. Some are of places, some are of people. My kids and Sam, surely. My very select group of friends in happy times when Sam and I barbecued a couple of years back. All normal, at first glance. Second glance, every picture means more. The east wall is my favorite.
That beautiful, striking piece of art is the handiwork of a terrified young woman named Arden Miller we came across while hunting my ex. She’s now safe and living under a new identity; I check on her from time to time as her artist’s star rises. Like Sam, she came out of a dark place and is finding her light. Next to that picture is a photo of two young women dressed in casual shorts and T-shirts with their arms around each other—normal as can be. When I first saw them, they’d been captives in a locked basement in Wolfhunter, broken and terrified—a mystery I never should have taken on, but that had launched me into the idea of finding missing people as a private investigator. The two women sent me that snapshot, no note, no location, but it reminds me that they’ve found their own safety now. I keep only pictures of successes on this wall. Good memories. Even Vee has a place there on the end, arm around my daughter while they both flip off the camera. Vee is a success too.
She survived Wolfhunter. Not everyone did. The west wall, the one I keep in shadow, has other photos. That view of Stillhouse Lake reminds me that people died there as part of my ex-husband’s plot. The apparently peaceful photo of a cemetery is really a photo of Melvin Royal’s cheap, anonymously numbered tombstone in the far distance; it reminds me he’s dead and gone. I need to remember my failures as much as my successes; they teach me to think harder about the risks I’m taking. Because not all those risks are mine. I know it’s wrong to keep score but it’s the only way I can make sense of things these days. Out of habit, the first thing I do at my desk is check on my ever-present internet trolls. I have a list, and I run the searches to see what they’re posting.
Lately things have died down a little—other outrages for them to scream about, other people for them to torment, guilty or not. But as the ex-wife of serial killer Melvin Royal, I will never be off that list of easy targets to hit, and sure enough, I see one of my most persistent trolls is back agitating for a reinvestigation of my “involvement” in Melvin’s crimes. Being married to a serial killer is, in a lot of people’s eyes, proof enough that there must be something very wrong with me. But this guy isn’t about justice. He just likes hurting people . but at a distance, from safely behind his computer. Nothing new here. I check work emails. I have a few boring background checks to do, but that can wait until later. The investigative company I work for—mostly remotely—does a fair amount of standard corporate busywork, vetting potential executives for high-profile positions.
It’s still surprising to me how many of those turn out bad in the end. It’s almost like rising to the highest levels of power comes with a side order of sociopathy—who could have seen that coming? And if they have enough money and power, they rarely have to face any meaningful retribution for the lives they’ve ruined. I’m not neutral on the subject. When my phone buzzes ten minutes later, it sends my pulse racing so fast I feel it in my temples. Immediate panic reaction, just like waking up from the dream earlier. I immediately think of the people I love, and who could be calling at this hour . and why. Caller ID shows it’s my best friend from Stillhouse Lake, Kezia Claremont. She’s a police detective, one of just two that the tiny town of Norton employs. “Kez?” I blurt out the second I have the phone to my ear.
“What’s wrong? Is it your dad?” “Nothing like that,” she says. “Sorry. Did I wake you?” I swallow the panic and manage a hollow laugh. “Not remotely. I’ve been up the better part of an hour already. Bad dreams and a kid who doesn’t believe in curfew.” “I had a feeling you’d be awake,” she says. There’s no humor in her voice; I don’t think I’ve heard her this grim in quite a while. “I caught a case. Now I’m out here in the middle of goddamn nowhere in the dark and it’s just .
it’s bad.” Kez has rarely shown me soft spots or vulnerabilities. It worries me to hear a tremble in her voice. “What’s going on?” I lean my elbows on the desk, lean into the conversation. I hear her take in a deep breath on the other end. “First glance, it seemed nothing much. Accident, most likely. But not anymore.” She doesn’t want to tell me. I feel that tug on the hair at the back of my neck again, and a cold chill comes with it.
“Prester isn’t there?” Detective Prester is her partner, a good man, steady, with the eternal eyes of a cop who’s seen it all. Twenty-five years her senior at least. “No,” she says. “I’m trying to let him rest; the old man hasn’t been looking too well lately. It’s just me and a coroner out here. And a pretty useless sheriff’s deputy.” “You need some company?” “I can’t ask you to do that.” “You didn’t ask,” I tell her. “But I’m on the way.”