Authors: Chelsea Cain
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Thrillers, #Mystery & Detective
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For Marc Mohan, and Eliza Fantastic Mohan, and Lucy.
I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.
THEY HAD TOLD HER
what to do if the police ever came. They had run drills—first thing in the morning; in the middle of the night; halfway through a meal—until she could get to the trapdoor in the closet from anywhere in the house in under a minute. She was an agile kid, and fast, and she practiced. When her father clicked the stopwatch and gave her a proud nod, she felt a heat of happiness burn in her chest.
She knew that he did it all for her. She saw the toll the stress took, the creases at the corners of his eyes, the gray strands in his gold hair; the pink of his scalp showed through where his hair was thinning on top. He was still strong. She could still count on him to protect her. Their property was in a rural county, miles from the nearest house, and he said he could hear a car coming as soon as it turned onto the gravel lane. This is where he had taught her to shoot. How to plant her feet so the .22 would feel steadier in her hands. He told her that if the police ever came, and he wasn’t home, that she should shoot anyone who tried to keep her from getting to the trapdoor. He had walked her around the house, showing her where every gun was stashed, making her say the location of each out loud so she would remember. “Under the kitchen sink.” “Dining room buffet drawer.” “Behind the books on the bookshelf.” She wasn’t scared. Her father was always home. If anyone needed shooting, he’d do it for her.
Rain battered the fragile farmhouse windows, but she felt safe, already dressed for bed in her cotton nightgown with the giraffes on it, a quilt wrapped around her shoulders. The smell of jar spaghetti sauce and meatballs—her favorite meal—still hung in the air, along with the burning wood crackling in the fireplace. The dining room table had been cleared. Her mother had disappeared into the kitchen. The Scrabble board was set up and she and her father studied their tiles. They played every night after dinner. It was part of her homeschooling. The fireplace in the living room flickered with a warm, orange glow, but they played at the dining room table. Her father said it was better for her posture. He picked up a wooden Scrabble tile and moved it onto the board.
. He grinned at her, and she knew that look, knew he had a good one. He put another tile down.
. He was putting the next tile down when the sound of someone pounding at the front door echoed through the house. She could see the fear on his face, the way his eyelids twitched. He dropped the tile.
Her mother materialized in the kitchen doorway, a yellow dishrag still in her wet hands. Everything went still. Like the moment when a photograph is taken—that pause when the whole world waits, trying not to blink.
“It’s Johnson,” a familiar voice shouted from outside. “Storm put a tree down on my power lines. Phone’s down. Everything. Can I use yours to call the sheriff?”
Her parents exchanged a tense glance and then her father tightened his fists on the table and leaned over them, not even noticing as he knocked over his Scrabble rack and all his tiles skidded across the tablecloth. Her mother had embroidered that tablecloth with bluebells and lupins. The
tile from her father’s rack sat right there, on a bluebell, right in front of her. That tile alone was worth five points.
“I want you to go to the side window by the piano,” her father
told her. He said it in the serious whisper voice he used when she was to follow his instructions and not ask questions. His eyes darted toward her mother and then he put his hands through his fine fuzz of hair, so different from her own thick dark mop of tangles. “You should be able to see the Johnson place down the hill just past the lake,” he told her. “Tell me if you see any lights on.”
This was different from the drills. She could see it in the way her parents looked at each other. She wondered if she should be frightened, but when she inventoried her body for signs of fear, she found none. Her father had taught her the importance of preparation.
She calmly pushed her chair away from the table, stood, let the quilt fall onto the floor, and made her way barefoot from the dining room into the living room. The fireplace cut an orange circle out of the darkness. She tiptoed alongside her mother’s piano and tucked herself between it and the wall. Then she turned her gaze outside the water-streaked window into the blackness beyond. The cold air seeping in from outside made her forget about the fire. She peered in the direction her father had indicated. But there were no lights—only her own faint reflection flickering like a dying ember. She craned her head back toward the dining room. “I don’t see any lights,” Kick reported. “It’s dark down there.”
Her mother said her father’s name, a little sound followed by a gulp, like she was swallowing it. Her father cleared his throat. “I’ll be right with you!” he hollered toward the door.
She heard the grate of the chair legs as he got up from the table, and watched as he made his way to the dining room cabinet and withdrew the Colt from the drawer next to the good silverware. He tucked the gun in the back of the Wranglers her mother had bought him at Walmart.
She saw her mother back slowly into the kitchen.
It was cold by the window. The rain tapped like fingers against the
glass. The man was still pounding on the door. She felt something in her hand, a hard square inch of wood, and was startled to see the
tile clutched between her fingers. She didn’t remember grabbing it.
Her father scooped her quilt up off the floor and carried it over to her. He draped it around her shoulders, and to her immediate shame she hid the Scrabble tile in her fist, not wanting him to be disappointed in her thievery. He fixed his eyes on hers and put his face so close that she could smell the spaghetti sauce on his breath, the cooked ground beef. “Stay where you are for now,” he whispered, his voice cracking. A glint of flame reflected off his eyeballs in the dark. She tightened her fist around the Scrabble tile, its corners digging into her flesh.
As her father crossed the living room toward the door, she saw him touch the butt of the gun at the small of his spine, like he was making sure it was still there. He was wearing the beaded moccasins that he had bought the summer they lived in Oklahoma, the ones made by real Comanche. The soles were animal hide, soft and soundless.
He didn’t look back at her as he went through the door to the front hall, but he left the door open a crack. She heard the front door open and the slap and squeak of the aluminum screen slam shut. She heard her father’s voice, fake-friendly, and she heard the stomp of Johnson’s boots on the welcome mat as he apologized again for being a bother.
Her body relaxed, and she let her grip on the quilt around her shoulders loosen.
She did not have to run.
Their neighbor would use the phone. They would finish their Scrabble game. She leaned against the wall, fingering the Scrabble tile, wondering how long she was supposed to stay there while the men stood around talking about the storm. The flicker of her own reflection caught her attention. She studied it in the wavy farmhouse glass. Her dark hair disappeared until she was just a face in the window, a glint of eyes and teeth. She got closer until her nose was
so close to the glass she could feel the air get colder. This close, she could make out her eyes in detail. Every eyelash. Until the images reflecting back at her began to merge together and overlap.
That’s when she saw the light.
She stepped back, startled, and blinked hard. But when she opened her eyes, she still saw it. This wasn’t firelight. It wasn’t a reflection. She stared at the single blurry dot of brightness down the hill, across the lake, trying to puzzle it out even as her heart fluttered. A light. They had a few lights like that on their property, affixed to the top corners of outbuildings. Those lights had motion detectors that sometimes got set off by passing cats or raccoons. Her father had taken the bulb out of one on their property, because it kept coming on outside her window and waking her up at night.
Their neighbor was lying. He still had electricity.
She needed to tell someone. But her father had told her to stay where she was. She looked back at the kitchen door, but there was no sign of her mother. The men’s voices still boomed from the front hall—her father laughing a little too loudly.
She could hear the screen door banging in the wind. Johnson hadn’t pulled it closed all the way. The screen would rip in the storm. She felt like a knot that someone was pulling tight, her whole self contracting, the air squeezing out of her lungs.
The screen door banged.
The sound was like an openhanded slap. Her lungs expanded, taking in air, lifting her to the balls of her feet. The Scrabble tile dropped from her hand onto the floor.
And she ran. She scurried across the dark living room, the quilt flapping behind her like a cape, and wrenched open the door to the front hall. Her father looked at her, eyebrows lifted, mouth open. He was so tall—he could lift her up to touch the ceiling. Mr. Johnson’s back was to her, just a normal-size man. His wet boots sat neatly together just inside the door. His wet raincoat was on the coat
tree. He was standing on the rug, drying himself off with the towel her father kept by the door.
“I saw a light,” she said, out of breath.
Her father went gray.
The screen door banged again, and the front door burst open like a thunderclap. Her father stumbled back as the men forced their way into the house. They didn’t bother to take off their boots or dark jackets. Water flew off of them, spattering her. They were shouting, barking orders at her father, who cowered in front of them. Someone was trying to pull her backward, away from him. She yelled to be let go and saw her father reach for his gun. But the men had guns, too, and they saw him and yelled “Gun!” and their guns were at eye height, so that everywhere she looked she saw the barrel of one pointed at where her father shrank at the base of the stairs, his Colt trembling in his hand. His eyes were frantic, glistening with tears. She’d never seen him cry before.
It was loud and quiet at the same time, everyone still, the crackle and honk of walkie-talkies, the adults breathing heavily, the rain, the front door.
One of the men stepped in front of her. He was the first one who moved, which meant he was in charge. They were FBI. The letters were printed in white across the backs of their jackets. Federal Bureau of Investigation. State police, local police, DHS, DEA, Interpol, ATF. Her father had taught her to identify them, and which ones to fear most. The FBI, he’d said, was the scariest of all of them. She had imagined them having eyes like goats and angry faces.
But this FBI agent didn’t look like that. He was younger and shorter than her father, with a freckled face, reddish beard, and shaggy hair. His wire-rimmed glasses were beaded with water. He didn’t look mean, but he didn’t look nice either. He was speaking sternly to her father in a voice that she’d never heard anyone use with him before. His words sliced through the air. “FBI.” “Search warrant.” “Arrest.” “Probation violation.”
“I’ve done nothing wrong,” her father sputtered, and the redheaded agent inched toward him, blocking her view, so that all she could see now were those three letters on his back,
and one of her father’s moccasins.
“Easy, Mel,” the redheaded agent said. “You don’t want the little girl to get hurt.”
Her toes curled, gripping the hardwood.
“Put your hands behind your head,” the redheaded agent said, and then he stepped to the side, and she was surprised to see her father lifting his elbows and threading his fingers behind his head like he’d done it before. Her father’s Colt was in the redheaded agent’s hand. She saw the agent give it to one of the other men. She didn’t understand. Her father needed to stand up, to show these men how strong he was.
The redheaded agent cleared his throat. “I’ve got a warrant to search your property,” he said to her father.
Her father didn’t respond. His hunched frame quivered.
“How many people are in the house?” the agent demanded.
She willed her father to look up, to give her some instruction, but his eyes were darting around so fast, it was like his focus couldn’t alight on anything long enough.
One of the other agents lifted her father roughly to his feet and handcuffed his hands behind his back. “You better start talking, Mel,” he said to her father. “You know what they do to people like you in prison.” He grinned when he said it, like it was something worth looking forward to.