I look down at my hands, where I used to hold notecards with talking points scribbled in pencil. Little bulleted instructions reminding me what to say, what not to say. How to order the story like I'm following a recipe, meticulous and careful, sprinkling the details in just right. But I don't need those anymore. I've done this too many times.
Besides, there's nothing new to say.
"And now we are ready to bring out the person I know you're all here to see."
I watch the man speaking onstage, ten feet away, his voice booming over the loudspeakers. It's everywhere, it seems—in front of me, behind me. Inside me, somehow. Somewhere deep in my chest. The audience cheers again, and I clear my throat, remind myself why I'm here.
"Ladies and gentlemen of TrueCrimeCon, it is my honor to present to you, our keynote speaker... Isabelle Drake!"
I step into the light, walking with purpose toward the host as he signals me onstage. The crowd continues to yell, some of them standing, clapping, the beady little eyes of their iPhones pointed in my direction, taking me in, unblinking. I turn toward the audience, squinting at their silhouettes. My eyes adjust a bit, and I wave, smiling weakly before coming to a halt in the center.
The host hands me a microphone, and I grab it, nodding.
"Thank you," I say, my voice sounding like an echo. "Thank you all for coming out this weekend. What an incredible bunch of speakers."
The crowd erupts again, and I take the free seconds to scan the sea of faces the way I always do. It's women, mostly. It's always women. Older women in groups of five or ten, relishing this annual tradition—the ability to break away from their lives and their responsibilities and drown themselves in fantasy. Younger women, twenty-somethings, looking skittish and a little embarrassed, like they've just been caught looking at porn. But there are men, too. Husbands and boyfriends who were dragged along against their will; the kind with wire-rimmed glasses and peach-fuzz beards and elbows that protrude awkwardly from their arms like knobby tree branches. There are the loners in the corner, the ones whose eyes linger just long enough to make you uncomfortable, and the police officers perusing the aisles, stifling yawns.
And then I notice the clothing.
One girl wears a graphic tee that says Red Wine and True Crime, the T in the shape of a gun; another sports a white shirt sprayed with specks of red—it's supposed to mimic blood, I assume. Then I see a woman wearing a T-shirt that says Bundy. Dahmer. Gacy. Berkowitz. I remember walking past it earlier in the gift shop. It was clipped tight against a mannequin, being advertised in the same way they advertise overpriced band T-shirts in the merchandise tents at concerts, memorabilia for rabid fans.
I feel the familiar swell of bile in my throat, warm and sharp, and force myself to look away.
"As I'm sure you all know, my name is Isabelle Drake, and my son, Mason, was kidnapped one year ago," I say. "His case is still unsolved."
Chairs squeak; throats are cleared. A mousey woman in the front row is shaking her head gently, tears in her eyes. She is loving this right now, I know she is. It's like she's watching her favorite movie, mindlessly snacking on popcorn as her lips move gently, reciting every word. She's heard my speech already; she knows what happened. She knows, but she still can't get enough. None of them can. The murderers on the T-shirts are the villains; the uniformed men in back, the heroes. Mason is the victim... and I'm not really sure where that leaves me.
The lone survivor, maybe. The one with a story to tell.
I settle into my seat. The aisle seat. Generally, I prefer the window. Something to lean up against and close my eyes. Not to sleep, exactly. But to drift away for a while. Microsleeping, is what my doctor calls it. We've all seen it before, especially on airplanes: the twitching eyelids, the bobbing head. Two to twenty seconds of unconsciousness before your neck snaps back up with astonishing force like a cocking shotgun, ready to go.
I look at the seat to my right: empty. I hope it stays open. Takeoff is in twenty minutes; the gate is about to close. And when it does, I can move over. I can close my eyes.
I can try, as I've been trying for the last year, to finally get some rest.