ISAAC SAT AS FAR FORWARD ON THE SEAT AS HIS SEAT BELT would allow, fighting his own drowsiness. He didn't understand why he felt so sleepy, not after being stuck in that little house all day with nothing to do but watch television and reread his book. But he couldn't stop yawning, despite his excitement and anticipation. The twins had already nodded off, one slumped on either side of him. The woman they said was his grandmother had chased them around all day, although not in the happy way he thought a grandmother would have. Her only concern had been to keep the twins from touching anything in her house, not that there was anything interesting to touch.
And Lana was there, too, standing by the door while his mother and Zeke shared secrets somewhere else in the house. Isaac guessed that was because they were in Baltimore now and they knew if he got even a chance, he would start running, running, and running until he found a pay phone or a policeman or even a street he knew. He would run all the way to his father's house or store if he had to. But now they said they were taking him to his father, so he didn't have to run. Still, he studied the landscape, determined to figure out where they were.
So far he hadn't even seen anything familiar. He tried to memorize the landmarks that went past. There were the usual stores and restaurants, and now they were on a highway, but it wasn't the baseball highway to Camden Yards or the big highway they took north to New York and south to Washington. Instead they seemed to be heading away from the city. In the middle of this highway, an empty subway car went rattling past, all lit up, but with no one on its blue seats, so it was like a subway car for ghosts. Isaac hoped Zeke wasn't lying. Zeke had promised them their father, but Zeke was mean enough to make a promise and break it. He was, he definitely was.
Natalie hadn't wanted to do the cocoa thing tonight, but Zeke had insisted. He said the children would get overstimulated at the reunion, that they would be hard to control once they saw their father again. "This is trickier than it looks," Zeke told Natalie. "We need time, as much as we can get. So you've got to let me take them in, give them to Mark, and go. No drawn-out good-byes. Everybody wins, right?"
"Not me," she had told him. They had been in her old bedroom, which her mother had stripped of every memory after Natalie left with her father, as if Natalie never existed. Vicious old bitch, refusing to fight for her own daughter. Natalie was a better mother by far. "I won't have my children. It doesn't matter how much money Mark gives us if I can't have them."
"If you hadn't killed a police officer, we might have more options," Zeke had said. He had been saying that a lot the past two days, holding it over her head, enjoying it almost too much. Whatever he wanted, it seemed, could be justified by her one mistake. A big mistake, sure, but she hadn't done it for herself, she had done it for him. He was the bank robber, he was the one who would have gone back to prison if they were caught. That had been her only thought at the time, to save Zeke. "You and I need to go somewhere far away and start new lives. We can't do that with the kids. Mark will never let us be. The two of us together have a chance. The five of us-never."
"I don't know…" This was late afternoon, and they had been lying on her bed, the narrow single bed where she had dreamed about the glamorous life she so clearly deserved. Her mother could redecorate all she wanted, but she couldn't erase Natalie from this room. She was in the floorboards, the wallpaper, the dust floating in the air. In this bed, at the age of thirteen or fourteen, Natalie had dreamed about a man like Zeke, and now Zeke was wrapped around her, the fingers of his left hand entwined in her hair, his right index finger tracing the line of her jaw, her eyebrows, the not-yet-visible lines that would bracket her mouth one day, when she was old and sour. No, unthinkable. She would never look like that woman downstairs.
"Trust me. I know what's right for them. And you." He began kissing her deeply, more passionately than he had all these weeks on the road. She assumed it would be the same routine, that he would unzip himself and press her head down to him, then use his hand so she would feel some release, too, their usual teenage courtship. But he began undressing her instead, taking his time, revealing each part of her as if it were a treasure. Strange, but now she was the one who balked, nervous and unready.
"Vera and Lana are watching them."
"I locked it when we came in here."
"It's not the Ritz." But she was teasing him now, her excitement making her giggly, almost silly.
"Sure it is. Just close your eyes."
But she didn't. She left them open the entire time, so she would remember everything. She was there, she was with him, but she was also hovering above them both, observing. For more than a decade, a third of her life, this man had been the only person who shared her vision of herself, who saw her as something precious and special. She was worried that waiting so long would make it anticlimactic, but it was even better than she had dreamed. She was his now.
She was his now. Pure instinct-and not a little will-had kept Zeke from doing this all these weeks. Abstinence had been a practical decision at first. When she led him back to the motel in Terre Haute, he had assumed he would make love to her and then send her home, instructing her to stay with Mark until he could get settled and send for her. But the three kids sitting on the double bed had pretty much killed that plan-and those desires. Later, when Natalie started crawling over him in the car night after night, he had realized he would enjoy more power over her if he didn't give in right away. He would know when the time was right.
Today had sealed the deal. As drunk on sex as the kids were on their vodka-spiked cocoa, Natalie would wait in the car as instructed, assuming the exchange was going off as planned. The serotonin fumes and pheromones would carry her along, fogging her brain, keeping her from questioning too much. It would be a few days before the call would come, probably from Lana. Such a tragedy-Mark and the children, dead, a vicious act of revenge by a twisted, desperate man. Natalie would return to Baltimore to bury her family. Zeke would show up after a suitable interval, a repentant stepbrother, offering nothing more than his services at the store. The estate might take up to a year to execute, but they didn't have to live in Baltimore during that time. They could go somewhere warm if they sensed the police closing in. Somewhere without extradition, if possible.
He pulled into the parking lot outside the storage facility.
Good, there was only one car, a Cadillac, parked there. It would have been more fitting if Zeke could have done this at his father's old store, but of course that was long gone. He wondered what had happened to its vault, one of the few things left intact after the fire-and the place his father had chosen to die.
"Wait here just one minute," he said, even as Isaac started to shout, "Daddy's car. That's Daddy's car."
It better be, Zeke thought. But Isaac had given him an idea. "Does it have a code for the locks, Isaac?"
The boy looked at him, suspicious as ever.
"He wants me to have the code, Isaac. I talked to him early today, and he said he was going to leave something in his car for me. If you tell me the code, I'll take you to your father."
"Five-six-one-four," the boy muttered, grudging to the end. Zeke punched the numbers and let himself in, opening the glove compartment. Good old predictable Mark: He had brought the gun with him, but he hadn't taken it inside. The old man had carried a gun whenever he went to the storage facility, and now Mark did it, too. Zeke slipped the SIG Sauer into his waistband and went back for the children. The twins were like little zombies, almost sleepwalking. Isaac moved even more slowly, dragging his feet. But as they reached the door, his eyes focused on the gun at Zeke's waistband.
"You're a liar," he said. "Daddy's not in there. You probably stole his car just to fool us, and parked it here. I'm not going in there with you."
"No, Zeke, he's in there, waiting for you. Honest."
"Then why did you steal his gun? Why do you steal everything?"
And with that the little pisher turned and ran, heading down the dark road between the cornfields. It was deserted out here, but who knew what lay over the next hill? Isaac could come back with a farmer carrying a shotgun, or some well-meaning soccer mom.
"Natalie, go get him and bring him back."
"Just go. Use the car. He's headed away from the highway. He's got no shot of getting far, not out here. We promised Mark three kids for forty thousand dollars. If we don't bring all three, he won't give us anything."
Isaac ran until he felt that his legs and lungs might explode from the effort. Why did his legs feel so heavy? When he saw the headlights burning their beams into the road ahead of him, spotlighting his shadow as if he were a newly restored Peter Pan, he veered into the cornfields. The corn was long gone, but the stalks were still there, dry and crackly, and they whistled as he tried to move between them, announcing his every step. The car stopped and he stopped, but now his breathing was so loud. Could they hear his breathing?
"Isaac." It was his mother's sweetest voice. "Your father really is here. He's waiting for you."
He didn't say anything. It could be a trick.
"I wouldn't lie to you. He's here. This is his storage place, you know that. He's inside, waiting to see you."
Isaac's breath was so noisy in his chest. He had to make it go away, or at least be quieter. He inhaled, tried to hold it as long as possible.
"Isaac, you're going home to live now. You're going back to our house, back to school. Everything will be as you like it."
She was in the corn now. He could hear it crackling around her. He didn't want to say anything, because then she would know where he was. But he had to ask.
"And you, Mama?"
She must have stopped moving, for he no longer heard the rustle of the cornstalks. "What do you mean, Isaac?"
"Are you going home, too?"
She didn't answer.
"You have to tell the truth. You just said you would never lie to me. You said that just the other day."
"Yes, Isaac." She was moving again, getting closer.
"Yes, I told you that. I won't lie to you."
"So tell me."
"Isaac-your father is waiting. Really, truly."
"No, tell me, Mama. What are you going to do? Where are you going to go?"
"I don't know, Isaac. I don't know what I'm going to do. But I know you want to go home."
With that she emerged from the corn, just a few feet from him. He could have turned and run in the other direction, but where would he go, what would he do? This was his choice. He could live in the house he had always known, with his father, or he could live with his mother and Zeke. But maybe his mother would change her mind, if he waited long enough, if he talked to her. Maybe she would love his father again, once she saw him. Or, as time went on, maybe she would miss them so much she would give up Zeke and come back to them.
His mother held out her arms to him, and he went to her, pressing his face into her stomach, smelling all her smells, letting her rub his head.
"You're a good boy, Isaac. I love you so much. Never forget that, okay? Your mother loves you."
"I love you, too, Mama."
She took his hand in hers. "Now let's go see Daddy."