Authors: D.J. Palmer
“Look, I get that I don't exactly have my life together. But that's no reason for you not to believe me. He killed her,” Hugh said glumly, then shrugged. “But my conscience is clean.”
It was clear Hugh
Simon was responsible for his sister's death, but he hadn't convinced Nina of the fact. On top of that, Nina had a possible new understanding of Simon's concerns around her job, his irrational fear that she might end up as dysfunctional as Emma.
Nina set her business card on the table and stood to go.
“Hugh, I'm sick to my stomach that I may have fed your habit, but I had to know what you wanted to tell me. Now that I know, I sincerely regret paying you. If you give me the money back, right now, I'll use it to fund your drug treatment. I'll pay more if needed. Please, Hugh, please. You need help.”
Hugh laughed and shook his head in mild disgust.
“No, lady,” he said firmly. “You do.”
Last week Connor threw a touchdown pass, his first ever, but it wasn't enough to give his team a win in the playoffs. Bad for him, good for me, because now he had a free afternoon to help us figure out the mystery of Simon's rental property. When I told him what Ben had found out, Connor was intriguedânot because he thought Simon was up to anything, but because he saw it as a way to help ease some tension at home. Like me, Connor loved our mom, and unlike me, he liked Simon. He wanted things to be lovely and peaceful, so if proving there was nothing going on would get me off the Simon warpath, he was all for helping.
It was Connor's idea to borrow a time-lapse camera that belonged to the father of his best friend, Luke. Apparently, and I'd only just found this out, hunters use time-lapse cameras to help track their prey. Didn't seem fair to me, but I got itâyou have to know where the animals are to shoot them. In a way, we were like hunters, staked out in the woods across from Simon's home by the lake. We rode our bikes there, Ben, too, and kept them out of sight behind some trees. There were neighbors on each side of Simon's house, but the trees would keep us well hidden.
Connor went to work attaching the camera's straps to a tree in front of Simon's place. He checked the line of sight to make sure he could get a good shot. The camera was boxy and camouflaged like hunting gear. It was easy to miss, even close up. From our hiding spot, we couldn't
see the lake behind the house, but we could feel the cold breeze blowing off the water. The clouds were thick and heavy, and I hoped the rain would hold off until evening, as predicted.
I had on a sweater and wool hat but forgot my gloves, leaving my fingers frozen as icicles. Ben's glasses kept fogging up, and he had to clean them frequently on his jacket sleeve. We were down on the ground, where it was even colder, pulling dead leaves around our bodies like animals making a nest. Connor, who was more into skiing than I was, didn't seem bothered by the chilly temps. He pushed and pulled at the camera, making sure it was secured tightly in case the wind picked up.
When he finished, Connor came over to where Ben and I were half buried, looking down at us like we were a couple of crazies.
“What are you two doing on the ground?” he asked.
“We're hiding in case someone shows up,” I whispered.
“Stop whispering,” Connor said in a loud voice, sounding annoyed. “Nobody is around here. You're being a little freak.”
I got up, leaves raining down from my body as I stood. Ben did the same.
“Is the camera all set?” I asked.
“All set,” he said. He took out his phone and showed us the app that controlled the camera's settings. “I set the time-lapse frequency to fifteen minutes, and the duration is set to all day. The photos automatically get deleted every few hours.”
“What happens at night?” asked Ben.
“Shuts down to save battery,” Connor said. “It'll power on by itself at sunrise.”
“Isn't Luke's dad going to wonder what happened to it?”
Connor had said something about the camera costing over two hundred dollars, so I figured he'd notice it was gone.
“Nah, he bought a new one. This has been in a box for like, a year. No problem there.” Connor's smile faded as a serious look came to his face. “But you and you,” he said, pointing at me and Ben, “need to stop
with this nonsense about Simon once I get proof that nothing is going on here.”
I nodded because that was the deal I'd struck with him. I was okay with it, too. Even if this didn't work out, I still had my other secret hope about how we'd get rid of Simonâthe one about our dad.
I wondered if Dad was camped out in the woods of Vermont like we were camped out now. I had messaged him on Talkie every day with no reply, and tried the number he had called me from countless times, but never got an answer. As much as I wanted to know where he was, why he left, I had to know what Mom did to him and what he planned to do about it.
Then I thought about our last call suddenly going dead. I tried not to think the unimaginableâthat
was dead in a ditch somewhere, that the people chasing after him had found him, those kinds of thoughts. But I had this knowing, a deep-in-my-bones kind of knowing, that he was fine, that he was going to come back and everything would be like it had been. He'd get over his anger at Mom, whatever that was all about; Mom would realize she loved Dad, not Simon; and we'd be a family again. I believed this even if our spying expedition turned out to be a big waste of time.
With no warning, and seemingly for no reason at all, Connor gasped and his eyes grew wide with fright, as if something terrible was about to happen. He looked every which way, his body crouched, tense, head darting, searching for the safest route to run.
“It's a drug dealer,” he whispered in a mocking way. “No, no, it's a prostitute.”
Connor straightened and curled his lip at me in disgust. “Really, you two clowns have been streaming too much crap on the internet.”
I shouldn't have told Connor what we thought we might find, but he'd demanded some kind of explanation for the stakeout, and Ben's theory about prostitution or drug dealing was the best one we had.
Connor was done. He was going for his bike. It was a long ride back home, a lot of it uphill. Mom was at work, thinking I was at Ben's
house, and Simon was out of the house, we didn't know where, when we left, but we all had to get home soon or questions might get asked.
“Listen,” Connor said, taking a serious tone. “You've got to get over this Simon business. I mean it, Maggie. After we prove this was a waste of time, no more. You've got to accept the fact that Dad is dead and Simon is in our life now.”
My heart shattered because Connor should knowâno, he
to know; he deserved the truth as much as I did. It wasn't fair of me to keep the secret from him. No matter what our father thought, I
trust Connor. I'd explain that Dad would be in danger if the police found out he was alive. All I had to do was show him the Talkie messages we'd been exchanging to feel a million pounds lighter. The harsh wind felt like a slap across my face, like it was my father's hand punishing me for breaking my vow.
“Connor,” I said, reaching for my phone. “There's somethingÂ â¦ something I need to tell you.”
But before I could get the words out, I heard the sound of car wheels coming down the road. All three of us froze like deer sensing a predator.
“Get down,” Connor said in a harsh whisper, no joking this time.
We all went down quickly as the car came into view. But it wasn't a car, it was Simon's truck, which I recognized even before he turned into the driveway, flashing us his signature bumper sticker:
I'M A TEACHER, WHAT'S YOUR SUPERPOWER?
“What's he doing here?” whispered Ben, who looked extremely nervous, like this was the first time he'd done something wrong and was about to get caught in the act.
“I bet he's meeting a prostitute,” Connor said with a grin. “It is his house, dummies.”
Ben shook his head in disgust as if to say Connor was too immature for his liking.
“Quiet,” I hushed them as Simon got out of his truck. He did not look suspicious, worried, hurried, or anything like that. He looked ex
actly like, well, Simonâkhaki pants and a heavy jacket over what I presumed was some kind of polo shirt. He closed the door of the truck with a bang. Connor shifted position and a large branch snapped under his weight. The crack drew Simon's attention, and his head pivoted in the direction of the noise.
I let out a gasp, loud enough for Ben to shush me. We lay frozen on the ground as if encased in ice. Simon's probing eyes searched the trees for the source of the noise. I turned my head to look at Connor, who didn't look so cocky anymore. He must have been thinking what I was thinking:
We can't explain being here
. Talk about things getting awkward at home.
Ben was breathing loudly beside me. I watched Simon advance down the driveway, his gaze locked on the woods.
“Oh shit, I think he sees us.”
Connor's warning got Ben ready to bolt, but I held him down. Even that little bit of movement rustled the leaves underneath him, drawing Simon forward right up to the top of his driveway, then beyond.
When he crossed the road, Simon walked to the edge of the woods, put his hands on his hips, and stood perfectly still. Ben's breathing became increasingly shallow. I risked a glance. His face was white as a sheet. Dots of sweat popped up on his forehead even in this chill.
Simon took a single step into the woods. I heard leaves crunch under his foot. For a second, I thought Ben was going to get up and make a run for it. I moved my hand, slowly as could be, over to Ben, whose cold fingers interlocked with mine. We made eye contact. I tried not to breathe too hard, too fast, but I was quaking inside. Turning my head, I watched Simon take another step into the woods, peering through the trees, now no more than fifteen yards from our hiding spot. Ben squeezed my hand harder. I was coiled so tight I thought I might spring up by accident. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Connor looking as nervous as I felt.
Simon took another step. I held my breath. I'm sure both Ben and Connor were doing the same. He fixed his gaze right on the spot where
I was hiding, and I swore he saw me, but instead of advancing, he turned and started walking back to his driveway. Moments later, he was inside his house. We waited. Nobody moved a muscle for what felt like an hour, but it was probably only a few minutes.
“Okay,” Connor whispered. “Take the bikes through the woods. Don't get on them until we reach Black Oak.”
I nodded as I stood. My legs were stiff and cold. We formed a line, Connor in front, me in the middle, Ben taking up the rear. We kept low as we pushed our bikes as quiet as could be over the dead leaves carpeting the forest floor. I took the whole terrifying encounter as a sign from Dad to keep his secret at least for one more day.
I turned my head to look back at the house and felt my stomach drop when I saw that the curtains in the front room were parted. From my position, I could see Simon looking out the window in our direction. Then, I watched as he pulled those curtains closed.
Regret is an awful thing. It filled Glen with shame and sadness. There were things he missed, of course. Football games. Lacrosse games. Cookouts. Fishing. Those hazy memories that would flitter in and out of his mind at random intervals all the days he sat chained in the box. But regret was its own special kind of torture. It was more potent than depression, boredom, longing, even memories. Because at the root of regret lay helplessnessâan inability to change a desired outcome.
If onlyÂ â¦
Those, he'd come to believe, were the two most destructive words for the mind.
If only he'd told Maggie to run.
If only he'd passed a message to her.
If only he'd kept his mouth shut at his job.
If only he hadn't gone to the Muddy Moose.
If only he appreciated his family more.
If onlyÂ â¦
Glen kept hearing Maggie's voice over and over in his head, sweet and unsure, and the sound crimped his heart anew. He had failed his family in a whole new way. He had one chance, one swing of the bat, and he had missed. Simon would never let him talk to Maggie again. He had made that abundantly clear.
Glen's stomach rumbled with hunger. He'd been left with no food. He embraced the pain; he deserved it for his failure.
Swing and a missÂ â¦
But hours went by, and maybe even days; hard to track time down here.
All he knew was that Simon hadn't visited the box, maybe for the longest stretch yet.
Is this how I'm going to die?
Glen asked himself over and over. Left alone. Completely forgotten. If so, at least he wouldn't have to bear witness to his family's suffering any longer. At least he'd be gone.
His bathroom had a foul reek. The water he'd been rationing was running low. The batteries of his LED light were nearly out of juice, but it didn't much matter. He couldn't read even if he had wanted. His mind was elsewhere. Soon he'd be in the dark. Then he'd waste away. Maybe it wasn't so awful. He considered it almost romantically. One day he'd close his eyesÂ â¦ and then all those regrets would be gone. Someday someone would crash through the wall of the box to find his bones shackled to a chain. Then, those who mattered to him most, assuming his family was still alive, would at last have some closure.
Glen was entertaining these thoughts when the door to the box flew open, and light flooded in. Simon was there, looming in the doorway.
“Did you say something to Maggie? Did you get a message to her somehow?”
“No,” Glen said, cowering, slinking away. His first inclination was always to move to safety, but there was no safe corner in the box. Simon stayed rooted and Glen quickly got the sense he didn't come to hurt him; he came for answers.
“I think she was here, with her friend. Now, why would that be?”
Glen got anxious, too.
Why would that be?
“She's probably curious about you. She's inquisitive. It's her nature.”
Simon appeared lost in thought. “Maybe so,” he said, rubbing his chin. “But if I find out you're lying, Glenâ¦”
He didn't bother finishing.
“Nina's been in contact with my ex-brother-in-law, Hugh,” said Simon. “Why?”
“Who is Hugh?”
“Emma's brother. He's a junkie. A loser. I decided to start checking Nina's Facebook app on her phone. Careless girl never logs out. Sure enough, she and Hugh have been exchanging messages about me. He wants to meet her. Maybe they've already met. Now, why would Nina reach out to him? What's she thinking?”
Glen was Simon's best source for information. Knowing Nina the way he did, he could venture a guess.
“Obviously, she's looking into you. Something's made her nervous and she wants to know things about you. Things you might not be sharing.”
“The therapist?” Simon wanted the source.
“For sure, that.”
“I thought the same. But I also went to the Muddy Mooseâsee if Teresa Mitchell returned. That would be a problem. Remember her?”
Glen said nothing.
“Well, she is back. I bet you
Nina went to see her. If she did, she'd have found out your love story was just a little one-night stand. Why, why, why does this all have to get so complicated?”
It sickened Glen to imagine what Nina must have thought of him all this timeâa liar, a thief, an adulterer. His spirit lifted somewhat at the possibility she'd learned part of the truth.
Glen knew that Simon had carefully planned the setup with Teresa. He loved talking about his cleverness. At first he wasn't going to use Teresa's name in that text message he sent Nina. When Simon learned Teresa had taken off, leaving no forwarding address, and nobody counted on her coming back, he decided to add more detail, thinking it made the story more believable.
The pictures he'd sent, coupled with the lie, had served their purpose well. As long as Nina believed Glen had enjoyed a torrid affair, it made it easier for her to move on with another manâspecifically Simon.
Simon made a tsk-tsk sound. “I didn't think she'd go looking for that waitress after all this time. Damn therapy.”
And that's when Glen knew Simon intended to kill Teresa, if for nothing else than out of sheer vindictiveness.
“You must be hungry.” A kinder look came to his face. “I'll make you some eggs. Then I got to get home for dinner. Pasta primavera tonight. Yum. Maybe I'll come back later and let you watch TV. I'm thinking you're going to be really interested in the evening news.”
“The news?” Glen was confused.
“Yes, sirâthe monster is on the loose.”
Glen went cold inside. “Simon, what have you done?”
“You'll see soon enough. Thought I did a better job of it, but no worries. I wore a mask. It's not like she's going to identify me or anything, and besides I left plenty of reasons for the police to look elsewhere.”
Glen's mind wandered, as it tended to do, from this thought to that, and he wasn't concerned about monsters, or the news.
He was thinking about Maggie.
Why was she here?
gotten a message to her, unwittingly even? Was it possible? And just like that, hope returnedâhope tempered with a great deal of worry.
The house was alarmed; not with one system, but two. The second system was a solar-charged backup in case of a power failure. That backup alarm sent an alert directly to Simon's cell phone anytime someone entered the house.
Glen prayed nobody got the foolish idea to come looking here alone.
Simon was about to shut the door, but turned back to Glen.
“I think Nina's going to quit this time. I really do.” Simon looked
quite pleased with himself. “If not, I've got one more thing to try. Anyway, here's to hoping.”
The door clicked shut. Alone again.
Glen's LED light flickeredÂ â¦ flickeredÂ â¦ and returned him to darkness.