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He'd known where she was for almost two weeks. He'd been watching her house, watching her. He just hadn't felt a need to do anything about it.
Until now. Fate had forced his hand. He didn't have much time left. He had to use it wisely. Take care of all those loose ends in his life.
As he pried at the flimsy lock on the side window he thought about how he had loved her. Idolized her. Thought she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.
Unfortunately she hadn't felt the same way about him.
The lock snapped with a soft pop. He froze, listening even though he knew she wouldn't have heard it. Usually by this time of the night she'd finished off enough cheap wine that she would be dead to the world.
Dead to the world. He liked that. He'd been dead to the world thanks to her.
He'd planned this for so long and yet he felt uneasy, a little thrown by the fact that he'd had to break in tonight. All the other nights, she'd forgotten to lock up. Why tonight, of all nights, did she have to remember to lock the damn doors?
A few days ago he'd waited in the overgrown shrubs outside, watching her shadow move behind the sheer curtains in the living room to turn off the television before she stumbled down the hall to bed.
When he'd been sure she'd passed out, he'd slipped inside the house, wanting to take a look around, to know the layout of the house. Not good to bump into something and wake her up on the night he planned to finally finish it.
So he'd poked around, looking into her things, seeing how she'd been doing since he'd last seen her. He'd made a point of testing to see just how deep a sleeper she was. He couldn't have her screaming her head off when the time came,now could he?
For some reason tonight, though, she'd locked the doors. He tried not to let that worry him. But he was superstitious about crap like that. It was her fault. She'd put all that hocuspocus stuff in his head, her and her horoscopes, palm readings and psychic phone calls. She wouldn't cross the street without checking to make sure her stars were aligned.
Except when she was drunk. Then she threw caution to the wind. He hated to think he was a lot like her that way. Except he didn't have to be drunk.
So, as much as he hated it, he was leery as he hoisted himself up and over the windowsill to drop into the bathroom tub. He landed with a thud and froze to listen.
Maybe she'd remembered to lock the front door because her horoscope told her that she should be more careful today. Or she could have spotted him watching the house, he supposed. But wouldn't it also be possible, given the connection between them, that she'd sensed he was here?
He liked the latter explanation the best. That would mean that she had occasionally thought of him, wondered what had happened to him.
A shell-shaped night-light next to the sink made the bathroom glow pink. She'd done the whole place in a tropical motif. The shower curtain was plastic with huge palm trees. What the hell had she been thinking? As far as he could tell, she'd been landlocked all her life and never even seen an ocean, let alone a real palm tree.
He wasn't sure why, but it made him even more angry with her, this pretending she lived in a beach house. Did she also pretend he'd never existed?
The shower curtain made a soft swishing sound as he brushed against it. Again he froze and listened. A breeze wafted in with the smell of the river.
He thought he heard a noise from the bedroom. The creak of bedsprings as she rolled over. Or got up to come find out what the noise had been in the bathroom. Had she bought herself a gun?
He waited behind the shower curtain, hidden by the fake palms. I'm right here. Right here. Just waiting for you.
It surprised him how nervous he was about seeing her again. He'd anticipated this moment for so long he'd expected to be excited. But as he drew the switchblade from his pocket, his fingers were slick with sweat. He wiped them on his jeans and blamed the hot, humid night.
It reminded him of other hot nights, lying in bed, afraid he wouldn't live until morning. The only thing that had kept him going was imagining this day, the day he found her and made her pay for what she'd done to him.
He wanted her to know that kind of fear before this night was over. He glanced at his watch in the glow of the shell night-light. He had plenty of time before her husband came home.
She'd married some guy who worked the graveyard shift as a night watchman. The irony of that didn't escape him as he got tired of waiting in the bathtub and peered around the edge of the shower curtain.
No movement out in the hall. No sound coming from the vicinity of the bedroom. Gently he slid the curtain aside to step out onto the mermaid-shaped shag rug.
He felt hatred bubble up as he noticed she'd bought herself a pretty new mirror since he was here just a few days ago. The mirror was framed in seashells, and it was all he could do not to smash it on the tile floor.
It wasn't the mirror. Or even the stupid seashore stuff. It was that she'd done just fine without him. Better than fine once she'd dumped him.
The realization was like acid inside him. It ate away at the hope that she'd missed him. That she'd been sorry she'd left him.
He thought of the seven-year-old boy he'd been. He could smell the dust her car tires had thrown up as she'd torn across the dirt lot of the filling station. He'd run out of the restroom, thinking she hadn't realized he wasn't in the car, and had called after her. Running, tears streaming down his dirt-streaked face, until he'd stumbled and fallen and lain bawling his heart out as her car had grown smaller and smaller on the two-lane highway in the middle of nowhere.
The memory jarred him into motion. Stepping through the bathroom doorway, he stopped to wait for his eyes to adjust. Her bedroom door was closed. That was odd. It had been open when he'd been here a few nights before.
Worry knifed through him. The hallway was lit by another shell night-light. The cramped space smelled of stale beer and old cigarette smoke.
He inched down the hall, anticipation thrumming in his veins. At the door, he stopped, suddenly worried what he would do if for some reason she'd locked it.
His hand shook as he reached out and took the knob in his damp fingers. He closed his eyes, knowing it couldn't end here, with him locked out of her room, and that it would end very badly if he had to break down the door. She would be able to call the police before he could get to her. He should have cut the phone lines, he realized now.
The knob turned in his hand.
He slumped against the doorjamb for a moment, his relief so intense it made him light-headed. He was sweating hard now, his T-shirt sticking to his skin, and yet he felt a chill as he looked into her bedroom.
The bed was one of those California kings he'd heard aboutand damned near as big as the bedroom. He could make out a small form under the covers. Another one of those stupid shell night-lights glowed from a corner of the room.
He stepped in. The only sound was her drunken snores. She was curled on her side, her back to him on the edge of the bed farthest from him. All he could see was the back of her head on the pillow. Her hair was darker than he remembered it. He realized she probably dyed it because she could be getting gray by now.
It finally struck him: he was going to come face-to-face with the mother who had abandoned him at a gas station twenty-four years ago.
A memory blindsided him. A memory so sweet it made his teeth ache. The two of them sitting on the couch watching her favorite soap opera. A commercial came on for hair color. Him telling her she would look beautiful no matter what color her hair was, even gray. And her smiling over at him, tears in her eyes as she kissed his cheek and pulled him into her arms for a hug.
She'd held him so tightly he couldn't breathe. But he hadn't complained. It was the last time he remembered her touching him.
He crept around the perimeter of the bed, feeling as if he were floating. It all felt so surreal now that he was finally here, finally ready.
She stirred and he froze. She let out a sigh and drifted off again. He edged closer until he was standing over her.
He couldn't see her face. Not the way he wanted to. He knew he was going to have to turn on the lamp beside her bed. He wanted to look into her eyesand have her look into his. He wanted her to know.
As he turned on the lamp, his fingers brushed the stack of old magazines next to the bed. The magazines toppled over, hitting the floor with a whoosh that startled him as much as the brightness of the lamp as it came on.
She jerked up in bed onto one elbow, blinking against the brightness of the light.
He could see that for a moment she thought he was her husband. She'd aged. It shouldn't have shocked him. But she'd been only twenty-three when she'd left him at that filling station in Montana. She wasn't even fifty, and yet she looked a lot older.
He'd always wondered if she'd grieved over what she'd done. Her life's road map was etched unkindly in her face, but he knew that the very worst she'd had wasn't even close to what he'd been through.
She blinked, that moment of mistakenly taking him for her husband turning to confusion, then fear. Her mouth started to open as she clutched the sheet to her throat.
"Don't scream," he said and touched the knife in his hand, the blade leaping out to catch the light. "Don't you dare scream."
Surprisingly, she didn't. Only a small sound came out of her as her eyes met his and he saw the recognition.
That should have given him some satisfaction.
She knew him even after all these years.
He used to have this dream that she would fall to her knees and beg his forgiveness. He'd always wanted to believe that she'd come back for him but it had been too late. He'd thought about her searching for him for years, her life as miserable as his had been because of what she'd done.
The dream popped like a soap bubble when she opened her mouth again. "So you found me." Her voice was rough from years of cigarettes and late-night boozing, bad men and barrooms.
"So what now?" she asked with a shake of her head. Her eyes flicked to the switchblade in his hand and something came over her face. A hardness that he now remembered from when he was a boy.
What he saw in her eyes was not the remorse he'd hoped for. No sorrow. No guilt. Not even fear anymore. Her gaze was challenging. As if telling him he didn't have what it would take to kill her.
"You think I haven't always known that you'd turn up one day?" she said as she sat up in the bed and reached for her cigarettes and lighter on the nightstand. She lit a cigarette and took a deep drag.
He stared at her. He'd often wondered if that day at the gas station she'd looked in her rearview mirror. Now he knew that answer. She hadn't looked back. Not even a glance. He guessed he'd always known that.
"Don't you want to know what happened to me?" A seven-year-old boy abandoned like that. He wanted to tell her about the man who'd picked him up and eventually dumped him just the way she had. Dumped him at a place with an innocuous name: Harper House.
He and the others, though, they'd called it Hell House. Her eyes narrowed at the question, cigarette smoke curling around her. "What? You want to swap horror stories?" She let out a laugh that turned into a cough. "I could tell you stories that would make your hair curl."
She must have seen his hurt. "Hoping for a heartwarming reunion, were you?" She flicked another glance at the knife. "Or were you thinking you could get money out of me?" She let out another laugh. "Sorry, but you're going to be disappointed on both counts."
He shook his head. What had he expected from a woman who'd abandoned her only child the way she had? "Just tell me why."
She blew out a cloud of smoke. "Why? That's it? That's all you want to know?" She gave a drunken nod of her head. "Because I knew you were going to turn out just like your father. Andyou know what?I was right. I should have gotten rid of you like he wanted me to before you were even born."
He'd wanted to make her suffer, but in the end it had all gone too quickly. Still, he'd thought that once she was dead he would feel some release, some measure of peace. Instead he felt empty and angry, just as he had for years.
He'd just finished her when he heard someone coming in the front door of the house. The husband coming home early.
It often amazed him the way things happenedas if they were meant to be. He waited until the husband came down the hall. Killing him was too easy.
Taking the credit cards and checkbooks, along with what cash he found in the house, proved a little more satisfying.
As he climbed out her bathroom window after smashing the shell-framed mirror to sand, he walked to his pickup parked down the block and told himself he wouldn't find the peace he'd spent his life searching for until everyone who'd hurt him was dead.
He didn't need to check the map. He knew the way to Whitehorse, Montana. Unlike his mother, he'd spent more time there than what it took to put five dollars worth of gas into the tank and drive away.
He'd spent the worst years of his life just outside of that town. And now he was going back for the first and last reunion of Harper House. It would end where it started.
But first there were a couple of stops he needed to make along the way. There couldn't be any loose ends.
He checked to make sure he had the switchblade he'd cleaned on her tropical-print sheets and told himself it had been destined to end this way.
Still, as he drove away it nagged at him. What kind of mother just drove off and left her son beside the road? He eased his pain with the thought that the babies must have been switched at the hospital. His real mother was out there somewhere. She'd spent her life looking for him, feeling that something was missing.
He felt a little better as he drove west toward Montana. By the time he reached the border he'd convinced himself that he'd been stolen from his real parentsa mother who loved him and a father who would never have run out on him.
He had to believe that. He couldn't accept that he'd killed his own mother. Otherwise, it might be true what she'd said about him being like his father.