“Nobody knows you’re talking to me?”
“No.” I take in a breath and let it out. “Is it true? That you killed that girl later, the one you were carrying?”
“You mean the one your mom helped me carry?” His correction is a little sharp, and then he softens immediately. “Sorry, Brady. It’s just that I’ve been spit on and lied about for so many years. And your mother got away with everything.”
“Did you do it, though?”
“Did I what?”
I swallow. My mouth is dry. I don’t want to ask this. But I do want to, and I make myself. “Did you kill them? All those ladies?”
He doesn’t answer, for long enough that I’m listening to the wind through the phone speaker and his quiet, even breathing on the other end. Finally, he says, “There are things you just won’t understand. It isn’t what you think.”
“It’s a simple question.” I sound suddenly pretty adult now, I think. “Did you kill them, or not?”
“I did kill one girl, but that was an accident. We were going to hold her for ransom, that’s all. We needed money for you and your sister, and her family was rich. It was an accident.”
“But all the other ones . . .”
“There were no other ones. The other stuff they say about me, the other girls—that’s all made up. Faked—I’ll send you links to articles about it, how the scientists in the police lab switched my DNA for the real killer’s. That’s why I had to get out of jail. I need to prove my innocence. Nobody would listen to me while I was behind bars.”
The real killer. My heart speeds up, because this sounds right. It makes sense. My dad can’t be a killer, not really. TV shows, they always have people who were accused but didn’t really do the crime, and the real killer gets found in the end. So why can’t that be true now? Why can’t Dad be innocent? Didn’t that make more sense, that he and Mom did something stupid to help us, and then the police decided he was guilty for everything else? And Mom lied to us so she could stay with us and take care of us?
I’m glad I think of that, because I didn’t like to believe Mom lied just to hurt Dad. No, she was trying to help us, that’s all.
If it was an accident, it makes more sense than trying to imagine that my dad, the big, warm shadow who took me to my first baseball game and watched TV with me and sometimes read me stories at night . . . that my dad is a monster.
I can distantly hear the shower cut off. Lanny’s almost done in the bathroom. She’ll blow-dry her hair, and then she’ll come knock on my door to say good night. She always does.
“I have to go,” I tell him quickly. “Sorry.”
“Wait! Brady . . . Son, I just wanted to say thank you for talking to me. I know it isn’t easy. But it means a lot to me.” I can hear that it does. He sounds like he’s about to cry. “I never thought I’d get to hear your voice again.”
“Okay.” I feel weird now, and sick to my stomach. Is it better, knowing that my dad loved me, still does love me, when everybody expects me to hate him? “I’ve got to go.”
“One more thing,” he says. “Please.”
“What?” My thumb hovers over the button to end the call, but I don’t press it. I wait.
“Just call me Dad,” he says. “Just once. I’ve been waiting such a long time to hear it.”
I shouldn’t. It’s a line, and I shouldn’t step over it. I texted the word, sure. But I haven’t said it. It feels like admitting something to myself that’s too big to understand.
But I don’t have time to think about it. So I quickly say, “Goodbye, Dad,” and I shut it off. My heart’s hammering, and my hands are shaking, and I can’t believe I just talked to my dad.
Someone knocks on my door. It isn’t Lanny; I can hear the hair dryer just starting up. I turn the phone off and open the closet door to say, “Yeah?” I’m watching the little circle spin around. It takes forever to shut this thing off.
“Connor? Can I come in?”
It’s not Javier. It’s Kezia. When I don’t answer, she tries the doorknob, and I’m glad I locked it, because this phone isn’t turning off . . . and then it suddenly does, it’s dark and silent, and I put it in my pants pocket and go to open up. “Hi,” I tell Kezia. “Sorry.” I go back to the bed and sit down, cross-legged.
She doesn’t come in, just watches me. “I’ve been worried about you.”
Everybody’s worried about me. Except Dad, who thinks I’m okay.
When I don’t answer, Kezia goes on. “You know, it’s okay to be mad with your mom. But you have to know she still loves you. A lot. Okay?”
“Sure,” I say, then shrug. “You don’t have to worry about me. I’m fine. Just waiting for the bathroom. Lanny takes forever in there.” I hope I sound okay. Normal, at least. On the inside I’m shaking, and I feel like I’m flying apart. I talked to him. I heard his voice. I called him Dad. I don’t know how I feel. Elated, because I got away with it. Terrified. Happy. Worried. All those at the same time.
I can get rid of the phone now, part of me says. I’ve talked to him. So that’s done. I should go smash it now and bury the pieces.
But I can’t. Because this piece of technology in my pocket, it’s like a magic button I can press and feel . . . kind of normal. How can I get rid of it now? But it’s a risk. If they find out, everybody will be mad at me.
I remember his voice shaking as he asked me to call him Dad, like it was the only thing he wanted in the world, and I think, I don’t care if they’re mad.
I need my father. And now, I really think he needs me.
I sleep well for the first time in weeks. I don’t even dream. It’s like hearing Dad’s voice silenced something inside me that was screaming all the time.
And I know that’s probably wrong.
When we get up the next morning, everything seems normal, except me. We have waffles and bacon. I convince them to let me try some coffee with lots of milk and sugar, and I can’t decide, once I have it, whether or not I like it, but I drink it all anyway. Lanny’s milk-only now with her coffee. Javier and Kez just drink it black.
“Why don’t you have anything in it?” I ask them, just to have something to talk about. Javier laughs and exchanges a glance with Kezia.