Kensey Lyons, age 7
I sat on the hard chair, legs swinging, as my mom boasted, “She received the Student of the Week award.”
My dad’s eyes briefly slid to me, gleaming with pride. “Again?”
“And her teacher was so impressed with Kensey’s story that she read it out loud to the entire class.”
“Well, of course she was impressed,” he said. “I love all the stories that Kensey writes for me.”
My mom looked down at me. “Oh, give Daddy the picture you drew.”
I handed him the folded piece of paper. He reached for it with a smile, and his handcuffs rattled.
I stilled. Don’t look at them, I told myself.
Like always, I tried to pretend they weren’t there. Just like I tried to pretend that he was wearing a normal shirt, not a bright orange tee. Just like I tried to pretend we were sitting at the kitchen table at home, not at a desk that was fastened to the floor in the cold, dull place that smelled of metal and concrete.
There were no homey sounds of a fire popping, curtains rustling, or a washing machine chugging. Only the sounds of door buzzers, echoing footsteps, and iron doors sliding open and closed.
Before I was old enough to understand what prison was, I’d once asked why he never went home with us. He’d said, “Daddy did something bad, angel. What happens when we do bad things?”
I’d thought about the times my mom told me “no TV” when I didn’t tidy my room. “We’re punished,” I’d replied.
He’d nodded and said, “That’s right. Daddy did something bad, and now he has to stay here.”
At the time, I’d thought the “something bad” couldn’t be very bad. My daddy loved me, and I loved him right back. He drew me pictures, wrote me poems and stories, and sent me lots and lots of letters. He always smiled at me, hugged me, and kissed my cheeks. Never got mad or mean. Always told me that he loved me and was proud of me. Sometimes his eyes would turn hard, but never when he looked at me.
Holding my picture like it was something precious, he smiled. “It’s beautiful. Very creative. Thank you, baby. Now I have another to stick on my wall.” He tipped his head. “You’re quiet today. What’s going on in that clever head of yours, my Kensey?”
I bit my lip. I didn’t want to talk about it. Didn’t want my mom to know that anything was wrong. But there was no point in saying that I was fine. He always knew when I lied. Like he had a superpower. “I heard something.” I hadn’t meant to whisper it.
“What did you hear?” he asked gently.
I didn’t want to say it out loud. Couldn’t. “It was the girls. At school. One of them heard their parents talking about it, and she told the others.” And then they’d all teased me about it at recess and called him horrible names, but I didn’t say that. It would only make my mom cry.
“Talking about what?”
“I see. What did you hear them say?”
I swallowed. “That you killed people,” I whispered. “Ladies. Lots of them.” My mom sucked in a breath.
His gentle expression never changed. “Is that all that the girls said?”
Slowly, I shook my head. “They said you’re not my daddy. Said that Mommy married you while you were already in prison.” They’d also said that my real dad was married to someone else and that he was a lot older than my mom.
“You listen to me, my Kensey. There’s a very big difference between a father and a daddy. I had a father, but he wasn’t in my life, so he wasn’t my daddy. See the difference?”
I nodded once. “Yes.”
“Your father isn’t in your life—which just goes to show that he’s stupid—but I am part of your life. I’m your daddy. Don’t let anyone make you think differently.”
Again, I nodded.
“You’ll hear more bad things about me, angel. Some will be true, some won’t be. You can always ask me about it. I’ll tell you as much of the truth as I can—some things you’re not old enough to understand yet. But no matter what you hear, you must never, ever forget one very important thing—Daddy loves you. Okay?”
I swallowed. “Okay.”
Kensey, age 10
Pushing myself off the ground, I looked at my knee. It was an angry red with a big cut slicing down the middle of it.
“You’re gonna need a band-aid,” said Sarah Armstrong, my best friend.
I didn’t like wearing band-aids. They itched, and my mom would use that antiseptic cream that stung—my knee was sore enough as it was. Like someone was pricking it with lots of needles.
Cade’s nose wrinkled. “Ew. The blood’s starting to drip.”
Sarah scowled at her older brother. “This is your fault, dumbass. You tripped her up.”
“No, I tackled her. That’s what you do when you play soccer. And you’re not supposed to say ‘dumbass,’ dumbass.”
She sniffed at him. “Idiot.” Turning to me, she took my elbow. “Come on, let’s go inside.”
We went through the backdoor of my house, straight into the kitchen that smelled of the lemon cleaning spray my mom used. As we got close to the living room, I stopped. Because I could hear sniffling.
“Tell me the truth, Clear, what’s got you in such a state?” asked Sherry, who was Sarah and Cade’s mom. She was also my mom’s friend—only friend, really—and my godmother.
“A TV producer called last week,” replied my mom. “He’s doing a documentary on serial killers. He wants to include Michael. He went to the prison to interview him.”
“I’ll bet Michael loved that.”
“No, he turned the guy away. Michael doesn’t like it when the media drags his name into the spotlight all over again—he doesn’t want any of that crap touching Kensey.” Mom sniffled again. “I told the producer that I wasn’t interested in being interviewed for his documentary. He turned up at the house a few days ago, offering more money. I said no again. Then …”
“Then, what?” pushed Sherry.
“He went to Kensey’s school today; tried to talk to her through the gates during recess.”
“He took pictures of her.”
“Bastard,” Sherry muttered. “How is Kensey?”
My belly rolled, like I’d be sick, as I remembered the stranger calling out to me and asking me to come closer. But I hadn’t moved then, and I didn’t move now. Even though I could feel blood trickling down my leg, wet and warm, I didn’t move.
“She seems fine. She didn’t talk to him; she screamed ‘stranger danger’ and had everybody running over there. God, Michael’s going to be so mad when he hears about this.”
“Really?” Sherry sounded like she didn’t believe that.
“He loves her. He loves me.”
“Do you really believe that? Honestly?”
“He started receiving proposals from women literally the day he was dumped in that place,” my mom said, voice sort of … sharp.
“Incarcerated, not dumped.”
“He receives over two hundred letters a day from groupies. When I wrote to him, I didn’t think he’d ask me to visit him, but he did. Do you hear that? I didn’t just turn up. He invited me.”