Dont let go, p.13
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       Don't Let Go, p.13

          
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  Maura's mom and I are alone now.

  "Let's sit down," she says.

  --

  "You know how it was between Maura and me back then."

  Lynn Wells and I have turned the two chairs in front of Ellie's desk so that they are facing each other. I notice now that there is a wedding band on her left hand. She keeps turning and twisting it as she speaks.

  She waits for me to reply, so I say, "I do."

  "It was rough. That was my fault. At least, most of it. I drank too much. I resented how being a single mother held me back from . . . I don't even know what. More drinking, I guess. And the timing didn't help, what with Maura being a teenager and all that goes along with that. Plus she was naturally rebellious. Of course, you knew that. It was part of what drew you to her, don't you think? So you mix all that together and . . ."

  She makes two fists and then spreads her fingers, indicating an explosion.

  "We were struggling. I was working two jobs. One at a Kohl's. Another waitressing at a Bennigan's. Maura worked part-time at Jenson Pet Store for a while. You remember that, right?"

  "Yes."

  "Do you know why she quit?"

  "She said something about allergies to the dogs."

  There is a smile on her face, but there is no joy there. "Mike Jenson kept putting his hand on her ass."

  Even now, even all these years later, I feel the heat rush through me. "Are you serious?"

  But of course she is. "Maura said you were hotheaded. She was afraid if she told you . . . Anyway, it doesn't matter. We lived in Irvington at the time, but when she worked at the pet store, we got a little taste of Westbridge. This woman I worked with at Kohl's gave me an idea. She said I should move into the cheapest housing in a town with good schools. 'Your daughter will get the best education that way,' she said. That made sense to me. Whatever else you can say about Maura, she was whip smart. Anyway, that's what we did. You two met a short time later . . ."

  Lynn Wells fades away.

  "I'm stalling," she says.

  "So skip ahead to that night," I tell her.

  She nods. "Maura didn't come home."

  I keep still.

  "I didn't realize this right away. I was working a late shift and then I went out with some friends. Drinking, of course. I didn't get home until four in the morning. Maybe four, I don't even know. I don't remember. I don't think I checked her bedroom. Great mom, right? I also don't know if that would have made a difference. If I saw Maura wasn't there, what would I have done differently? Probably nothing. I would have figured that she stayed at your place. Or went to the city. She visited friends in Manhattan a lot, though not as much once you two started dating. And when I finally woke up and Maura wasn't there, well, it was close to noon. I figured she'd gone out already. That made the most sense, right? So I didn't think much of it. Then I went to work. I had a double shift at Bennigan's. It was near closing time when the bartender said there was a call for me. That was odd. I got scolded by the manager for that. Anyway, it was Maura."

  In my pocket, I feel my phone vibrate. I ignore it.

  "What did she say?"

  "I was worried, you know. Because like I said, she never called me at work. So I hurried over and said, 'You okay, hon?' and she just said, 'Mom, I'm going away for a little while. If anyone asks, I'm too upset by what happened and I'm changing schools.' Then she tells me, 'Don't talk to the police.'" She takes a deep breath. "You know what I say back?"

  "What?"

  The sad smile is back. "I ask her if she's high. That's the first thing I ask my daughter who is calling me for help. I say, 'Are you high or something?'"

  "What did she say?"

  "Nothing. She hung up. I'm not even sure she heard me. And I didn't even know what Maura meant by being upset by what happened. See, I was that out of it, Nap. I didn't even know about your brother and that Styles girl yet. So I just went back to work, you know, waitressing. I got two tables complaining by now. And I was taking an order at a table across from the bar, you know they got all those TVs on?"

  I nod.

  "Well, usually it's on sports, but someone flipped it over to the news station. That's when I saw . . ." She shakes her head. "God, how awful. They didn't say any names. So I didn't even know it was your brother or anything. Just two Westbridge students got run over by a train. So maybe now Maura's call made a little bit of sense to me. I figured she was upset by this, wanted a few days away to deal with it. I didn't know what to do, but I've learned a few things in my life. One was not to react too quickly. I'm not the smartest woman. Sometimes if you have a choice of taking Road A or Road B you should just stay where you are until you know the lay of the land. So I calmly finished my shift. Like I said, it all made sense. Except, well, what about the part about not talking to cops? That part bothered me, but I was too busy working to think about it much. So anyway, when my shift was over, I went out to my car. I was supposed to meet up with a guy I'd started seeing, but I didn't want to anymore. I just wanted to get home and hunker down. So I walked out to the lot. It was pretty empty by then. And there were these men there waiting for me."

  She turns away and blinks.

  "Men?" I repeat.

  "Four of them."

  "You mean like cops?"

  "That's what they said. They flashed badges at me."

  "What did they want?"

  "They wanted to know where Maura was."

  I'm picturing this. Bennigan's had closed down years ago, replaced by another chain restaurant called the Macaroni Grill, but I know the parking lot.

  "What did you tell them?"

  "I said I didn't know."

  "Okay."

  "They were very polite. The lead guy, the one who did all the talking, he had this pale skin and whispery voice. Gave me the chills. His fingernails were too long. I don't like that on a man. He said that Maura wasn't in trouble. He said that if she just came forward now it would all be okay. He was very persistent."

  "But you didn't know."

  "Right."

  "So then what?"

  "So then . . ." I see her eyes fill with tears. She reaches her hand up and puts it on her own throat. "I don't even know how to tell this part."

  I reach out now and put my hand on hers. "It's okay."

  Something has changed in the room. You can feel it like an electric surge.

  "What happened next, Mrs. Wells?"

  "What happened next . . ." She stops, shrugs. "It's a week later."

  I pause. Then I say, "I don't understand."

  "Neither do I. Next thing I remember I hear pounding on my back door. I open my eyes, and I'm in my own bed. I peek through the shade to see who was there."

  She looks at me.

  "It was you, Nap."

  I remember this, of course. I remember going to their house and pounding on that back door, searching for Maura, who had not contacted me since my brother's death other than to say that the news about my brother was too awful, that she was going away.

  That we were over.

  "I didn't answer the door," she says.

  "I know."

  "I'm sorry about that."

  I wave it off. "You said something about it being a week later."

  "That's just it. See, I thought it was the next morning, but a full week had passed. I didn't know what to do. I tried to re-create what had happened. The most likely thing was that I drank myself into an extended blackout, right? I figured the pale man with the whispery voice thanked me for my time, told me to get in touch if I heard from Maura, and left me. Then I got in my car and went on a bender." She tilted her head. "Doesn't that sound like the most likely explanation, Nap?"

  The room feels ten degrees cooler.

  "But I don't think that's what happened."

  "What do you think happened?" I ask.

  "I think the pale man with the whispery voice did something to me."

  I can hear my breathing like seashells pressed against my ears. "Like what?"

  "I think they took me someplace and asked me about Maura again. I had these memories when I first woke up. Bad memories. But they disappeared, like after a dream. You ever have that? You wake up and you remember the nightmare and you think you'll never forget it and then the images just slip away?"

  I hear myself say, "Yes."

  "That's what it was like. I know it was bad. Like the worst dream possible. I reach out and try to remember, but it's like grabbing smoke."

  I nod more just to have something to do, some way to handle the blows. "So what did you do?"

  "I just . . ." Lynn Wells shrugs. "I went to work at Kohl's. I thought I'd get in huge trouble for missing shifts, but they said I called in sick."

  "And you don't remember doing that."

  "No. The same thing when I went to Bennigan's. They said I called in sick too."

  I lean back now, try to take it in.

  "I . . . I got paranoid too. I kept thinking I was being followed. I would see a man reading a newspaper and I'd be sure he was watching me. You started coming around the house too, Nap. I remember snapping at you to go away, but I couldn't keep that up. I knew I had to do something until Maura told me what was going on. So I did what she said. I told you that lie about her transferring schools. I contacted Westbridge High too. I told them we were moving and would let them know where to forward Maura's records. The school didn't really ask too many questions. I think a lot of your classmates were devastated and taking time off."

  Lynn Wells puts her hand to her throat again. "I need some water."

  I get up and circle behind the desk. Ellie keeps a small fridge under the windowsill. I wonder why Mrs. Wells came to me via Ellie, but there are more pressing matters. I open the fridge, see the anally laid-out water bottles, and grab one for her.

  "Thank you," she says.

  She twists open the top and takes a deep pull like, well, an alcoholic. "You quit drinking," I say.

  "You're always an alcoholic," she says. "But, yes, it's been thirteen years since my last drink."

  I nod my approval, not that she needs it.

  "I owe Bernadette for that. She's my rock. Just when I was at my lowest, I found her. We got legally married two years ago."

  I don't know what to say to that--I want to get back on topic--so I just say, "Okay." Then I add, "When did you next hear from Maura?"

  She takes another swig and twists the top back on the bottle.

  "Days passed. Then weeks. I jumped every time the phone rang. I thought about telling someone, but who? Maura had said not to go to the police, and after what I experienced with that pale guy, well, like I said, if you aren't sure about Road A or B, just stay where you are. But I was scared. I had terrible dreams. I could hear that whispery voice asking me over and over about where Maura was. I didn't know what to do. The whole town was grieving over your brother and Diana. Diana's father, the police chief, he came by one day. He wanted to know about Maura too."

  "What did you tell him?"

  "The same thing I told everyone else. Maura was freaked out by what happened. I said she was staying with my cousin in Milwaukee for a while and then transferring schools."

  "Was there a cousin in Milwaukee?"

  She nods. "He said he would cover for me."

  "So when did you hear from Maura again?"

  She stares at the water bottle, one hand on the white top, the other cupping the bottom. "Three months later."

  I stand there, trying not to look stunned. "So for three months . . . ?"

  "I had no idea where she was. I had no contact. Nothing."

  I don't know what to say. My phone vibrates again.

  "I worried a million times over. Maura was a smart girl, resourceful, but you know what I figured?"

  I shake my head.

  "I figured she was dead. I figured the pale man with the whispery voice found her and killed her. I was trying to stay calm, but really, what could I do? If I went to the police, what would I say? Who would believe me about that missing week or any of it, really? Whoever those guys were, they either killed her--or if I made too much noise, I was going to help them kill her. Do you see my choices? Going to the police wasn't going to help her. Maura either was making it on her own or . . ."

  "Or she was dead," I say.

  Lynn Wells nods.

  "So where did you finally see her?"

  "At a Starbucks in Ramsey. I went to the bathroom in the back and suddenly she came in behind me."

  "Wait, she didn't call you first?"

  "No."

  "She just showed up?"

  "Yes."

  I try to comprehend this.

  "So what happened?"

  "She said she was in danger, but that she'd be okay."

  "What else?"

  "Nothing."

  "That was all she said?"

  "Yes."

  "And you didn't ask--?"

  "Of course I asked." For the first time, Lynn Wells has raised her voice. "I grabbed her arm and desperately hung on. I begged her to tell me more. I apologized for everything I did wrong. She hugged me, and then she pushed me away. She got out the door and headed out the back. I followed her, but . . . you don't get it."

  "So explain it to me."

  "When I came out of the bathroom . . . there were men there again."

  I give it a second to make sure I'm hearing right. "The same men?"

  "Not literally the same, but . . . one headed out the back door too. I got to my car and then . . ."

  "Then what?"

  When Lynn Wells looks up--when I see the tears come to her eyes and her hand go to her throat again--I feel my heart plummet down a mine shaft. "Some might say that the pressure of seeing my daughter again sent me on another bender."

  I reach out again and take her hand. "How many days this time?"

  "Three. But you see it now, don't you?"

  I nod. "Maura knew."

  "Yes."

  "She knew that they would interrogate you. Maybe with drugs. Maybe harshly. And if you didn't know anything--"

  "I couldn't help them."

  "More than that," I say.

  "What do you mean?"

  "Maura was keeping you safe," I tell her. "Whatever made her run, if you knew about it, you'd be in danger too."

  "Oh my God . . ."

  I try to focus.

  "So what then?" I ask.

  "I don't know."

  "Are you saying you haven't seen Maura since that day in Starbucks?"

  "No. I've seen her six times."

  "In the past fifteen years?"

  Lynn Wells nods. "Always by surprise. Always a quick visit to let me know she's okay. For a while she set up an email account for us. We never sent anything. We would both just leave it in our draft files. We both had the password. She used a VPN to keep it anonymous. But then she started to think that was too risky. And in a way, oddly, she had nothing to say to me. I told her about my life. About my quitting drinking and Bernadette. But she never said anything about her own life. It was torture for me." She holds the water bottle a little too tightly. "I have no idea where she's been or what she's been doing."

  My mobile phone vibrates again.

  This time I glance at it. It's Augie. I put the phone to my ear.

  "Hello?"

  "We found Hank."

  Chapter Seventeen

  Do you remember Hank's tenth birthday party, Leo?

  It was a big year for laser tag and Nerf wars and sports-themed parties. Eric Kuby had that soccer party in an indoor bubble. Alex Cohen had her birthday at that mall with mini-golf and a Rainforest Cafe. Michael Stotter's had video games and virtual-reality rides. They strapped us in and shook the seats and we stared at the screen. It really felt like we were on a roller coaster. You got sick on that one.

  Hank's party, like Hank, was different. His was held in a science laboratory at Reston University. Some guy with thick glasses and a white lab coat led us through a series of experiments. We made slime using borax powder and Elmer's Glue. We made high-bouncing polymer balls and giant ice marbles. We did lab stuff involving chemical reactions and fire and static electricity. The party was better than I thought it would be--a geek heaven even the jocks would love--but the part I remember best is the expression on Hank's face sitting right up front, his eyes wide and dreamy, that dorky smile plastered to his face. Even then, even as a ten-year-old, I got how happy Hank was, how much in his element (ha-ha), how rare it was for any of us to reach this particular high. Even then--and I doubt I could have articulated this--part of me wanted to stop time for him, just let him stay in this moment, this room, his friends and his passions locked together for longer than the forty-five minutes of entertainment followed by fifteen minutes of cake. I think back now about that party, about the purity of that moment for Hank, about the directions our lives take, and what the timeline was between that moment and now, the link between that happy boy with the dorky smile and the naked and mutilated dead man hanged by his neck from a tree.

  I can still look on the face--bloated, grotesque, decaying, even--and see that little boy at the party. It's weird how you can do that with people you grew up with. The stench knocks everyone else back a step, but for some reason it doesn't bother me. I have seen my share of dead bodies. Hank's naked corpse looks like someone ripped out his bones, a marionette held up by one string. Cut marks, probably made by a sharp blade, cover his torso, but the thing that keeps drawing your attention is the most obvious one.

  Hank was castrated.

  I'm surrounded by my two superiors. On one side of me is Essex County Prosecutor Loren Muse. On the other side is Augie. We are all staring up in silence.

  Muse turns to me. "I thought you asked for a few personal days."

  "Not anymore. I want this case."

  "You knew the victim, right?"

  "Years ago."

  "Still. No way." Muse is one of those tiny women who seem to emanate great strength. She gestures to a man heading down the hill. "Manning will take it."

  Augie still hasn't spoken. He too has seen his share of dead bodies, but his face is ashen. County has jurisdiction in homicides. The town of Westbridge--Augie's department--offers only support. My job will be to liaise between the two.

  Muse looks back over the hill. "Did you see all those media trucks?"

  "Yes."

  "You know why so many showed up?"

  I do. "That viral video."

  Muse nods. "A man is outed as a sexual predator via online vigilantism. The video has, what, three or four million hits. Now that man is found in the woods, hung from a tree. When it gets out that he was castrated . . ."

 
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