—Internationally Bestselling Author Davis Bunn
Five a.m.: Amanda Mallorie wakes to the knowledge that her son Robbie is gone. And a new chapter of her own life must begin. She has spent four years as her son’s only support, desperately trying to understand the actions that landed him on death row and to change his fate. Now Amanda faces an even more difficult task—finding a way, and a reason, to move forward with her own life.
Before the tragedy that unfolded in a South Dakota mall, Robbie was just like other people’s sons or daughters. Sometimes troubled, but sweet and full of goodness too. That’s the little boy Amanda remembers as she packs up his childhood treasures and progress reports, and discovers a class ring she’s never seen before. Who does it belong to and why did Robbie have it in his possession? So begins a journey that will remind her not only of who Robbie used to be, but of a time when she wasn’t afraid—to talk to strangers, to help those in need, to reach out. Robbie’s choices can never be unmade, but there may still be time for forgiveness and trust to grow again. For a future as wide as the sky.
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Two hours, forty-three minutes
Amanda's eyes fluttered open when the alarm went off at five a.m. She lay perfectly still in the solitary darkness. Waiting. An advertisement for a new pizza place in town filled the silence while she willed her tense muscles to release. It was over. There was nothing left to brace herself for, but she needed to hear the words said before she got out of bed. She needed the confirmation that her son was dead before she could make sense of the life ahead of her. Life that had reset today, counting the minutes and seconds of her existence as though entirely new.
Knowing she'd slept while her child died filled her with guilt. There hadn't been live coverage, so it wasn't as if she could have known the moment it happened even if exhaustion hadn't overtaken her. Or could she? If she'd stayed awake, would a part of her have reacted, broken, died right along with him as though the poison were sliding through her veins? Would a mother feel the difference in the world the moment her child left it? Maybe she would have felt nothing and been shattered by that. Was it a mercy that she'd slept? Or a sin?
A used car dealership's commercial came on. She waited. Did Melissa, her only living child now, already know? Ohio was in a different time zone, so it was six o'clock in the morning there, but probably too early for Melissa to have heard the news. What would she feel when she heard confirmation? Could mother and daughter talk about Robbie now that he was gone?
Not gone. Dead.
"Dead," she said out loud after the car commercial turned to a traffic report. The word bounced around the empty room and echoed back to her like a boomerang, striking her hard in the chest. "Dead," she said again, this time her voice catching in her throat as she pulled the covers to her chin and closed her eyes against the peeling agony of knowledge.
Still no tears. Perhaps because of all the tears she'd cried for all the years she'd cried them until the numbness had set in. Mourning her son had been an incremental process that had stealthily overtaken her identity and broken her into jagged bits. But today was a different kind of mourning. Today she mourned the most basic elements of life: lungs breathing and heart beating and brain thinking. The opposite of the moment of Robbie's birth, when he'd taken his first breath and the room had cheered in triumph of new life. He'd had the cord wrapped around his neck and the last few minutes of the delivery had been frightening, yet they had ended in celebration that had dissolved the fear. Today, her son was dead, and a different group of people would celebrate. The significance of his death marked a change, a turn, an irreversible pivot for her life — she would never see Robbie again or hear him say, "Hi, Mom, how ya doin'?" Anything that he could have said or done to remove the iron weight she'd carried in her chest for four years — and she'd thought of so many things he could have said or done that might have brought some measure of peace — could no longer be said or done. Ever. His sentence could not be commuted. His execution date could not be stayed. He could not in any way make all the wrong even a little bit more right. Robbie was dead. Her son. Her baby boy. Never was such a long time. Infinitely long, and it had begun.
Amanda had thought she understood what those parents and husbands and wives and children of his victims had felt the day Robbie killed the people they loved, but she now knew she'd been wrong. Perhaps she had understood to the full extent of her ability, or maybe she understood fully from a place of supposition and sympathy and horror, but now that ability was different. Expanded. Focused. Hollow. Cold. Now it was her son dead. Her child gone forever. How could she ever have thought she understood what that loss felt like before now? What a terrible assumption she'd made. One of so many terrible assumptions. And yet he had deserved his punishment, whereas his victims had not. Did that change her grief? Could she still not know what those other parents felt like?
"My beautiful boy," she said to the empty room. Rather than spin around the corners and come back to her, these words dribbled past her lips as though the very air would not hold such a description of the mass shooter Robert Mallorie. That's how everyone would forever know him. That was his legacy and, through him, hers too. Robert Mallorie's mother. His mother. That monster's mom.
The icy tendrils of winter gloom had seeped into the house like a cat burglar in the night — surely that was the only reason she was so cold — and she pulled the blankets tighter beneath her chin as she continued to stare at the ceiling and wait for the inevitable. A car drove by on the street. An ordinary morning of an ordinary January day for the driver. The streetlight on the corner shining through the blinds made lines of light on the ceiling. Stripes. Bars?
After the traffic report and a reminder of the University of Sioux Falls basketball game that night, the commentator moved on to the day's headlines. Amanda's fingers gripped the blanket.
"Police are still trying to get both protesters and supporters to leave the South Dakota Penitentiary in Sioux Falls following the execution of Robert Mallorie, which took place at two o'clock this morning. It was the third execution in South Dakota in five years amid the continued controversy over the so-called fast-track process that put Mallorie to death only four years after his crime, despite numerous pleas from advocacy groups against capital punishment, his own mother, Amanda Mallorie, and his attorneys, who feel he was incompetent at the time he waived his appeals. Barbara Hansen, the mother of Carlee Hansen, one of Mallorie's victims, was allowed to witness the execution." The commentator's voice was replaced with that of a middle- aged woman Amanda knew from the news stories. Amanda had looked Mrs. Hansen up on Facebook once. She was two years older than Amanda, and she had turned forty-five years old two weeks after her daughter had been killed by Amanda's son. A journalist had written a story featuring a photograph of Mrs. Hansen holding a "Happy Birthday" balloon while she stood in front of the still-fresh grave of her daughter. No headstone yet, just the plastic markers they stick into the ground while they wait for the official monument. The dormant grass had been a sickly yellow-brown in between patches of hard, graying snow.
The air of Amanda's bedroom held the words of Mrs. Hansen coming through the radio: "I believe that my daughter can finally rest in peace now that Robert Mallorie is in hell, right where he belongs."
Amanda flinched, though the reaction surprised her — she wasn't used to feeling things deeply enough to react. The therapist Amanda had seen for a few months after the shooting had recommended she write letters to the victims' families as an exercise to begin healing after what Robbie had done. To describe the task as difficult was like describing Mount Rushmore as a paperweight. Barbara Hansen had been the only parent who wrote Amanda back — a scathing letter full of such anger and vitriol that Amanda had torn it in half with shaking hands when she finished reading it. She'd immediately felt guilty, as though she were passing judgment on this woman whom Amanda had no right to judge. But the letter had shaken her. It was proof that reaching out was risky. Amanda kept seeing the therapist for a few more months, but then she met her allowable mental health benefits on her insurance and couldn't afford to pay for the $200 per session on her own. Once she hadn't attended for a couple of months she wondered if it had done her any good in the first place. "How do you feel about what your son did, Mrs. Mallorie?"
"Sick. Devastated. Confused. Abandoned. Stupid. Lost. Lonely. Culpable. Horrified."
"And how does that make you feel?"
Amanda had expected to try therapy again. Maybe with a female therapist this time. But she never did. Distrust of people led to isolation that led to depression she rightly deserved. Or maybe the depression had caused the isolation and distrust; she couldn't be sure. Either way, once enough people close to her had turned on Robbie, the idea of sitting across from a stranger and laying out her most precious thoughts and feelings felt like walking naked down the street.
The radio commentator continued in the same tone he'd delivered the traffic report a few minutes earlier. "Mallorie was convicted of the Cotton Mall shooting that left nine people dead and twelve injured just before Christmas four years ago. After his automatic direct appeal failed to overturn his conviction, Mallorie waived additional appeals. Prison officials confirmed Mallorie's death by lethal injection at 2:17 this morning. His last meal consisted of root beer, onion rings, and macaroni and cheese with sliced hot dogs."
Amanda's throat tightened around a gasp, and she lifted her hands to her face while the commentator's voice moved on to the day's weather. The faces of Robbie's victims came into her mind as they so often did — they haunted her — but she made them leave, pushed and begged them to leave. Just for today. Let me mourn just Robbie today.
When the faces of the longer dead left her alone, she poured her sorrow into the empty spaces. My boy, she thought as grieving bubbled up in her chest like lava. She pictured her Robbie in a white sterile room eating his mac and cheese with sliced hot dogs off a plastic tray. Alone. Savoring every bite of the meal he'd loved as a child, knowing with each bite that he wouldn't be alive long enough to digest it. Amanda had made mac and cheese with hot dogs for him and Melissa when they were little. Had he thought about Amanda as he ate? Had he remembered the day she taught him how to make macaroni and cheese all by himself? Amanda had given herself a mental pat on the back for being a good mother that day. Good mothers taught their sons to cook. Boys who learned to cook grew up to be good citizens and helpful husbands. They mowed their lawns on Saturdays and stopped at stop signs. They didn't kill people in cold blood at Christmastime. They didn't drain society of millions of tax dollars necessary to keep them alive until the government killed them. They didn't ignore the pleadings of their mothers to not give up their appeals so that they could live a little longer. Because surely if Robbie had lived a little longer she would make sense of what had happened, wouldn't she? Someday. Somehow.
I should have been at the execution, Amanda thought, clenching her eyes shut. You should have let me be there. She could feel the tears building, but she wasn't ready to feel that much. Maybe if she'd seen him take his last breath she'd ... what? Feel better? Believe he was gone?
But she did believe he was gone. The world was different today because Robbie was not in it. The world would continue to be different every day of the rest of her life. Had he wished, in those last minutes, that he had loving eyes upon him as his life slipped away? She would have mouthed "I love you" over and over and over again until his eyes closed. She would have been with him to the very end if he'd let her.
Amanda opened her eyes and let out a breath. The fleeting anger left with it. It was over and done. For the last four years, she'd given up one piece and then another of her emotion, identity, and place in the world. She'd let the numbness settle. Not that she didn't ache for everything that had happened. She ached all the time. But it was a bit frightening that just this morning she had felt different. She had felt something other than the familiar aching. I should have been there, she thought again, testing how she felt about such a statement. She didn't feel angry this time, but she felt ... clarity. What right did Robbie have to deny her the chance to see this through? Why was his choice more important than what she wanted? There was no answer for that, of course. There never would be.
Over the years of his incarceration, Robbie had not called her very often — the outside world crashing against his inside world was chaotic for him. Sometimes he wouldn't even allow her to visit. Usually those moods coincided with adjustments to his medications, which affected his paranoia and delusions. The prison psychiatrist had always been adjusting his medications, trying to find the best combination at the cheapest price for the taxpayer's interests. Amanda had tried to keep Robbie on her health insurance in the beginning or pay for his meds herself, but there was a policy against that. She was no longer his mother; the prison was. In some states, because he had a death sentence he was already considered legally dead. Because Robbie's mental health was unstable, she had never known from one week to the next whether her name would be on his approved visitor list or not.
Ten days ago, the warden had officially filed the date of Robbie's execution. Amanda had last seen her son Monday afternoon — three days ago — at a special meeting arranged by his attorneys where he was free of his chains and ironically stable with his medications. All her other visits over the years had been non-contact, but this time she held both his hands the whole time they talked, nearly an hour. He'd hugged her. Twice. Despite the overgrown beard and prison tattoos across his forehead and down his neck, he had seemed more like Robbie than he had in years. The son he'd been before the shooting, before everything went so horribly wrong.
When Amanda's hour was up on Monday, she hugged her son for the last time — holding and smelling him and taking note of the exact place on his shoulder where her cheek rested. Robbie had begun to cry as the embrace continued. Frightening emotion built in her own chest, but she hadn't been able to free it then.
"I'm glad it's almost over," he'd said as he pulled back but left his hands on her shoulders as he looked at her. Over the years, Amanda had deciphered that clear eyes meant Robbie's head was clear, too — a double-edged sword. When Robbie had been stable, he was crushed by what he'd done and wracked with anguish. When his brain chemistry had been volatile, however, he was angry at how he was being treated, defiant with the guards, and hard to talk to; hard to even look at with the intense postures and glaring eyes. As prison took its toll, he was less Robbie and more Robert Mallorie.
"I'm not putting your name on my witness list for the execution, Mom," he'd said as he blinked those clear blue eyes.
Everything inside her had gone still. "But — "
"I don't want you haunted by yet one more thing I've done to you."
Amanda hadn't argued. Later she had felt like a coward for not trying to change his mind. She had considered calling his attorneys and insisting, but her hand had never gone to her phone. Maybe she hadn't really wanted to be there. The thought brought those tears back up behind her eyes again. Her sinuses tingled. She suppressed them again. Not yet.
An article in yesterday's Leader said sixty-two people had petitioned the penitentiary to be one of the prosecution's witnesses to Robbie's death. Sixty-two people believed that watching him die would improve their lives somehow. Only a fraction of the requests had been approved, but those few had made up the audience to Robbie's death — devoid of anyone who loved him. "I can't have you there, Mom," Robbie had explained on Monday, his hands still holding her an arm's length away.
Amanda closed her eyes in the darkened bedroom and let the memory of that final meeting wash over her. He'd been so lucid, so ... Robbie. He'd been allowed to walk her to the door of the private visitation room, where two guards had stood on both sides of him the whole time. They stopped at the threshold. She looked into those clear blue eyes and said, "I love you, Robbie. So very much."
Tears filled his eyes again, and the tattoos and beard melted away until he was for that moment the young man he'd once been. Just Robbie. Just her son. "I love you, too, Mom."
When Amanda had returned home from that final prison visit, the emotions had been churning like the paddles on a river boat. She would never see her son again. He would die without her and she would go on living, such as her life was.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "As Wide As The Sky"
Copyright © 2018 Josi S. Kilpack.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 - Amanda,
2 - Darryl,
3 - Amanda,
4 - Melissa,
5 - Amanda,
6 - Larinda,
7 - Amanda,
8 - Tony,
9 - Amanda,
10 - Steve,
11 - Amanda,
12 - Jaxon,
13 - Amanda,
14 - Steve,
15 - Amanda,
16 - Margo,
17 - Amanda,
18 - Coach Miller,
19 - Amanda,
20 - Steve,
21 - Amanda,
22 - Steve,
23 - Amanda,
24 - Steve,
25 - Clara,
26 - Amanda,
27 - Steve,
28 - Amanda,
29 - Steve,