You will know me, p.18
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       You Will Know Me, p.18

           Megan Abbott
 
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  But before Katie could ask them, the front door had opened, the beeps of the security system announcing Katie’s departure.

  “Mom says if a man ever touches me,” Lacey said, “she’ll definitely kill him.”

  The door shutting behind her, the smell of sweet pea dancing behind her, and then gone.

  Katie sat in her car for a long time.

  There were two missed calls from Eric—prompted by Gwen, she was sure.

  “I know what you did,” she said to his voice mail. “How could you? You’d better be driving home with my daughter right now. I know everything.”

  And she wasn’t even sure what she meant by everything. It felt like the biggest word in the world. It felt like a black hole.

  Pulling up the drive, she saw the garage door was open, gaping before her, a big ragged mouth.

  Inside, Mr. Watts stood with Drew in the back corner, next to a snare of rakes and brooms, the rust-furred reel lawn mower, the only one they’d owned since Devon’s accident. Long ago, Eric had taken a sledgehammer to the old one, sending sparks across the lawn, a figure eight of singed grass. Even this one—its blades looked so sharp.

  “Mom, we were looking for the shovel,” Drew said as she got out of the car and walked toward them. “In the book, they dig up a buried treasure.”

  “Hardy Boys,” Mr. Watts said, gesturing toward the worn volume Drew had set on the garage floor. “Melted Coins. He can keep it.”

  “And look what we found.” Drew held out his hand. “On the ground.”

  She looked in his outstretched palm, cherried and tender. In the center sat a trio of silver wafers, one as large as a dime, the other two almost too small to see.

  Katie cupped Drew’s hand in her own, eyes still on the silver, like the paint in a model-plane kit.

  “He thought they were silverfish,” Mr. Watts said.

  “Not once I got closer,” Drew insisted, looking down at the concrete floor, as if expecting to see more. “There was no antenna or anything.”

  “Paint chips,” Mr. Watts said. “Must have come off your car.”

  “Dad’s car,” Drew said. “Mom’s is blue.”

  She could feel Mr. Watts looking at her. Drew waiting for her.

  But her brain stuttered, stalled.

  “Anyway,” Mr. Watts said, clearing his throat, “we had an adventure.”

  Her phone, like a preying animal, one eye lifted, blinked with texts from Eric: Please, I can explain.

  Get home now, she typed.

  It was the sole corner in the house without booster flyers and spreadsheets, without gym grips and tape and everything coated in chalk.

  “I hope I get to go outside soon,” Drew said, his cheek pressed against his window screen. “Not just the garage.”

  “You will, honey. Open the window.”

  “Look,” he said, pointing to the black walnut tree outside.

  She was grateful for any distraction.

  “The catkins,” she said. “You used to say they looked like demon fingers.”

  They’d chosen the house in part because of the dark canopy of the walnut tree. When they first came to see it nearly fifteen years ago, Katie asked the man rolling a sod cutter next door—their future neighbor Mr. Watts—what all the long green frills drooping from the branches were. They looked like flower leis.

  Happens every spring, Mr. Watts had said. You like them now, but just you wait.

  Later, she’d realized what he meant, the way the catkins fell in soft heaps to the ground and turned brown and black. Banana-peel clumps, Devon called them.

  It turned out there was a chemical in the tree’s roots that stunted or poisoned everything around it. The petunias Katie once planted there shriveled to pale ribbons.

  But Katie still loved the way they carpeted the lawn, had loved running and swinging little Devon’s feet through their velvet tendrils, the pollen staining their ankles. And Drew loved them too. Every fall, he’d take pictures of the silky webworm nests that hung from the branch ends. He said they looked like his favorite teacher’s hair.

  Those catkins, they’re wonderful, Eric used to tease her. Wonderful tarantulas.

  And then he’d mention how they used the wood to make gunstocks, and coffins.

  That’s what Old Man Watts told me, he said. Makes me wonder what happened to Mrs. Watts.

  “Mom,” Drew said now, pointing out the window. “Mrs. Teazer says those are bagworms.”

  Rising, Katie followed his gaze to the odd, lumpy sacks dotting the branches.

  “Zachary brought one into class,” Drew said. “The boy worms leave the bag when they want to mate. The girls never leave at all. They don’t have wings or legs or mouthparts. The girls die in there.”

  “Always harder on the girls, huh?”

  “But just one female can make a thousand babies.”

  “That’s some mom,” she said, chin on the top of his head, peering out. “Supermom.”

  “They eat the whole tree.”

  “That’s not good.” She tried to smile, but the bags looked ominous, alive. Almost like something was kicking inside. “Not good at all.”

  Drew looked at her, nodding.

  “Mom?”

  “Yes, Drew.” The bags were rocking, the wind kicking up. She imagined she could see the eggs inside, white as slugs.

  “You have to kill her.”

  And Katie found herself nodding too.

  You had to stop them, just like the tent caterpillars in the crab-apple tree at one of the apartment buildings she’d lived in as a kid. The landlord had burned them with kerosene.

  “Mom,” Drew was saying.

  Rushing down the hall, she thought she heard a phone ringing somewhere. She was trying to think if they had any lighter fluid.

  Then she remembered something. Grabbing for her purse in the hallway, she pulled something from it.

  “Stay inside,” she shouted to Drew from the bottom of the stairs.

  “Mom,” he said, leaning over the railing, “you look funny.”

  It felt good in her hands, like a sword.

  She hoisted the tiki torch from the sand bucket on the patio. The heat-splintered one she’d brought home from the tiki party a few months ago.

  There was a feeling inside her that was tangled and wretched, and she peered up to Drew’s window while she poured the glugging fuel from the can in the garage.

  Dirty sacs strung along the branches like miniature party lanterns, just inches from her son’s window, her stricken son—they were everywhere and she couldn’t fathom how she hadn’t seen them before.

  One mass, nestled in the crotch of the tree, was so large it resembled a small animal spread-eagled under gauze, limbs splayed against branches, a horror show. Others hung in the joints like Christmas balls tinseled brown.

  All this time—how long?—they’d been here in her backyard, her patio, where all the boosters had perched just a few days ago.

  Once she saw one, she saw a hundred, and her chest felt full and large.

  Waving the torch, the smell heavy and sweet, she swooped its embered end across the woolly pouches. A husk skittered from the branch, sparking hot into her hair before she jumped away, cinders scattering.

  Looking up, she could see Drew’s face in his bedroom window, eyes wide as the flaming pods dropped and as one of the branches caught fire.

  “Stay inside!” she shouted. “Don’t you move, honey. It’s not safe out here!”

  The torch in her hands, saber or bayonet, she kept going until she’d vanquished them all.

  It was only then, standing behind the tree so Drew couldn’t possibly see, that she tossed the item looped around her arm into the fire.

  That red and black leotard snatched from her purse, its spray of crystals popping like small firecrackers, the Lycra collapsing slowly into soft, black gum.

  Looking up again, she caught sight of the tree itself, an enormous enflamed torch. The wind kicked up higher, and her panic
was a feeling more expected than experienced. There wasn’t time, the flames striping up the dark bark.

  “The tree’s on fire,” someone said.

  In the same second, she heard a squeaking sound, then the splash of cool striking her arm, skating up the tree, sizzling a moment, then trampling the flames.

  Mr. Watts, turning the wheel on his garden hose.

  The smell was strong, and they both held their shirts up over nose and mouth.

  Looking up, Mr. Watts waved at Drew, who was still watching closely from his window, his red face abraded by the screen.

  The ground littered with blackening pouches, all hissing and popping, Katie began raking the tiki torch around, encircling them.

  “Next time, give a holler,” he said to Katie. “We can snip ’em down first. That way you don’t lose the whole tree. Don’t take any houses with you either.”

  “No,” she said, shaking her head. She was not herself, heat glazing her, making her feel invincible. “How could you ever be sure you got them all?”

  He nodded, catching one last ember with a stray sluice of water left in the hose.

  “When they cool down,” Mr. Watts said, “I’ll take them off your hands.”

  She looked at him quizzically.

  “Fish bait,” he said, winking at her. “The cycle of life.”

  Together, they watched all of them burn, like singed cotton candy.

  Later, Katie would sneak back into the yard, knees to dirt, palms on ground, until she found the last bits of gummy Lycra, a few crystals seared into the flattened grass.

  Chapter Fifteen

  It was nearly ten o’clock, and she’d let Drew stay up so long, his eyes stung to tears from too much TV, and his words were beginning to break apart and float away.

  He kept finding shows that seemed to come from some special planet of Drew, creepy reruns of In Search Of …, a documentary about hairless, blue-eyed, and hunchbacked creatures killing livestock in Texas, another about the mysterious red rain of Sri Lanka. They all interested him and made him wonder about things, his speckled face and the softness of his boy tummy as he stretched across the cushions.

  She could sit there and watch him, and not think of anything else. Not think about leotards or pixie nymphets or dark-eyed men and the lies they tell you or the silver paint in the garage, which shimmered every time she shut her eyes and which meant nothing, couldn’t mean anything. Instead, listening, her entire body flooded with love for Drew, his voice creaking forth question after question, each one a balm to her.

  “Mom,” he said, his Hardy Boys book open on his lap, “it says here Blackbeard used to stick matches in his beard to light up his evil eyes.”

  “That sounds scary,” she said. “That sounds like a scary book.”

  Eventually, he started drifting off, curled like a glowworm in his neon-green pajamas on the sofa beside her, and she half coaxed, half carried him to bed.

  Looking into those nearly lidded eyes, the gleam of his pupil trying to stay awake, to not miss anything, she found herself locked in something deep with him.

  Like he held something she needed.

  Don’t fall asleep, Drew. Please.

  She caught herself thinking it, maybe saying it out loud, her fingers to her own lips.

  Embarrassed, she shook it off, rising from his bedside and nearly bounding to the bedroom door. Leaving him alone.

  The eleven o’clock news was beginning, its familiar pulsing music.

  Behind it, she heard the groan of the garage door. They almost always left it open, but she’d closed it so she would know when he returned. And so he would know she knew.

  Then, the loud punch and scatter of glass breaking in the backyard.

  The scrape of metal on concrete.

  Hand smacking the screen door open, the thickening June air climbing into her mouth, Katie called out, “Who’s there?”

  He was slouched in the most ramshackle of their aluminum chairs, a half-hollowed pint of Jack Daniel’s in his hand, a beer bottle broken at his feet, and the back of his neck ruddy from a day spent behind a car windshield, kidnapping her daughter and driving her across the state with another woman.

  His face shimmered forth in the dark, tanner than the day before, the grand slope of eyes sorrowful. Handsome as ever, maybe more. So much so he took her breath away. And she felt sick from it.

  “Eric.”

  “I’m gone a few hours and you set the backyard on fire?” he said, not looking at her, his feet kicking at the ashes.

  “Where’s Devon?” she demanded. “Where is she, Eric?”

  When he turned, head bobbing slightly, she could see how drunk he was. Like she hadn’t seen him in years. Like he’d sometimes been when Devon was a baby and he was still rollicking with coworkers at the end of his long days, his after-hours spent with elbows stuck to place mats at their local, a place called Huddles where the bartenders wore green vinyl aprons and drank while they poured, and Eric staying until last call, finally stumbling home at three a.m., shoes sticky and hair matted, and once, a dart caught in his finger, he’d driven home with blood soaking through the cuff of his work shirt and sorrys, sorrys, sorrys forever.

  “Where’s Devon?” she repeated, standing in front of him, the caramel smell of the whiskey thick upon her. “Where is she?”

  “At Gwen’s.”

  “Why is she still there? Goddamn it, Eric, you lied—”

  “So you know,” he said. “Your message. You know everything.”

  She looked at him, a breeze lifting the smell of the ash, the waving torch.

  He looked at her, eyes white as an animal’s in the woods.

  They each waited, a marital standoff, the silence unbearable. But she blinked first.

  “How could you go meet John Ehlers at his fancy EmPower gym with our daughter and not tell me?” Her voice bouncing around the weird dark of the yard. “You took our daughter. You and Gwen. You conspired with that monstrous woman.”

  There was a sudden energy in his face, and his shoulders jerked forward. “No, Katie,” he said. “It wasn’t like that. The boosters outvoted me. They wanted me to meet with him and I knew you wouldn’t like it—”

  A sound skidded up from inside her throat to stop him. “You’re lying,” she said. “I saw Molly. She didn’t know about any of this. All you do is lie.”

  The weight, the bigness of the words excited her. They seldom fought, not really, so it was all here now, and she kept going, about how he had lied and lied again and Is this about Gwen Weaver and if so what kind of man are you to let her tell you and What a thing to do, shanghaiing our daughter behind my back almost like a kidnapping—and then the words had a powerful thunder to them and she said them again and again, like a kidnapping, like a kidnapping.

  And as she was saying it, an equally powerful sinking feeling of what she couldn’t say: How could you two keep secrets from me? You and Devon.

  Thrusting that thought to the corner of her hot brain, she just kept going.

  “And you lied about where you were and left your sick son and you lied about what you’ve been doing with our daughter and you left me here, all alone—”

  “Katie, stop. Stop and listen. I needed to meet the guy. Ehlers. I needed to see Devon with him. I needed to see if it might work, if they connected. I needed to fix this. To make everything right again.”

  “Everything right? For fuck’s sake, Eric,” she said, a way of talking she barely remembered, hadn’t used since she was a teenager in that teenager way of playing with words like flung rubber bands, “you’re talking about qualifiers and gyms and coaches when all this is going on?”

  He jumped up, the metal of the chair sparking, the bottle keeling between his sneakers, his arm diving down as it crashed. A light went on somewhere, a dog howled, a screen door banged shut.

  “But this is what’s going on, Katie. Not something that happened to a kid we barely know. This is about Devon. I can’t believe I have to tell you that.
He paused, and then he said it. “You never cared as much as we did. You were always ready to give up.”

  There it was. There it was. “How dare you,” she said, her voice low and ugly. “How dare you, Eric. After everything. We’ve always been in this together—”

  Turning from her, his chin tilted up in a way that felt strangely churchlike, a reminder of vows taken, he said, “I know. I’m sorry. I know.”

  And they both sat for a moment, the yard black, with the quality of witchy mystery it had had years ago, the first time a patch of browning green was all theirs, before patios, before the maze of all-weather tumbling mats, before the trampoline and the smaller trampoline before that. Before the lawn mower. When it was a place that was outside but private and wild but safe. Empty garden beds and rambling ivy and a dented air conditioner stained with black walnut husks, but it was beautiful, and theirs.

  And she almost said it. She almost said, Our daughter was sleeping with Ryan Beck. But she couldn’t make the words come.

  Then they were both drinking, a half-pint of Black Velvet Eric dug out of the kitchen cupboard. He was roaming around the firefly-studded yard while she sat thinking bad thoughts, how you can be married to someone your whole life, it feels like, and not know them at all.

  You never cared as much as we did.

  “I did the right thing, Katie,” he said. “I did what I had to because this is what matters,” pointing to the yard, the house, Devon’s bedroom window, lightless and lonely. “This is about our girl. Our girl. Helping her get everything she wants. Which is what we always said we’d do.”

  “That’s not good enough, Eric,” she said, rising from the squeaking lawn chair. “We’re in this together. We promised way back when.”

  But now she was drunk, and her foot caught in the rust-pocked frame and she fell against him, and he caught her. And she held on to him so tightly, the smell of his shirt, her face pressed against it. Feeling the heave of his heart.

 
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