Dennis Larson's Daughter
Sam Butler was standing at the grill of Hanks's Hot Dog Hut when he noticed the woman at the front counter. She was wearing sunglasses even though it was a cloudy day and a bandana covered her brown hair. Sam might never had recognized her if her voice hadn't given her away. He glanced up from his grilling as soon as he heard the woman place her order.
With her sunglasses shading her eyes, Sam couldn't be sure if she had seen him behind the counter. The cooking area was open so customers could watch their dogs being prepared. The woman tried to appear disinterested and distracted, looking everywhere but at Sam and that's when he realized that the voice really did belong to Cori Larson whom he hadn't seen in twenty years and never expected to see again.
Cori's long straight blond hair was long gone, now choppy and brown, barely to her neck Her face looked drawn and tired. She had put on a few pounds although she was still appealing in her form. Sam slowly walked out from behind the cooking counter to the front serving counter where Millie and Samantha were taking orders, preparing drinks, and ringing up customers, unable to take his eyes off of the woman standing at the counter who had no choice but to look in Sam's direction.
She was his first love. They were long time classmates in the Greenville School System who became friends and eventually Cori agreed to be his girlfriend. Once that happened, Sam's life turned perfect and he was thrilled to have such a wonderful person as Cori in his life.
Cori had the innate ability to light up a room with her smile. She was positive, perky, fun, influential, happy and a joy to be around. She believed in Sam, supported him faithfully in all his interests and pursuits and she spent plenty of time at Hank's watching Sam work while sipping on a shake and doing her homework. Cori showed Sam that life was good and to be lived to the fullest. She was sweet and innocent, knowledgeable and interesting, beautiful and imaginative. Sam was a better person just knowing her and he was complete having her as the first love of his life - his sweetheart.
Both families welcomed the relationship with open arms. Cori became another daughter in the Butler house and Sam felt right at home hanging out with the Larsons. High school was a breeze sharing the experience with Cori.
But high school ended and it was time to move on to college. Sam stayed local by attending Green College but Cori went off to Champlain College in Burlington Vermont where she met and fell in love with James and that was it for Sam's perfect life. He never quite got over losing Cori even all these years later.
"Why am I not surprised to find you here?" Cori asked when Sam arrived at the counter. "Did you ever leave?"
"Yeah, I left," Sam told her. "But I came back."
"Me too," Cori said mysteriously.
"I never thought you would," Sam remarked.
"Me either," Cori agreed.
Millie handed Cori the dog Barker had prepared, along with a soda. Cori said nothing more as she took the bag and exited Hank's Hut Dog Hut as mysteriously as she had appeared.
"Have you ever seen her in here before?" Sam asked Millie.
"Maybe once or twice," Millie confirmed. "She sort of looks like a movie star actress trying to blend in incognito."
"Something like that," Sam confirmed, returning to his place at the grill.
Sam was surprised to realize his heart was beating hard in his chest. It was almost as if he had seen a ghost and it took him a few days to process the reality that Cori Larson was really back in Blue County, an unimaginable reality given the circumstances. He wondered where she might be living. Her childhood house had been razed, replaced by a modern module home on the same property owned by new people who never had known the Larson family or their story. Sam was pretty sure there was nobody from the family still around but then he remembered 'The Pink House' which wasn't all that far from where he now stood.
Sam tried to remember what the connection was between Cori and The Pink House. Was Aunt Linda who lived there really Cori's aunt or just a family friend? Sam had dropped Cori off at The Pink House a number of times and he remembered Aunt Linda as a very warm and giving person, always offering him a piece of cake and a glass of milk. Would Aunt Linda welcome Cori back after all that happened? Was Aunt Linda even still alive? She looked rather old twenty years ago.
Why would Cori come back to Blue County knowing that gossip would certainly follow her if people figured out who she was? And what about her husband? Was Cori still married?
Sam didn't want to think about Cori. Too much time had passed since their happy days together and he needed to stay focused on running the hot dog business. His last long term relationship with Amy, a fellow teacher in the same school system, had soured when Sam decided to leave teaching. Amy couldn't understand why Sam would want to run a hot dog hut and she ended it with him a few weeks before he signed the deed to Hank's. He had been too busy with the hut to think too much about romance and Cori Larson was certainly not somebody he needed to get involved with again after all this time. Going back to hot dogs was one thing, going back to a woman who broken his heart was something entirely different. Besides, there was way too much bizarre baggage and unbelievable tragedy in Cori's life for Sam to take on now.
And yet Sam kept on thinking about his first sweetheart. He even drove by The Pink House once – late at night so there would be no chance of being spotted. The small home looked much the same way he remembered it, even in the dark. It looked like a picture-perfect house with the white picket fence and flower boxes on the window sills, small and quaint, still painted pink too. The house was on a rural road, nestled in a wooded area with not too many other houses around and it would be a perfect place for Cori to hide out if she was indeed trying to stay low key given all that had happened. There was only one car in the small driveway – leading Sam to believe that Cori might be living there by herself.
Why did Cori come into Hank's? For old time's sake – she and Sam had shared many a hot dog there in the past – or because she wanted to see him again? Or let him know she was back? Millie said she had been to Hank's more than once so unless she came back because she really loved the hot dogs, Cori must have had an agenda stopping in.
But Cori hadn't been back since that day they briefly chatted. Why not? Had she completed her mission and now placed the ball squarely in Sam's court? Was it now up to him to decide whether or not he wanted to peruse the past with her? Check in on her to see how she was doing? Talk to her about what happened to her and her family? Reconnect on any real level? Or should he just pretend he never saw her? Leave the past alone? Let the dead bury the dead? Stay clear from the unprecedented horrible tragedy that had destroyed her family?
How long had it been now? Five years? Had people forgotten? How could anybody forget such unbelievable story as that of Dennis Larson? The case made national news when Cori's Dad was arrested and even though the publicity had died down recently nobody in these parts was going to move on from the sensationalism of the Larson trial any time soon.
As it turned out, Sam couldn't let it go. He found himself thinking about Cori, their shared past, her family's tragedy, and how special their time together had been back in younger, sweeter, more innocent days. He felt he owed it to her as a former boyfriend to at least check in with her to see how she was doing in the aftermath of what could only be described as a surreal circumstance in her life.
Sam waited until a peaceful Sunday afternoon spring day to venture to The Pink House. There was a lull at The Hut and Sam took advantage of the slow time to take a drive to The Pink House on Griffin County Road a few miles away. He rarely left Hank's so he didn't feel guilty on this day.
Sam slowed the car as he approached The Pink House, not sure if he was relieved or disappointed when he noticed the same car he had seen previously parked in the driveway. The name on the mailbox on the side of the road read Merrill but Sam couldn't remember if that had been Aunt Linda's last name. At least it didn't read Larson which would not have been a good thing in these parts.
He parked his blue Honda sedan behind the green Subaru station wagon and slowly climbed out of the car, feeling tentative and unsure. The side door to the house opened and there stood Cori Larson-whatever her married name was (Sam never paid attention once they broke up). She was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, sneakers and a ball cap.
"I wasn't sure if you would remember," Cori told him as she waited for him to approach the small side stoop.
"I remember," Sam told her. "Aunt Linda was a nice lady."
"She was," Cori agreed.
"She's no longer with us?" Sam guessed.
Cori shook her head no. "She left me this place."
She held opened the screen door for him and Sam followed Cori into the house that seemed even smaller than he remembered it, a bungalow really with a kitchen, dining room/sitting room, and living room downstairs, and a large master bedroom, smaller second bedroom and bathroom upstairs.
Cori led him into the living room and motioned for Sam to take a seat. "Would you like something to drink?" She asked pleasantly.
"A beer, if you have it," Sam replied as he sat on the couch.
He waited for Cori to return from the kitchen, giving the living room a quick look over. It still had the look of Aunt Linda's décor.
"Was she even your Aunt?" Sam asked when Cori returned with two bottles of beer, handing him one.
"Not by blood," she said, taking a seat in an easy chair catty corner the couch. "She was a family friend of my mother's going way back. She was like an aunt to me though."
There was a long stretch of silence between them.
"Did you come to Hank's looking for me?" Sam finally asked.
"Not at first," Cori admitted. "I was just panging for a Hank's hot dog. But then I saw that newspaper article on the wall announcing you bought the place and I figured I'd come back again."
"Why?" Sam asked with natural curiosity.
"I don't know," she confessed.
"How long have you been back?" Sam asked after a few quiet moments.
"Couple of months," Cori revealed.
"Anybody else know who you are?"
"I keep a low profile," Cori told him. "Shop at the country store in Mt. Griffin or go over to Miller City. I avoid Greenville and Hillsboro. I changed my name and my appearance. I work from home on the internet."
"But why would you come back?" Sam asked with confusion.
"Linda must have thought it was a good idea if she left me the house," Cori reasoned.
"What about your husband?" "Sam wondered.
"We're divorced, Sam," Cori sighed. "It became too much as I'm sure you can understand."
"And your mom?"
"She's living in Arizona with an old high school friend."
"I can't imagine what you've been through, Cori," Sam said.
"It's Lori now," Cori told him. "Lori Merrill, which was Linda's last name."
"Lori," Sam said quietly.
"Did you know that it was exactly six years ago this week when the FBI agent first knocked on my door?" Lori asked. "I was sitting in my kitchen in Burlington, home sick that day. The FBI guy was standing on my porch with his badge in his hand. He was very professional and polite but serious and grim faced. I remember he was wearing a blue and red striped tie. I felt kind of stupid because I was still in my pajamas even though it was past noon. At least I had a robe on. The agent told me they had just arrested my father as the Interstate Serial Killer. He said it in such a surgical matter of fact way. I wanted to throw up."
"I still find it hard to believe," Sam said, staring at her.
"I've spent the last six years trying to come to terms with the reality that I'm the daughter of a serial killer," Lori revealed. "Sometimes I feel like I did something wrong but mostly I just feel like I'm a prisoner."
"You didn't do anything wrong," Sam assured her.
"How could my father have killed so many women over so many years?" Lori asked as if she was in a trance.
"I don't know," Sam admitted.
He was struck by how much Cori had changed. Gone was her perkiness and smile, replaced by a flat mouthed grimace and a lifeless tone of voice, absent of emotion or excitement.
"They arrested my father outside his office in Greenville," Lori told him. "Fourteen federal agents. Pinned him down on the sidewalk and cuffed him in front of dozens of people. In Greenville. Then they started rounding up the rest of us for DNA testing and questioning."
"What kind of questions?" Sam wondered.
Lori shrugged. "Did we ever notice anything unusual? That was the big one. Did we ever have any sense that something was wrong? I had no clue. And that's what we all told them. Nobody in a million years could have possibly imagined that my father – my mother's husband – Dennis R. Larson – could ever be the Interstate Serial Killer. Sometimes I still don't believe it."
"Even after he confessed, I was still in denial," Lori said. "I just couldn't imagine any of it being true. My father. My Dad. My daddy." Her voice was flat, unemotional, detached.
"I'm sorry you had to go through all that," Sam said.
"I remember it was stormy that first night. My mother got a motel room at the Super 8 by the rotary. She couldn't be in the house. I drove down with my husband. My mother didn't want to be alone. We left the door between the motel rooms open."
"I remember a lot of television trucks around," Sam recalled.
"They announced the arrest from the steps of city hall," Lori said. "We watched it from the motel room. CNN carried it live. CNN in Greenville. How strange."
"I was glad that they moved the circus to Hartford," Sam said.
"It was a Federal trial," Lori explained. "The murders happened in four different states, up and down the interstate corridor. We took my mother to Burlington to escape the horror. I had to hide every photo I had of my father. One day I'd be furious, the next comatose. My mother refused to talk about it, my husband didn't know how to talk about it, and I slipped into a deep depression when I realized my whole life had been a lie."
"How you doing now?" Sam asked.
"I'll never be the same again, Sam," Lori told him. "Few people are daughters of a serial killer. It's such a violation having your memories jaded, your life destroyed."
"I doubt there's a greater trauma," Sam agreed.
"I've been in therapy," Lori revealed. "Just started with a new counselor here a couple of weeks ago. She says how we respond to trauma and tragedy defines us as a person. Some turn bitter. Others find ways to live in peace. Sooner or later, I have to learn to forgive the unforgiveable."
"You mean forgive your father for what he did?" Sam asked with surprise.
"I still need to understand why he did it," Lori confessed. "I mean, I know he's deranged. Mentally Ill. Psychotic. But he had to know what he was doing. And how could he justify being a loving husband and father when he was doing such unspeakable things?"
"I don't know," Sam said.
"My mother refused to see him," Lori revealed. "Never spoke to him after he was arrested. Never wrote to him. Never speaks about him. He never existed as far as she's concerned. And she wouldn't let me talk to her about him either. So I was on my own."
"What about your husband?"
"He was embarrassed and humiliated," Lori said. "He's into local politics. He's a public official. Active in the church. It was hard for him to deal with it. And then when I started falling apart he pulled away even more. He treated me kindly. He knew I was a victim just as much as the people my father killed but it just became too much for him to have to balance in his life. So our marriage became a victim too."
"I'm sorry," Sam said with sympathy.
"I've developed coping mechanisms," Lori said. "I know I'm not my father but I'm still coming to terms with the betrayal and the horror. I doubt I'll ever understand it but somehow I have to learn to accept it."
"Is that why you came back here?" Sam asked.
"Enemy territory," Lori said sadly. "I worry that people might recognize me. Then what? Will they ridicule me? Shame me? Ostracize me? Treat me like some sort of freak?"
"I don't know," Sam admitted.
"I know people are angry for the reputation my father brought to Greenville, the terrible things he did to his victims," Lori said. "People around here were scared. The interstate runs right through Blue County. I don't blame them. Bad things happened because of one man, my dad."
"They wouldn't blame you for that."
"They won't forgive me for it either," Lori reasoned. She studied him for a long moment. "The hut, huh?"
Sam smirked proudly. "Never in a million years did I image I'd take over ownership of the historic Hank's Hot Dog Hut on Route 77!"
"You worked there all through high school and college," Lori recalled. "You always loved the down home Americana feel of the place as you used to phrase it."
Over the years, Hank the original owner who started the business in the back of a truck in the early 1950s had improved and expanded the business into a beloved local success and tradition. Route 77 was a truck route and the hot dog stand had no problem generating business even after the interstate went through a few miles to the west. Truckers, high school kids, college coeds and local families were happy to frequent The Hut that was open year round, 11-7 daily.
The present day version of Hank's Hot Dog Hut was a former A and W Root Beer Stand that Hank had purchased and converted in the early 1970s. The outside roof for drive-in cars had been removed and the orange and white concrete structure painted brown. There were several outside picnic tables for summer use and about twenty booths inside the restaurant. Hank's son Lester took over the business a few years after moving into the current location and the establishment became a Blue County staple through the years.
"So you really walked away from teaching to serve hot dogs?" Lori asked.
"After fifteen years I had become burnt out, cynical and disinterested in teaching," Sam explained. "When word came that Lester was looking to sell and retire, I took a leap of faith and returned to my youthful happiness by quitting teaching and becoming the new owner of Hank's Hot Dog Hut!" He smirked devilishly. "Some thought I was crazy but I didn't care."
"It looks the same," Lori remarked.
"I made few changes," Sam told her. "I inherited Hank's famous original chili recipe and I maintained relationships with the veteran suppliers to make sure the taste of the hot dogs never changed."
"The menu is the same too, right?" Lori wondered.
"Chili dogs, stretch chili dogs, chili cheese dogs, polish dogs, bacon chili cheese dogs, chili cheese dogs with sauerkraut, mushroom Swiss cheese dogs, burgers and chili burgers, kielbasa dogs, onion rings, French Fries, chili fries, nacho cheese chili fries, baked beans, coleslaw, Nana Nelson's homemade pies, soda, shakes, lemonade, and iced tea," Sam grinned proudly. "I kept on Millie Roberts, a strong willed, gruff, hard-working middle aged house wife who runs the lunch hour rush with authority and Barker Houser a master on the grill although he rarely says a word and looks seventy even though he's forty!"
"Yeah, I saw them in there," Lori recalled.
"Various high school and college kids work the late afternoon shift but I'm usually on site most of the time assisting Millie at the counter or Barker on the grill when I'm not paying the bills, organizing the advertising, scheduling the shifts, and performing other owner responsibilities," Sam said.
"Congratulations," Lori said. "At least you're doing something you really enjoy."
"I learned from the Lester the master and I try to be the same type of friendly and personable owner he was, greeting customers with a smile and a conversation, roving out and about in the eating area, and becoming involved in local events as a sponsor."
"Looks like it's been working out," Lori said.
"The regulars accepted me," Sam acknowledged with relief. "Lester comes back on occasion to maintain a sense of consistency and continuity and I keep the lobby full of historic photos of the business from the early days all the way through the recent ownership change including that autographed newspaper article you saw announcing the turnover hanging framed on the wall of me and Lester shaking hands."
"You doing okay?"
"I had little trouble adjusting back into the hot dog business after a fifteen year absence," Sam said. "I miss the students but not the stress and anxiety that comes with teaching and I'd rather enjoy serving a delicious hot dog to appreciative customers – many of whom were former students! I've gotten to know the customers and I hope I've developed a friendly rapport with everybody who comes in. I really do feel like I've come full circle."
Lori had a look of sentimental sadness on her face. "You always loved the hot dogs," she recalled. "I'm glad you got what you wanted."
"I didn't get everything that I wanted," Sam said honestly and that caused Lori to look away.
Sam realized his beer was empty. He set the bottle on the coffee table in front of him and stared at Lori. "I need to get back," he sighed.
"Thanks for stopping by," she said quietly. "It was good to see you again."
"Can I come back later?" He asked hopefully.
Lori was clearly surprised by the request. "What for?"
"I felt so helpless when it happened," Sam said as he stood. "I wanted to comfort you somehow, to let you know I was hurt, shocked and confused too, but I knew you had your husband and your mother and that there was no place for me in all the chaos."
"I'm glad you were thinking of me," Lori said with a sad smile.
"Now that you're back, I'd like to be there for you if I could."
She thought about his request for a moment. "Okay," she agreed softly. "Come back later."
Sam nodded his appreciation. "Thanks," he said with a forced smile. "I'm glad I know you're here."
Lori walked him to the door. "Thanks, Sam," she said politely.
"I'll see you later," he promised.
She watched him walk to his car and then quietly closed the door to the house. Sam's head was spinning as he made the quick drive back to The Hut. Seeing Cori…..Lori….again after all these years was surreal in so many ways and listening to her talk about her father was undoubtedly strange.
Mr. Larson had always been good to Sam. He was kind of a dweeb of a guy – wearing boring black suits with narrow ties and penny loafers. He was a salesman for a local drug representative company and spent plenty of time on the road, up and down the interstate as it turned out. He wore black framed glasses and he kept his hair styled short but he seemed to be a great Dad to his only child, Cori, and Sam was caught just as flatfooted and blind as everybody else when the story broke that Cori's dad was The Interstate Serial Killer.
The random killings had been part of regional lore for several years caused by a string of murders within a few miles of the highway in four different states (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire). Fourteen victims were linked to the same killer over a twenty year span. After Cori's father was arrested for the crimes, Sam followed the case with a macabre fascination, unable to fathom that someone he knew could be guilty of such heinous killings. All fourteen victims were women between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-nine, strangled and left naked (but unmolested) in various rural areas not far from the interstate.
The Interstate Serial Killer case proved to be unusual because Mr. Larson did not come from a traumatized upbringing like many serial killers before him. If he suffered from mental illness, it went undetected. He was successful in college and good at his job. He was a well known member of the community and a good family man. Those who knew him liked him. Sam liked him. He did sense that there was some friction between Cori's parents but all couples fought and had conflicts so Sam didn't think much of it.
The only revelation that came out of the trial (by the defense) that might have had some sort of cause-and-effect link to Mr. Larson's behavior was the suicide of one of his favorite cousins who hung herself nude from a shower curtain rod when she was 22 (Mr. Larson was 18 at the time and discovered the body along with a male cousin).
Sam was surprised by the local public reaction when Mr. Larson was arrested. People in the area got caught up in the publicity and sensationalized media coverage and treated the trial as some sort of perverted reality television program, delighted to get Greenville in the national news even if it was for such a sick reason. Although Sam never saw Cori or Mrs. Larson (except for a few brief television news clips), he often wondered how they were faring during the build up to the trial and in the aftermath when Mr. Larson was found guilty of fourteen counts of first degree murder in a jury decision that took less than two hours to reach. The defense's claim of diminished mental capacity did not fly with the jury and the killer was sentenced to fourteen consecutive life sentences for his crimes.
Sam felt incredibly sad. Seeing Cori….Lori….again was wonderful but the change in her demeanor, attitude and outlook was striking. Trying to come to terms with the truth of her life and the reality of her father's crime was almost too much to comprehend. But Sam remembered the sweet and innocent Cori whom he loved so much and he wanted to be able to do something for her now in the rubble that was her life.
Something Cori…..Lori…..said stuck in Sam's mind as he finished the shift at The Hut. Not many people know what it's like to be the daughter of a serial killer. Not many people knew serial killers either and Sam realized he had been struggling with that reality since the news brook about Mr. Larson. How could a guy who helped Sam with his homework, ate dinner with him, treated his daughter like a Princess, co-chaired the annual town Christmas Pageant, and watched March Madness games with Sam and Cori turn out to be a serial killer? How was Sam supposed to process that reality? Deal with the knowledge that he shared ice cream cones with a guy who had killed fourteen women in a twenty year span?
It was perverse, it was disgusting, it was incomprehensible, it was bizarre, and it was hard to fathom. It would almost be make believe if Sam hadn't seen the anguished photos of grieving family members of the victims leaving the court house or if he hadn't stood on the corner of Pierce Street watching them bulldoze Cori's old house into smithereens. The house wasn't that old and it was certainly in fine shape but the town didn't want gawkers, stalkers, demented fans and other delusional celebrity seekers coming to see where infamous serial killer Dennis Larson once lived.
Watching the house being destroyed felt like a part of Sam's own life was being buried under six feet of dirt. While people not close to the family gossiped about the case and the killings, those who knew Mr. Larson and his wife and his daughter struggled with how to deal with the reality that someone they personally knew was a stone-cold killer. Sam's parents mostly pretended it had nothing to do with them. After all, Sam and Cori had broken up years before news came that Cori's Dad was the serial killer so it was easy to make believe that Cori had never been in the Butler house and they hadn't socialized with the Larsons. Sam's older brother Rob had a dark and black sense of humor so he didn't have any qualms about making sick serial killer jokes in front of Sam but their sister Ally was much more sensitive about the issue. She had been friends with Cori when Sam and Cori were dating so she felt bad for Cori but completely grossed out and repulsed by Mr. Larson's actions and she said she wished the state had the death penalty because the guy deserved to fry, a strong rebut from a person who was active in the social justice movement.
Sam didn't know how he felt or how he was supposed to feel about Mr. Larson. The guy was his ex-girlfriend's Dad. But he was also a killer of fourteen women. How in hell was Sam supposed to come to grips with those two undeniable although diametrically opposed truths? More importantly, did he want to take that on now up close and personal by seeing Cori again? Was there any point to going back to The Pink House? They were nearly forty now, neither the same people they had been when they were high school sweethearts. Cori had said that her entire life had been a lie (because of her father) and did that make part of Sam's life a lie too? But how could he hold poor Cori responsible for the terrible things her father had done? Was that fair?
If Cori shown up at Hank's with no baggage (other than her divorce) would Sam be more likely to be interested in her? If Mr. Larson was getting ready to retire from his salesman job instead of spending the rest of his life in jail for the murder of fourteen people would Sam be feeling less guilty and conflicted? The fact that Cori….Lori….had returned – for whatever reason – did not erase the fact that she had dumped Sam all those years ago for another guy. Had Sam forgotten how crushed and hurt he was by the demise of their relationship? It hadn't been sudden or quick – they had gone through the motions for nearly two years – with a long distance romance between Greenville and Burlington – the occasional weekend, school breaks, and the summer – at least when Cori actually came back to Greenville for the summer.
Sam knew Cori had met somebody else even though she insisted she was just friends with the guy. Hell, she had been just friends with Sam too before they began dating! Sam grew tired of waiting for Cori to come home and he was meeting new people too. They hadn't had sex together in high school and when Cori kept holding Sam back from physical relations even in college he was pretty sure she was sleeping with someone else. He was saddened but not all the guilt-ridden when he had a fling with Kirstin at Green College, losing his virginity to a woman he had only known a few weeks but he had gotten tired of waiting for Cori. Things didn't progress with Kristin – a interesting person who taught him about sex – but that didn't stop Sam from realizing that there were other fish in the sea and if Cori wasn't willing to swim with him and that's when he came to terms with the reality that it was time to move on. Cori had figured out that truth much earlier but she didn't want to hurt Sam so she played it out for as long as she could until she finally admitted that she was in love with James, the guy in Burlington, and her confession officially ended their innocent high school sweetheart romance.
Sam was relieved at first, glad to have the weight of waiting for Cori off his shoulders but then he was hit with all the typical reactions and feelings that come with the end of a special relationship – guilt, remorse, depression, anger, resentment and finally acceptance. He went on to graduate from Green and start his teaching career, enjoying several relationships along the way (the last one being Amy who couldn't deal with him leaving teaching for hot dogs) but now it felt like he had entered a new phase in his life – running The Hut which was a part of his past and now having Cori….Lori…..back in the area brought back some of that past too.
But none of that changed the fact that Lori Merrill (aka Cori Larson) was the daughter of a serial killer. Wasn't that an automatic deal breaker in anybody's book? That was Sam's dilemma as he went through the daily closing rituals at The Hut. He stepped out into the cool spring night air once The Hut was ready for the next day's opening debating with himself whether or not he should drive to his condo in Hillsboro or Cori….Lori's pink house a few miles down the road.
Sam wasn't sure how much time had passed as he sat in the driver's seat of his car pondering his future. Would it be serial free by driving to Hillsboro? Then the reality hit him: he was never going to be serial killer-free. He would never be able to erase that horrible truth or the memories of his time with Cori and – by extension – her father. The truth was that he had never been happier in his life than when Cori was in it. Her smile made him smile. Her laugh made him laugh. Her love made him love. That had to mean something now, when she wasn't feeling loved or happy. Maybe it was time for Sam to try again. He had gone to the past with the hot dogs and now maybe he could go back to the past with Cori. He wouldn't know unless he tried.
Sam pulled out of the parking lot and instead of turning right toward Hillsboro, he turned left toward The Pink House.
Five minutes later, Sam Butler the hot dog man was knocking on the side door to Lori Merrill's pink house. It was dark and Sam could hear the chiming of a clock as Lori opened the door, apparently surprised that he had actually returned.
"Come in," she said softly, wearing a robe over her pajamas and Sam couldn't help but wonder if it was the same robe she had been wearing when the FBI Agent came to her house in Burlington to tell her that her beloved father was the Interstate Serial Killer.
Lori led him into the living room again and they both assumed the same seats from earlier in the day. Sam decided to respect her wishes and refer to her as Lori even though she would always be Cori to him.
"I don't sleep very well these days," Lori told him.
Sam nodded in understanding but he didn't say anything.
"Sometimes I have nightmares," she continued. "Other times I feel frightened. I've had a few weirdos come up to me in the past, either confronting me about my father or adoring me for it in some sick fashion."
"It's never going to go away, is it?" Sam asked.
"Some hack is writing a book about the case," Lori revealed. "That's going to churn it all up all over again. It's going to be unauthorized, of course, but it's still going to dredge up all the old stuff and it will have plenty of photographs of me unfortunately. Happy family times at Christmas and Easter, pictures of wonderful family vacations, me and you going to the prom with my smiling father watching us leave."
"It will be weird," Sam admitted.
"Are you hungry?" Lori asked, suddenly realizing she was supposed to be a helpful hostess. "Thirsty?"
"I'm good," Sam let her know.
"So," Lori said after a few awkward quiet moments. "How's your family?"
"Fine," Sam replied. "My Dad still works for the state and my mom still works for the town, neither appearing ready to retire anytime soon. Still in the same house too. Rob owns a motorcycle dealership in Florida, married with a couple of kids and a grandkid too. Ally's married with three kids, lives in Springdale with her husband, a dentist."
"Wow," Lori said, impressed. Then she looked at him for a long moment. "And you?"
"You read the newspaper article on the wall," Sam replied.
"Didn't say anything about your romantic life," Lori said. "No ring?"
Sam shook his head no as he lifted his left hand up. "Not even a tan line," he observed.
"Never been a ring?" Lori asked, sounding sad.
"No," Sam confirmed.
"I suppose it's a blessing that I'm an only child with no children of my own," Lori remarked. "How would I tell my kids their grandfather is a murderer?"
It struck Sam that his family life appeared pretty normal compared to Lori's nightmare. His father's heart surgery a few years back, Rob's quick divorce from his first wife, even the behavioral problems Ally's son had early on all seemed tame and manageable compared to Lori's horror that would most likely never end. Even after Mr. Larson died, history would still document him as the Interstate Serial Killer and stories would be written about him for generations to come. There hadn't been fourteen murders committed in Blue County combined in the previous hundred years but one of Greenville's own had killed fourteen people in a twenty year span all on his own.
"I'm still getting used to this place," Lori said. "I thought being out in the boonies would be better but the house makes strange noises sometimes and the wind blowing through the trees can be eerie. I guess I felt safe when Linda was here but now not so much."
"I'm always going to be scared, Sam," Lori told him. "I'm going to be frightened for the rest of my life."
"Of the nightmares?"
"And the ghosts and the knowledge of what my father did," Lori sighed. "It's hard living with the burden of fourteen lost souls."
"Would you like me to stay?" He offered, surprising himself with such a spontaneously bold suggestion.
Lori looked equally as taken aback but she searched his face for a long moment from where she sat in her chair. "That might help," she said softly.
It was a weird situation on the one hand – two former sweethearts interacting once again after a tough break up and a serial killer revelation – but on the other hand it was almost as if they were picking up where they left off before college, distance, and finally James came between them. Now the only thing that appeared to be between them was twenty lost years and fourteen dead bodies.
Lori stood from her chair and waited for Sam do the same. He stood from the couch and followed her to the stairs that led to the second floor. The master bedroom took up most of the level. The smaller second room that Cori stayed in when she was enjoying overnight visits was to the back of the house along with the fair sized bathroom. The smaller bedroom was cluttered with boxes and storage bins burying the small bed and furniture and Sam knew he wouldn't be sleeping in that mess.
Lori stepped into the larger bedroom and Sam followed. There was a large double bed against the wall, a couple of dressers, and two long desks against the front bay window overlooking the front of the house. There were three computers on the desks and stacks of manuals and folders stuffed with papers piled on the desk and floor along with several UPS and Express mail boxes and envelopes.
"What do you do?" Sam asked.
"Accounting audits, mostly," Lori reported. "I don't mind getting lost in the numbers."
She went to the bed and lay down, still in her robe and bunny slippers and Sam experienced a flashback memory of visiting her one time when she was home sick from school. She didn't look all that much different that day, except she had long blond hair back then. Now it was middle aged brown, short and somewhat undistinguished. Her face was pale and drawn and it occurred to Sam that Lori would always be sick from now on – sick from the knowledge of who her father was and what he had done, tired from the cross she had to carry being the daughter of a serial killer, and defeated by the collapse of her previously normal life. One day she was a happily married woman living her life and the next day she was watching CNN tell the world that her father had murdered fourteen people.
Sam wasn't sure what to do with himself. He hung around the desk for a few minutes, pretending to be interested in the work she was doing, and then he glanced out the window pretending to be interested in the view even though it was dark and he really couldn't see anything. Finally, when he had stalled for as long as he could, Sam stepped to the bed and sat on the edge of the mattress.
"We never had a sleep over before," Lori said.
In the old days, she would have said it with a smile and a giggle, meant as a gentle and safe tease. Today she said it as sad reality and there was no emotion on her face. Gone was the smile that used to light the room, the dancing eyes that sparkled with spunk and energy. Her eyes now were blank and sullen, empty and distant.
"We can have one now," Sam replied.
She sighed. "You don't have to do this, you know, Sam."
"I know," he replied. "I want to."
"I just sort of feel like we're kind of in this together in some strange way," Sam tried to explain. "We were together when some of that stuff was going on even if we didn't know it at the time. I would like to think I would have stood by you through it all if he had been caught back then."
"It would have only been nine or ten victims then," Lori said solemnly.
"Your father was always nice to me," Sam blurted out, although that really didn't have anything to do with the situation.
"He was a nice guy when he wasn't killing people." She said with such a flat tone that it might have been a sardonic George Carlin line if it wasn't so personally tragic.
Neither said anything for the longest time and when Sam finally glanced over his shoulder he saw that she had closed her eyes and apparently fallen asleep. She didn't look peaceful in her sleep either. Her face looked fraught and pained, troubled and saddened. Even in her sleep, poor Cori…..Lori….couldn't escape her pain. Sam kicked off his shoes and sat back on the bed, not sure if he should get undressed or disturb her by getting under the covers. It was warm enough in the room that he could sleep comfortably in his clothes so he nested on the bed and with the pillow on his side of the bed and he tried to fall asleep although his mind was racing with all sorts of thoughts – from playing wiffle ball in the backyard with Cori, her dad, and some of the neighborhood kids, to the image of fourteen dead naked bodies, to the CNN Logo, to the Larson's bulldozed house, to Cori telling him that she had fallen in love with someone else. He kept staring at the sleeping Lori and her anguished face and he wondered if there would be any future for either of them.
Sam was momentarily startled and confused when he woke up in the strange place until he remembered that he had spent the night at The Pink House. He realized that the bed was empty and he sat up with a start, glancing around for any evidence of Lori's presence. He smelled the odor of bacon and eggs seeping into the room from downstairs so he put his shoes on and made his way to the kitchen which is where he found Lori, still wearing the same pajamas and robe from the night before.
"Good morning." He said it tentatively, not sure if it was true and making it sound like it was question more than a statement.
"Are you hungry?" Lori asked.
Sam nodded affirmatively.
"Have a seat."
He pulled out one of the two chairs at the small wooden kitchen table in the middle of the room and watched as she finished preparing the bacon and eggs in the two skillets on the stove. She scrambled the eggs and put two heaps on two plates, along with the bacon which she placed on the table, one in front of Sam and the other in front of the other chair. She went to the refrigerator and pulled out a quart of orange juice, placing it and two plastic cups on the table as well. She took her seat opposite Sam and began eating her eggs. Sam did the same.
"I seemed to have slept better," Lori revealed after a few quiet moments.
"That's good," Sam said with a smile. "Maybe I should come back tonight."
He said it half in jest but Lori didn't hear it that way. "Okay," she said, sounding relieved by the offer.
Sam wasn't sure how to respond so he didn't say anything. They ate their breakfast in silence. Neither had much to say. What was there to say? Sorry your father killed fourteen people? When they were done eating, Lori brought the dishes to the sink and Sam stood from his chair.
"I should probably get going," he announced.
"Okay," she replied, turning from where she was rinsing the dishes to look at him. "I have no past, Sam," Lori said sadly. "I'm not sure if I have a future either."
"You have a present," Sam replied. "I can help you with that."
She nodded her head in understanding. Sam smiled and left The Pink House. Driving home to his condo, Sam's mind was racing. What was he getting himself into. Was this a dead end road with no bridge and no way out either? Did he really need to involve himself with the disaster that was Cori…..Lori's…..life? She said she had no past anymore. Did that mean that he had never existed in it either?
Sam took a shower once he got home and changed clothes having slept in yesterday's wear. He packed an overnight bag with three or four days worth of clothes plus toiletries and a couple of towels, not sure how long exactly his sleepover routine was going to last. Perhaps once Lori felt secure again in The Pink House his guardianship could end. Sam said nothing about his situation when he got to work and he spent the day at The Hut doing his usual routine. At the end of the day when the closing ritual was finished, Sam headed for The Pink House once again instead of his Hillsboro Condo.
Lori was waiting for him, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt this time and she had prepared a meal for him even though it was nearly nine o'clock. They ate in the kitchen, not talking much other than Sam telling a few incidental stories about work and Lori mentioning a delivery made by Overnight Delivery. Once the clean up from supper was completed, they adjourned to the upstairs bedroom. Lori excused herself and went into the bathroom and when she returned wearing some sweats for bed, Sam took his turn in the bathroom and returned wearing gym shorts and an old Greenville Giants tee shirt. Lori was lying on the bed above the covers with a book in her hand and she didn't say anything as Sam slid onto the bed next to her. She handed him the remote control to the small flat screen on top of the dresser, her indication that it was okay if he turned it on. When she was tired of reading, Lori put the magazine down on the bedside table and nestled down to sleep. Sam turned off the television and did the same. In the morning, he awoke to the smells of breakfast downstairs and an empty bed.
That became their new routine with little alteration or even altercation. Not a whole lot of conversation either, the shadow of The Interstate Serial Killer keeping them quiet beyond the normal small talk of the day's events. It was almost as if Sam had also become a prisoner of The Pink House just as he had found Lori. Every three or four days, Sam would return to his condo to do a wash, check on the mail, and pay a few bills before returning To The Pink House for another round of guardianship and companionship even though the conversation remained limited and safe. There were a few nights when Sam would be awaken by Lori's mumbling in her sleep, anguished cries of pain and sorrow, and there would also be the occasional nightmare when she would wake up screaming, sometimes falling out of the bed. Sam would help her back into the bed and hold her in comfort until she was able to calm down and fall back asleep. Neither would make mention of such incidents when morning came, Sam awaking to the empty bed and the smells of cooking breakfast rising up the stairs.
It was a strange arrangement but Sam knew it was what Lori needed and he was willing to give of his time to sleep in her bed and be a presence for her in her present, the woman with no past hoping to develop some sort of future. Sam had basically put his life on hold to perform this service but it wasn't as if his life was a social success since Amy left him anyway. He found spending time with Lori – as quiet and awkward as it was – to be healing for him too as he tried to figure out how he felt about Lori's father six years after he was identified as The Interstate Serial Killer. It was also a chance for him to reconnect with his one-time sweetheart even though they ever talked about their one time romance and there was nothing physically intimate about their strange arrangement. Sam was amused to realize that he and Cori….Lori…remained chaste as a couple some twenty-four years after they first started dating!
One afternoon during a lull in the action at The Hut, a man stopped by asking for Sam by name. It was about three weeks after he had started spending his nights at The Pink House although nobody knew of his present living arrangements other than Lori.
"I'm Sam Butler," Sam said as he came out from behind the counter to greet the stranger. "How can I help you?"
He was a short plump man in his mid-fifties, carrying a large satchel over his shoulder. He was wearing a wrinkled dress shirt with no tie under a tweed suitcoat and wrinkled Khakis and loafers. Sam was wearing his usual work clothes – jeans with a tan 'Hank's Hot Dog Hut' tee shirt and sneakers.
"My name is Joe Parker," the man replied. "I was hoping to have a few minutes of your time."
"In reference to what?" Sam asked suspiciously.
"In reference to a book I'm writing," Parker announced.
Sam recalled Lori telling him that some hack was working on an unauthorized book on her father. "What kind of book?" Sam asked although he already knew the answer.
Parker motioned with his chin and Sam followed him away from the counter. "The Interstate Strangler," he said softly.
"What does that have to do with me?" Sam wanted to know.
"Can we sit for a few minutes?" Parker asked, gesturing toward one of the booths in the far corner.
Sam's gut told him to decline the invitation and ask the gentleman to leave the premises but then he figured he should at least find out if Parker was snooping around looking for Cori so he led the writer to the far booth and the two men sat opposite each other in the booth. Parker pulled out a miniature tape recorder and placed it on the table between them.
"Do you mind?" He asked. "On the record?"
"I don't know what I can tell you about any of this," Sam replied as Parker turned on the machine.
"You dated the Larson daughter, right?" Parker inquired.
"That was a very long time ago," Sam replied. "Long before the story broke."
"Have you heard from Cori?" Parker asked.
"She broke up with me in college," Sam said. "Many years ago."
"So, you haven't heard from her?"
Sam shook his head no. "Why would I?" He asked. "She's married."
"She left her husband," Parker announced. "Left the area she was living in."
Sam pretended to look surprised and then he gave Parker a quizzical look. "You don't think she'd come back here," he said.
"There's nothing for her here," Sam explained. "All her relatives left. The house she grew up in is gone. She wouldn't want to face the people who knew her, I imagine."
"She wouldn't come looking for you?"
"Somebody she dumped for another guy?" Sam frowned. "A guy she married?"
"You're probably right," Parker said. "Coming back here would be punishment. I don't need her or the mother for the book anyway. Plenty of public record about what they thought about the case. Larson is giving me all the interviews I need. The book is mostly about the victims anyway."
"Sorry I couldn't have helped you," Sam lied.
"What are your thoughts about The Interstate Strangler?" Parker asked. "You knew the guy."
"I did not know the Interstate Serial Killer," Sam said forcefully. "I knew Mr. Larson. My girlfriend's father. A nice guy. He helped my father paint our garage. He took us to the tasty freeze for ice cream. He taught me how to hold a golf club the right way. He liked Baseball and Wheel of Fortune and Prairie Home Companion and Billy Graham. I know nothing of the other person."
"Fair enough," Parker said, leaning over and turning off the tape recorder. "Sorry to have wasted your time. I didn't expect to find much here. Just came for some research at the library and to see how the Greenville News and Dispatch covered the story when it first broke. I know people who knew him don't like to talk about it."
"It's the people who didn't know him who love to talk about it," Sam said sarcastically.
Parker laughed. "Ain't that the truth?" He said, putting the tape recorder back in his bag and sliding out of the booth. He extended his hand. "Thanks for your time, Sam."
Sam accepted his shake. "Good luck with the book," he said neutrally.
Parker nodded and left the building. Sam was glad Millie had already left for the day. He didn't want her to start thinking about the book and the past and perhaps putting two and two together when it came to remembering the woman with the sunglasses who came in before. Sam took note of the make of car Parker was driving incase the writer decided to follow Sam around. He didn't drive directly to The Pink House that evening, taking a long indirect detour route to make sure he wasn't be followed. He didn't tell Lori about the visitor – he didn't want to upset her or get her paranoid, fearing she was going to be found out. He switched cars with his sister for several days and never drove directly to The Pink House but after a week or so without any further incidents Sam figured Parker had left town, uninterested in Sam's past or connection to Cori Larson and that was fine with him.
"Everything okay?" Lori asked Sam one night as he sat on the couch in the living room thinking about Parker, the book, and the possibility of Lori being found out.
"Sure," he said, braving a smile. "Everything's fine."
"Are you getting tired of this?" She worried.
"Not at all," Sam insisted. "I was thinking about something entirely different."
"Like what?" She asked with interest.
"My school days," he smiled, bullshitting his way out of the awkward moment.
"I know all this unsociable secrecy, isolation and mystery must be madding," Lori sighed.
"It's understandable," Sam told her. "You're just trying to find your way back."
"I'm never going to be happy again," she feared.
"You'll find a way," Sam predicted.
"How can anything ever change?" Lori grumbled. "I'm always going to be his daughter."
"You don't have to let that define you," Sam told her.
"I just can't get beyond it," she confessed.
They went to bed without talking about it any further, each dressing in the privacy of the bathroom alone and slipping under the covers in their various versions of bed clothes. Sam awoke in the morning to the usual smells of breakfast permeating from the kitchen below. Lori forced a smile when he came into the room just like he did every other morning. He took his seat at the table and she served two plates, sitting opposite him and they ate their food without much of a conversation.
Every day seemed to run together. Sam rarely took a day off from The Hut, working seven day weeks so weekends were just like weekdays except for the sports on the television. Occasionally, Sam would ask Lori if she wanted to go for a ride or do something and she'd always say no thanks. It was Sam who did the shopping these days and Lori rarely if ever left The Pink House. He'd have to start her car every few days just to make sure the battery didn't go dead. Sam knew it was an unhealthy and unfair way to live her life but he wasn't going to push her out the door until the prisoner was ready to leave on her own accord.
Sam made it a point to thank Lori after each meal and she thanked him for doing the shopping and other errands. She would give him cash every week or so and she would do his laundry so he didn't have to do it at the condo when he stopped by to check on the mail. Some of his family members complained that Sam never seemed to be home but his stock answer was "I'm cooking hot dogs" and nobody seemed to question his long hours or endless days.
Lori did spend some time in the small flower garden behind The Pink House as the weather turned warmer and that seemed to give her some semblance of satisfaction. She would mention her garden work to Sam during their late night dinner and show him some of the progress in the morning before he left for The Hut.
"I guess I appreciate the poetic symbolism of new life," she told him.
"See yourself as one of those flowers," Sam suggested.
The Hut extended its hours until 8:30 p.m. from the middle of May to the middle of September which delayed Sam's evening arrival at The Pink House even longer most nights. Lori still had a meal prepared for him when he got home around ten – usually something lighter in the summer heat – a salad, or a tuna sandwich. On this particular night, Sam was delayed in leaving work because of a problem with the soda machine and it was nearly eleven when he arrived at The Pink House.
Lori had fallen asleep on the couch and Sam stood at the foot of the couch staring at her in the shadows of the evening (only one light was on in the corner of the room). For the first time since he started spending nights here, Sam noticed that Lori almost looked peaceful in her sleep. She had been cutting her own hair of late, keeping it short and it was almost uneven in its trim. He reached his hand down and gently rubbed it across her cheek, causing her to murmur and stir. He took his hand away just as she opened her eyes.
"Oh, you're home," she realized, sitting up on the couch. "There's macaroni salad in the frig."
"Great," Sam replied, starting for the kitchen.
Lori followed him and got the plate of food out of the refrigerator. She had already eaten so she sat at the kitchen table opposite him and watched him as he ate. As usual, not a lot of words were exchanged between the two other than Sam telling her about the problem with the soda machine and Lori mentioning the rain shower that had passed earlier in the evening. Later, in the bed with their usual (summer) bed clothes on, Sam was surprised when Lori leaned closer to him than usual. He felt her softly caress his arm.
"Sam?" She whispered. "You still awake?"
He opened his eyes and saw her staring at him, looking almost angelic in her appearance.
"You've really helped me," she said softly. "I just wanted to say thank you for that."
"It's okay," he said. "Go to sleep."
In the morning, Sam awoke to find the bed empty and the smell of breakfast coming up the stairs. He found Lori in the kitchen as usual, this time putting a couple of waffles on his plate.
"Thanks," he said.
She joined him at the table and ate a couple of waffles too, neither with much to say. Strange how their relationship – was it even a relationship? – was so muted and reserved, both of them afraid to discuss the real issues they faced – how she left him for somebody else so long ago. How her father betrayed them in the most unlikely of measures. How they were together again now- but were they really together in any sense of the word or were they just sharing the same inescapable nightmare of a unknown past that destroyed the very fabric of their existence? Were they simply functioning on auto-pilot cruise control without actually feeling or experiencing anything real or meaningful? Was cooking hot dogs, auditing accounting forms, and tending to a garden the only purpose in their lives thanks to the Interstate Serial Killer?
"You've helped me too," Sam said out of nowhere when they were done with breakfast.
"I have?" She asked with surprise as she washed the dishes.
"You feed me twice a day otherwise I'd be eating nothing but hot dogs all the time."
"I've turned your life into chaos," she sighed. "Kept you from your house. Your routine."
"This routine isn't so bad," he said.
"The days are the same."
"We're staying in the present,' he reminded her.
"To avoid the past and future," she pointed out.
"Not forever," he vowed. "The future will happen when you're ready."
They weren't strangers but they were living strangely. They weren't lovers but they loved each other. They weren't Serial Killers but they were haunted by one. Would their present ever change in the future?
Lori flew to St. Louis to visit with her mother for a few days. Mrs. Larson (she now went by her maiden name, Ms. Dejnak) refused to set foot in Blue County ever again and Lori didn't want risk being recognized in her mother's new town of Tempe and blow her mother's anonymity so St. Louis was a safe place half way between place to meet. Lori was nervous when Sam drove her to the airport, always becoming anxious whenever she was in public no matter how dark the sunglasses or big the hat on her head. Her photograph had been splattered in all the tabloids and whenever a new article came out on the subject of the Interstate Serial Killer, even though the latest photograph of record was a few years old and she looked quite different now.
Sam decided to rent his condo to a visiting professor at Green College since he was rarely there anyway and he packed up all his personal belongings and put them in a small storage bin by the highway. He stumbled across some old photographs he had forgotten about, including several from high school when he was dating Cori that featured some group shots of various neighborhood activities and events, including several of the Larsons. It was eerie to look at them now. It seemed like somebody else's lives now.
Sam had to tell his family not to stop by the condo anymore and to contact him by cell or at Hank's.
"I'm there fourteen hours a day anyway," he reasoned, refusing to answer inquires about where he was sleeping.
Sam found himself missing Lori. As small as The Pink House was, it still empty and lonely without her there. By renting the condo out, Sam had made the conscious decision that there was no turning back now and he was in with Cori…..Lori…..for the long haul. They might as well deal with the haunts of the Interstate Serial Killer together.
Mr. Larson was in the federal penitentiary in Danbury CT which was only about a hundred miles away from Blue County. Lori made it perfectly clear that she had zero interest in visiting or contacting her father and Sam briefly considered the possibility of making a trip there himself but then he realized he really had nothing to say to the guy. Sam couldn't comprehend what the man had done and while a part of him believed in the teachings of forgiveness he knew it wasn't his place to go against Lori's beliefs. What could he possibly say to Mr. Larson anyway? Even if the man was remorseful, could Sam ever reconcile what he did to those fourteen people never mind his family with a sense of mercy for the killer?
Sam picked up Lori at the airport when she returned from St. Louis. She was anxious when she came out of the gate and in a hurry to get out of the airport and into the car where she couldn't be seen. It wasn't until they were on the highway until Lori began to relax some although the first comment she made was a bit disconcerting.
"I can't be on this road without thinking of those poor people."
They were on the interstate of the Serial Killer, of course, and Sam had to admit that he often had the same thought.
"My mother says hello," Lori added and Sam was grateful she changed the subject at least a little.
That was about the extent of the conversation for the rest of the trip home, at least from Lori. Sam told her about what he had been doing in her absence but she had little to say in response.
Lori and Sam both tried to get back into the normal routine – not that their routine was normal in any definition of the word. Lori had little to say about her trip and Sam didn't ask. He did ask if she wanted to go out to dinner but Lori refused every request, still not comfortable being out in public for fear of being recognized and harassed. Sometimes Sam would bring take out or a treat from Red's Tastee Freeze and Lori was always appreciative of his efforts.
It was Sam's father's birthday and the family was having a small gathering in the Conway back yard – just Sam's folks and Ally and her family. Sam knew Lori would decline the invitation but he asked her along anyway one night as they sat in the kitchen, Sam eating his late dinner.
"Okay," Lori replied.
Sam almost fell out of his chair and choked on his cold ham slice at the same time. "Really?"
"Your family is about the only family I have left," Lori replied with a shrug. "Introduce me as Lori Merrill and if they recognize me so be it."
"Maybe it's time," Sam replied.
"Time for what?" She pondered, looking at him.
"Time to stop being afraid," Sam suggested.
"Maybe,' she agreed.
Later, when they lay in bed together, separate but equal, Lori rolled over and examined Sam for a long moment. "I shouldn't be afraid of your family," she realized.
"Of course not," Sam agreed.
"I am afraid of being found out," she admitted. "Of being ridiculed. Of the shame."
"My family would never do that to you," Sam assured her.
"Other people would," she whispered.
"You're not with other people," he reminded her, wrapping his arms around her and holding her tight as they fell asleep.
Sunday arrived. Sam worked a few hours at The Hut and then drove to The Pink House to get Lori for his father's birthday party. She was understandably apprehensive and having second thoughts about going to the party but Sam didn't pressure her one way or the other. He stood by the car and waited for her to decide what she wanted to do. After a while, Lori emerged from the house and climbed into the front seat of Sam's car and he took that as his cue to drive her to Greenville.
Lori was wearing her large dark sunglasses on this sunny afternoon along with a large floppy hat that hid half her face. She was wearing a pretty white summer dress and sandals and Sam was struck by how pretty she was all these years later. He was filled with regret for all the lost years since she left him for James.
They didn't talk during the ride and as they got closer to Greenville Lori became more fidgety. When Sam turned the car onto the street they had grown up on, he could hear Lori audibly gasp and when he glanced at her he saw that her chest was rising and falling as she struggled to breathe.
"Do you want me to turn around?" Sam asked
Lori shook her head no. "I'm remembering all the fun times we had here," she said, her voice barely audible and Sam slowed the car to a crawl. "I adored my father growing up. I remember riding my bike down the sidewalk here. My father is the one who taught me how to peddle."
They approached the lot that Lori's childhood home once stood. The pre-fabricated house that replaced the original home looked out of place among the other ranches and duplexes but Lori wasn't upset by the sight.
"I'm glad the other house is gone," she said. "Stop for a second," she requested.
Sam pulled the car to a halt in front of the replacement house.
"Looks like the same driveway almost," she observed quietly. "Whenever my father got home from one of his sales trips he always had a present for me," she recalled. "Some trinket from a road side shop or the hotel gift store. Nothing extravagant, but always special to me." She glanced at Sam. "How many times do you think he bought me a gift like that after he had just killed somebody?"
"Shh," Sam said gently.
"I saw him as a thoughtful father but behind that loving façade was the hatefulness of dark secrets, a perverted evilness he kept hidden from all of us."
"How could you possible know that your father was a sociopath?" Sam asked.
"My poor mother," Lori sighed. "How could she possibly know what she had married? What he would become? She thought he was a charismatic and considerate man and she had no clue that he would become such a monster in his other life."
"Why would she?" Sam asked.
"I try not to remember the fun times," Lori admitted. "Going out to dinner at nice places. Going shopping. Going to the movies. All the regular family stuff we used to do when there was nothing regular about my father at all." Sam noticed her physically shudder. "How many times did we drive up and down that damn interstate as a family?"
"This is the most you've talked about this," Sam remarked.
"I wish I could just make the whole thing go away so I'd never have to talk about it again," Lori said, wiping a tear from her eye. "But it's never going away. My father murdered fourteen women. Left them naked in the dirt. I know I'm supposed to take some solace in the fact he didn't rape or sexual assault any of them other than degrading them by leaving the naked but he's a sick bastard no matter how you look at it."
"He'll be in jail for the rest of his life," Sam said.
"And I'll be ashamed and worried about what people think for the rest of my life," Lori counter. "How long will I be able to keep the dark family secret without hiding out in The Pink House like some Howard Hughes recluse?"
"Maybe you shouldn't bother trying," Sam suggested.
"Huh?" Lori asked with confusion.
"Just live your life, Cori," Sam said. "You can't control anything else."
"I don't want to be a freak," she said sadly. Then she sucked in her breath. "Come on, your family's waiting."
Sam put the car in gear and continued down the street toward his childhood home. "Every time I came here these past twenty years I always thought of you," he revealed. "Remembering how wonderful it was dating you and having you in my life."
"I'm sorry for what I did to you, Sam," Lori said.
"You met someone else," Sam shrugged. "Life happens."
He pulled the car to a stop in front of the Conway house.
"What about now?" Lori wondered. "Is life happening now?"
"Do you want life to happen now?" He asked, staring at her.
She slumped back in the passenger seat of the car and let out a long sigh. "I don't deserve a life," she determined sadly.
"Of course you do," Sam said.
She looked at him with interest. "You're one of the few who has been so nonjudgmental," she told him. "Even my own husband looked at me funny sometimes after we found out."
"You are not your father," Sam reminded her. "There is no genetic link between you and what he did."
"I feel responsible for the sins of my father," she said. "Do you think I'm doing the right thing by not having contact with him?"
"Yes," Sam answered. "He gave up his rights as a father when he violated the sanctity of that relationship with his daughter."
Lori glanced out the window of the car and seemed to notice for the first time that they were parked in front of the Conway house. "Oh God," she said, seeing the house again for the first time in ages. "I can't believe I'm back here."
"Come on," Sam smiled, getting out of the car. "Only happy memories here."
He took her by the hand and they walked around the side of the house to where Sam's family was gathered around the grill in the backyard patio. Lori glanced down with surprise at their hands clutched together. Sam's parents, his sister Ally and her husband Chet and their three teenaged children – Ryan, Wendy and Tim – were all in various states of conversation and activity as Sam approached with a woman by his side. They were surprised to see him with somebody knew, knowing that he had broken up with Amy when he left teaching.
"Everybody, this is Lori Merrill," Sam announced when they reached the patio. "Lori, everybody."
Mrs. Conway was gawking at Lori with interest. Lori took her hat off and shook her short hair out and she removed her large sun glasses and now Ally was peering at her with interest.
"Lori, you say?" Ally asked in a tone mixed with suspicion and understanding.
"Yes, Lori," Sam replied carefully. "She recently moved back to the area following a family tragedy."
"Well, I can imagine you would not want to talk about a painful family tragedy," Mrs. Conway said, taking Lori's hand in hers.
Lori's eyes teared up. "It's just nice being among your family," she said.
"Well, this explains everything," Ally said to Sam. "Disappearing from the face of the earth these past several months. Renting out your condo. Living a mystery life."
"There is no mystery," Mrs. Conway replied. "Everything makes perfect sense. Lori is liberating herself to allow herself to change the course of her life. Now she can move forward and heal with the help of her friends here in this family."
Sam wrapped his arms around Lori and kissed the top of her head. "You don't have to hold your secret around here," he whispered.
It may have been the cheerful Mr. Conway's birthday party but it was Lori who seemed to be reborn, enjoying the afternoon cookout and the support and laughter of the Conway family. Mr. Conway slipped a couple of times and called her Cori but otherwise she was Lori Merrill, Sam's …..friend?...girlfriend…romance?...he never really explained their relationship to his family and nobody bothered asking. They simply assumed the former sweethearts were back together again and they seemed to be okay with that.
By the time Sam and Lori left hours later following a series of farewell hugs, kisses and conversation, Lori's face was filled with relief.
"I feel like I've found my soul again," she told Sam. "Like I'm finally moving out from the darkness that has engulfed my spirit all these years. Maybe I can finally find the light."
"I think you can," Sam replied.
"Maybe this is the reason I went to Hank's Hot Dog Hut looking for you," Lori said.
They arrived at The Pink House and there was no need for a late night supper.
"I'm tired," Lori announced. "I think I'll turn in early."
"Sounds like a good idea," Sam replied, following her up the stairs.
This time, instead of retiring to the bathroom to change, Lori began to disrobe in the bedroom in front of Sam. He had been waiting nearly twenty-five years for this moment.
"I really was saving myself for you back then," Lori said softly as she stood at the foot of the bed slipping out of her sun dress. "I was keeping my gift for you for the right time."
"I think now is the right time," Sam said, stepping close to her.
Lori leaned in and kissed the bottom of Sam's chin while he rubbed his thumb across her bottom lip to the curve of the top one. She moved her face closer to his and kissed him gently, their first kiss since her last college homecoming before she dumped him for James. Her lips were as soft and magical as he remembered them.
"I've gotten older," she sighed. "Sometimes I wish you had taken naked photos of me when I was eighteen like kids do today – all that sexting nonsense. At least now you'd be able to remember how I looked then if you had seen me naked in the first place."
"You're as beautiful now as you ever were," Sam assured him, kissing her and then he slipped his tongue past her teeth and into her mouth just like the old days.
Lori raised her hand to the side of his face hoping her legs wouldn't buckle underneath her. She blushed slightly when Sam reached behind her and unfastened her bra but she didn't resist when the garment slipped from her breasts. She stepped back to allow it to fall to the floor and then she shimmied out of her panties and stood naked for him to finally see.
Sam sucked in his breath and ran his hand through her shortly cropped hair. He smiled and she laughed.
"Well, better late than never," Lori said.
"I've wanted you for so very long," Sam confessed, pulled her close and kissing her again.
"Is this real?" She wanted to know, kissing him back.
His eyes searched her face – and then the rest of her. "It's real," he assured her, bending down to kiss her neck and then her collar bone and then further down until she moaned when his mouth found her stiff nipples.
Lori collapsed onto the bed behind them and Sam willing went with her. "Welcome Home, My Sammy," she whispered as she let him make love to her and for the first time in six long painful miserable lost nightmarish years, Cori Larson…..Lori Merill…Sam's sweetheart…forgot about the past and began thinking about the future.
She was no longer Dennis Larson's daughter. She was finally Sam Butler's lover.