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The Ex(4)
Alafair Burke

“Absolutely. Well, with a few connections of dots. Once she responded to the post, I asked her what book had her so engrossed. It was Eight Days to Die. It’s one of my favorites.” I had never heard of it, but, then again, I wasn’t a big reader these days. “So last night, when she suggested that we meet in person, she said meet at chapter twelve. Flip to that chapter of Eight Days to Die, and there’s a scene at the football field.”

His bizarre, complicated story about Missed-Moment Madeline had taken on one more absurd layer, but as long as the woman backed him up, we could show that it had not been Jack’s idea to place himself at the sports field that morning.

I asked him exactly what happened when he got there.

“Nothing. No big dramatic moment. I saw a few people on the far end of the field, but no woman who seemed to be waiting for me. I wondered for a second if I was on some kind of Candid Camera show. I mean, was the entire setup someone’s idea of a cruel joke? I felt pretty stupid. Then when it started pouring rain out of the blue, I took it as a sign. Enough of this, back to real life.”

I pointed out that he hadn’t completely given up. He had left the basket and the note.

“I guess part of me wanted to believe she’d come through. But I don’t know what any of that has to do with the shooting. Or why Malcolm Neeley was there. I swear, when the detective said his name, it was like, thwack. An anvil descending from the sky in a cartoon, right onto my head. It still doesn’t feel real.”

Yet he didn’t ask for a lawyer.

Everyone thinks he’s somehow going to convince the police he’s innocent as long as he doesn’t lawyer up. Dumb, dumb, dumb. I asked Jack where his shirt was, even though I suspected I knew the answer.

“When we first got to the station, he said they were running tests on everyone who’d been near the waterfront. He said it would be quick. They swabbed my hands.”

“You didn’t think it was weird when they asked for your clothing?”

“You don’t have to talk to me like I’m an idiot, Olivia.”

One of our first fights had begun with the identical sentiment: I didn’t have to treat him like an idiot. “I’m not treating you like an idiot,” I had said. “You’re actually being an idiot.” And then instead of defending himself, he told me I was emasculating him. I said something even meaner.

Now, I simply said, “Jack: your shirt.”

“The shirt came later. After I told him that I needed to get home, he said we could clear some things up if he could run another test on my shirt. Whatever I need to do to prove I’m innocent, I will do. How long do those tests take?”

I held my tongue.

Gunshot residue. GSR tests were a one-way street for law enforcement. A positive test made the suspect look guilty. A negative test could be explained away by some soap and water.

“I wish you’d tell me this isn’t that bad,” he said. “I assume the missed-moment post is still floating around online. The police can read my e-mails, whatever they need. I know it’s kind of nutty, but that doesn’t mean I shot anyone. How could they even think that?”

“Jack, it’s Malcolm Neeley. How could they not think it?”

He looked like he was about to cry, but then regained his composure. “You know the irony? When I first saw Madeline on the pier with some kind of package next to her, I thought, maybe she’s a runaway bride who has fled her hotel room with a frantically packed go bag, ready to catch an early train out of Penn Station. And then there it was. Penn Station—a reminder of the reason I don’t look at and wonder about and conjure up entire imagined backstories for women I don’t know. Something always sneaks up and reminds me that I don’t have normal anymore. The minute I thought about Penn Station, I should have run away and never looked back.”

Chapter 3

EVERY GENERATION OF Americans had at least one day where they all could remember where they were when they heard the news. Pearl Harbor. The Kennedy assassination. Nine-Eleven.

And then there were some dates that left the same kind of mark, but in a smaller and more regional way. Columbine in Colorado. The federal building in Oklahoma. The marathon in Boston. A bell tower in Texas. Riots in Los Angeles. A club fire in Rhode Island.

For New York City, the most recent of those searing, scarring events was the Penn Station massacre. Until that morning three years ago, we moved like cattle through the turnstiles and corridors of our crowded public transportation systems, complaining about delayed trains, bumped briefcases, or a fellow passenger in dire need of a shower. But then a mass shooting broke out in the heart of the city during peak commuting hours. What seemed unimaginable suddenly felt inevitable.

Thirteen people dead, not to mention the wounded, or the shooter who fired a final bullet into his own jaw at the first sight of police coming his way, which was less than two minutes after the first sound of gunfire. Roughly one shot every 2 seconds for 108 seconds was the gruesome estimate later bandied about by the media.

These weren’t the only shocking details to come out in the aftermath. The killer wasn’t a foreign jihadist, as most of us assumed when we first heard about an attack in Penn Station. He was a local. And he wasn’t even a man yet. Just a boy, fifteen years old, all of five feet seven and 127 pounds. His name was Todd. Todd didn’t need physical size to inflict that kind of damage, not when he was armed with a Bushmaster rifle and two .40-caliber pistols, all three weapons semiautomatic.

In the same way I had not been able to stop myself from watching the constant replays of planes heading toward the Twin Towers, I had been glued to my television for consecutive days afterward, afraid to leave my apartment in the midst of warnings about feared copycat attacks.

How did a fifteen-year-old boy have access to those kinds of weapons? outraged and bewildered New Yorkers wanted to know.

After another twenty-four-hour news cycle, we began to have an answer to that question. Todd’s mother, still clinically depressed despite three hospitalizations, killed herself when he was just eight years old. Todd’s older brother was nearly out of college at the time. Todd’s father, determined that his younger son be treated “normally”—despite multiple assessments from teachers and counselors that he was anything but—resisted mental health treatment or anything that would label his son as “sick” like his mother (his word, not the doctors’).

He moved his son from school to school, in search of a place that was willing to ignore Todd’s behavioral and psychological problems. At the time of the shooting, Todd was enrolled at the Stinson Academy, apparently a last stop for rich screwups in the world of elite private schools. Instead of seeking help for his increasingly alienated and angry son, the father used his considerable wealth to encourage activities that father and son might enjoy together, at least in the few minutes a week the father could spare for his son: Yankees games, an occasional round of golf, and guns. Lots of weapons. Lots of ammunition. Lots of hours at the shooting range near their country home in Connecticut.

Todd did not leave a note, a diary of his plans, or a video-recorded manifesto like so many other mass shooters, but police did find drawings: baby dolls hanging from nooses, rabbits angrily mounting each other, men in capes being eaten by dragons. But no explanation was really needed. Mental illness, social isolation, guns: all the ingredients in a familiar and deadly recipe.

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