I gasped. Three or four years? How was that possible? How could I possibly do three or four years in prison?
My next words came out in a rasp. “What are my options?”
Brent shrugged. “We can offer to plea bargain to a lesser charge. You’ll still almost certainly get a felony conviction, but we might be able to get them down to vanilla assault. With luck you’ll be out within a year. That’s really the best-case … if you go before a jury and they wheel Chase Morton into the courtroom, you don’t stand a chance.”
Hayley leaned forward, her eyes wide. “I’d never tell anyone anything. I swear to God.” As she said the last words, she made the sign of the cross over her shoulders.
That exposed yet another set of bruises on her forearm. I’d seen them earlier that day in class but hadn’t said anything at the time. Now I had to. “What happened to your arm?”
She scrunched her eyes together. “What are you talking about?”
As gently as I could, I touched her forearm with the tip of my index finger. “That’s what I’m talking about. Those are new ones … the last set of bruises were just starting to heal. Hayley, who did that?”
She was petite, maybe five feet two. She wore a red silk blouse with matching lipstick, and a green skirt that was inappropriately short for any kind of business function. The skirt revealed long shapely legs, propped up by three-inch heels. She had brown eyes and dark brown hair, and a too-large nose. Her clothes looked a size too small, showing off a waist that demonstrated half-starvation underneath augmented breasts. At first glance, I thought she was twenty years old and an intern.
From the second I saw her, I didn’t like the way she looked at my husband.
She began to blather on. “It’s nice to meet you too, Mrs. Roberts. Cole talks a lot about you.”
Daddy, Lucas, Uncle Bill. The purveyors of violence from my childhood. Not that Daddy abused me or anything, but after all, his profession was to dispense violence—to kill people. It was something I never forgot. That contrasted vividly with Uncle Bill, whose drunken rages rained down chaos and violence on everyone around him. I struggled sometimes with the memories of that violence, the stink of the beer on his breath, the engorged blood in his face as he attacked his wife and son. I’d promised myself I wouldn’t be like my family, and especially, I wouldn’t be like him.
But this was different.
The weapon felt comfortable in my hand. It even smelled right. I lifted it to the back of the store, raising it to a firing grip with my left hand gripping the pistol, my right hand supporting the left.
It was late Tuesday afternoon when Lori called me to the phone. I’d slept briefly and fitfully the night before, and by this time I was running on empty. Cole was asleep, sprawled on the couch, exhaustion on his face.
“Erin? It’s Agent Wilcox.”
I flew to the phone, panic rising to my throat.. “Agent Wilcox? Did you hear something?”
He sighed. “No, ma’am. Nothing yet. I was actually calling because you’ll certainly hear on the news soon, Chase was released by the Fairfax County Police.”
“What?” I cried. “Why?”…
I thought of Brenna, somewhere out there possibly in danger. If it could help her, I would tell him anything he needed to know. I took a deep breath, then said, “It’s not just lately, it’s the past couple of years. They’ve never told us what it was about, but there was a lot of fighting and screaming.”
I felt a twist in my stomach. I wasn’t going to say it. But then I thought—what if there was something important? What if there was something that I didn’t know, some tiny detail they needed to find my sister and bring her back to me. I took a deep breath. “I’m pretty sure Dad had an affair.”
Cole ran his hand through his hair, frustration showing on his face. “What about Chase? Is he talking yet?”
Wilcox shook his head. “At this point were questioning him… he’s a person of interest. But we don’t have any reason yet to believe that he’s involved with her disappearance.”
“Bullshit!” Cole’s face was red as he blurted out the word. “Who else is there? Of all the fucking incompetent—“
“Cole…” I interrupted. “That’s not helping.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Roberts,” he said. “Do you recognize this?”
It was as if he’d designed the moment to be as traumatic as possible. He held up Brenna’s phone—it had to be Brenna’s, I gave her the Black Flag phone case. The screen was covered with spiderweb cracks.
Erin staggered back, a gasp turning into a wail. I grabbed her before she fell down. Hunt came in the room with another man we hadn’t met.
“Mr and Mrs Roberts—my name’s Stan Wilcox. I’m with the FBI’s Child Abduction Response Deployment program.”
At those words, my chest seized in some kind of a painful spasm. I winced, and I watched as Erin raised her fist to her mouth and bit, hard.
Wilcox continued. “About an hour ago, local police in Winchester discovered a VW Beetle parked behind a pawn shop. It’s your daughter’s car—the phone was on the ground beside it.”
In the dream they always shouted. “Why did you let her go?” “Why did you give her a car?” “It’s your fault!” Stan Wilcox, the FBI agent, and Hunt, they circled around me.
Hunt sweating, contempt in his voice. “Your daughter wouldn’t have run away if you had been a better mother.”
Somehow Angela was beside me. “I tried to warn you. Of course she was hanging out with older guys… her father betrayed his family. You should have left Cole when he cheated.”
Stan Wilcox said, “Almost three hundred thousand children in the United States are at risk of being trafficked.”
Hunt replied, “Because their parents let them go without supervision.”
Wilcox said, “You’re saying they need better mothers.”
Cole’s mother Virginia appeared. A crooked line appearing between her brows, she stuck her finger in my face. “If you’d listened to me, this would never have happened.”…
Crazy, right? That my closest friends in the world didn’t even exist? Or they did, but I didn’t know their names, or where most of them lived, or anything at all except what went on in our world here.
I didn’t care. In real life I was Sam: depressed, outcast, freak. But in this world I was a leader. I had friends and people I cared about. Sure it was a game. Sure it wasn’t real. But maybe that didn’t matter. Maybe it was more real than stupid Ashley and her asshole boyfriend Cody. More fun than my high school and my parents. More accepting than my slightly racist and semi-homophobic grandparents.