The innocent, p.11
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       The Innocent, p.11

           Harlan Coben
 
Chapter 10

  "UNCLE MATT?"

  Paul and Ethan were safely ensconced in the backseat. It had taken Matt the better part of fifteen minutes to secure the car booster seats into place. Who the hell had designed these things- NASA?

  "What's up, partner?"

  "You know what McDonald's has right now?"

  "I already told you. We're not going to McDonald's. "

  "Oh, I know. I'm just saying. "

  "Uh huh. "

  "You know what McDonald's has right now?"

  "No," Matt said.

  "You know the new Shrek movie?"

  "Yes. "

  "They got Shrek toys," Paul said.

  "He means McDonald's does," Ethan chipped in.

  "Is that a fact?"

  "And they're free. "

  "They're not free," Matt said.

  "They are so. It's in the Happy Meal. "

  "Which are overpriced. "

  "Overwhat?"

  "We're not going to McDonald's. "

  "Oh, we know. "

  "We were just saying. "

  "They got free toys, is all. "

  "From the new Shrek movie. "

  "Remember when we saw the first Shrek movie, Uncle Matt?"

  "I remember," he said.

  "I like Donkey," Ethan said.

  "Me too," Matt agreed.

  "Donkey is the toy this week. "

  "We're not going to McDonald's. "

  "I'm just saying. "

  " 'Cause Chinese is good too," Paul said.

  "Even though they don't got toys. "

  "Yeah, I like spare ribs. "

  "And dim sum. "

  "Mom likes the string beans. "

  "Ugh. You don't like string beans, do you, Uncle Matt?"

  "They're good for you," Matt said.

  Ethan turned to his brother. "That means no. "

  Matt smiled, tried to push away the day. Paul and Ethan were good for that.

  They arrived at Cathay, an old-fashioned Chinese restaurant with the retro classics like chow mein and egg foo young, cracked vinyl booths, and a grumpy old woman at the front counter who watched you eat as if fearing you'd pocket the utensils.

  The food was greasy, but that was as it should be. The boys ate a ton. At McDonald's, they picked. They managed maybe half a burger and a dozen fries. Here they cleaned the plate. Chinese restaurants would be well served by handing out movie tie-in toys.

  Ethan, as always, was animated. Paul was a bit more reserved. They had been raised in pretty much the exact manner, the same gene pool, and yet they couldn't be more different. Ethan was the cutup. He never sat still. He was messy and lively and shunned affection. When Paul colored, he always stayed in the lines. He got frustrated when he made a mistake. He was thoughtful, a good athlete, and liked to cuddle.

  Nature waaay over nurture.

  They stopped at Dairy Queen on the ride home. Ethan ended up wearing more soft vanilla than he consumed. When he pulled into the driveway Matt was surprised to see that Marsha wasn't back yet. He took them inside- he had a key- and gave them a bath. It was eight o'clock.

  Matt put on an episode of The Fairly OddParents, which was pretty funny on an adult level, and then convinced the boys using negotiating skills picked up in legal pleadings across the state to get into bed. Ethan was afraid of the dark, so Matt turned on the SpongeBob night-light.

  Matt checked his watch. Eight thirty. He didn't mind staying later, but he was getting a little worried.

  He headed into the kitchen. The latest works of art by Paul and Ethan hung on the refrigerator by magnets. There were photographs, too, in acrylic frames that never seemed to hold the photos in place. Most were halfway slipping out. Matt carefully slid the images back where they belonged.

  Near the top of the fridge, too high for the children to reach (if not see?) there were two photographs of Bernie. Matt stopped and stared at his brother. After a while he turned away and picked up the kitchen phone. He dialed Marsha's cell.

  Marsha had caller ID and answered, "Matt? I was just about to call you. "

  "Hey. "

  "Are you at the house?"

  "We are. And the boys are bathed and in bed. "

  "Wow, you're good. "

  "I thank you. "

  "No, I thank you. "

  No one spoke for a moment.

  Matt asked, "Do you need me to stay awhile?"

  "If it's okay. "

  "No problem. Olivia's still in Boston. "

  "Thank you," she said, and there was something in her voice.

  He switched ears. "Uh, what time do you think you'll be getting-"

  "Matt?"

  "Yes. "

  "I lied to you before. "

  He said nothing.

  "I didn't have a school meeting. "

  He waited.

  "I'm out on a date. "

  Not sure what to say to that, Matt went with the reliable "Oh. "

  "I should have told you before. " She lowered her voice. "It's not a first date either. "

  His eyes found his brother's in the photograph on the refrigerator. "Uh huh. "

  "I've been seeing someone. It's been almost two months now. The boys don't know anything about it, of course. "

  "You don't have to explain to me. "

  "Yeah, Matt. Yeah, I do. "

  He said nothing.

  "Matt?"

  "I'm here. "

  "Would you mind spending the night?"

  He closed his eyes. "No," he said. "I don't mind at all. "

  "I'll be home before the boys wake up. "

  "Okay. "

  He heard a sniffle then. She was crying.

  "It's okay, Marsha. "

  "Really?"

  "Yeah," he said. "I'll see you in the morning. "

  "I love you, Matt. "

  "I love you too. "

  He hung up the phone. It was a good thing, Marsha going out. It was a very good thing. But his eyes drifted back toward his brother. Unfair and wrong as it was, Matt couldn't help but think that his brother had never seemed more gone.

 
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