WHEN Mike got home, he looked at the Lorimans' house. No movement. He knew that he'd have to take the next step.
First, do no harm. That was the credo.
That was a little trickier.
He threw his keys and wallet on the little tray Tia had set up because Mike was always losing his keys and wallet. It actually worked. Tia had called when she landed in Boston. She was doing some prep work now and deposing the witness in the afternoon. It could go a while but she'd grab the first shuttle she could. No rush, he told her.
Jill rounded the corner. When Mike saw her smile, the Lorimans and everything else just slid off him in a pure, easy groove.
"Hi, honey. Is Adam in his room?"
"No," Jill said.
So much for the easy groove.
"Where is he?"
"I don't know. I thought he was down here."
They started to call for him. No answer.
"Your brother was supposed to babysit," Mike said.
"He was here ten minutes ago," she said.
Jill frowned. When she frowned, her entire body seemed to get into it. "I thought you were going to the hockey game tonight."
Jill seemed agitated.
"Honey, what's wrong?"
"When did you see your brother last?"
"I don't know. A few minutes ago." She started biting a nail. "Shouldn't he be with you?"
"I'm sure he'll be right back," Mike said.
Jill looked uncertain. Mike felt the same.
"Are you still dropping me off at Yasmin's?" she asked.
"Let me get my bag, okay?"
Jill headed up the stairs. Mike checked his watch. He and Adam had made a plan-they were supposed to leave here in a half hour, drop Jill at her friend's, head into Manhattan for the Rangers game.
Adam should be home. He should be watching his sister.
Mike took a deep breath. Okay, let's not panic yet. He decided to give Adam another ten minutes. He sorted through the mail and thought again about the Lorimans. No use stalling. He and Ilene had made a decision. Time to act on it.
He hit the computer, brought up their phone book, clicked on the Lorimans' contact information. Susan Loriman's cell phone was in the list. He and Tia had never called it, but that was how it was with neighbors-you had all the numbers in case there was ever an emergency.
He dialed the number. Susan answered on the second ring.
She had a warm, soft voice, almost sounding a little hushed. Mike cleared his throat.
"It's Mike Baye," he said.
"Is everything okay?"
"Yes. I mean, nothing new. Are you alone right now?"
Susan said, "We returned that DVD."
He heard another voice-sounded like Dante's-ask, "Who is that?"
"Blockbuster," she said.
Okay, Mike thought, not alone. "You have my number?"
"Very soon. Thanks."
Mike rubbed his face with both hands. Great. Just great.
She came to the top of the stairs. "What?"
"Did Adam say anything when he got home?"
"He just said, 'Hi, squirt.' "
She smiled when she said that.
Mike could hear his son's voice. Adam loved his sister, and she loved him. Most siblings fight, but they rarely did. Maybe their differences worked in that way. No matter how cold or surly Adam got, he never took it out on his little sister.
"Any idea where he went?"
Jill shook her head. "Is he okay?"
"He's fine, don't worry. I'll take you to Yasmin's in a few minutes, okay?"
Mike took the stairs two at a time. He felt a small pang in his knee, an old injury from his hockey days. He'd had it operated on a few months ago by his friend, an orthopedic surgeon named David Gold. He told David that he didn't want to give up hockey and asked him if playing had caused the long-term damage. David gave him a prescription for Percocet and replied: "I don't get a lot of ex-chess players here-you tell me."
He opened Adam's door. The room was empty. Mike looked for clues as to where his son had gone. There were none.
"Oh, he wouldn't..." Mike said out loud.
He checked his watch. Adam should definitely be home by now- should have been home the whole time. How could he leave his sister alone? He knew better than that. Mike took out his cell phone and pushed the speed dial. He heard it ring and then Adam's voice came on and asked him to leave a message.
"Where are you? We need to leave soon for the Rangers. And you just left your sister alone? Call me immediately."
He pressed the END button.
Ten more minutes passed. Nothing from Adam. Mike called again. Left another message through gritted teeth.
Jill said, "Dad?"
"I'm sure he'll be home soon. Look, I'll drop you off at Yasmin's and come back for your brother, okay?"
Mike called, left a third message on Adam's cell explaining that he'd be back soon. He flashed back to last time he had done this- leaving repeated messages on the voice mails-when Adam had run away and they didn't hear from him for two days. Mike and Tia had gone nuts trying to find him, and in the end it had been nothing.
He better not be playing that game again, Mike thought. And then, at the very same moment, he thought: God, I hope he's playing that game again.
Mike took out a sheet of paper, jotted down a note, left it on the kitchen table:
I'M DROPPING JILL OFF, BE READY WHEN I GET BACK.
Jill's backpack had a New York Rangers insignia on the back. She didn't care much for hockey, but it had been her older brother's. Jill cherished Adam's hand-me-downs. She had taken lately to wearing a much-too-large-for-her green windbreaker from when Adam played Pee Wee hockey. Adam's name was stenciled in threaded script on the right chest.
"I'm worried about Adam."
She did not say it like a little girl playing grown-up. She said it like a kid too wise for her years.
"Why do you say that?"
"Has he said anything to you?"
Mike pulled onto Yasmin's street, hoping that Jill would say more. She didn't.
In the old days-way back when Mike was a kid-you just dropped kids off and drove away or maybe waited in the car for the front door to open. Now you walked your offspring all the way to the door. Normally this bothered Mike somewhat, but when there was a sleepover, especially at this relatively young age, Mike liked to check in. He knocked on the door and Guy Novak, Yasmin's father, answered.
Guy still wore his suit from work, though the tie was undone. He wore too-fashionable framed tortoiseshell glasses and his hair looked strategically mussed. Guy was yet another father in town who worked on Wall Street, and for the life of him, Mike could never figure out what any of them did. Hedge funds or trust accounts or credit services or IPOs or working on the floor or trading securities or selling bonds, whatever-it all became one big blurry mass of finance to Mike.
Guy had been divorced for years and, according to the scuttlebutt Mike got from his eleven-year-old daughter, dated a lot.
"His girlfriends always kiss up to Yasmin," Jill had told him. "It's kind of funny."
Jill pushed passed them. "Bye, Dad."
Mike waited a second, watched her disappear, then he turned to Guy Novak. Sexist, yes, but he preferred to leave his child with a single mom. Something about his prepubescent daughter spending a night in the same house with only an adult male-it shouldn't matter. Mike took care of the girls sometimes without Tia. But still.
They both stood there. Mike broke the silence.
"So," Mike said, "what do you have planned for the night?"
"Might take them to the movies," Guy said. "Ice cream at Cold Stone Creamery. I, uh, hope you don't mind. I have a girlfriend coming out tonight. She'll go with us."
"No problem," Mike said, thinking: Even better.
Guy glanced behind him. When he saw both girls were out of sight, he turned back to Mike. "You got a second?" he asked.
"Sure, what's up?"
Guy stepped outside onto the stoop. He let the door close behind him. He looked into the street and put his hands deep in his pockets. Mike watched him in profile.
"Everything all right?" Mike asked.
"Jill has been great," Guy said.
Mike was not sure how to react to that so he stayed silent.
"I'm not sure what to do here. I mean, as a parent, you do all you can, right? You try your best to raise them, feed them, educate them. Yasmin already had to deal with a divorce at a very young age. But she adjusted to that. She was happy and outgoing and popular. And then, well, something like this happens."
"You mean with Mr. Lewiston?"
Guy nodded. He bit down and his jaw began to quake. "You've seen the changes in Yasmin, haven't you?"
Mike opted for the truth. "She seems more withdrawn."
"Do you know what Lewiston said to her?"
"Not really, no."
He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, opened them again. "I guess Yasmin was acting up in class, not paying attention, whatever, I don't know. When I confronted Lewiston, he said he gave her two warnings. The thing is, Yasmin has a little facial hair. Not much, but you know, a bit of a mustache. Not something a father would notice, and her mother, well, she's not around, so I never thought about electrolysis or whatever. So anyway he's explaining chromosomes and she's whispering in the back of the room and Lewiston finally snaps. He says, 'Some women display male traits like facial hair-Yasmin, are you listening?' Something like that."
Mike said, "Awful."
"Inexcusable, right? He doesn't apologize right away because, he says, he didn't want to draw more attention to what he said. Meanwhile every kid in the class starts cracking up. Yasmin is beyond mor- tified. They start calling her the Bearded Lady and XY-for the male chromosome. He apologizes the next day, implores the kids to stop, I go in, shout at the principal, but now it's like unringing a bell, you know what I mean?"
"Jill has stuck by Yasmin-the only one. Amazing for an eleven-year-old to do that. I know she's probably taking some ribbing for that."
"She can handle it," Mike said.
"She's a good kid."
"So is Yasmin."
"You should be proud. That's all I'm saying.
"Thanks," Mike said. "It'll pass, Guy. Give it some time."
Guy looked off. "When I was in third grade, there was this boy named Eric Hellinger. Eric always had a huge smile on his face. He dressed like such a dork, but he seemed oblivious, you know? Just always smiling. One day he vomited in the middle of class. It was nasty. The smell was so bad we had to leave the classroom. Anyway, the kids start picking on him after that. Called him Smellinger. It never ended. Eric's life changed. The smile fled, and to tell you the truth, even when I saw him alone in the halls in high school years later, it was like the smile never came back."
Mike said nothing, but he knew a story like this. Every childhood has one, their own Eric Hellinger or Yasmin Novak.
"It's not getting better, Mike. So I'm putting the house on the market. I don't want to move. But I don't know what else to do."
"If there is any way Tia or I can help..." Mike began.
"I appreciate that. And I appreciate you letting Jill sleep over tonight. It means the world to Yasmin. And to me. So thank you."
"Jill said you're taking Adam to a hockey game tonight."
"That's the plan."
"Then I won't keep you any longer. Thanks for listening."
"You're welcome. You have my cell number?"
Guy nodded. Mike patted the man's shoulder and headed back to the car.
That was how life was-a teacher loses his cool for ten seconds and it changes everything for one little girl. Nuts when you think about it. It also made Mike wonder about Adam.
Had something similar happened to his son? Had one incident, maybe something small even, changed Adam's path?
Mike thought about those time-travel movies, the ones where you go back and change one thing and then everything else changes, a ripple effect. If Guy could go back in time and keep Yasmin out of school for that day, would everything be as it was? Would Yasmin be happier-or by forcing her to move and maybe learning a lesson about how cruel people can be, will she end up ultimately better off?
Who the heck knew?
The house was still empty when Mike got home. No sign of Adam. No message from him either.
Still thinking about Yasmin, Mike headed into the kitchen. The note he left still sat on the kitchen table, untouched. There were dozens of photographs on the refrigerator, all neatly aligned in magnet sleeve-frames. Mike found one of Adam and himself from last year when they went to Six Flags Great Adventure. Mike was normally ter- rified of big rides, but his son had somehow persuaded him to go on something aptly called The Chiller. Mike loved it.
When they got off, father and son posed for a dumb picture with a guy dressed like Batman. They both had their hair messed from the ride, arms around Batman's shoulders, goofy grins on their faces.
That had been just last summer.
Mike remembered now sitting in the coaster, waiting for that ride to start, heart pumping. He turned to Adam, who gave him a crooked smile and said, "Hold tight," and then, right then, he flashed back more than a decade, when Adam was four and they were at this same park and there was a crush of people entering the stuntman show, a total crush, and Mike held his son's hand and told him to "hold tight," and he could feel the little hand dig into his but the crush got bigger and the little hand slipped from his and Mike felt that horrible panic, as if a wave hit them at the beach and it was washing his baby out with the tide. The separation lasted only a few seconds, ten at the most, but Mike would never forget the spike in his blood and the terror of those brief few moments.
Mike stared for a solid minute. Then he picked up his phone and called Adam's cell phone again.
"Please call home, son. I'm worried about you. I'm on your side, always, no matter what. I love you. So call me, okay?"
He hung up and waited.
ADAM listened to the last message from his father and almost started to cry.
He thought about calling him back. He thought about dialing his dad's number and telling him to come get him and then they could go to that Rangers game with Uncle Mo and maybe Adam would tell them everything. He held his cell phone. His father's number was speed-dial one. His finger hovered by the digit. All he had to do was press down.
From behind him a voice said, "Adam?"
He moved his finger away.