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The Stranger Inside

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由島至島 /You dao zhi dao

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Outside Mental Health: Voices and Visions of Madness

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Even good people are drawn to do evil things…

			Twelve-year-old Rain Winter narrowly escaped an abduction while walking to a friend’s house. Her two best friends, Tess and Hank, were not as lucky. Tess never came home, and Hank was held in captivity before managing to escape. Their abductor was sent to prison but years later was released. Then someone delivered real justice—and killed him in cold blood.

			Now Rain is living the perfect suburban life, her dark childhood buried deep. She spends her days as a stay-at-home mom, having put aside her career as a hard-hitting journalist to care for her infant daughter. But when another brutal murderer who escaped justice is found dead, Rain is unexpectedly drawn into the case. Eerie similarities to the murder of her friends’ abductor force Rain to revisit memories she’s worked hard to leave behind. Is there a vigilante at work? Who is the next target? Why can’t Rain just let it go?

			Introducing one of the most compelling and original killers in crime fiction today, Lisa Unger takes readers deep inside the minds of both perpetrator and victim, blurring the lines between right and wrong, crime and justice, and showing that sometimes people deserve what comes to them.

		 			LISA UNGER is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of seventeen novels. Under My Skin, is an Edgar nominee and finalist for the Hammett Prize. Her story, The Sleep Tight Motel, is a #1 bestselling short and Edgar nominee. Lisa lives on the west coast of Florida with her family.

Also by Lisa Unger:

Under My Skin

The Red Hunter

Ink and Bone

The Whispering Hollows (Novella)

Crazy Love You

In The Blood


Darkness, My Old Friend


Die For You

Black Out

Sliver of Truth

Beautiful Lies



The Darkness Gathers

Angel Fire

		 			The Stranger Inside

			Lisa Unger


An imprint of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd

1 London Bridge Street

London SE1 9GF

First published in Great Britain by HQ in 2019

Copyright © Li; sa Unger 2019

Lisa Unger asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins.

Ebook Edition © September 2019 ISBN: 9781474066761

Note to Readers

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		 			Praise for Lisa Unger:

‘Suspenseful, sensitive, sexy, subtle. The best nail-biter I have read for ages. Highly recommended’

			Lee Child

‘Lisa Unger’s deliciously intense and addictive thriller got under my skin. I picked it up, was drawn into this dark, tangled tale, and couldn’t pull away until it was done. Gripping suspense at its best’

			Karin Slaughter

‘Deeply plotted and complex and carries an undeniable momentum. Lisa Unger’s enthralling cast of characters pulled me right in and locked me down tight. This is one book that will have you racing to the last page, only to have you wishing the ride wasn’t over’

			Michael Connelly

‘Riveting psychological suspense of the first order. If you haven’t yet experienced Lisa Unger, what are you waiting for?’

			Harlan Coben

‘A perfectly dark and unsettling, spellbinding thriller. Told with both eloquence and urgency, Unger knows just how to hook her readers and reel them in. This book is not to be missed’

			Mary Kubica

‘This is a haunting, compulsive tale that will have you under its spell long after you’ve closed the book’

			Tess Gerritsen

‘A twisting labyrinth of a book where nothing is as it seems, dreams bleed into reality, and the past is the future. Lisa Unger is one of my favourite writers. And in this tilt-a-whirl of a psychological thriller, she’s at the top of her game’

			Lisa Gardner

			In loving memory of my wonderful grandmother

Millie Miscione

			and my magnificent, dear agent and friend

Elaine Markson



Back Cover Text


Title Page


Note to Readers






















































About the Publisher

		 			For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst?

			Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet


			I wait because I have nothing but time.

			From the quiet, dim interior of my car, I watch the quiet neighborhood, settle into the upholstery. Autumn. Leaves lofting on cool air. Tacky, ghoulish Halloween decorations adorning stoops and lawns, hanging from trees—skeletons, and jack-o’-lanterns, witches on brooms. It’s a school night, so no kids playing flashlight tag, no pickup soccer match in the street. Maybe kids don’t even do that anymore. That’s what I understand, anyway. That they’re all iPad-addicted couch potatoes now. It’s the new frontier of parenting. But you’ll know better about this than I’m likely to.

			Younger families live on this block. SUVs are hastily parked. Basketball hoops tilt in driveways; bikes twist on the lawn. Recycling cans wait patiently at the curb on Wednesday, garbage on Friday. Tonight, there’s a game on. I see it playing on big-screen televisions in three different open-plan living rooms.

			But the house I’m watching is dark. A beautiful silver Benz that’s about to be repossessed sits in the driveway. It’s one of those cars—the kind that people dream about, an aspirational car, the kind you get when… But it certainly hasn’t brought its owner any happiness. The guy I’m watching—he’s depressed. I can see it in his slouch as he comes and goes, in the haunted circles that have settled around his eyes.

			I can’t muster any compassion for him. And I know that you aren’t shedding any tears. In fact, I’m willing to bet that you’ve spent at least as much time thinking about him as I have—even though, of course, you have other things on your mind now.

			An older man walks his dog, a white puff of a thing on a slender leash. Not a dog at all really, more like an extra-large guinea pig. I sink a little deeper in my seat, then stay stone-still. I haven’t seen this man on this street before, and I’ve been here most nights for a while. He’s out of his routine, I guess, maybe decided to take a new route tonight. I’m not too worried, though. My car—a beige Toyota Corolla—is utterly forgettable, practically invisible in its commonness; the windows tinted (but not too dark). If he doesn’t see me, a lone person slouched in the driver’s seat and clearly up to no good, he won’t even notice it.

			I’m in luck. He’s squinting at the screen on his smartphone. He’s older, not fluent with it. So it takes all of his concentration. That device is the best thing that ever happened to people who want to be invisible. He walks right by, oblivious to the car, to me, to his surroundings. Even his dog is distracted, incurious, nose to the pavement. Sniff, sniff, sniff. Finally, they’re gone and I’m alone again.

			Time passes. I breathe into the night.

			One by one, windows go dark except for the odd light here and there. There’s an insomniac in 704, a nurse who comes home after 3 a.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays to 708.

			Just after 2 a.m., I slip from the car, close the door silently and shoulder my pack. I am a shadow shifting through the shadows of the trees, drifting, silent, up the edge of the house. I easily pick the lock on the side entrance—you can learn how to do anything on YouTube these days—and enter the house through the unlocked interior door. From the garage into the laundry room. From the laundry room into the kitchen—a typical suburban layout. I stand inside for a moment, listening.

			I can still hear it, you know, the sound of her father’s voice.

			I am willing to bet that you hear it, too. Maybe in those quiet moments, when you lie in bed at night, the wail of total despair comes back like a haunting. I imagine that your mind drifts back to that courtroom. Your face pulled tight with that helpless mingle of anger and sorrow, nostrils flaring just slightly. I was right there with you even though you didn’t know it. Or maybe you did. Sometimes I wonder if you know how close I am. If you sense me.

			When the verdict was delivered, there was a moment, remember? A tiny sliver of time where the information moved through synapses and neurons, a heartbeat. In that breath, I watched her mother drain of what little energy and color remained in her too-thin body. I watched her father buckle over, her brother dip his head into his hands. The unforgiving light of the courtroom grew brighter somehow, an ugly white sizzle. And then the room exploded in a wave of sound that contained all the notes of despair, disbelief, rage. I’d been there before, in the presence of injustice, as have you. You know how it wafts like smoke from the black spaces beneath tables and chairs. It rises up, tall and menacing. I was always here, it seems to say as it looms over you, towering, victorious. It brings you to your knees. In the presence of nothing else do you feel smaller or more powerless.

			When we’re young, we’re naive enough to believe. We’re raised on the comic-book ideal of good vanquishing evil. We believe that white magic is stronger than black. That criminals are punished, and justice is always served. Even when it seems that evil might triumph—no. In the final moment, a cosmic force does the reckoning for good, one way or another. We want to believe that.

			But it’s not so. Not always. Sometimes justice needs a little push.

			I make a quick loop through the house to assure myself that everything is as it was the last time I was here. The decor is Target, IKEA chic, white and dove gray, with bold accent patterns. There are lots of those picture collages with words like LOVE and DREAM and FAMILY: her parents—smiling and benevolent; her wedding photos—gauzy, a fairy-tale dream; a gaggle of gap-toothed nieces and nephews; girls’ night out, toasting with pink drinks in martini glasses. Throw pillows and soft blankets, knickknacks, decorative pieces of driftwood are artfully arranged. She was house-proud, the woman who lived here once. She liked things pretty and comfortable. Now, surfaces are covered with dust. Her home, it smells like garbage.

			As I finish my tour, I feel a twist of sadness for her. Here’s someone who did everything right. She followed all the rules, went to college, worked in public relations, got married, got pregnant. Pretty, and, by all accounts, sweet and kind. And look. Her cute house, her little dreams, her innocent life, empty, rotting. She deserved better.

			Nothing I can do about that. But this is the next best thing.

			I know what you’re thinking. What anyone might think. Who am I to say that a man found innocent by a jury of his peers is guilty as sin? And even if he is, who am I to deliver justice?

			It’s true. I am no one. But this is how I knew.

			When Laney Markham went missing, I immediately suspected that it was her oh-so-handsome husband. Because let’s get real: the incident of stranger crime is a statistical anomaly. (We both have a thing or two to add to that conversation, don’t we? But I’m sure you’d agree that statistically it’s true.) The idea of the other, the stranger, the destroyer who breaks into your home and kills your family, or takes your child? It does happen. But not as often as a man kills his wife. Or a father rapes his daughter. Or an uncle molests his niece. Those things don’t always make the news. Why? Because it’s not news; that’s the everyday horror show of normal life.

			So there’s that. The it’s-always-the-husband thing. But what sealed it for me was those national morning show appearances. He did the circuit, ostensibly to plead for the lovely Laney’s safe return. Tall, with movie-star good looks, he was a natural. And those morning show hosts, they lapped it up. Laney? She was a beauty, too. One of those luscious pregnant girls—even prettier with her little baby belly, glowing skin and silky, hormone-rich hair. If the Markhams had been less good-looking, this would have been less of a story. You know it’s true.

			Anyway, he gets on camera and starts to weep, and I mean blubber. Steve Markham stares right at the camera, tears streaming down his face and he begs for whoever took his wife and unborn child to just bring them home. Quite a performance.


			Men don’t cry like that. Men, when they are overcome by emotion to the degree that they lose control and start to weep, they cover their faces. Crying is a disobeying of every cultural message a man ever receives. To weep like a woman? It fills him with shame. So he covers his face. That’s how I knew he killed his wife. Steve Markham was a sociopath. Those tears were as fake as they come.

			You remember. I know you were thinking the same thing.

			You might say that’s not enough. I know you; you follow the rules—or, anyway, you have a kind of code. But we all know there was enough physical evidence to send the bastard to the electric chair. It was those lawyers with all their tricks—cast doubt on this, get that thrown out, confuse and mislead the slack-jawed jury with complicated cell phone evidence. This satellite says he was there at this time, couldn’t have done it.

			Still, I generally wait a year. Just to be sure. I watch and wait, do my research. At least a year, sometimes much, much longer, as you know. I choose very carefully. I think about it long and hard. Because it would suck to be wrong. I wouldn’t, couldn’t, justify that. It’s a line I can’t step over. Really. Because then—what am I?

			Anyway, my old friend, I’m gratified to report that the year since he was acquitted of his wife’s murder has been very bad for Steve Markham. He lost his job. All his friends. His lover-slash-alibi Tami—you remember her, right? The whole case hung on that mousy blonde from Hoboken. Well, she broke up with him. I’m sure you know all this. If I know you, you’re keeping tabs, too.

			You probably didn’t know that for a while he hung around Tami’s place, stalking. I thought we were going to have a problem, that I’d have to act before I was ready. But Steve is nothing else if not a smart guy. Probably figured it wouldn’t look great if his girlfriend turned up dead less than a year after his wife’s body was found in a shallow grave, just miles from her own home, she and her unborn child killed by multiple stab wounds with a six-inch serrated blade (from her own kitchen). He finally stopped following Tami, the one that got away.

			He’s about to lose the house. Last month, the lights went out. The pool where they think he killed his wife has turned green, water thick now with algae. Sure, he had his book deal. He did the talk show circuit, this time playing the innocent man, wrongly accused, on a tireless hunt for his wife’s killer. He’d been unfaithful, he admitted, grim and remorseful. He was sorry. So sorry. More crocodile tears.

			He burned through the advance money fast. It wasn’t that much. Between agent commission, taxes, it was no windfall. He might have made it last. But people don’t get it. Money, if you don’t protect it, is flammable. It goes up in flames and floats away like ash. The IRS is after him now. The system. Maybe it does have its ways of getting you, even if you slip through its cracks at first.

			I make no attempt to be quiet as I unpack my bag. I drape a plastic tarp over the couch, lay another one in front of the door where he will enter the room when he hears me. I lay things out. The duct tape. The hunting knife. There’s a gun I carry in a shoulder holster, the sleek, light Beretta PX4 Compact Carry with a handy AmeriGlo night sight and Talon grip. It’s only meant to inspire cooperation. To have to use it will represent a failure of planning on my part. But there are always variables for which you can’t account.

			By the time he rouses from sleep and moves cautiously into the front room, I am sitting in one of the cheap wingback chairs by the window. He is not armed. I know there is no weapon in this house. There was a baseball bat under the bed. Maybe he thought that someday Laney’s brother or her father would come for him. But the baseball bat is gone now. In the trunk of my very forgettable car, in fact.

			“Hello, Steve,” I say quietly and watch him jump back. “Have a seat.”

			“Who are you?”

			I work the Cerakote slide that puts a bullet into the chamber and watch him freeze. It’s a sound a man recognizes even if he’s never had a gun pulled on him before.

			“On the couch.”

			The plastic tarp crinkles beneath his weight and he starts to cry again. This time? It’s real.

			“Please.” His voice is small with fear and regret.

			But do I also hear relief?

			We all believe that story, that cheaters never win, and justice will be done. Even the bad guys believe it.

			Isn’t that right, my old friend?


			It was just a peep, the tiniest little chirp. But Rain’s eyes flew open and she lay there in the dim morning, listening. She could tell by the light outside the window, by the bubbling of nausea in her stomach that it was way too early. Hours before the alarm would go off.

			Now a groan, just a light one.

			Go back to sleep, she pleaded silently. She pushed her head deeper into the pillows, tugged at the covers. Please, baby.

			Now a hiccup, almost a cry.

			“Leave her.” Greg, groggy, draped a heavy arm over her middle, pulled her in. “She’ll go back.”

			No. She wouldn’t go back. Rain could already tell. Outside her window, the manic chirping of birds. They’d nested in the oak on their lawn, two starlings that chattered all day, starting at dawn. It was cute, a lovely detail of their domestic life. Until it wasn’t.

			Now two quick little sounds from the baby monitor on the bedside table. “Eh—Eh.”

			She pushed herself up, head full of cotton, stomach churning. She’d been up with the baby just two hours earlier, feeding. Growth spurt.

			Greg stirred. “I’ll get her.”

			“No.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “Get some more sleep before work.”

			Greg sighed, pulled those blissfully soft covers tight around him.

			Over the monitor, she heard the baby sigh, too. Then the soft, even sound of Lily’s breath like ocean waves. Rain reached for the monitor and turned on the screen. A perfect cherub floated on a cloud next to a white stuffed bear. A little burrito in her loose fleece swaddle. A wild head of red hair. But no, it wasn’t red—it was white and gold, auburn lowlights and orange highlights. It was fairy princess hair. And her eyes weren’t blue, they were facets of sapphire and sky, sea green.

			Her baby was an angel, wasn’t she? Beautiful and sweet beyond expression. Get ready for the biggest love of your life, Andrew, her executive producer, had gushed when she’d announced her pregnancy. He’d teared up a little, gazing at the picture of his twin boys, then ten. And he was right, of course. That love, it changed her—just like everyone said it would. In myriad ways.

			But it was also obvious to Rain that her child was trying to kill her. Slowly. With an adorable, gurgling, two-tooth smile.

			Death by sleep deprivation. No mercy.

			She sank back into bed, closed her eyes. But her brain—as manic and chirpy as her starling neighbors—would not stop chattering.

			Finally, she put on her robe and moved quietly down the stairs. Might as well use the time and mill some organic baby food and store it in those perfect little blue-lidded glass jars. Apples. Sweet potatoes. Broccoli. Five a.m., and she had pots boiling on the stove.

			She watched them bubble as she drank her coffee. Caffeine. Thank god. She would not have survived the last thirteen months without it. She’d given it up when she was pregnant, but as soon as Lilian Rae made her entrance, Rain was back on the sauce.

			She let the aroma wake her, let the magic elixir work its way through her body. The body that was just starting to feel like hers again, now that she was trying to wean the baby—at the not-so-subtle behest of her husband. Greg had walked in while she was nursing Lily to sleep earlier that week. (Yeah, yeah. She knew you weren’t supposed to nurse your baby to sleep. But come on. What other benefit was there in being a human Binky?)

			He’d tenderly touched Lily’s silky hair, then gazed at Rain with an odd smile.

			“How much longer?” he’d whispered. It was date night. He’d brought home dinner, a bottle of wine.

			“Five minutes?”

			“No,” he said. “I mean how much longer are you going to nurse her?”

			She’d tried not to let her body tense with annoyance, measured her breathing. Mommy gets upset, baby gets upset. That simple.

			“I don’t know,” she’d said tightly.

			It was one of those loaded moments, air simmering with all the things each of them wanted to say but didn’t. Instead, he’d pressed his mouth into a line—he claimed that expression meant frustration, she read it as disapproval—gave a quick nod, left the room. After some time seething, she’d unlatched the baby, placed her gently in the crib.

			How much longer? she’d thought. What kind of question is that?

			“I want you back,” he’d said at the table, gentle. He touched her hand. He wasn’t a jerk, was he? One of those clueless men who thought her body existed for his pleasure only. “We said six months.”

			“I want me back, too,” she admitted.

			She wanted to nurse Lily, loved the closeness of it, those soothing quiet moments with her baby. She wanted her body back, wanted to feel sexy again. It seemed everything about motherhood was this complicated twist of emotion, a delicate balance of holding on and letting go.

			And, seriously, those nursing bras? Some of them were cute, but for the most part they looked like pieces of equipment rather than lingerie. She hadn’t felt sexy in ages. How could you be sexy, hot, erotic when you didn’t even own yourself?

			“So,” he’d said at dinner that night. “Can we get on a plan?”

			Thanks to a Google search—how to wean your baby!—she was on a plan. The morning and midday feedings were solid food now. Which meant she could have a glass of wine at night and not have to “pump and dump” (another sexy bit of breastfeeding terminology). The pediatrician said so. Anyway, she’d vowed never to put that pump back on her breast again. God, how much more like a cow could a thing make you feel?

			She could already feel that she was producing less milk. Her breasts were smaller, more familiar. She’d bought some new lingerie, lacy, pretty, no cup clasps in sight. Sexy? She wasn’t feeling it yet. But she was getting there.

			She drained the vegetables, milled them into mush, then filled the little jars.

			Very sexy.

			She liked the way they looked with their cheerful blue tops lined up in the fridge, which was stocked and tidy. Everything in order, everything sorted. There was a satisfaction in it. She ran the house with a frugal, high-end, minimalist zeal. She did the grocery shopping, cooking and day-to-day cleaning. The cleaning lady came once every other week to do the big stuff. She did a load of laundry every day. The dry cleaning, mainly Greg’s work clothes, got picked up on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She ran the house the way she used to do her job—with accuracy and efficiency.

			She was only half listening to the news broadcasting from her phone as she wiped down the quartz countertop, though it was already clean. The news was bad, as usual. She tried not to get hooked in as she managed the fresh tulips that dipped from their glass vase, pulling a wilting one, adding more water. On the distressed gray cabinet, she spied a sticky handprint. She wiped it clean. The sun was streaming through the big windows now. She put some of Lily’s toys in the wicker basket, rearranged the fluffy white throw on the cozy sectional where she and Greg spent most of their time now that they were parents—who knew you could watch so much television.

			“—Markham, tried and acquitted for the violent murder of his pregnant wife, Laney Markham, was found dead in his home early this morning.”

			The words stopped her cold, a board book clutched in her hand. She moved over to her phone, turned up the volume, something other than caffeine pulsing through her system.

			The voice was familiar, and not just because Rain listened to this National News Radio broadcast every day, but because the woman speaking was her closest friend and former colleague. And the news show was the one Rain used to write, edit and produce.

			“Markham was found not guilty last year in the stabbing death of his wife. His defense leaned heavily on cell phone records that confirmed his alibi that at the time of his wife’s murder, he was out of state with a woman who turned out to be his lover.

			“Police are investigating. This is Gillian Murray reporting, National News Radio.”

			She could almost hear the lick of glee in her friend’s voice. The two of them had covered the story together for over a year, were both crushed when Markham been acquitted. No one else had ever been charged with Laney Markham’s murder, and the murder of her unborn child.

			It had stayed with them both, the terrible injustice of it nagging at them. They looked on with impotent rage as the machine took over—Markham’s inevitable book release, the talk show circuit where he pretended to be tirelessly looking for his wife’s killer. They had to see his face nearly every day, the mask of the wrongly accused man so fake, so painted on, Rain couldn’t see how anyone might believe it.

			I used to believe in justice, Gillian said one night over too many drinks. I don’t anymore. Bad people win. They win all the time.

			Rain had tried to cheer her up, but how could she? Her friend was right.

			She snapped off the broadcast, stared at the jars of baby food. The room swirled around her the way it used to, when a story got its teeth in her.

			Someone killed Steve Markham. He got away with murder, until he didn’t. A million questions started to take form. Who, what, when, where? Why? It touched another nerve, too.

			Greg came down the stairs, dressed in his workout clothes, holding a garment bag. He was watching her. From the lines of worry etched in his forehead, she could tell he already knew.

			“You heard about Steve Markham?” she asked.

			“Just got the news update on my phone,” he said, rubbing at the crown of his head. He put the garment bag on the couch, tried for a smile. “You and Gillian should get together and have a toast. Markham finally got what he deserved.”

			“Who do you think did it?” she asked.

			“You would know better than I do,” he said. His voice was gravelly, soft. She’d never heard him raise it, in all their years together. “The brother. The father. The guy had no shortage of enemies.”

			“Lots of people make threats,” she said. “It’s another thing altogether to take someone’s life. Even someone who deserves it.”

			She poured him a cup of coffee from the French press, handed him an apple. This was his preworkout breakfast. He’d put on weight during her pregnancy. But he’d lost it all. In fact, he was in better shape now than he had been when they were first dating, the muscles on his arms strong and defined, his body lean. She could not say the same for herself. She tried to squeeze herself into her old jeans the other day and wound up lying on the bed, crying. Had she ever fit into them? It seemed impossible.

			“What are you thinking?” he asked. He wrapped her up, kissed her on the forehead. “What’s going on in that big brain of yours?”

			“It’s just—odd,” she said. “A year later. Someone kills him.”

			He moved away, took a bite of his apple, a sip of his coffee.

			“It’s a good day when people get what they deserve. Isn’t it?” he said, moving toward the door. “One less psycho in the world.”

			Why didn’t it feel like that? She was aware of a hollow pit in her stomach.

			“I’m going to get a workout before I head in,” he said.

			Oh, how nice for you, she thought but kept it to herself.

			“Okay,” she said instead. “Do you think you’ll be back in time for me to work out tonight?”

			There was a bit of an edge to all of it. Who stayed home? Who worked? Who had time to be with friends and indulge in hobbies? They both worked at giving each other time.

			“I’ll try, honey,” he said. “But you know how it is, right? You can’t always just leave.”

			Greg was the producer for the local television news program. Local news.

			“Right,” she said. “There might be some breaking story about the sheep-shearing festival this weekend.”

			He gave her a look. “Don’t be a news snob, babe. We can’t all cover major cases for the National News Radio, can we?”

			He came back to where she stood in the kitchen, pulled her in again, this time for a kiss on the mouth.

			She felt herself smile, light up a little. That’s one of the things she first loved about him, that he didn’t have the huge, hyperinflated ego of the other men she met in news. She could tease him, and he didn’t sulk. It didn’t always work in reverse, she’d be the first to admit.

			“That was nice last night,” he said. “You look good, Rain. You feel good.”

			“So do you,” she said. His lips on her neck, his hand on her back.

			“I’ll get home,” he whispered. “I promise.”

			He downed his coffee, then moved toward the door.

			She followed him out to the car. Autumn crisp and cool on the air. A stiff wind bent the branches; she pulled her robe tight around her. Yes, she was the woman who went out into the driveway in her pajamas. So what?

			Greg put his bag in the back, walked over to her and rested his hands on her shoulders. The shine of his deep brown eyes, the small scar on his chin, the wild brown hair that he couldn’t quite tame unless he cropped it short. She saw worry in the lines on his forehead, in the wiggle of his eyebrows.

			“Don’t let this pull you under again, okay?”

			She didn’t have to ask him what he meant. The Markham case. It had shaken her, rattled them. That person she was when a story was under her skin—she wasn’t a good wife, a good friend. In fact, she wasn’t good for anything except the story she wanted to tell.

			That was then—another life, another woman. She had Lily now; she was a mother. There wasn’t room for both parts of herself. She was smart enough to know it.

			Another kiss—soft and familiar, the scent of him so comforting—then he climbed into their sensible hybrid SUV and drove off. She watched him, his words echoing in her head.

			Got what he deserved.

			Her pulse raced a little, that early-morning nausea came back. She wanted to call Gillian but knew she wouldn’t be able to talk for a while yet.

			As she stepped back into the foyer, Lily started crying. Game on.

			But while Lily ate her oatmeal, secure in her high chair, Rain retrieved her laptop. She half expected the lid to groan like the door on an abandoned house, maybe find some cobwebs covering the keyboard. It had been a long time since she thought about work.

			She opened the files she’d kept from the Markham case, and started rereading her old notes, sifting through the digital images, the saved internet links.

			She used to dream about Steve Markham, and in her dreams, he had the cold yellow eyes of a wolf. They often, in her dreams, shared a meal across a long table, lined with plates of rotting food—overripe fruit split open, red, spilling innards and seeds on the white cloth, decomposing meat buzzing with flies, wilting greens turning to slime. He’d be laughing, teeth sharp. And though she wanted to run, she’d be lashed to her seat, staring, mesmerized by his hideous grin.

			When he’d been acquitted, she fantasized about killing him herself.

			But the rage passed, left a kind of emptiness in its wake. A terrible fatigue of the mind and the spirit.

			She was remembering all of this when Lily tossed her sippy cup onto the table in front of the laptop.

			“Ma! Ma!” Lily yelled happily, looking very pleased with herself.

			Rain gazed over the computer at her daughter, apple cheeks and tangle of hair, face and bib painted with oatmeal.

			“You’re right, bunny,” she said, snapping the lid on her laptop closed and lifting the pink cup. “Let it go.”


			But she couldn’t let it go.

			That was always her problem.

			She could never just let things go.

			That’s what made her a good reporter, and kind of shitty at everything else. A dog with a bone, in fact, according to her husband. She held grudges, which every shrink and life coach would tell you was bad for your marriage, your life. She did not meditate. She was not Zen, by any means. She did not go with the flow. She held on. Dug in deep.

			Rain strapped Lily into the jogging stroller—because there was no way Greg was going to get home in time for her to go to the gym, however pure his intentions. Her fatigue from the too-early morning wake-up had lifted a little (thank you, three cups of coffee). Lily kicked her legs and waved her chubby arms with joy, cooing happily, resplendent in rainbow leggings and pink fleece.

			At the end of the driveway, Rain surveyed the tree-lined street, as was her habit.

			She looked for unfamiliar parked cars, strange lone figures loitering. Even here—where the sidewalk was always empty of strangers, where precious clapboard houses painted in muted grays and blues, eggshell or soft maroon, nestled in perfectly manicured lawns, where it seemed not even weeds were allowed to grow—she watched for him.

			But no. Today there was just the neighbor’s mottled tabby delicately licking her paw on the stoop. Tasteful Halloween decorations hung on doors, a cornucopia, a smiley witch with glittery yarn for hair. Collections of painted jack-o’-lanterns on wooden porch steps. Nothing too creepy or scary, of course. Peaceful. Safe. Their street was a picture postcard of suburban bliss, the place where nothing bad ever happened. Until it did.

			Then she was doing that thing she did where she took a peaceful scene and imagined it descending into chaos—a gang of thugs loping up the street smashing the windows of expensive cars, an earthquake splitting the street, a raging wildfire turning homes into ashy ruin. Or, her personal go-to, a hulking form moving from the dappled shadows under the oak. A shadow, waiting to destroy the pretty life she’d built with Greg. Yes, around every corner could be your worst nightmare. She knew that, better than most.

			“Stop it,” she said to herself.

			“Op it!” echoed Lily, giggling.

			“Mommy’s a little crazy,” she told her daughter, who would no doubt figure it out for herself soon enough.

			She put one earbud in, leaving the other to dangle so that she could hear the street noise and Lily. Listening to the news, she pushed them onto the sidewalk and started a light jog toward the running path. Dulcet voices droned about trade wars escalating, a rocket headed for Mars, fires burning out of control in California, the suicide of a beloved celebrity chef. Was the world really so dark? Shouldn’t there be a channel just for good news?

			She tuned out a bit, listening instead to the sound of her own breath, eyes vigilant to their surroundings. She was hoping for more news on the Markham case when Gillian called.

			“You heard,” said her old friend by way of greeting. That tone, taut with excitement, it stoked the fire in Rain.

			“I heard you this morning,” she said. “What happened?”

			“I don’t have all the details, but I called Chris.”

			Christopher Wright, lead detective on the Markham case—and Gillian’s ex. Hot, hot, hot. But distant, too into the work. Fuckable, but not datable. Which, you know, could be okay. But it wasn’t okay for Gillian. She wanted the whole thing—the wedding, the baby, the house. Chris—he wasn’t that guy.

			“He said—off the record—that it was bizarre.” Gillian leaned on the word.

			“Oh?” Rain stopped at the light, kept jogging in place.

			One of her neighbors drove by. Mitzi, the older lady from across the street, waved and smiled. Rain waved back. Mitzi had offered to do some babysitting. Now that Lily was older, Rain was considering it. Just an hour or two every other day so that she could get back into a real workout routine, think about maybe doing some freelancing. Money was tight-ish. But the real truth was, she missed working. She hadn’t admitted this to anyone yet.

			“Something like this?” Gillian said. “You’ve gotta assume it’s Laney’s brother or her dad, finally making good on the threats they delivered in the courtroom. That’s the first thing you think. You expect a big mess. Overkill. Right?”


			There it was. That tingle, that tension. In the business, they call it the belly of fire. That overwhelming urge to know, to get the story, to find the truth. She crossed the street, moved onto the path that circled the park. Of course, it was more than that for Rain.

			“Wrong,” said Gillian. “Chris wouldn’t tell me much—very tight-lipped. He just said that the scene was ‘organized.’ He said, and I quote, ‘It was obviously planned and executed cleanly.’”

			“What does that mean?”

			“That’s all he’d tell me. Police are holding a press conference later today.”

			Frustration. Nothing worse than the delay of information.

			“Keep me in the loop.” But she wasn’t in the loop. She was so far out of it that she didn’t even exist anymore. Which, a year ago, was what she wanted. Wasn’t it?

			“Of course,” Gillian said. Then a sigh. “Wish you were here.”

			“Me, too,” she said. She meant it. And she didn’t. Complicated. Everything was so goddamn complicated.

			“How’s our girl?” Gillian asked.

			Gillian was the date-night sitter. Once a month or so, she came in from the city, stayed with Lily while Greg and Rain went out. Gillian slept in the guest room, and spent the next day with Rain and Lily, while Greg slept in or played golf or whatever, or vegged out in front of a game on television. It was the rare win-win-win scenario.

			“She’s missing her auntie Gillian,” said Rain.

			There was that pause. The pause Rain was guilty of herself, when you’re doing something else—checking your email, texting, surfing the web, whatever—and talking on the phone.

			“Saturday, right?” Gillian said, plugging back in.

			“Still good for you?”

			“Wouldn’t miss it.”

			“Bring details.”


			Rain circled the park a couple of times, thinking about what Gillian had said. The scene was organized. Obviously planned and cleanly executed. That was weird. Murder is a mess, especially a revenge killing. Rage usually isn’t careful; it doesn’t plan. It doesn’t clean up after itself. Usually.

			Something niggled at the back of her brain, like she should be remembering something she couldn’t. But that was baby brain—sleep deprivation, hormones, nursing, constantly monitoring needs, plagued with worry, fear, overwhelmed by love, hours, days, months just disappearing. It was a fog you felt your way through.

			Sweating, breathless, Rain found herself on the path that led to the playground, even though the last couple of times she stopped there after her run, she promised herself that she wouldn’t go back. The other moms who gathered there—they talked about strollers and pediatricians, tummy time, swaddling, milling organic baby food, and colic. Some talked about their husbands, apparently clueless buffoons who’d impregnated them and then continued with life as it was before, who still thought they might get laid every now and then. They talked about their single friends who had no idea.

			Rain didn’t talk much—she listened. That was her gift, to keep her mouth shut and hear what other people were saying. That was the way of the news writer—observe, ask, listen, report. But she often left the group feeling anxious, eager to get home.

			Still, Rain pulled the stroller up to one of the picnic tables as if drawn to the communal nature of the gathering in spite of herself. She gave Lily her sippy cup and retrieved her own water bottle. She put some Cheerios in the stroller tray—which she’d just cleaned, thank you very much. She’d gotten a look last time from one of the more tightly wound mommies in the playground group—what was her name? Gretchen. Aren’t you worried about germs? she’d gasped. She’d put her pretty, conspicuously ringed, gel-manicured hand to her chest in a gesture of dismay, her face a caricature of concern. Rain had fought back the unreasonable urge to punch her.

			No. Rain was not worried about germs. She was a career news writer and producer, among other things. She was worried about lots and lots of things—North Korea, racism, the long-term fate of the #MeToo movement, the sex slave trade, global warming, letting go accidentally of that jogging stroller and watching it careen into traffic. And other things—lots of things imagined in vivid detail, Technicolor detail so bright that it could take her breath away. They had a state-of-the-art security system installed in their house, even though she knew—she knew—that the incident of stranger crime against children, home invasion and abduction was a statistical anomaly. She had very personal reasons for wanting that level of security. But, no, she was no germophobe. Was that a word?

			Did you know, Rain answered Gretchen—a bit snippily, that normal exposure to germs helps your child’s immune system develop?

			Emmy, one of the other playground mommies, had chimed in with a grave nod: Rain was a reporter. She worked for National Radio News. Gretchen had pretended to be distracted by her phone, unimpressed. Oh, really, Gretchen said absently, staring off at the playground. When was that?

			Today, some of the mommies with older children gathered around the playground. Toddlers tended to hang out in the sandbox. Lily was just walking, more like cruising, so Rain didn’t always take her out of the stroller unless she got restless. She pushed over to the group, parked the stroller with the rest.

			“How was your run?” sang Gretchen, casting her an unreadable look.

			Funny how such an innocent question could have so many layers. Gretchen looked at her with a smile. Tight-bodied, tiny, with bright green eyes, a blond pixie cut, Gretchen had something icy beneath the surface, something sharp. Somehow Rain felt acutely aware of the size of her own thighs, the sweat on her shirt, her forehead. Gretchen looked positively dewy, her white shirt crisp, her skinny, skinny jeans faded perfectly. And that ring. Holy Christ. How many carats was that?

			“You jogged here? Good for you,” said Emmy.

			Emmy, mom to a six-month-old girl named Sage, used to work in book publishing, an editor who’d had a couple of bestselling authors to her credit. She still worked freelance from home.

			Emmy’s thick auburn hair was pulled up into a high ponytail, eyes shining with intelligence. “I haven’t worked out in months. My boobs are huge.”

			“Stop it. You’re gorgeous and you know it,” said Rain. She was—even in sweats, unshowered, a little spit-up on her hoodie. Her skin was peaches-and-cream perfect, hair shiny with health. When her little one started to cry, Emmy lifted the baby from her pram, then proceeded to whip her breast out right there in front of everyone.

			Gretchen turned away, clearly embarrassed.

			“Oh, what, you’ve never seen a boob before?” said Emmy. Her face lit up with mischievous glee.

			“The kids,” said Gretchen.

			“Oh, they’ve never seen one before?”

			Emmy’s laugh was mellifluous, contagious, and Rain laughed, too.

			“I’m done with that little shawl thing,” said Emmy. “I’m just whipping it out wherever now. You don’t like it? Look the other way.”

			“I couldn’t nurse,” said Gretchen stiffly. “I have inverted nipples.”

			“Inverted nipples? Ouch,” said Beck, joining the group.

			Beck was the youngest mommy. Married to her high school sweetheart, with two toddlers (Tyler, two; Jessa, three and a half) at twenty-six, she had another one on the way. Rain thought of her as a career mom. The rest of them did something else first, or wanted to be something else, too. If Beck wanted anything else, she hadn’t mentioned it.

			“Did you hear about that guy? The one who killed his wife last year?” asked Emmy. “Markham?”

			Gretchen shook her head in distaste. “We don’t watch the news at home. Too stressful.”

			“Someone killed him,” said Beck, voice low. Then, “About time.”

			Lily started to fuss. Gretchen moved over quickly as if the baby was hers, lifting her from the stroller with a quick glance to Rain for permission. Rain nodded easily. It was funny, how natural certain things were with other moms—maybe it’s what kept her coming back to the group. There was something communal about the gathering, comforting. Someone always had wipes, or Cheerios, or was willing to bandage a knee, had a soothing word. Fraught in some ways, with a weird undercurrent of competitiveness, but definitely communal.

			Lily sat contentedly chewing on her tiny hand, happy on Gretchen’s hip. Gretchen cooed and swayed, smelled Lily’s baby hair. Lily was hungry. Rain’s breasts were engorged. She wasn’t about to whip it out like Emmy. She was not there.

			“It was probably the father,” said Emmy. “Remember him at the trial? I’ve never seen anyone so heartbroken.”

			Rain had been there. She hadn’t watched the trial on television like the rest of the country. She’d been in the courtroom. Gillian reporting, Rain writing and producing. The sound, no, the pitch, of his voice stayed with her—the rage, the pain. It was primal. A father who lost his daughter, powerless to bring justice. His hoarse screaming connected with every nerve ending in her body. Rain had just learned she was pregnant a few weeks earlier; she was only beginning to glimpse what it was to be a parent. She just had the slightest flicker of what it might mean to have to protect another person. And fail.

			“I would have killed him on the spot,” said Emmy. “With my bare hands.”

			Rain stayed silent, though that ache was almost unbearable. She needed to get home, put Lily down for her nap and get in front of her computer. She still knew people. She could make some calls. It was her story.

			“Or the brother,” said Beck. “He said it on the courtroom steps, right? When you least expect it, we’re coming for you.”

			It was organized, Rain almost chimed in. It wasn’t a rage killing.

			But she didn’t say anything. Because.

			Because, she reminded herself, she wasn’t in news anymore. She was in—diapers and wipes, Cheerios and sippy cups. What she did now was Lily. What she used to do was ancient history; it was pathetic to cling to what you used to be, wasn’t it?

			She lifted Lily from Gretchen’s arms and sat beside Emmy. She took the little shawl from her pocket, put it on and started to nurse. She felt Lily latch on. There was a blessed release, a flood of milk and oxytocin. No one ever told you that your body would ache when your baby was hungry, that your breasts might leak when she cried, about that intense physical bond.

			“Good for you, girl,” said Emmy.

			Gretchen folded her arms and turned away. Rain wanted to tell the other woman that it was no big deal that she didn’t or couldn’t nurse, that it was just another thing they held out there for you. A brass ring that you might or might not be able to reach. Something they wanted you to try for, and feel like shit if you couldn’t grab. Honestly, if it hadn’t been easy for Rain, maybe she wouldn’t have done it either. So basically, she nursed because it involved the least amount of work for her. She stayed home because—well, for a hundred reasons. Only one of which was crystal clear a year later with some of that hormonal fog finally clearing—Lily Rae.

			“My brother-in-law is a cop over in Jessup, where the Markhams lived,” said Beck. “He said that the Feds came in this morning and took the scene from the local police.”

			Alarms jangled in her head. The Feds. Why?

			“Oh?” she said with faux nonchalance, turning to Beck.

			But Beck’s phone rang, and she turned away, lifting a finger and casting her an apologetic look for the interruption.

			Rain lifted her milk-drunk baby and put her into the stroller.

			“Gotta run,” she said, strapping Lily in.

			It was a Bumbleride, an insanely expensive gift with a message from her father.

			Keep moving, kid, read the card. Don’t let this slow you down.

			Rain had only seen her father a couple of times since the baby was born. She needed to check in with him, let him spend some time with Lily; she just didn’t have the energy after their last visit—when she’d gotten the clear message that he certainly believed that she had let the baby slow her down, that her career—and therefore her life—had come to a grinding halt. He didn’t seem to get that there was more to life than work.

			“Have a good one, honey.” Gretchen gave her a weird look, something oddly victorious.

			Rain was halfway home before she realized that she was still wearing her nursing bib (thank god!) and hadn’t put her breast back in her shirt. Christ. Really? She hastily refastened herself. When she glanced in the stroller, she saw that Lily had drifted off. She hustled home, praying she could get back and get an hour online and on the phone before Lily woke up.


			Greeted by the hush of her tidy house, Rain parked the stroller in the foyer. Lily was sound asleep, head lolling to the side. With another cup of coffee from the carafe, Rain hustled upstairs to the home office.

			The keyboard, the screen in front of her, it was her instrument—the right strokes, the right words, she could piece together a symphony of information. She searched the web, scanning the various news sites, a couple of the crime blogs she liked. The Markham story was in circulation, the same few sentences—that Markham, tried and acquitted for the murder of his wife, was found dead in his home early this morning. But there obviously weren’t enough details yet to run a full feature on any of the big networks or major newspapers. She poked around on local news sites—no witnesses, no leads, no suspects at this time.

			Or the Feds were withholding information from the media.

			There should have been more—a lot more. Images of news vans gathering around the Markham house, interviews with family members, neighbors.

			Maybe Markham killed himself, she thought. That was less of a story. An unsatisfyingly abrupt ending to a sad, unjust tale, and the kind of conclusion for which people usually had little sympathy or interest. But it would have been reported. Suicide. End of story.

			She picked up her phone, dialed a number she knew by heart and waited.



			“Rain Winter,” he said. He had a way of saying her name that made it sound like song. “Long time.”

			She and Christopher had been friends—sort of friends—since before he and Gillian were a thing. (In fact, Rain had introduced them, and was a little sorry she had. He hadn’t been good to Gillian, and Rain was still pissed about it.) Rain had been a young crime beat reporter at the city paper; she’d been working her first big story about a serial rapist. Chris was the lead detective, one of the few guys—inside the newsroom or out—who didn’t treat her like a pet, didn’t call her “kid,” didn’t wear that snide smirk that some older men wore when young women tried to do what was once upon a time a job held only by men. He never once told her that she was “too pretty to be writing about crime.”

			“I thought I’d see you last week at Gillian’s birthday party,” she said, trying to keep it light.

			He issued a grunt. “Gillian doesn’t want to see me,” he said. “Even if she thinks she does.”

			Gillian’s gathering had been a rare—only—solo night out for Rain, baby and hubby back at home. It wasn’t exactly how she imagined it. She’d been nervous, checked the monitor and home security cameras about a hundred times to see Greg crashed on the couch, Lily sleeping peacefully in her crib. She’d spent most of the evening comforting her friend.

			“Just like a man,” Rain said. “To think he knows what a woman wants.”

			Silence. She was used to waiting for him to talk. He was king of the awkward pause. “Did you call to talk about Gillian?”


			“Thought so.”


			“I’m not your guy anymore,” he said.

			Street noise carried over the line, horns and voices, a distant siren. “Feds came in today. The scene is closed. Strict information control. The press conference has been moved to tomorrow, if they give one at all.”


			One of the burning questions, the one that always interested her the most. Who? What? When? Where? All important. But “Why?” In news it didn’t matter so much.

			But in story—Story with a capital S—it was heart and soul.

			“What do you care?” he asked.

			Lily stirred downstairs, the sound carrying up to Rain. Ticktock.

			“I thought you were out,” he said. “Home with the kid full-time.”

			She heard it, the weight of judgment. A little flame of anger lit inside her. Some people judged you for staying home. Others judged you for wanting to work even though you had taken on the all-sacred role of mother. Rain had never been overly concerned with what people thought. But even she felt the trap of it, how nothing was ever quite good enough. Was there always someone waiting to put you down?

			“I’m producing a podcast,” she said. Why did she say that? That was the furthest thing from her mind. Impulsive, reactionary. That’s what her dad always said about her. But he meant it as a compliment. “A crime podcast. You know—long-form journalism.”


			“Why not?”

			“Exactly,” he said. “That’s what everyone says these days, why not? Anyone can do it.”

			“I’ve made my bones,” she said easily. Ten years investigating, writing and producing news, she had. “Besides—these days—podcasts? That’s the only real journalism left. Everything else is bought and paid for, beholden to advertisers and their agendas. It’s called democracy, remember that old idea? Freedom of speech. Not speech controlled by whoever happens to be paying the bills.”

			She didn’t realize she’d felt so passionately about this. She didn’t. She just didn’t like being marginalized.

			“Most of it’s crap.”

			“Most of everything is crap.”

			He issued a little chuckle, reminding her that he had a grim, serious face. A heavy, deeply lined brow and a searing, pin-you-to-the-wall kryptonite-green gaze. He had a cop voice, granite-cold and just as hard. But when he smiled or laughed, his whole face lit up like a kid on Christmas morning. She wished she was sitting across from him somewhere. It was so much easier to get what you wanted in person.

			“You got me there,” he said.

			Rain walked to the top of the stairs. She could see Lily’s chubby little legs, perfect pink toes kicking. Ticktock. Ticktock. Rain had left Lily’s squishy book in reach, hoping it would buy a little time when Lily woke up. She heard it crinkle as the baby picked it up and made a happy coo. Score. She’d just earned herself about four minutes.

			“Come on,” she said. “You must have something.”

			He sighed into the phone. He just liked to argue for the sake of arguing. She could relate; a good verbal sparring session was one of the most satisfying encounters you could have with a man—especially when you won. And cops, even though they pretended otherwise, loved to talk—it was downright painful when they couldn’t tell you what they knew.

			“All I can say is that it wasn’t a rage killing like you’d expect. It was organized, clean. Someone planned it.”

			She already knew that. “That’s what you told Gillian.”

			“Yeah,” he said. “And the Feds moved in this morning, took over the investigation.”

			Both pieces of information she already had. He was holding back.

			“What else?” she pushed.

			She heard a car door slam on his end, footfalls. There were voices, another phone ringing. Lily was making noises downstairs, fishing for Rain.

			“Okay, look,” he said finally. “All I know is that they think it connects to another case they’re working. An older one.”

			“What case?”

			Another long pause. This time she thought he’d hung up, which he also did quite a bit. Then, “Google the Boston Boogeyman. That’s it. That’s all I can say.”

			A jolt through her system. She knew the name. Knew it well.

			She realized that she was gripping the phone so hard it actually was making her hand ache. Release. Breathe. Rule number one of news investigation: just keep asking questions.

			“How was Markham killed?” she asked.


			“Come on.”

			“It’ll be out there soon enough,” he said. “You’ll have to hear it in the news along with all the other civilians.”

			Ouch. That hurt.


			“Hey,” he said, his voice going softer. “What I hear—it’s yours, okay? I promise. I’ll call you.”

			He always promised that, and he’d never once made good on it. It was just a way to get off the phone.

			“So, you just don’t know?” He knew. Of course he did. Why wouldn’t he tell her?

			“Goodbye, Winter.”

			“Why don’t you give her a call?” Just a hook to keep him on the line. Gillian and Christopher weren’t good for each other and they all knew it.

			“Gilly?” he said. No one else on earth called her that. “I’m not sure I’m the man she deserves.”

			He sounded a little sadder than she would have expected.

			“Maybe you should let her decide.”

			“Good luck with your podcast,” he said.

			Rain ended the call just seconds before Lily started crying. She sat on the top step for a moment, buzzing with frustration.

			Then she got up and went to Lily, unstrapping her and carrying her back up to the nursery.

			It was another world. Stars on the ceiling, a white-and-blue ocean mural on the wall. The nightlight projected buttery-yellow sea turtles that languidly circled the room. The gauzy shades were always drawn, casting the room perpetually in a peaceful milky light. Lily was warm and soft in Rain’s arms, smelled like the lavender shampoo Rain used on her every night. The baby’s eyes glittered, smile big and gurgling.

			“Hello, sunshine,” Rain said, peering into her daughter’s perfect flushed face.

			She sat in the glider, rocking and nursing again. It was hypnotic, the quiet of the room, the warmth of her child, that flood of oxytocin, the low sound of waves from the noise machine. Her frustration eased; the belly of fire cooled.

			It was enough, wasn’t it?

			Maybe. If this room, pretty and safe, was the whole world.

			But it wasn’t.

			Laney Markham would have had this. But her husband, a sociopath, brutally ended her life, and the life of their child. Then, he escaped justice, walked free while Laney’s brokenhearted father raged. And Laney’s mother sat stoic, pale and rigid, as though the blood had stopped moving through her veins. Grief had turned her to stone; it was more devastating to see than the father’s fury.

			That was it. It was the case that did her in. The ugliness of it; she was sick with it, like a flu she couldn’t shake. Gillian’s words knocked around her head for weeks and months.

			Bad people win. They win all the time.

			When just a few weeks after the crushing acquittal, Greg asked if she would consider staying home with the baby for a while, she agreed, surprising him—and herself. Money would be a bit tight, but whatever. She worked in news; layoffs were always looming. Money was always tight.

			She gave it up—the work that had defined her.

			Now, Markham was dead. She felt a tickle of relief. A sort of justice had been delivered, something in line with her good-always-triumphs-over-evil belief system. Murder? Suicide? Home invasion robbery gone wrong? Accident?

			A federal investigation underway. A connection to the Boston Boogeyman.

			Let it go. It’s not your story anymore.

			Lily gazed up at Rain and started kicking her legs happily.

			Or is it?


			The rain knocks on the tin roof and the sound of it always makes me think of you. Not because of the name you gave yourself. I never called you Rain.

			The sound reminds me of your childhood home. I used to love that old house, how it was deep back in the woods. Rooms dim, with wind chimes on the porch. Your father still lives there, doesn’t he?

			Your mother seemed always to be cooking, some black-and-white movie playing on that tiny portable television perched on the kitchen counter. Your father’s study smelled of leather and cigarette smoke.

			I’d marvel at his shelves and shelves of dusty books, the typewriter on the rickety wood table by the window. He had a computer, of course. But he’d write on that old thing and give your mother the pages to enter into “the box,” as he liked to call it. His keyboard clatter echoed down the hardwood floor of the hallway. I loved his tall thinness, the way his suit jackets hung off his broad shoulders. He was a writer, a real writer. You were often mad at him because he cared more about the page than he did about you, or so it seemed. I think you were wrong about that. You didn’t see the way he looked at you. As if you were a princess and a unicorn and a rainbow all rolled into one perfect girl.

			My house was different, sprawling and frigid, filled with light, professionally decorated, museum white and gray, expensive pieces of modern art chosen by my mother not for love, or because she had any idea what was truly beautiful, but because it “went with the room.” My father only cared about numbers. My mother, I’m not sure what she cared about then, before. Afterward, she had a kind of awakening, became someone else. But then, they worked all week, lay by the pool all weekend. They watched television in bed at night with the lights out. Sometimes I’d wake up and it would still be on, its blue glow flickering through the crack of the door left ajar. There were no books in my house, except in my room. My parents didn’t read. They didn’t have time, they said.

			Your parents used to play cards with us. Your mother had an art studio in the garage. We’d all make a big mess out there—drip paint on the floor, get it all over our clothes, the walls, each other. She’d only laugh and tell us that whatever creation wound up on the canvas, that it was beautiful. Your dad gave us a summer reading list. We saw him on the news sometimes, came across articles about him in magazines. You didn’t seem impressed; you were used to his brand of fame. But I was awed by him. Hey—remember that horrible review, written by some former friend of his? He sulked about it for days, muttering, shutting doors too hard. Your mother told us to play outside, not to hang around the house that week. But then the keyboard started clattering again. Because that’s what you do when you’re a writer, I guess. You just keep writing, no matter what they say about you.

			I’m rambling.

			Does that happen to you? Do you get lost in the memories of who we were before?

			Today, the black fingers of despair tug at me. They always do in the days that follow one of my—excursions; there’s a heavy grayness that settles. A sense of loss.

			In the planning, there’s so much energy and tension, the intensity raw and alive. And then when it’s done, some engine inside me sputters and dies, gears grinding to a halt. In that silence, I return to that moment right after I called to Mrs. Newman and just before I heard the sound that stopped me in my tracks on that dirt path to the woods. And I wish and wish anything had turned me back toward home.

			But, as you have told me more than once, we can’t go back. Everybody knows that.

			The rain is heavy, which is odd for this time of year. Maybe if it were cooler, it would be snow. The water sluices down the window as I build a fire in the great room. It’s too hot for a fire. But I haven’t built it for warmth.

			Article by article, I burn the clothes I wore last night, the gloves, the balaclava. And soon, everything I brought into Markham’s house with me is gone. The car is hidden. There’s no trace of me.

			Who am I? I often wonder the day after. Sometimes there’s even regret. What have I done? What does this make me? In the planning, in the hunt, in the execution, there’s nothing like that. But after, there’s a heaviness I carry. You told me once that the thoughts I harbored, the things I couldn’t let go, that it was wrong, that nothing good had ever come from wanting revenge. But what do you know about right and wrong?

			When the clothes are burned, I brew some coffee. I boil water and pour it over the grounds, the liquid trickling into the carafe through the brown filter. The Chemex, it’s elegant, simple. It’s the way your father brewed coffee. I used to admire him. I guess I still do, even after everything.

			When your heroes reveal themselves as human, it exposes your own flaws, too. Naivete, mainly, a willingness to believe in someone, something. Do you remember that book signing he did in that tiny store off of Main Street? We were kids then, but we tagged along with your mother. His big bestselling days were behind him. But his fans turned up in droves, repeating back lines to him that he’d long forgotten writing. In print, they referred to him as the father of dystopian fiction. Remember how people stood around the small store, how hot it was, how the line snaked outside and down the street? His flop of white hair, those round specs. I thought he was the coolest man alive.

			I drink my coffee and watch as the fire dies to embers, everything reduced to ash. I look at the row of his books on my shelves. All of them signed, first editions. They’re worth quite a bit, I think. Not that I’d ever part with them. Not that I’d ever part with any piece of you, or anything that connects back to the time when we were young together. The last safe place.

			Upstairs in my study, I get online, start scrolling through the news headlines. I miss seeing your name in print every day, Rain Winter. All your stories, even when later you started producing and editing instead, had a certain energy to them. A quiet authority. You let the facts tell the tale, never hyping, never proselytizing even in that subtle way that some journalists do. I loved the longer pieces, when you dug in deep to your subject, the characters at its heart. It was personal; I could tell.

			You’re still trying to understand, aren’t you, in your way? I am, too.

			I scroll through your social media feeds. A picture of your baby. Really? You and Greg, a selfie in the park. Come on. Your professional sites are wastelands of retweets and shares. On Insta there’s an artful shot of one of those smoking martinis, some party, moms’ night out. Christ. How long can you go on like this? I might have predicted it, though. Your retreat into the cocoon of domesticity.

			That look on your face when Markham got off. It wasn’t despair, exactly. It was more like a bitter resignation, the look of a child who discovers there’s no Santa. A part of you knew it all along. You shook your head slightly; your mouth dropped open just a little. You folded into yourself. You gave up on justice.

			You were back there in the woods with me. Remembering.

			Anyway, if I know you, you’re on fire today. That’s not why I did it. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t part of the reason. There was no rush; I could have done it anytime over the next few months. But your social media posts are downright depressing.

			Come back to life, Lara.

			My phone buzzes and the sound moves through me like electricity. The front gate.

			I touch the app to activate the camera and see a black sedan with a young woman sitting in the driver’s seat. There’s someone beside her, but I can’t see a face, just the thick thighs of a large man, a hand with a wedding ring. Interesting. I don’t get many visitors out here.

			“Can I help you?” I ask.

			She says my name. Her voice is husky, eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses. She holds her identification up to the camera.

			“We have a few questions about a case we’re working on,” she says. “I’m wondering if you can help us.”

			I could ask for her to identify her partner. But even through the rain and the grainy camera image, I can see her credentials are legit. There have been other visits from people like her over the years.

			I buzz her in and listen to the gate slide open with a squeal.


			Turkey tenderloin rubbed with herbs and sweet potatoes in the roasting pan, cooling on the stove, a kale salad tossed, wrapped and sitting in a bright red bowl in the fridge. Table set for three. Lily happy nearby with her blocks on the living room carpet—gotta love the open-plan room.

			At the kitchen table, laptop open, Rain scrolled through her contacts and paused when she came to the name that had been kicking around in the back of her head.

			She took a deep breath and dialed.

			“Well, well,” he answered. “I’m surprised, and I’m not surprised.”

			“Hey, Henry,” she said, already regretting her choice.

			“How’s the weather, Rain Winter?”

			“No complaints.” Rain watched Lily contented at play in their pretty living room; she didn’t have any but the most banal complaints. She was happy, mostly. Happier than most, maybe. Just a little restless. Still with that belly of fire.

			“I saw that a-dorable picture you posted on Facebook last night of your little princess covered in sweet potatoes. How cute.”

			A little jangle of unease. “Are we friends on Facebook, Henry?”

			“Uh, no,” he said. “We’re not.”

			He laughed a little into the silence that followed. “Oh, wait! Did you think it was private? Your little personal page under your married name? Come on, Rain. You know better than that, don’t you?”

			She didn’t even want to ask. “How do you have access?”

			He made a little tsking sound with his mouth.

			“I can’t tell you that, Rain. Sorry. Or should I say Laraine? Laraine Mitchell, your suburban mom avatar.”

			She smiled despite his obnoxiousness. She knew, of course, that her Facebook account, or really anything she did online, wasn’t secure. There was Firesheep, spyware, cloning software. A keylogger could capture each keystroke you made on your computer, revealing every password and login. Henry, dark web mole, probably had a hundred back alleys around the social media sites. She logged on quickly and scrolled through her friends. There he was, his wide face and glasses, Cheshire cat grin filling the thumbprint photo. She didn’t remember adding him. But maybe she had. He was likely just messing with her.

			Most people couldn’t stand Henry. But she kind of liked him. He was out there. He was smart. He said what he meant, right or wrong. He had skills—information, access, contacts.

			“Meanwhile,” he went on. “The Twitter feed of Rain Winter, former writer, editor and producer of National News Radio, former crime journalist extraordinaire, daughter of once-lauded-Pulitzer-Prize-winning-now-disgraced-writer Bruce Winter, lies fallow except for the occasional lackluster retweet. Weekly. Friday afternoons usually. Very little on Insta, but you were never great with that. Too cute for you, right? Following your digital footprints, or lack thereof, I’d say you had dropped out completely.”

			“Maybe I have,” she said.

			“So, this is a social call?” he said. “You want to grab a pumpkin spice latte and trade parenting tips?”

			She was pretty damn sure Henry Watt wasn’t married with children. She clicked on his page and it was totally blank except for the ID photo. “This account is private,” read the gray type.

			“Wait, let me guess,” he said. “Markham.”

			“Know anything?”

			She pulled up Henry’s website, started scrolling through. He was a professional news troll, a tipster with varying degrees of accuracy, and the owner, writer and editor of a blog that focused on crime and conspiracy theories, a newsletter that reached hundreds of thousands, and more than one person she knew went to him when all their other leads ran cold. Rain thought of him as a kind of mole, round-bodied and beady-eyed, connected through a network of murky tunnels to other creatures of the dark web. His tips had led her into mazes that came out nowhere, but sometimes he was dead-on.

			“Who’s asking?”

			“I am.”

			“I mean—why? For what organization?”

			Guys like Henry were the very reason real journalists didn’t consider indie blogging or podcasting. Because news, real news, was about facts and nothing else. It wasn’t about theories, and maybes, and best guesses. It wasn’t about running a story because you wanted to be the first to tell it and checking your facts later. It wasn’t about having an idea and finding people who agreed with you. You didn’t write and print your ideas. In fact, as a news journalist, you didn’t have ideas at all. You reported the facts, and let the facts tell the story. That simple. Something that had been lost in the fake news, social media information age. Still, sometimes you needed a renegade, especially when legitimate sources had closed to you. Or when you were on the outside looking in, like she was now. “I want to know,” she said. “Just me.”

			“It’s personal?”


			“I’m not sure I believe you,” he said. “I didn’t think the whole stay-at-home-mom thing was going to work for you. You have too much baggage.”

			A little jolt of annoyance caused her to act on impulse.

			“You know what, Henry? Just forget it.”

			She ended the call, heart thumping with frustration. He called her right back. She let it ring and go to voice mail. But when he called again a minute later, she answered.

			“Don’t lose your temper,” he said. His voice had lost some of its smugness.

			“What do you know, Henry?”

			“I might have someone on the inside.”

			Henry’s network was invisible, an army comprised of the people who didn’t get noticed. He wouldn’t know the coroner, for example, but he might know the coroner’s assistant, or even the janitor. He might not know the detective working a case, but he’d know the IT guy working at the precinct.


			“Let’s just say he’s in cleanup.”


			“Except there wasn’t much to clean up.”


			“Whoever did the job on Markham laid down tarps, almost as if he was trying not to make a mess, was meticulous about the scene. There was little physical evidence, some blood splatter from the victim. Obviously, they’re still waiting for the trace evidence analysis. But they aren’t hopeful that anything significant will come back.”

			She realized suddenly that she was holding her breath. She released it, loosened the grip she had on the phone.

			“How did he die?”

			She asked but she had a feeling she already knew.

			“He died the way Laney Markham died,” he said, his voice low and solemn. “Bound, gagged and stabbed more than twenty times with a serrated hunting knife.”

			She stared out the window to the street outside; a blue minivan cruised by, turned into her neighbor’s drive. The branches of the oak swayed, raindrops tapping at her window, and Lily stacked blocks with intent focus.

			A toxic brew of disgust, anger, relief bubbled. And, yes, that dark excitement—a feeling that shamed her somewhat. And was there also a not-so-small part of her that was glad Markham got what he deserved?

			“Like the Boston Boogeyman,” she said. “Killed the way he killed.”

			A pause, the tap, tap, tap of fingers on a keyboard.

			“You’ve done your homework,” he said.

			“Don’t I always?”

			“You do. You always do,” he said. “And just like someone else we know.”

			Rain didn’t say anything, braced herself for the sound of his name.

			“Eugene Kreskey,” Henry said when she didn’t.

			The sound of it sliced her, every time.

			There weren’t many people who remembered Rain’s ugly history. It was big news once, but it had faded in the bubbling morass of horrific crimes since then. Greg and, of course, her father knew. Gillian. And somehow, years ago, Henry had unearthed the horrible thing that happened to her when she was a kid. Not that it happened to her, exactly. It should have but it didn’t.

			“Is there a connection?” she asked, trying to keep her voice level.

			“Feds think so,” he said. “That’s what my guy said.”

			“Between all three?”

			“There might be others, too,” he said. “Two others, to be precise, that fit the parameters—someone got away with something vile. Then didn’t.”

			“A vigilante.”

			“Yeah,” said Henry, voice gone soft with admiration. “Exactly.”

			“Do you have files?” she asked.

			Another pause, that tap, tap, tap again.

			“What are you working on, Rain Winter?”

			It didn’t do any good to bullshit guys like Henry. They knew the truth when they heard it.

			Lies had a vibration, they tingled in the air, electric. A certain kind of person—Rain thought she was one of them—could feel it. That’s why she liked Henry. He might be a little crazy, sometimes wrong, but he was no liar. And he knew how to follow the questionable channels you sometimes had to take to the truth.

			“I don’t know yet,” she admitted.

			A pause, more tapping. “I’ll send you what I have.”

			Lily’s tower of blocks fell, and the baby issued a little cry of frustration, her face crumbling into a comical frown.

			“That’s not a monitor, is it?” said Henry. “Tell me you’re not using one of those things. You know anyone can hack into those, right? The audio and the video feed? And those home security cameras. Oh, my god. I’ll send you my blog.”

			“Thanks, Henry,” she said. “I’ll look forward to those files.”

			“They’re watching,” he said ominously. “Never forget that.”

			She sat a moment after ending the call, Henry’s words bouncing around her head. A text from Greg startled her back to the present.

			Sorry, babe. I’m running late. Don’t hold dinner.

			The words pulsed on the screen in front of her. She wasn’t surprised, of course. But there was a flutter of disappointment; the house felt eerily quiet.

			Rain and Lily ate together, Lily’s version of the meal cut into small bites and spread over her tray. The baby had a little plastic fork and spoon, neither of which she could be bothered to use unless to toss one onto the table, or the floor, or, fascinatingly, as a brush for her hair.

			“Maybe we’ll go for a ride in the car tomorrow,” she told Lily, wiping the baby’s mouth.

			Lily banged her spoon, sending some food flying. “Car! Car!”

			Rain was going to take that as a yes.

			After dinner, still no sign of Greg. So, she gave Lily a bath, the things Henry said swirling, the story already taking shape the way stories did, arranging themselves into a digestible narrative. Where did she need to go first? Who did she need to see?

			As she changed Lily’s diaper, dressed her for bed, she felt the eye of the baby monitor on her and glanced back to look at its glowing red light. She reached over and turned it away.

			Once Lily was down, Rain texted Gillian. She hesitated, fingers hovering over the little keyboard. Then, Feel like taking a little road trip?

			If she knew Gillian, her friend was on the treadmill in front of the television.

			Hmm. What did you have in mind?

			What did she have in mind? This story would have to begin at the end. Steve Markham’s end.

			She typed: Let’s pay our final respects.

			Rain didn’t have to wait long.

			Ha. I knew it. She’s baa-aack!


			The flames in the fireplace licked and danced, crackling. Rain had made it not for warmth but just to look at it, stare into the flames and sip on the glass of white she’d poured herself while she waited for Greg.

			Rectangles of light slid across the wall. Someone in the driveway. She stood and went to the window, watched her husband emerge from the SUV.

			The slouch to his shoulders, the slow way he moved, standing a second to rub at his temples before retrieving his bags from the back seat—he seemed so tired, run-down by work, by new parenthood. From a distance, for a moment, the shadow of his form was unfamiliar, as if she were seeing him for the first time. She wanted to run to him. Instead, she opened the door and went to stand on the porch.

			He paused at the bottom step, looked up at her. The cool of the day had turned downright chilly, a light wind tossing his hair.

			“Sorry,” he said. “I tried to get home earlier.”

			It was his default greeting lately. Rain felt a wash of compassion. He was working all day, and she was here in their safe, happy home with the baby. Yeah, it was hectic, all-consuming, a bit thankless. But it could also be peaceful, joyful, quiet—just the two of them. He might have a freedom that she no longer had—the freedom to come and go as he chose. But he faced different challenges—deadlines, the endless pressure to be right, to be first, an asshole boss, slackers on his team.

			All the things she thought she wanted to leave behind.

			She walked down the steps, wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him long on the mouth. He dropped his bag, and wrapped her up, lifting her a little off the ground.

			“How was your day?” Rain asked, pulling back a little.

			He kissed her again, soft, sweet, that familiar heat rising between them.

			“Better now.”

			The day, the things she’d learned and done, buzzed around her head. She led him inside. It was late, after nine, his dinner warming in the oven. She’d taken a shower, dressed, done her makeup. Usually, by the time he came home she was in loungewear, hair up, contacts out and glasses on.

			“Did I miss date night?” he asked in the kitchen, grabbing her from behind as she took the food from the oven. “You’re beautiful.”

			“I just thought you deserved to remember what I look like in something other than my pajamas,” she said, plating his food.

			“You’re beautiful in pajamas, too.”

			He took a seat at the kitchen bar and she poured him a glass of wine.

			“How was your day?” he asked. “How’s our girl?”

			She ran down the day—the jog in the park, the mundane tasks, activities, how much Lily was talking. He ran through his—a clash with the on-air talent, technical issues, still no word on the promotion he was sure to get.

			It was their agreement, that someone be home. Home and kids had to be someone’s primary job; it was a job. They’d chosen this and neither of them was supposed to complain. (Of course, they both did, all the time.) But they’d agreed to an audit at the end of the first year. How was everybody doing? How was the money situation? Was everybody happy? That conversation was overdue. She put his plate in front of him.

			“Hear anything today about Markham?” she asked, trying to segue toward that topic. She felt a flutter of nerves. She wasn’t sure why.

			“I heard the Feds took over—which I thought was a little odd,” he said, watching her. “We sent a crew over this afternoon, but no one’s talking. We were only able to run a small segment. You?”

			“I made a few calls, did a little research.”

			“What did you find out?”

			She told him what Christopher had told her, about her chat with Henry, about the press conference tomorrow. He nodded, rubbed at the stubble on his chin. Of course, he knew it all. He was downplaying. He’d lived the Markham case with her. He knew it had its hooks in her for all kinds of reasons.

			“What?” he said when she was done. He tapped his head. “What’s going on in there?”

			“I was just thinking.”

			He offered a curious frown. “I know that tone.”

			“I want to follow this new angle of the story.”

			“Follow it?” he said. He took a bite of turkey. “Hmm. This is good.”

			“Doing some follow-up work.”

			“Freelance?” he said, mouth full.

			“Something like that,” she said. “Something long-form. Like maybe a podcast.”

			The word felt awkward, even silly now that she’d put it out there. And the look on Greg’s face—something between confusion and disbelief—didn’t help.

			These kinds of things—podcasts, blogs, the self-published book—had a bad name in the industry. The internet had essentially killed traditional news, lowered all the standards for reporting, writing, editing. It undermined the educated, veteran journalists who cared about things like ethics and The Chicago Manual of Style. People were getting their “news” for free on social media, not necessarily interested in accuracy or correct grammar. It was a problem to be sure. But there was a renegade part of her that thought: Didn’t the establishment need to be toppled every now and then? If the voice of the people wasn’t necessarily polished or vetted, didn’t it still deserve to be heard?

			“There are people doing it well, legitimate long-form journalism,” she said. “I have the experience, the contacts. I’d seek advertisers, maybe hire someone to help me produce and edit.”

			He looked down at his plate, pushed some food around.

			“Have you seen our bank account?”

			Outside a car drove too fast past the house, revving its engine needlessly. The teenager up the block; Rain kept meaning to talk to his parents about his driving.

			“Or I could take it to NNR,” she said. “Not full-time again. But just this. Just this story as a feature. Andrew said I should pitch him whenever I had an idea.”

			She breathed to release the tension in her shoulders. Greg stayed quiet a moment. He shifted off his jacket. When did he go so gray around the temples?

			“What is it about this story?” He said it like he already knew the answer, and maybe he did. “Can’t let it go?”

			No. She couldn’t let it go. It had been eighteen months since Markham was acquitted, just over a year since she came home to be with Lily full-time. It was the story that broke her, that made her lose faith.

			She’d been thinking about this all day, since early this morning. She didn’t just choose to be a stay-at-home mom. She chose to walk away from work that stopped making sense. And she was okay with that. Until today. Until someone killed Steve Markham.

			“There’s no story here,” he said. “You get that, right? It was the brother or the father. Hell, maybe it was even her mother. Still waters run deep and all that. They’ll figure it out pretty quickly. Anyway, Markham’s dead. Just like if someone killed him in prison. A few segments, maybe a larger feature about the whole case somewhere. Maybe even a true crime book. But, really, death is the abrupt end of the story. There’s no mystery.”

			He took a few bites in silence.

			“Do you remember the Boston Boogeyman?” she said finally.

			“Of course,” he said. He wrinkled his nose in disgust. “The guy who abducted and murdered three boys over a five-year period in Massachusetts.”

			“And walked free.”

			Greg’s fork hovered between plate and mouth. A muscle twitched in his jaw as he watched her, remembering. “And then was found murdered in his home about a year later. Just like Markham. Just like—”

			He let the sentence trail. Neither one of them liked to say his name, as if it was a spell, a conjuring. Greg frowned instead, and she watched his gears spin, making all the connections, seeing the possibilities, the size and scope of the story. A newsman through and through. His shoulders straightened a bit.

			He took a bite of kale. “You think there’s a connection?”

			“I think the Feds think there’s a connection.”

			He had big brown eyes, with girlishly long lashes. His gaze could be sweet, loving. It could also pin you to the wall with its intensity.

			“So, Markham’s not the story.”

			“He’s a piece of a much bigger one. Like you said. That story’s over.”

			“So, what are you telling me?” he said, chewing slowly. “That you want to go back to work?”

			She peered down into her wineglass. Did she? Was that what she wanted?

			She was about to answer and ask for his help. But then Lily issued a wail through the monitor that startled them both. She moved toward the stairs, grateful to break away from the conversation, started to climb.

			“Hey, Rain,” he said, coming to stand at the bottom of the stairs. “Just one question. Is this about the story? Or is this about—what happened?”

			The question sent a jolt through her body, caused heat to come to her cheeks. She froze on the stairs.

			“You don’t have to answer,” he said, bowing his head and resting a hand on the banister. His tone was gentle. “Just think about it.”

			She kept moving up to the nursery.


			In the dim of the nursery, Rain rocked Lily, who was sound asleep again in her arms. She could have exited a while ago, but she hadn’t. She needed that warm body next to her heart. She wanted to stay in the pretty quiet of the baby’s room, just for a while.

			She rubbed at the deep scar on her right calf, which had been aching since her run. But maybe it wasn’t the exercise that caused it to throb.

			What happened.

			It was buried so deep that she never even thought about it anymore. Almost. Sometimes it surfaced in dreams when she was especially stressed or overtired. Sometimes it came back to her at odd moments—maybe it was a song from that time, or the smell of wet leaves, that certain pitch of a child shrieking in that way that could be delight or terror. Then it came back. Just this clutch in her throat, a hollow that opened in her middle. It was a hundred years ago, a million. But it wasn’t. It was yesterday.

			Back then they played. Out on the streets riding bikes with her friends, they had the run of the neighborhood. She walked through the acres of woods between developments, thick green above, ground sun-dappled and littered with leaves, and waded in the cool water of clean creeks. With her best friends, Tess and Hank, she rode to the corner store in the summer heat for ice cream, cicadas singing, heat rising off the blacktop in waves. Quiet afternoons leaked into evenings, the light turning that certain kind of golden orange reserved for summer. She’d arrive home dirty and hungry, with bruises and scrapes, tired just because they’d been in motion all day, running and falling, wrestling, riding, climbing. Her body used to ache, tingle with fatigue when she crashed into bed. And wasn’t there a kind of bliss in physical fatigue?

			She’d eat at the table with her mother, sometimes her father on the rare night when he stopped work at a decent time. Summer-night dinners were burgers, or steak, or chicken on the grill, and fresh corn on the cob, fluffy green salads, buttery baked potatoes. Tess and Hank were at her place a lot for supper. Both of Hank’s parents worked big jobs in the city; they were never around. Tess’s father had left when Tess was small, and her mother was an ER nurse at the big hospital in town. She was often around during the day, leaving Tess alone in the evenings or for the late shift. Sometimes Tess stayed with Rain’s family. Only Rain’s mother stayed home, cooking, cleaning, driving them around.

			After dinner, maybe they went out again, played with the other neighborhood kids. Flashlight tag. Fireflies in jars. Shrieks rang through the night, squeals of laughter. Eventually, always, someone started to cry. Then moms were on the porches, hands on hips. Time to go inside. Do it again tomorrow.

			That’s how Rain grew up, anyway. Most people seemed to think that kids had lost something, that freedom to roam, to play unfettered. But Rain knew better. Kids lost their freedom for a reason. Because it wasn’t safe to roam.

			But they didn’t know that then. They didn’t know anything.

			“My mom doesn’t want me to cut through the woods anymore,” said Rain that day, twelve. “She wants us to take the long way around if we’re going to meet Hank.”

			She stood on the edge of the road. Here it turned off onto a dirt path that ran between two neighborhoods. The dirt path would carry them over a stone bridge, through a stand of trees, until it let them out by a field. From there it was another five minutes to Hank’s house.

			“The street is more dangerous, don’t you think?” said Tess with a shrug. “More cars lately.”

			That was true. There was a hairpin turn with one of those mirrors mounted up in the tree so you could see who was coming from the other direction. But there were lots of teenagers driving. They drove too fast, were looking at the radio or at each other, anything but the road ahead. A kid had been struck on his bicycle last summer. He was okay, walked around with a cast for a few weeks. They all signed it.

			It wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule, as Rain saw it. More like a mention over breakfast.

			Stay out of the woods, okay?


			Mom paused like she did when she didn’t want to answer, looked over to Rain’s father, who was hidden behind the newspaper.

			Just listen to your mother, darling. Her father rarely had rules, or chimed in on her mother’s. In fact, if her father ever told her to do anything, it was to question the rules, ask anything, push the boundaries. Believe half of what you see, he was famous for saying. And nothing of what you hear.

			“Besides,” said Tess. “It will take forever.”

			She was right. It was a long way around, two big hills, an extra fifteen minutes, maybe more. And it was hot. Just before ten in the morning and it was already blazing. They didn’t have their bikes. Tess had a flat and her mom said she’d fix it over the weekend. So they were on foot. The sun was bright, and the creek was babbling. She saw the red flash of a northern cardinal, heard its cry of alarm. It was a fairy-tale forest, a place they knew as well as they knew their own backyards.

			“Fine,” said Rain, following her friend onto the path.

			No cell phones. Rain thought about that a lot now. If they’d had phones, how would that day have been different? Would she have called her mom? Would their mothers have been tracking them the way people did now? Maybe her phone would have rung just then: I told you to stay away from the woods! Come home this instant!

			But there were no phones to ring. Just two girls, twelve going on thirteen. Neither one of them especially cool. Smart, A-students, but naive, sheltered. Tess had braces and enormous glasses, wore her mousy blond hair in braids; Rain, in braces, too, her black hair was wild, untamable. She couldn’t shimmy the rope in gym class to save her own life. Rain already knew she was a writer, like her father. Tess, an accomplished horseback rider, as at ease in a saddle as she was on a bicycle, was certain she was going to become a veterinarian. And Hank, who they were on their way to meet at his house because he had a pool, well, he was just a comic-book, video-game nerd. All he wanted to be when he grew up was a superhero. They were merely waiting for him to get bitten by a spider, or fall into a vat of toxic sludge, and emerge with his powers.

			“What’s wrong with the woods, anyway?” asked Tess. She was rail-thin, coltish, prone to tripping. “Since when can’t we walk through?”

			Rain looked at her jagged cuticles. She wasn’t clear on her mother’s reasoning. “My mom just said.”

			They almost didn’t see him; the big man sat as still as a boulder by the side of the creek. They might have walked right over the bridge and passed him without noticing—if not for the dog.


			She practically jumped out of her skin, adrenaline rocketing through her. Lily whimpered, shifted crankily in her sleep at the sudden movement. Greg stood over her, a hand on her shoulder.

			“Did you fall asleep?” he whispered. He lifted Lily from her arms, kissed the baby’s head softly and placed her in the crib. He stood watching their little girl.

			Rain came to stand beside him, and he turned to her.

			“I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have said that. It was a low blow.”

			He put his arms around her again and they stood swaying, turtles from the nightlight dancing on the walls.

			You were right, she wanted to say but didn’t. It is about what happened. Everything Rain had done since that day was about what happened. How could it not be?

			She let the comfort of the room, her husband’s arms, the present moment wash over her. She pushed that day, and everything that happened after, back down into the box where she kept it, and locked it up tight. She envisioned herself throwing the key down a deep well.

			Don’t let this slow you down, kid. Her father had issued this directive right after, and at critical moments since. If you let it get its claws into your haunches, it’s over. Remember that.

			She’d been running. Fast as she could. Why did she always find herself back there?

			“Whatever you want to do,” Greg whispered. “Whatever you need, I support it.”

			“Thank you,” she said, holding on to him tight.

			But wasn’t there a part of her that wished he’d stop her? That he’d tell her no, that Lily came first, and they’d agreed someone should be home full-time. Wasn’t there a part of her that wished he’d keep her from following that trail into the woods? Again.

			They stood there awhile, holding each other, watching Lily, the big, sweet-faced moon hanging from the ceiling watching them. Her eyes drifted outside to the street, where she saw the headlights of a sedan switch on across the street. The car sat idle for a moment, then pulled away slowly. Her heart thumped.

			It’s nothing. It’s no one, she told herself. Even though a part of her knew it was a lie.


			Do you see me? Do you know it’s me?

			He loves you. That’s obvious as I watch you hold on to him, sway in the dim light of the nursery. I shift in my seat, stare at the monitor in my hand, its glow shining blue on the dash, on the door. I’m happy for you, believe it or not. I didn’t think you two would actually get married, let alone stay married. Of course, it’s early days. Still, you seem to get each other. It’s not perfect—I’ve heard the two of you fight, and fuck, make up, argue again. But it’s healthy. It’s real. When he kisses you, I turn the monitor off.

			I start the engine and drive away.

			You know what I remember about that day, Lara? Everything. Every detail.

			I woke shivering because my parents kept that house as cold as a fucking icebox, didn’t even bother turning it up when they left for work. They were both gone, as usual, when I got up.

			Remember that feeling? That summer feeling. You open your eyes and there’s absolutely nothing to do. The day stretches ahead, leisurely and beautiful. No school, no responsibilities, no chores in my case—hey, there was a cleaning service for all that—just the blissful freedom of the unsupervised adolescent.

			I knew you guys were coming, that we’d swim. There’d be pizza and video games, and some stupid movie. I figured we’d ride our bikes back to your place. Your mom always made dinner; my parents might not come home until eight, carrying fast-food burgers or fried chicken in greasy white sacks—they loved their junk food, didn’t they? Remember how we’d eat that later, too? Eat at your place, eat again at mine. Your dad would come for you, so you wouldn’t ride home alone in the night. Sometimes you’d just leave your bike and get it the next day.

			I had a stack of new comics that my dad brought the night before from his favorite shop in the city. I read one—Batman—as I ate a huge bowl of Cocoa Puffs, then drank the chocolate milk that was left behind. The way we ate. Remember how we’d ride to the general store and buy bags of junk—gum and candy bars, those peanut butter cookies, and cheesy puffs, potato chips in cans. We’d just sit on the sidewalk and eat it all. I look at those old pictures and we were all so skinny. I guess that’s the magic of being a kid, right. Eat whatever you want. No consequences. Until much later.

			I remember the sunlight glittering on the pool. The birds singing in the backyard. The hum of a lawn mower from across the street. There was a note from my mom: Get out and do something today. Don’t just lie around in front of the television. Love you!

			Later, she blamed herself. She should have been home. If she had been—The way I see it, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

			The last time I wrote, you told me that you didn’t remember much of anything. You told me that you didn’t want to remember. That’s when you asked me to stay away, to stay out of your life. If you could go back and relive that day, change things, you would. But you can’t, you said, so you had no choice but to move on. You politely suggested that I do the same. Move on.

			It’s so easy for you.

			Not so easy for me, of course.

			What if I hadn’t gone out looking for you and Tess? What if I had, instead, called you