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A Stranger at the Door
Author: Jason Pinter

 

“You cannot watch him all the time.

I will take him in the end.”

She was gone. But I said it anyway, to that great

empty room and my son’s dreaming ears:

“You do not know what I can do.”

—Madeline Miller, Circe

 

 

“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“A burglar.”

“A burglar who?”

“No, Mom, this isn’t a knock-knock joke. It’s a real burglar. You’re supposed to be scared.”

“Oh, right. Sorry, sweetie. Oh no, a burglar! Whatever shall we do?”

“I’m a mean old burglar, and I smell, and I’m going to come in and shoot you.”

“Megan, burglars don’t shoot people. They’re cowards. They just want to steal things and run away.”

“That’s not true, Mom. When a burglar came into our home, he had a gun and wanted to shoot you. Remember, Mommy?”

“. . .”

“Mommy?”

“Yes. I remember, darling. I’ll never forget it. But he didn’t.”

“But he could have. He could have shot you. Right?”

“Yes, Megan. But you and your brother are safe. Now and always.”

“Are you safe?”

“Right now I am, baby.”

“So in my story, the burglar is like the one who came to our house. He didn’t only want to steal things. He wanted to hurt people.”

“You shouldn’t be writing such scary things, Megan.”

“But Sadie Scout is the hero of my books, Mom. She doesn’t get scared by bad people because she’s brave.”

“Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared of the bad things. Being brave means you stay strong even though you’re scared.”

“Don’t worry, Mom. Nothing that bad is going to happen to Sadie Scout.”

“Oh? How do you know?”

“Because I want to write a lot of Sadie Scout books. Like a hundred. I can’t write a hundred Sadie Scout books if something really bad happens to her. It’s not like real life, where if something really bad happens, the person doesn’t come back. Like Dad.”

“Oh, sweetie . . .”

“I think that’s what people want, isn’t it? A happy ending?”

“They do, baby. They do.”

“Even if happy endings don’t always happen in real life, they’re going to happen to Sadie Scout. Because she’s a hero. She’ll always stop the bad guy. Even if that doesn’t always happen in real life.”

“Megan?”

“Yes, Mom?”

“You are truly amazing.”

“Mom?”

“Yes?”

“Our last name. Marin. I know it’s not our real last name. Right?”

“That’s right.”

“Did you make that name up, like out of nowhere? Did you read it in a book? Or did it come from somewhere?”

“It came from somewhere. Or something, actually. Something that once made Mommy very happy—the happiest she’d ever been before you and your brother were born. And so I chose Marin because I thought about that time I was so happy, and I wanted our family to be happy in the same way.”

“What was that something? The reason you chose the name Marin for our family.”

“Oh, hon, let’s not get into that right now.”

“Will I ever know?”

“One day. One day I’ll show you. I promise.”

“Mom? Do you think wherever Dad is, he’s happy?”

“Oh, Megan, I know he is. He’s happy, and he loves you and your brother and is proud of you every second of every day.”

“I wish he was here so he could read my Sadie Scout books. I think he’d like them.”

“I know he would, baby. Your daddy loved a good mystery.”

 

 

CHAPTER 1

The day Matthew Linklater was murdered, he taught three social studies classes, caught Becca Matheson and Steve D’Agosta making out in the north stairwell, refused to loan his sister any more money on account of the fact that she’d already borrowed nearly six grand from him and there was as much chance of getting repaid as there was of finding coffee on the moon, and responded to three messages on dating apps during his lunch break.

Though never married, Linklater had steadfastly refused to participate in the fetid swamp that was online dating, despite the sadistic urging of his (married) friends. He found no dignity in crafting a focus-group biography expected to contain a measure of wit, a soupçon of self-deprecation, a hint of worldliness, and a heap of confidence, all in support of curated, flattering photographs of himself doing exotic things like posing alongside tigers while holding a freshly caught three-hundred-pound swordfish. But Edward Li, the school’s forty-six-year-old chemistry teacher, had met his wife on one of those infernal swipey things, and as Li recalled it, they knew from the moment they met that they had “an immediate and unbreakable covalent bond.” Three cheers for chemistry humor.

Had Linklater known the date and manner of his death, he would have tried to squeeze as much happiness into his relatively short life as possible before it was taken from him with an unimaginable amount of pain and terror.

But once Linklater acquiesced and downloaded the dating apps, he was shocked by the opposite sex’s appetite for single, employed, reasonably put-together middle-aged men who still possessed the majority of their hair. It was addictive—that spark of excitement when he swiped right and got a notification that they, too, would at the very least consider having sex.

Every so often he’d come across the mother of one of his students, and suddenly he would understand why Suzanne Winger or Jamal Phillips or any number of students had become sullen or angry: their parents had split up, leaving confused, bitter children in their wake. He tried to use this concealed knowledge to be more understanding, more patient, with those kids he learned were suffering, often in the midst of oblivious parents solely focused on their own miseries.

Yet despite all the matches, his overflowing in-box, all the couplings and conversations and carnality, Matthew Linklater was selective. He was not an unhappy man and did not want a prospective partner to think he was looking for something serious when, the truth was, he was largely content. Lonely sometimes, sure. But who wasn’t? Linklater’s parents were divorced by the time he was eight, and being shuffled joylessly from home to home every other weekend had been as pleasurable as a trip to the dentist.

So he’d drifted through life on the fringes of academia. Earned a master’s in history from Loyola, bounced around the Midwest until landing at Ashby High thirteen years ago. He’d bought a house before the market boom and had nearly paid off his thirty-year fixed-rate mortgage in less than half the time. Soon enough he would be debt-free, and every spare penny from his $68,000-a-year salary could be earmarked for retirement. Or better yet, a long-overdue vacation. He had been seeing someone on and off—an Ashby High mother, no less. It went against his rules, but there was something about Gabrielle. She stuck in his mind, and even when he’d tried to call it off, his heart had refused to call it quits. Who knew what the future held? He’d always wanted to visit Machu Picchu. Maybe he would invite Gabrielle. Maybe it could be more.

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