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MY SON IS A MURDERER.
The words hovered in Emily's mind.
She said them aloud, "My son is a murderer."
But they sounded no more believable than when they were rattling around in her head. Why did her mind do this? Why did it conjure up the worst of her fears? One that was neither logical nor possible? So far, like Tucker, the girl, Jessica Sweet, was only missing, not dead, and whatever more dire connection might exist between them was a figment of Emily's overactive imagination, the result of too little sleep and too much worry. It was the uncertainty that was killing her. If only she could know Tucker was safe.
She stared over the foot of the bed, beyond the circle of lamplight, into new morning light that was as pale as a milky eye. Behind the closed bathroom door, the sound of the shower was a muted hiss. The sharp crease of light on the floor under the door assured her Roy was in there performing his morning routine. Even in retirement, he was a man of routine, of habits that were as predictable as moonrise.
Heart thudding, she looked at the telephone on the night-stand near her elbow and then at the bathroom door. Was she prepared for what would happen if she went through with it, if she dialed 9-1-1? Was there time before Roy was finished? The sound of the shower clattered in her ears. She lifted the cordless receiver from its base.
Impossibly his fingers closed over her wrist. "Don't, Em."
Her gaze bounced. A breath went down hard. "Someone has to"
"Tucker's been gone almost two weeks, Roy. It's not like him."
"What do you mean? He pulls this stunt all the time, his damn disappearing act, and the hell with us left behind to worry."
"But never for this long. I think we should call the police."
"No," Roy repeated.
"What if he's been in an accident?" Emily asked. "What if he got mugged or someone took him? He could be lying somewhere hurt." Her voice picked up speed; it caught on her panic. "He could have amnesia."
"You're making yourself crazy." Roy sat beside her. "He's making us both crazy." Emily started to answer, but Roy talked over her. "He's thirty-four years old, for Christ's sake, a grown man. Why is he still living here? Why isn't he out on his own?"
"He's tried, Roy. You know he has." Emily stopped. They'd had this discussion so many times; she knew it by heart. If she were to go on and say the rest of it, that some children took longer to grow up, that if they were patient Tucker would eventually find his way, Roy would say she was making excuses. She would be moved to defend herself. They would go back and forth, making an endless loop of words that would resolve nothing.
He picked up her hand and met her gaze. The wan circle of lamplight silvered the gray bristle of his closely cut hair. With the tip of her finger, she traced a darker line of fatigue that grooved his cheek. He was exhausted from the stress; they both were. "I want some peace and quiet in our lives," he said. "Is that so much to ask? Haven't we earned it by now?"
"Yes," she said. "And we'll have it, you'll see. When we find Tucker, we'll sit down together"
"God help us if it's happening again, Em." He looked hard at her.
But she wasn't having it and looked away. "Don't be ridiculous," she said, even though only moments ago, she'd been in the same place, entertaining the same anxiety. She thought of reminding Roy that Tucker had been furious when he left, and given his mood, it wasn't terribly unusual that he hadn't called. He'd walked out angry any number of times before, and while it was true that he didn't ordinarily stay away this long, it was still possible that was all this disappearance amounted to. Except it wasn't, and something inside her knew it, knew that this time was different.
It was like a crack in the earth, imperceptible to the naked eye, but there all the same, a warning, an omen. Setting the phone receiver on the nightstand, she pressed her fingertips to her temples. "I want him home," she said, putting her feet over the bedside. "I want to know he's all right."
"I think it's a mistake to call this his home, Em." Roy was in his closet now, pulling on a pair ofjeans. "I think when he shows up, we need to set boundaries, set a concrete date that he has to be out of here. We've done all we can for him, more than most parents would."
"It might be different if you wouldn't lose your temper,"
Emily said. "If you could give him the benefit of the doubt the way you do Lissa. If you could just"
"Just what, Em?"
She didn't answer; she was out of energy, suddenly past the wish to explain. She looked at the floor. If he'd been our first, he might have been our last. The old joke, one she'd heard other parents make, drifted through her mind. She didn't find it particularly amusing even though she'd resorted to it on occasion herself. Would she have had another child had it been Tucker and not Lissa who came first? No one could have asked for a lovelier or more obedient child than Lissa, and Evan, the man she'd chosen for her husband, was a godsend. Emily and Roy relied on him, his steadiness, his kindness and good sense. Even Tucker seemed calmer and more content when Evan was nearby.
"What would you tell the police if you called them?" Roy emerged from the closet. "What evidence do you haveof anything wrong, I mean?"
"How do you know they don't have him already?"
"We would have heard."
"The girl who disappeared," Emily began, because it was impossible, after all, not to voice the fear that was uppermost in both their minds, "the one everyone is looking for, Jessica Sweet, I think I recognize her name. What if Tucker knew her, dated her like he did Miranda?"
"Like I said before, God help us if that turns out to be the case." Roy stuffed his shirt hem into his jeans and threaded his belt through the loops. "I'll tell you right now, I can't handle that again."
The drama, Roy meant, the horrible way it had endedin Miranda's murder of all things. Emily picked at her thumbnail. She and Roy had welcomed Miranda Quick when Tucker first began dating her in high school; they'd grown fond of her. They knew her family from church, knew her to be a sweet girl, the very sort of girl Emily could imagine as a daughter-in-law, but after graduation Miranda changed, becoming restless and unhappy. She went out nights alone. Tucker had had no idea where she was or what she was doing, and when he found out, it devastated him. But he loved her, and he was determined to stay with her even after she proved herself unworthy of his devotion.
He remained faithful, while Miranda broke his heart over and over. Emily had never felt so helpless and frustrated. Then, just when she thought it couldn't get worse, Miranda went missing and Tucker was the one who found her body. A day later, the police came for him. They questioned him for hours. His picture was everywhere in the media; he was labeled a person of interestin a murder investigation. How? Emily still couldn't wrap her mind around it, how her son had become involved in something so horrifying. She blamed Miranda. Miranda was the cancer who had gotten her hooks into Tucker. She was the blight of their lives, and if it was possible, Emily believed she hated Miranda more now that she was dead, and she truly didn't care if she went to hell for it.
Switching off the bedside light, she felt the mattress give when Roy sat down to put on his shoes, felt the heat from his palm when he flattened it on her back. He said he would make the coffee. "I'll bring it up to you with some toast and that marmalade you like. How about it?"
Ordinarily, she would have been delighted. Roy wasn't the sort of man who was comfortable in the kitchen. A construction site was more his domain; hard physical labor was his refuge, and providing a good living for his family was his contribution, his source of pride. Or it had been until last fall when he retired. Emily encouraged it. She imagined they would do things together, finish building the lake house, plant a vegetable garden. She'd dreamed of more exotic possibilities, traveling on the Orient Express or learning ballroom dancing, but in a very not-funny way, there was just something about having your son's nametheir own Lebay family namelinked to a murder investigation that caused such visions to lose their luster.
Pushing aside the bed linen, she told Roy she would make the coffee, that she needed to get up, to be busy. But then she was sorry not to have accepted his invitation, because when they came downstairs, he didn't accompany her into the kitchen. Instead, he disappeared into his office.
Emily heard the door close, the click of the lock, and she sighed. Standing at the counter, she parted the checked curtains at the window over the sink. The view was as familiar to her as the image of her own face. Her great-grandfather had built this house, and it had come down to her through the generations. She grew up here and could recall the very year her parents remodeled the old carriage house to accommodate two cars and the workshop, where, like her dad, Roy would go to putter. Beyond it, there was an alley. Closer in, a huge old elm tree centered the bit of backyard, housing a picnic table that Roy built and a wood-seated swing. After they were married in the spring of 1972, on his good days, Roy had pushed her in that swing.
"Higher!" she hollered at him, laughing. "Higher!" she shouted.
And later, he pushed her while she held their children as infants in her arms.
They had been happy, hadn't they? They weren't different from other families in the neighborhood. They shopped and vacationed and participated in community events. They attended church. And like their neighbors, they'd had their share of good times and bad.
Emily started the coffee, and while she waited for it to brew, she collected the Monday editions of the two newspapers they read from the front porch. Their small-town newspaper, the Hardys Walk Tribune, was lighter in weight and folksier in tone than the Houston Chronicle. On her way back to the kitchen, she paused at Roy's office door, and putting her ear against it, she listened and heard nothing. Only the sound of the tall grandfather clock on the landing in the front hall. The rhythmic tock tock was magnified like heartbeats in a row. Gunshots fired in evenly spaced salute.
She straightened. In her mind's eye, she could see Roy sitting at his desk, and on the wall opposite him, she saw the gun case that housed his collection. The glass front would hold a faint reflection of his image, doing whatever it was he did in there these days. She hoped he wasn't brooding. The guns worried her. She didn't like thinking it, and perhaps it was only a temporary effect of retirement, but there was something in his demeanor in recent weeks that was beginning to remind her of the wounded man he was when he came back from the war in Vietnam. He'd tried hard to hold in the horror, closing himself off from her, not wanting to burden her, he said. They'd worked through it eventually, but it had taken a near-tragedy to bring him around.
She tapped on the door. "Coffee's ready," she said through the panel, and she was relieved to hear his acknowledgment, to hear the leather creak as he rose from his chair. He followed her into the kitchen, and she thought the drag of his step sounded more uneven than usual. She wanted to turn and look, to ask if his pain was worse, but he didn't like her fussing over him.
She unsheathed both papers from their plastic wrappers and set them, still folded, on the table, and that's when she saw ita piece of the missing girl's, Jessica Sweet's, face. It was looking out from the front page of the Chronicle. Above it, Emily glimpsed two words: found and dead, and her heart slammed into the wall of her chest. Any moment now, Roy would see it, too.
She brought the toast to the table and sat across from Roy. She was aware of the newspaper between them and was seized by a sudden, heated and irrational urge to tear it to shreds. She imagined Tucker coming through the door. He would put his arms around her; he would say how sorry he was to have caused her such concern. She would tell him about the dead girl, show him her picture, and he'd be sorry for her, too. But he wouldn't know her. He wouldn't have loved her or shared a messy, emotional history with her the way he had with Miranda Quick.
Emily picked up her slice of toast and then set it down, thinking if she had to sit here through another day without word from Tucker, or about him, she would come out of her skin.
She caught Roy's glance.
"What?" he said.
"Why don't we ride out there?"
"Where?" he asked, but she was certain he knew.
"What for? There's nothing to see," he said. "A slab, pipes, a frame. I ought to get Evan to send a crew out there to pull it down. I'll sell the land."
Evan had worked for Roy in the family construction business long before becoming Lissa's husband. Evan and Lissa ran the company now since Roy's retirement. Tucker would have had a share in running it, too, if he was in the least reliable.
Emily touched Roy's hand. "I think you should finish the house. It would take your mind off" She didn't want to say Tucker, so she said, "Things, you know. You need a project. Once it's finished, if you don't want to keep it, you can always sell it then."
"Why the sudden interest? You've already said you won't move out there."
"I could change my mind."
"Why would you?"
Emily looked into her coffee cup. For you, she thought. But if she were to say that, he'd think it was out of pity. "A change of scenery," she said softly. "I think we need a change of scenery."
Roy made a sound that could have meant anything. He took his cup and plate to the sink, thanked her for the toast. It was only after she heard his office door close behind him that she realized he'd taken the Houston paper with him, and her head livened with a fresh buzz of anxiety. He was bound to see the photo and the article now, she thought, and she closed her eyes. It was happening again just as Roy feared. She could feel it to her core. And this time, when Roy insisted they cut their ties to Tucker, he would mean it.