For miles, nobody spoke.
Then the driver stopped right in the road and
said, "Get out of the car."
Michael's fingers struggled with the latch of his seat belt.
The driver reached over with such irritation Michael expected a slap, but the driver just released Michael's seat
belt. It was gray and shiny and slid away like a snake.
The car door was heavy. Michael opened it with difficulty
and climbed out onto the pavement. The passenger drop-off made a long dark curve under the overhang of the immense airport terminal. Glass doors stretched as far as
Michael could see. Men and women pulled suitcases on
wheels and struggled with swollen duffel bags. They hefted
briefcases and slung the padded straps of laptop carriers
over their shoulders. The glass doors opened automatically
for them and the airport swallowed them.
"Shut the door, Michael," said the driver.
Michael stared into the car. He could not think very
clearly. The person behind the wheel seemed to melt and
re-form. "You're not coming?" Michael whispered.
The driver answered, and Michael heard the answer. But
he knew right away that he must not think about it. The
shape and contour of those syllables were a map of some
terrible unknown country. A place he didn't want to go.
"Shut the door," repeated the driver.
But Michael could neither move nor speak.
Again the driver leaned forcefully over the passenger seat
where Michael had sat. Michael backed up, the heels of his
sneakers hitting the curb. The driver yanked the door shut
and the car began leaving before the driver had fully
straightened up behind the wheel.
Michael stared at the back of the car, at its trunk and license plate, and immediately his view was blocked by a
huge tour bus with a red and gold logo. Passengers poured
out of the bus, encircling Michael, talking loudly in a language he did not know.
The bus driver opened low folding doors covering the
cargo hatch and flung luggage onto the sidewalk. Bus passengers swarmed around the suitcases. Michael watched as
if it were television. When all the luggage had been distributed, the driver folded the doors back, leaped back into his
bus and drove off.
Michael could see down the road again, but the car that
had dropped him off was long gone.
AIRPORT EXIT, said the sign above the road.
Three cars drove up next to his feet. Families got out.
People kissed good-bye. They vanished into the maw of the
airport. Another bus arrived, all its passengers either old
ladies carrying big purses or old men carrying canes and
Michael felt eyes on him. Not bus people eyes, because
the bus people were too busy making little cries of pleasure
as they spotted their suitcases.
He didn't have to look to know they were police eyes
focused on him. He was not going to tell the police. Not
now, not ever.
Michael eased into a knot of bus people, resting his hand
on the edge of an immense suitcase towed by a fat chatty
lady. Another even fatter lady towed an even larger suitcase. Wherever they were going, they could hardly wait to
get there. The ladies hauled their suitcases into the terminal. Michael went with them. The women never noticed
him, but surged forward into a ladies' room. Michael stood
in the midst of a vast open area. Hundreds of passengers
hurried by, separating on either side of him as if he were a
rock in a river. They gave him no more attention than they
would have given to such a rock.
Michael threaded his way down the concourse until he
came to flight monitors high on the wall. Michael was not a
good reader. Charts, like the departure and arrival lists on
these screens, were difficult for him. Craning his neck and
squinting, he struggled to interpret the information. There
were several flights to LaGuardia. He counted six in the
next two hours. He hung on to this information, as if it
might be useful.
Michael was wearing new jeans. It was too hot for jeans,
but he had been told to put them on. The crisp pant legs
were rough against his skin. His T-shirt, though, was old
and soft. It had been his sister, Lily's, and he had filched it
from her to use as packing around a fragile possession. He
had been wearing it lately, even though it came to his knees.
He felt those eyes again. He walked into the men's room
to get away from the stare. It was packed. So many men.
Fathers, probably, or grandfathers or stepfathers or godfathers. He closed himself in a stall, but the toilet was flushing by itself, over and over, as if it intended to drown him,
and he fled from the wet sick smell of the place.
Back in the open space, Michael distracted himself by
looking everywhere, even up. The ceilings were very high,
with exposed girders in endless triangles that looked like
art. He had been in this airport once before and imagined
swinging from those girders, leaping from one to the next,
sure of his footing. Michael was not sure of anything right
now, not even the bottoms of his feet.
He sat on a black bench that had curled edges, like a
licorice stick. Ticket counters stretched in both directions:
American, Southwest, Continental, Frontier, Delta. People
stood in long slow lines that zigzagged back and forth, separated by blue sashes strung between chrome stands.
Maybe I just didn't understand, he thought. Maybe the
car just went to park. Maybe if I go back outside . . .
He felt better. He went back outside.
Taxis and hotel limousines and vans from distant parking
lots were driving up. Wheeled suitcases bumped over the
tiled sidewalk as loudly as guns shooting. Clumps of people stumbled against him and moved on. New buses took
the place of the last set, and their exhausts were black and
clotted in his lungs.
The terrible words the driver had flung at Michael had
been lying on that sidewalk, waiting for him to come back,
and now the words jumped up and began yelling at him.
Michael tripped over a suitcase and fell hard on the
pavement. The suitcase owner picked Michael up, dusted
him off, and examined his bare elbows for scratches. "I'm
sorry about that," said the man pleasantly. "You okay?"
Michael could hardly hear the speech of the man, banging
against those terrible last words from the car. He couldn't
"Where's your mom and dad, kiddo? Who are you with?"
asked the man.
Michael recovered. "My grandmother," he said, astonished by how easily the lie came to him. Michael was not
much of a fibber. He had always meant to get good at lying,
because he was always leaving tracks he'd like to cover, but
he never got around to thinking of good lies, and stupid
ones were too stupid to bother with, so usually he just admitted whatever he'd done.
Where had that fib come from? Had the bottom of his
mind been getting ready to lie?
"Where is your grandmother?" asked the guy, standing
tall and scouting out the sidewalks.
"In the bathroom," said Michael. "She has to go a lot. I figured I had time to look around."
The guy laughed. "Better find her before she panics."
"Okay," said Michael. "Thanks." He went into the terminal again and did not look back.
This time when he walked past the ticket counters, he saw
that they broke in the middle and that beyond them was another huge hallway. Michael entered new territory and slid
gratefully into a magazine shop.
There were clerks at three registers and a line at each one.
Every passenger at the entire airport was buying a snack
before boarding. Michael had not had supper last night, and
of course this morning there had been no breakfast, and
now it was almost lunchtime. He walked around, staring at
the racks of small bags. Honey mustard pretzels and jelly
beans. Peanut butter cups and barbecue-flavored potato
chips. Sugar-free gum and chocolate bars.
Usually Michael didn't care that much about food. His
big sisters, now, Reb and Lily, they loved food. They were
always moaning how they couldn't have this or shouldn't
have that, because they might gain a pound. Looking at this
food, Michael got hungry. But if he stayed, pretty soon the
clerks would notice him.
Michael went back into the hallway. The next store sold
gifts. Its front display held teddy bears. He studied the one
in front, bright red and not half as good a bear as York.
Michael had gotten York when he was very small. York
was very soft and easily squished, rusty brown the way a
bear should be, with a knitted New York Yankees sweater
and a tiny New York Yankees baseball cap. York had not
washed well. One arm, Michael considered it York's pitching arm, had come off and although Michael carefully
kept the arm for months, eventually it got lost. York's fur
had acquired lavender streaks, something his mother
blamed on bleach.
For years now, Michael had been trying not to sleep with
York. He had graduated to keeping York in a cardboard box
under the bed. That way, when Michael's friends came over
to play, York was hidden. But at night, when he was tucked
in, and the lights were off, Michael's hand would sneak out
from under the covers and wave into the darkness under
the bed until his fingers located the cardboard. Slowly, carefully, he would pull the box out into the room and go to
sleep holding on to York's remaining arm.
York had seemed perfectly safe under the new bed. But he
Michael thought about his possessions, still sitting in the
new room. What would happen in that new room now?
When he was ordered into the car, Michael had not known
what the plan was. He hadn't known they were going to the
airport. He had brought nothing with him.
He had not known the meaning of that word before. He
He walked past more stores.
His sisters loved shopping even more than food. How
many hours had Michael spent with his feet dangling from
some bench while his sisters fingered every single sweater
in a store the size of a stadium? And when his sisters were
finally done shopping, what did they have to show for it?
Usually nothing. They never had any money, either.
Michael wanted his sisters so much that for a terrible moment he thought he might cry.
He paused at a restaurant with two hostesses. They
weren't busy, the restaurant was almost empty. The
women frowned slightly, watching this eight-year-old all
by himself. It had been a mistake to stop walking because
one hostess opened her mouth to speak. Michael averted
his face and yelled down the hall, "Mom! Wait up!" He
broke into a run and ran smack into the security gates.
Passengers were hefting bags onto the X-ray conveyor
belt and tossing their car keys and shoes and change into
little boxes. On the far side, they were being wanded by security people or putting their shoes back on. There were
three types of security: people in uniforms like flight attendants wore; people in police uniforms; and people in camo,
probably National Guard.
It was a policewoman who spotted him.
He didn't move fast enough. The officer was next to him,
bending over, smiling, and he couldn't let her ask questions,
because he didn't have answers, so he smiled back and said,
"I can't find the bathroom. My mom let me go to the bathroom and now I can't find it."
She led him back the way he'd come, to a different break
between the ticket counters; another route to the front half
of the terminal. "There it is," she said, pointing.
"Thanks!" Michael trotted, as if he were desperate, and he
was desperate, just not for a bathroom. He killed time in
there, seeing which soap spout actually delivered soap, and
this time when he went back toward the shops, he found a
little-kid playroom behind a stairwell. He joined children
playing on toy trucks that doubled as benches for the
On a far wall were pay phones. The phones had no booths
and no seats. Not one was in use. Probably most people had
cell phones. Michael did not have a cell phone. Mom and
Kells and Reb and Lily all had cell phones but Michael was
"too young." He had said a hundred times to his mother
that nobody was "too young" for a phone.
I could call home, thought Michael.
But if Mom or Kells answered, Michael would have to
hang up, because he wasn't ever telling the thing that had
happened and the thing that had been said, and since he
knew already he would just hang up on them, what was the
point of calling?
Unless he could be sure of reaching Lily.
Somehow, Lily had known he would need to call home.
She had been so sure, she'd trained him. What exactly had
Lily known that Michael had not known?
Lily was fifteen and difficult. Michael adored her but
steered clear if he could manage it. The day before he left,
when he was literally hopping with joy, Lily dragged him
into her bedroom and slammed the door. "It won't work,
Michael," she said, referring to his Plan. "But since you're
going anyway, you're going to memorize something."
How Michael was looking forward to a life with no big
sisters pushing him around. "No," he told Lily.
"Yes. Or I'll stomp you." Lily stomped him routinely and
then said innocently to their mother, "Me? Fighting?"
Oh, well, he had told himself. Tomorrow Lily will be history.
"Fine," he said grumpily to the sister he was sick of.
"What do I have to memorize?"
Now in the airport, Michael picked up the phone. His
throat was sore. He closed his eyes and saw the memorized
number, all those digits. He dialed the phone company's
800 number and then he dialed his own area code and
phone number. The phone pinged and told him to dial the
number being billed. You always had to think about money,
Lily had explained.
Again Michael poked the numbers for his home phone
and this time he added Mom's PIN number. For years, her
PIN number had been 3000, because she said that three children in the house felt like three thousand, especially when
the three children were Rebecca and Lily and Michael. But
then Mom got remarried, and a year later, Nathaniel was
born. Mom went and got a new PIN number: 4000.
Lily said Mom had no right to get divorced, no right to
get remarried, no right to have another kid, and absolutely
no right to go and change her PIN number.
Michael, however, thought 4000 was an excellent PIN
number because Nathaniel had four thousand toys and had
broken four thousand pieces off things (mostly Michael's
things) and had definitely worked through four thousand
diapers. Every night felt like four thousand nights, too, because Nathaniel could not fall asleep without sobbing for
half an hour.
They were all pretty grumpy about Nathaniel. Especially
Michael, because he had to share a bedroom with this unwanted half brother. Kells built a double-sided bookcase
across the bedroom, which supposedly gave Michael privacy but really just turned Nathaniel's side into an echo
chamber. At least Nathaniel was still in a crib. He was old
enough to climb out but never had and Michael certainly
never demonstrated. Nathaniel belonged in a cage.
When Michael left home, Nathaniel had been twenty-two
months old and Michael had figured not to see him again
for a year. But his brother would still be twenty-two months
old when Michael got back.
The call went through. Michael pictured all the phones
and all their ringing: the kitchen phone in the great messy
sunny room where everybody was always cooking; the
portable phone in Mom and Kells's room; the TV room
He hung up in the middle of the second ring.
It was too early to call.
Things might change.
Lily was putting Nathaniel down for his nap. When the
phone rang, she was delighted, because Nate, like some little trained dog, honored the ring of a phone. Reb and Lily
often called each other on their cell phones just to shut Nate
up for a minute.
"I'll be right back, Nate," Lily told him. "I have to answer
the phone. You put your head down and close your eyes.
Before you know it, my phone call will be over and I'll
Nate was still pretty easy to dupe. He said, "Okie,
Wiwwy," which was how he said "Okay, Lily," and even
though Lily tried to harden her heart against Nate, she
adored him when he put his head down and murmured,
Lily whipped out of the room without looking into
Michael's half. Michael's three quarters, actually. Nate had
exactly enough space for his crib and one person to stand
next to it.
Michael had stripped his side of every possession, taking
every baseball card and toy truck and Lego and book and
video game and CD and of course York. He had even taken
the sheets off his bed, Michael!, who believed that laundry belonged on the floor and changing sheets was for
sissies. After Michael threw his used sheets in the laundry
room that day, he came back to admire the bare mattress:
Proof. He was leaving. For good.
Lily understood Michael's decision to go. They all wanted
to storm away when Mom remarried and they all wanted to
storm away again when Nathaniel was born. But when
Michael really did storm away, Lily knew in her heart why
she and Reb had not. They knew better.
It gave Lily a bit of peace to know that Michael had York
the Bear with him. York would never let Michael down.
The second ring was cut short. There was not a third one.
Lily pounded down the stairs to look at the caller ID on the
kitchen phone and see who had hung up. Probably some
solicitor who had managed to avoid the Do Not Call list.
Lily adored the telephone. She loved e-mail and text messaging, because she loved every variation on communicating, but mostly Lily loved the sound of her own voice. Just
since yesterday's phone calls, she had a hundred new
things to tell every friend she had. If she got lucky,
Nathaniel would fall asleep and give her two fine nap
hours for phone calls.
Mom and Kells would not be back till after midnight.
They had driven Reb to college. It was the first semester of
Reb's freshman year, and Lily had been counting the days
right along with her sister, excited about seeing the campus
and the dorm, meeting the roommates, helping unpack,
hanging clothes and posters. But when the last box and
suitcase had been wedged into the car, there was no room
for Nate's car seat and no room for Lily.
"That works!" cried her sister brightly. "You guys stay
Lily was crushed. "Let's divide everything in two cars,"
she offered quickly. "Mom drives one car, Kells drives one.
No fair leaving me and Nate behind."
How pleadingly her older sister looked at her. Reb, like
Michael, wanted to enter a new world. She didn't even intend to use her nickname from now on. Michael had left
forever, and now Reb would turn into some college woman
named Rebecca, while Lily would be abandoned in a
swamp of dirty diapers and educational toys.
Their house was chaotic in the best of circumstances, because not only did Mom drop everything everywhere, using the dining room table to match socks and the living
room rug for stacking catalogs, but she piled her concert
band's music on the stairs and left broken school instruments she needed to repair on the kitchen counter and lost
whole series of CDs under the sofa. Lily even saw a cell
phone peeking out from under a sloppy heap of paper napkins. Had to be Mom's,
everybody else held tightly to essentials, or they would vanish forever in Mom's chaos. It
was hard to believe that their messy mother easily controlled a four-hundred-student band program. Today the
house was strewn with stuff Reb wasn't taking after all. Styrofoam packing peanuts lay like snow, and under all this
was the debris of a toddler.
Lily had only one gift for a sister who wanted out. She
managed a smooth smile for Reb and Mom. "Nate and I
will be fine on our own. You guys drive safely."
Mom was anxious. "It's such a long time, though. It's a
six-hour drive, more if there's traffic. We can't be back till
after midnight. What if something happens?"
"Then I'll handle it," said Lily. She decided not to tell
Mom about the cell phone under the paper napkins. A
phone in her purse would mean Mom calling twenty-five
times to check up on Lily. What could possibly happen that
Lily couldn't handle?
Yet the sight of her family driving away had been awful,
as if they were being sucked down a tube, never to return.
Then of course Nathaniel wanted to play Jump Off the Back
Step, a game that involved jumping off the back step. Lily's
job was to applaud and cry, "Wow!" with lots of emphasis
on the ws, and Nate would whisper "Wow", a good word
for him, since he had w nailed. They played Jump Off the
Back Step until Lily figured that even losing Reb and
Michael wasn't as bad as playing Jump Off the Back Step
one more time, so she coaxed Nate in for a very early lunch
of tuna salad. Nate loved tuna salad. He always had cat
breath because he did not love having his teeth brushed.
Now he was down for his afternoon nap way too early
because she was the one ready for a nap.
Lily reached the kitchen. The stingy tart smell of the
Magic Marker with which Reb labeled her boxes mixed
with the fishy scent of tuna salad she'd forgotten to refrigerate. On the kitchen phone, the caller ID showed some out-
of-state number. Undoubtedly a sales call. Kells was polite
to telephone salespeople. "I'm so sorry," he would say, "we
don't purchase items over the phone, but thank you anyway." Mom handled it differently.
"Stop phoning me!" she would shout. "I'm never going to
want it, whatever it is! Hang up! You hang up first, do you
Neither approach worked. Neither, apparently, did signing up for Do Not Call.
Lily deleted the number.
Michael continued to hold the receiver. Even though he
was connected to nothing, he felt safer hanging on.
A shadow fell across him. He looked up to see a uniformed officer standing over him. Michael was not allowed
to watch shows like COPS because of the violence, but of
course he watched them all the time anyway, and he knew
what police did in situations like this. They went after
"Hi," said Michael. "Is that a real gun?" Michael knew
perfectly well it was a real gun. This was a cop. What would
he have—a cardboard gun?
"Have you ever used it?" said
Michael. "My mom doesn't like guns. She won't let one in
The officer smiled. "It is real and your mom is making a
Michael turned to the phone, hoping the officer would
No such luck. "Where are your folks?" said the cop. His
voice was pleasant and warm.
Michael gestured vaguely. "I just called my sister," he
said. "She's leaving for college." He was seized by horror.
When was Reb leaving? What if they had already left? All
of them? What if his house was empty? What if he called
and the phone rang and rang and rang and rang—and nobody came? What was he going to do?
"Well, it was nice to talk to you," he said to the cop, letting go of the comforting phone. It was like letting go of
York in the dark.
"Bye." He was only steps from the parents
on toy wagons. He needed parents so the cop would forget
about him. But all the parents were paying close attention
to their children and would speak up if he tried to look like
There was one couple kissing and smooching over by the
windows. They looked as if they had no children; as if they
never planned to have children. Michael flopped down at
their feet, flat on his face, and hoped for the best. He felt
sick from not eating and his head whirled. Under the seats
lay used coffee cups and discarded magazines. He could
see the feet of the officer, who was moving on, satisfied.
How silent the house was.
Lily put the tuna salad into the refrigerator.
It was quiet times that bothered her most these days.
Michael had been a nonquiet brother.
Michael was a very busy kid, and most of all, he was busy
talking: he talked all the time to everybody. He was busy
with sports: hitting balls, kicking balls, pitching balls,
dunking balls. He was busy going places: on foot, on bike,
on skateboard. He was busy with projects and friends, busy
in the cellar, busy in the attic, busy in the yard.
He was a dirty noisy nosy little eight-year-old.
One thing that kept him busy was making lists of
everything he planned to do next. "I want to learn how to
fish," he would say. "I want to scuba dive." He loved equipment. You could never have enough equipment.
Lily remembered Michael sitting by the road with all his
equipment, waiting. Silent, because in all those hours, nobody, including
Michael, knew what to say.
And then once Michael was gone, Nathaniel too got quieter, now that he didn't have to drown out his big brother.
Lily almost wanted to wake Nathaniel up just to have
company. Then she came to her senses and turned on the
She was setting down the remote when her thumb slid
across the number pad, and other numbers filtered through
her mind and she recognized the area code of that phone
number on the caller ID.
She clicked off the television. A little prickle of fear entered her heart.
She had deleted the number from the kitchen phone but
Mom's bedroom phone had a memory bank. Lily never
went in there because she didn't like thinking about Mom
and Kells sharing a room. She went upstairs on tiptoe so
Nathaniel wouldn't sense her presence. She crept into the
master bedroom and lifted the portable phone from its cradle to take back downstairs.
She peeked in on Nate. He was asleep in the flung out
way of toddlers, arms and legs all over the place.
Michael followed a small girl into a big yellow and blue
play plane. Inside were little seats. He squashed himself
beneath one. I could hide here for a long time, he thought.
And then what?
He decided to check the sidewalk one more time.
Just in case.
He didn't see any of the people who'd shown interest in
him before. He passed the ticket counters safely and
walked out next to a janitor pushing a cleanup cart. Outside, he pressed against a cement pillar to avoid being
mowed down by crossing guards and airplane crews, by
suitcases and dogs in cages, sidewalk check-in staff and
overflowing luggage trolleys.
A long thin blue bus arrived. AIRPORT PARKING, said the
sign in its front window.
A woman next to Michael on the sidewalk called anxiously to the driver, "Do you stop at Parking Lot A?"
"We stop at all of 'em, lady. A, B, C, D, whatever letter you
The school buses at his new school had been named for
letters. Michael had gotten on the wrong bus. It had not
been his first failure, just one in a string. Michael went back
inside so he didn't have to think about A, B, C, D and failure. When he found himself in the playroom again, near the
wall phones, the one he had used before was ringing.
"Wiwwy," called Nathaniel. He'd slept fifteen minutes
instead of two hours. It was her own fault for putting him
down early. He was capable of yelling "Wiwwy" several
hundred times before tiring of the syllables.
"I'm on the phone, Nathaniel!" she yelled, and while she
was yelling, somebody picked up at the other end. They
didn't say anything. They just breathed. Lily got irritated.
She was pretty nearly always irritated at how other people
conducted their lives. "Who is this?" she demanded.
There was a long jagged intake of air at the other end and
then sobs spurted out of the phone. Raw sobs, like cuts, like
opening a can and slicing your palm with the lid.
I knew, thought Lily. I knew from the area code.
Except her brother Michael didn't ever cry. He didn't cry
when a baseball hit him in the face. He didn't cry when he
fell off his bike and ripped open his knees. He didn't cry
when he got shots. He didn't cry when their parents' marriage ended and he didn't cry when their mother went into
a new one. Michael didn't cry.
"Michael?" said Lily.
"Tell me what's happening. Where are you? What phone
number is this? Why didn't you let it ring when you called
a minute ago? What's wrong?"
There was another sob, drier this time; shallower.
>From his crib, Nathaniel heard her say "Michael?" and
since Nate loved Michael, he stopped shouting "Wiwwy"
and started shouting "Miikooooo!"
Lily said, "Mom and Kells took Reb to college, Michael,
and there wasn't enough room in the car for Nate and me,
so we're here by ourselves. There's nobody around to butt
in, Michael. Tell me what's happening."
"Lily," he whispered.
Lily waited. But Michael had nothing else to say. "I love
you," Lily told him. She never said things like that. Even
when he'd left forever, she had not told Michael she
She could hear the little huffs of his breathing, his effort to
still the sobs.
Her heart was crumpled newspaper and kindling. Fear
for her brother was the match. Flame charred a corner of
"I'm here," she said.
When he'd left, Michael had done his own packing.
Mom had been beside herself about the whole thing
because Michael's choice was a personal defeat, an assault.
She seemed to think if she didn't pitch in, it wouldn't
Michael didn't care. When Mom wouldn't help, he hiked
a mile to the nearest strip of stores, collected cardboard
boxes and carried them home, stacked inside each other. He
did this five times. He filled them with his belongings and
sealed them with strapping tape. He wrote his name and
the precious new address in large fat black letters on all
four sides, with big arrows pointing up.
On the day Dad was to arrive and take him away for
good, Michael was up before dawn. Actually, Lily was
pretty sure he'd never gone to bed. By the time the sun was
up, Michael had dragged everything he owned to the road.
Not the porch, not the back door, not the driveway—but the
road. He was literally disowning the rest of them. He
propped his fishing poles and baseball bat and bike against
He had forgotten to pack clothing. Nothing that sat in a
bureau drawer or hung on a hanger mattered to Michael.
Mom gave up and dragged out two large suitcases. She
folded every shirt carefully. Paired the socks. Replaced a
broken lace on a sneaker.
Silently, the family moved through the house, finding
things Michael had forgotten. Reb brought his baseball
Mom brought his toothbrush, toothpaste and orthodontic
appliance, which he had never worn and never would, but
he let her drop the stuff into his duffel along with a book (as
if Michael planned to do any reading again in this life) and
an apple for a snack (as if he planned to choose apples once
Mom wasn't supervising).
York lay in his usual box. The box wasn't marked because
Michael could not possibly confuse York's box with ordinary boxes. Lily had a bad feeling about letting their father
see York. She got her own backpack and silently transferred
both York and box into that. It was the closest she came to
telling Michael she loved him. When she slipped her backpack onto her brother's thin little shoulders and adjusted
the straps, Michael hugged her, and this was new for both
of them and they ended it quickly.
And then the hours passed.
Dad did not come. He did not call to say where he was, or
when he was coming. Or if.
Mom brought Michael a bagel with cream cheese, but
Michael shook his head, eyes fixed on the road.
The morning ended. Michael did not move. Michael who
was nothing but movement, an eight-year-old whirlwind.
Neighbors phoned, asking for updates. Mom tried to be
glad she had concerned friends, but she hated the appearance of this. If Michael himself knew the appearance of this,
he didn't say so.
Reb made him a peanut butter and Fluff sandwich for
lunch, just the way he liked it, crusts peeled off instead of
cut, but Michael didn't glance at it.
Midafternoon, their stepfather sat down on the curb next
to him. If you had to have a stepfather, Kells was adequate.
That was as far as Lily would go. He was not the sort of
stepparent any of them had dreamed of. (If any kid dreams
"I was thinking—" began Kells.
"He'll be here in a minute," said Michael fiercely.
Nobody had anything to say after that.
Lily thought, It will kill Michael if it doesn't happen.
She went back in the house and up to her room. She was
skeptical of prayer, never paid attention at church and referred to the minister,
Dr. Bordon, as Dr. Boring. But into
the quiet air of her bedroom, she said, "God?"
He wasn't listening. Lily could tell. She spoke more
sharply. "God, Michael needs this. Make it happen. Don't
give me that stuff about free will, how people make their
own choices, how your choices don't always intersect with
the choices of others in a pleasing fashion and how responsibility lies with the individual. Get down here and make
He was listening now. Lily could tell that too. "Now!" she
said fiercely to God.
At exactly that moment, Dad arrived.
Even Lily was impressed.
Into his end of the telephone, Michael whispered, "I'm at
the airport, Lily. Dad drove."
Lily came quickly, easily and often to wrath, so she arrived at smoking fury instantly. In the same car, she
thought, that he was driving two and a half weeks ago
when he came ten hours late to get his own little boy, the
little boy who begged to live with him. A car without room
for a bike and fishing poles and ten boxes and two suitcases. "What do I have to do here?" Dad had said irritably.
"Pay to ship this stuff? What is this stuff, anyway? Does it
"No," said Michael quickly. "None of it matters."
Kells had said in his bland pudgy way, "I think we can
pack most of it if we're careful," and their father said,
"Whatever," and Kells got everything except the bike and
the fishing poles into the trunk and the backseat, and
Michael didn't care; he didn't care about one thing except
driving away with Dad. Michael could hardly even be bothered to say good-bye. Who were they, anyway? Sisters,
mother, stepfather, half brother—so what?
Dad had come.
"Let me talk to Dad," said Lily.
"He isn't here."
"Where is he?"
"What do you mean—left?"
"Don't tell," said Michael.
"Promise you won't tell, Lily."
More of Lily's heart burned. Michael did not have secrets.
Michael blatted everything to everybody; he was the
sharingest person out there.
Upstairs Nathaniel abandoned saying "Miikoooo" and
returned to "Wiwwy." He was sobbing between syllables.
"I promise," said Lily.
"He was mad at me," said Michael, in a voice too soft and
flat to be Michael's.
"But what's going on? Why are you at the airport? Where
is Dad? Is he having a hard time parking the car?"
"I don't think he parked."
"Where is he, then?"
"I think he went back to his house."
"But who's with you?"
"Nobody," said Michael.
"You're alone at the airport?" she said, unable to
"Don't tell, Lily," said her brother. "I don't want anybody
to know. Just come and get me."
"You're eight years old and he" Lily didn't finish the sentence out loud—he threw you out on the sidewalk like a paper coffee cup? If she took a deep enough breath, the
oxygen in her lungs would ignite. She would go up in
smoke. That worthless lowlife pretend father! How dare he!
I'll kill him, Lily decided. I'll have him arrested and jailed
and tortured to death.
"It was my fault, Lily. Don't tell anybody. Especially Mom
or Kells. Promise. You have to promise."
"I promise," she said, although she could not imagine how
this could be kept a secret. But to keep it a secret, she couldn't
ask a neighbor to drive her to LaGuardia. It wouldn't be too
hard to get there by bus. She'd never done it, but people
did. She could get the details from LaGuardia's Web site.
Nate loved the bus, he'd be good. Driving herself wasn't a
choice; Lily wasn't old enough to get a learner's permit,
never mind weave her way to LaGuardia.
"You're coming?" said Michael. She could hear the pace
of his breathing stepping up again, getting too fast and too
shallow and very close to sobbing again.
Okay, she thought, planning hard. Nate and I get the bus,
meet the plane, bring Michael home, put sheets on his old
bed, get York settled underneath it. When Mom and Kells
get here, they'll decide how to kill Dad. "What airline is
your ticket?" she asked.
"I don't have a ticket," said Michael.