Part #3 of Mickey Bolitar series by Harlan Coben
Might as well give it a try. I didn't see where there was much to lose.
Barna House had to be the newest building at Farnsworth. While the other buildings were all stately brick, this was sleek one-way glass. I tried the door. Locked. You needed a key card to get inside. I waited about ten seconds. A student opened the door from the inside. I smiled, held the door for him, and entered.
I'm a master at the art of the break-in.
Two boys were playing Ping-Pong on a Wii connected to a giant-screen TV. They still wore jackets and ties, though the ties were loosened to the point where they might serve better as belts. Groups of boys sat on either side of the combatants, cheering them on with a gusto I normally associated with live football games. There were oohs and ahhs and trash-talking.
I headed up to the second floor. I didn't know the room number, but as it turned out, I didn't need to. The names were right on the doors. I started down the corridor. I was surprised that all the rooms were singles. I had always pictured prep school students as having roommates.
The third door read JARED LOWELL and his graduation year. He was indeed a senior. I knocked on the door and waited.
"So who are you really?"
I turned to the voice. It was Blond Mop. He wore only a towel around his waist. The blond mop was wet and pasted to his forehead. I assumed that he had just gotten out of the shower.
He was waiting for my reply.
"My name is Mickey Bolitar. I'm looking for Jared. I don't mean him any harm."
"So why are you looking for him?"
"It's kind of a long story."
He just stood there dripping in his towel and waited.
"You saw my friend," I said.
"The goth girl?"
"Right. She's a friend of his. Online friend anyway. He suddenly stopped communicating. She was worried about him."
He frowned. "You came all this way for that?"
It did sound pretty lame, but I said, "Yes."
"And you came with her because . . . ?"
"She's my friend. I'm trying to help her."
He stood there in his towel, no shirt, water dripping off the mop of hair. "Is she some kind of a cyberstalker or something?"
"No. Look, I just need to see him and make sure he's okay."
"Just because he stopped texting her back or whatever?"
"There's more to it than that. But all I need to do is make sure he's okay."
"That's weird," the kid said. "You get that, right?"
"I do," I said.
He took a deep breath. This was surreal, talking to this preppy boy just standing there in his towel. "Do you play basketball?" he asked me.
You get this question a lot when you're six-four. "Yes."
"Me too. My name is Tristan Wanatick. I'm the point guard on the team here. Jared and I are co-captains. Seniors. It's our last year. We were supposed to have a great season."
I felt a small chill. "Supposed to?"
"We still will," Tristan said, trying to sound defiant but not quite getting there. "I mean, he said he'll be back."
"So he's not at school?"
Blond Mop shook his head.
"Where is he?" I asked.
Another chill, bigger this time. "What?"
"I don't know. Some kind of family emergency. He left school a few days ago. Right in the middle of the semester. More than that--right at the start of basketball season."
"Where did he go?"
"And you don't know why?"
"All I know is it was something sudden," he said. "But if Jared is missing basketball, it has to be something really, really bad."
I promised Tristan I would let him know if I learned anything.
There was nothing more for us to do here. Ema and I caught the next bus back. I headed straight to school for basketball practice. It felt great, of course, to disappear in the sweat and strain and beauty. I sometimes wondered what my life would be without having the court as a place to escape.
When I got out, I was surprised to see a familiar car waiting for me.
He lowered the window. "Get in," he said.
"You wanted to see your mother, right?"
He didn't have to tell me twice. I circled around and hopped into the front passenger seat. Myron pulled away.
"How did you get permission?"
"You said it was important."
Myron nodded. "I explained that to Christine."
Christine Shippee ran the Coddington Rehabilitation Center, where my mother was being treated for her addiction. Christine had told me in no uncertain terms that my mother would not be allowed any visitors, including her only child, for at least another two weeks.
"And she accepted that?" I asked.
"No. She said that you couldn't come."
"Your mother isn't in jail, Mickey. She's in rehab. I told her that we were pulling her out of the program if she doesn't let you see her."
Whoa, I thought. "What did Christine say to that?"
I saw Myron's grip on the steering wheel tighten. "She said that we'd have to find your mother a new facility."
"You said it was important."
"So understand: Christine said that if we broke their protocol--if you saw her--then your mother would get thrown out."
I sat back.
"Well?" he asked.
"What do you want to do, Mickey? Do we go and see your mother right now? Or do we let her stay in the program and get the help she needs?"
I thought about it. He made the right turn and up ahead, not more than another mile, was the Coddington Rehabilitation Center.
"What do you want to do?" Myron asked again.
I turned toward him. "I want to see my mother."
"Even if that means getting her thrown out of the program?"
I sat back, crossed my arms, and said with more confidence than I really had: "Even if."
"I don't understand this," Christine Shippee said.
"I just need to talk to her. It won't take long."
"She's going through withdrawal. You know what that is?"
"She's in tremendous pain. Her body is craving the drug. You have no idea how hard this part is on a person."
I had learned in life to compartmentalize. I understood what she was saying. More than that, I felt her words. Physically. I felt them like a hard blow to the stomach. But I had come to a horrible realization. This wasn't my mother's first stint in rehab. Kitty Bolitar, my mother, had gone through the pain of withdrawal before, just a few months ago. Kitty had convinced everybody that she was fine and then she had gotten out and smiled at me and taken me to school and promised to make me my favorite dinner with my favorite garlic bread and then I went to school and she went to a motel and shot that poison back into her veins.
That was why we were back here.
"It didn't work last time."
"That's not uncommon," Christine Shippee told me. "You know that."
"Mickey, we are doing what's best for her. But I meant it. If you insist on seeing her tonight, you will break our protocol. We can no longer be her facility."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
Christine Shippee looked toward Myron. "He's a minor. This is your call, not his."
Uncle Myron turned to me and met my eye. I kept my gaze on him. "You're sure?" he asked me.
Christine Shippee shook her head. "You know where her room is," she said in a voice of both exhaustion and exasperation. "Myron, you can stay with me and sign the release papers."
She hit a bu
For a few moments I stood in the doorway and watched her. She had given up her tennis career--the fame, the fortune, the passion, all of it--to keep me. She had loved me and taken care of me my whole life until . . . until she couldn't anymore. I have heard that the human spirit is indomitable, that it can't be beaten or destroyed, and if you want something bad enough, the human spirit is impossibly strong.
That's total crap.
My mother wasn't weak. My mother loved me with everything that she had. But sometimes a person can break, just like Bat Lady's stupid refrigerator. Sometimes they break and maybe they can't be fixed.
Kitty Bolitar smiled at me, and for a moment, her face beamed. She was my mom again. I ran over to the side of the bed, transformed suddenly into a little boy. I collapsed to my knees and lowered my head onto her shoulder and then I, too, broke down. I sobbed. I sobbed on her shoulder for a very long time. I could hear her making a gentle shushing sound, a sound she made for me a hundred times before, trying to comfort me. I waited for her to put her hand on my head, but the restraints wouldn't allow it.
"It's okay, Mickey. Shh, it's going to be okay."
But I didn't believe it. Worse, I didn't believe her.
I put myself together a piece at a time. When I could finally speak, I said, "I need to ask you something."
"What is it, sweetheart?"
I lifted my head. I wanted to look into her eyes when I asked. I wanted to see her reaction. "It's about Dad."
She winced. My parents loved each other. Oh, sure, right, lots of people's parents do. But not like this. Their love was embarrassing. Their love was complete and whole and the problem with that kind of love, the problem with two becoming one, is what happens when one dies?
By definition, so must the other.
"What about your father?" she asked.
"Why did you have him cremated?"
"What?" She sounded more confused than shocked.
"I saw the paper you signed. I'm not mad or anything. I get it. But I don't know why--"
"What are you talking about? He wasn't cremated."
"Yes, he was. You signed for it."
Her eyes blazed now, boring into mine. I don't think I had ever seen them this clear. "Mickey, listen to me. We buried your father in Los Angeles. I never had him cremated. Why would you think such a thing?"
She waited for the answer. I believed her. She hadn't been in a drug stupor or anything like that. I could see it in her face. And I could see something else in her face too.
We had all been pretending.
My mother wasn't going to get better. She was broken. Christine Shippee might be able to repair her for a little while, but she would just break again. There was only one hope for her. I knew that. When my father died, she died too. That was why I was willing to risk her treatment. That was why I didn't care about the threats to throw her out of rehab. Rehab wouldn't do any good. Right now, without my father, you were sticking a tiny bandage on a limb amputation.
My mother was lost to me forever. There was only one hope.
I kept my tone strong. "I need you to get better."
"Oh, I will," she said, and, man, it sounded like a lie now.
"No, not like that. Not like last time. Things have changed."
"I don't understand, Mickey."
"Get better, Mom," I said, standing up now. "Because the next time I come back, I'm bringing Dad."
I hurried out then. Christine Shippee said, "Wait, where are you going?"
"No," I said.
I spun back to her. "She stays. I was only in there a few minutes. Please."
She looked at me, then at Myron. Myron shrugged.
"Please," I said again. "Just trust me, okay?"
Christine Shippee nodded. "Okay, but, Mickey?"
"You can't do this again."
"Don't worry," I said. "I won't be back until everything has changed."
I was in school, on my way to practice the next day, when Rachel sent me a text: In Philadelphia with my dad.
I typed back: Sounds like fun.
I told him I knew the truth about my mom.
I nodded toward the screen. How did it go?
There was a small delay before she typed back: Not well. Yet. But it chased the lie from the room.
I smiled. Good.
Be back late tonight. Can you update me in the morning?
Great. My place early AM. See you then. Take care.
I wrote back, because I'm the master of smooth: You too.
I stared down at the phone until a voice jarred me back to the present.
"What are you smiling at?"
I looked up too quickly. "Nothing."
Ema frowned. "Right."
"It was nothing. Someone just sent me a joke."
"One of your new jock friends? I bet it was a riot."
"Guess who found us a Betamax machine so we can watch that tape," Ema said.
"Nope. Spoon. If you can skip chilling with your hoops bros tonight, maybe we could go to the hospital and watch the tape together."
"I'm there," I said.
Ema took off. I got ready for practice. A bunch of the guys were joking around and I joined in and I enjoyed it and the heck with Ema and her attitude. I was allowed to have a little fun, wasn't I? I spotted Brandon lacing up his sneakers in the corner. He looked over at me and tilted his head as though asking, Well?
I walked over to him. "Let me ask you something," I said.
"It's about Buck."
"What about him?"
"From what I understand, his parents are divorced."
"Right. I think they split three, four years ago, I don't know."
"Was it hard on Buck?"
Brandon squinted at me. "What difference does that make?"
"I'm just finding this all a little convenient."
"Buck has lived his whole life in this town, right?"
"So suddenly, a few weeks into his senior year, he has to leave his friends and school and live with his mother?"
Brandon shrugged. "I'm not a lawyer, but they have joint custody or something."
"So when was the last time you talked to him?"
"I don't know. A few days before he left."
"You haven't spoken to him since?"
"No text or e-mail, nothing?"
"A text, I think," Brandon said. "Maybe an e-mail."
Brandon seemed to get it now. "No," he said. "No real good-bye."
"And you don't find that odd? You guys were friends from childhood. He moves away and never says good-bye?"
Still seated, Brandon looked up at me. "What are you getting at, Mickey?"
"The timing," I said.
Brandon said nothing.
"Look," I said, "I've only known Buck a short time. He's been nothing but this horrible bully. That's all I know of him. But I want to show you something."
I started down the row of lockers into the hallway. Every high school has that sports trophy display case. I brought him over there and pointed to the photograph of last year's team on a plaque as county champions. I pointed at Buck.
"What?" Brandon said.
"You don't see it?"
"No. What is it?"
"Maybe because you saw him every day. I didn't. But take a good look at him."
"I am," Brandon said. He was very tall,
"This picture was taken a year ago. It barely looks like the same Buck I know. This guy has to be thirty pounds smaller."
Brandon stayed hunched over and studied the photo. "So? Lots of guys grow between junior and senior year."
"Sure." But I could hear the doubt in his own voice. "Come to think of it . . ."
"Buck had a great baseball season. The extra strength really made a difference in his slugging percentage . . ." Brandon's voice drifted off. Then he gave me a sharp look.
"What?" I said.
"You're supposed to be helping Troy."
"That's what I'm doing."
"It sounds more like you're trying to make a case against Buck."
"I'm not making a case for or against anyone. I'm trying to find out the truth. But suppose there's a connection between what happened to Buck and what happened to Troy."
"I don't know yet. But suppose Buck got a positive drug test too. Wouldn't that maybe explain why he suddenly changed schools and doesn't communicate with anyone?"
Brandon looked off, considering it.
"What?" I said.
"It was always hard for Buck," Brandon said.
"The pressure on him. Being Randy's younger brother. It was more than just a shadow he couldn't escape. It was a shadow that smothered him. I know you hate him, and I can't say you don't have your reasons. But a lot of Buck's bullying behavior was because he always felt second best."
I arched an eyebrow. "His parents didn't hug him enough?"
"Hey, you're the one who raised this. But think about it. In the past few years, Buck has had to live with the superstar brother. That pressure had to be enormous."
I could feel my cheeks redden. "No, it didn't," I said.
"That's an excuse." I tried to keep my breathing even, but Brandon took a step back. "My father had to live with a superstar brother too, remember?"
Brandon looked at his feet.
"What?" I said.
"I don't mean to be cruel, Mickey, but how did that work out for him?"
His words landed right on my chin. "Low blow, Brandon."
"Not my intent," Brandon said.
"And my father didn't turn into a bully who called girls cows or threatened to beat up the new kid."
"No," Brandon said gently. "He didn't."
"I hear a but."
"My father did good work. He helped the needy."
"And how about his relationship with his superstar brother?"
I couldn't believe that he was still going there. "When he and his brother had their falling-out, Myron wasn't a superstar anymore. He'd already blown out his knee. Myron's career was over."
Found by Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Young Adult / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes