Part #3 of Mickey Bolitar series by Harlan Coben
Jared started to walk past us. "Look, I got a ferry to catch."
I put my hand against his chest. "You're not going anywhere."
Jared Lowell looked down at my hand. "You serious?"
"Don't move, Jared."
"Who do you think--?"
He heard the tone, raised his hands, and stayed where he was. Ema folded at the waist as though someone had punched her in the stomach. I hurried toward her. "Ema?"
"Don't you get it?"
"His favorite place. It was someplace on this island."
"So if it wasn't him, who else do we know who would know this island?"
Now I was the one who looked horror stricken. "No," I said.
"It can't be," I said.
"But it has to be," Ema said. "It was Buck. Buck was the one I met online."
Jared sat between Ema and me. His head was lowered in his hands.
"It started out as a prank," he said. "I didn't like the idea. I didn't want to be part of it at all."
He kept his head in his hands. Ema kept looking off, lost in thought, trying to put all the pieces together. She had been so sure that the feelings were real, and yet now she knew that it was a ruse by her longtime nemesis. It wasn't computing for her.
"So you know Buck," I said.
"He's my cousin. Our moms are sisters. They both grew up on this island. When Aunt Ina met Uncle Boris, she moved to Kasselton. My family stayed here. Buck and I spent every summer together on this island. After the divorce, Aunt Ina moved back here."
I couldn't tell whether Ema was listening or not.
"So what happened?" I asked.
"Buck knew that I almost never used my Facebook. I don't like social media. So one day he asked me if he could use it to get revenge on someone. I didn't like it, but he said some girl had made up a nickname for him, started to call him Mr. Pee Pee Pants."
"Wee Wee Pants," I corrected.
Ema shot me a look. I just shrugged back at her. The charge wasn't really true. Buck had been picking on us, and Ema had countered with some line about Buck being called Mr. Wee Wee Pants. It had been nothing, really.
"Whatever. Buck said the nickname was sticking. Other kids were calling him that now. He said my profile would be perfect to use because Ema already had a crush on a tall basketball player."
We sat there for a moment saying nothing. All three of us knew who Buck meant. No one bothered spelling out the obvious.
"See, Buck found out your mom was someone famous and so he went to that board and started communicating with you. I don't know what he really hoped would happen. That you'd say embarrassing things or maybe he'd just make you fall in love with him and then cruelly dump you. I really don't know what he intended."
"But you just said it," Ema said.
A tear formed in her eye. "He made me fall for him and then he cruelly dumped me."
Jared closed his eyes and let loose a long breath. "No, Ema, that's not what happened." He stood and started pacing. He rubbed his chin. "I don't know how much more to say."
"She's owed the truth," I said.
A sad smile came to Jared's face. "If only it was that simple."
"Just tell us."
He stopped pacing. "It worked the other way around, I guess."
"What do you mean?" Ema said.
"Buck fell for you."
Ema looked at me. I had nothing to add to that.
"He fell and he fell hard. You have to understand. You really didn't know Buck. I know, I know, but . . . It's confusing. Buck loved it up here. On this island, he could be himself. He was relaxed and happy and really the kindest, sweetest guy."
I tried to picture it, but the picture wouldn't hold. "That's not the guy we know."
"That's my point. Your town. Kasselton, right? Your town with all the popular kids and the sports and the pressure to succeed and get into the right colleges . . . it warped Buck. He couldn't handle it. He always had to be something he wasn't just to fit in."
I thought about that. I thought about the pressure in that town, the type-A pushy parents, the yelling on the sidelines, the grade grubbing--and then add in for Buck the pressure of the successful brother and maybe losing his starting job.
Jared moved closer to Ema. "But with you," he said, "Buck felt like he found himself. You were so real. You didn't care what the other kids thought of you. He so envied that. When he was online with you, once he got over his own stupidity, he started to open up. He could be himself, pretending to be, well, me."
There were tears in Ema's eyes now. There were tears in Jared's too.
"So what happened?" I asked.
"Buck was a mess. He felt trapped, like he was being pulled in all these different directions. He was scared."
"Of what?" Ema asked.
"Of everything. He wanted to tell you the truth, Ema. But he didn't know how you'd react. He didn't know if you'd hate him once you knew that he'd been lying to you this whole time or if you'd forgive him for the past. He thought you'd reject him once you knew."
I flashed back to my recent conversation with Ema about Troy. I had told her that people change. She was the one who didn't seem to believe it.
"But like I said," Jared continued, "he felt trapped. It may sound like nothing now, but what would his friends say? Wouldn't they all dump on him if he told them he'd fallen in love with you? I know that sounds silly, but these guys had been his whole life. He couldn't just turn his back on that either."
"So," Ema said, "he chickened out."
Jared said nothing.
"That's it, right?"
"The ferry is about to leave," Jared said. "I have to go."
"Where's Buck?" I asked.
"Does it matter?" Jared turned to Ema. "He doesn't want to see you. Isn't that enough? It's over."
The ferry whistle blew last call.
I stood up to block his way, but Ema shook her head. She was right. He had said his piece. I let him pass.
"You should both come with me," Jared said.
"Why?" I asked.
"You need to leave this island."
Ema shook her head. "No."
"Please," Jared said. "There's nothing left here for you but more heartache."
"That's okay." Ema stood up. "I'll just have to deal with more heartache."
Jared made it to the ferry just before it pulled out.
Ema and I stood side by side. "We need to find Buck," she said.
I frowned. "She seemed like a font of information."
But Ema had already started walking away. "Come on," she said. "We need to return the bikes before someone notices they're missing."
We pedaled back to the driveway where we had "borrowed" the bicycles. There was no movement. We put the bikes back where they'd been and started up the road toward Jared Lowell's house.
"Buck," I said.
"What are you thinking?" I asked her.
"What do you mean?"
"About it being Buck. About Buck falling for you."
She kept her eyes on the road. "On the one hand, I know that online is not real life. But on the other hand, maybe there is something more real about being online."
"Online, it's kind of like you're in a vacuum without outside pressures. Buck didn't have to worry about being in his brother's shadow. He didn't have to worry if Troy or his friends would mock him because he liked me."
"So what you're saying is, maybe you saw the real Buck?"
"And I fell hard for him."
I shook my head. "For Buck?"
"Weren't you the one w
"And weren't you the one who told me that they didn't?"
Ema increased her speed, moving ahead of me and ending the conversation. We were about fifty yards from Jared's street when Ema ducked behind a tree. She signaled for me to do the same. She was behind the only tree close by, so I joined her.
"What's going on?" I whispered.
She gestured toward the road. "See that woman with the shopping bag?"
I took a quick peek. There indeed was a woman carrying a brown grocery bag. "What about her?"
"That's Buck's mom. I saw her a few times at school concerts and stuff."
Buck's mom turned and disappeared down Jared Lowell's street. When she was out of sight, Ema hurried out from behind the tree. I stayed with her. We slowed when we reached the turn.
"She doesn't know me," I said. "I can keep following her."
But there was no need. Buck's mother broke to the left, took out her key, and opened the door to what I assumed was her house.
Right next door to Jared's.
"The sisters live next to each other," I said.
Ema nodded. "Makes sense."
"So now what?"
Ema started biting one of her black-polished fingernails. This island was starting to give me the creeps. Maybe in part it was the name, Adiona (duh, you think?), and all this talk about heartache and hurt, but for a second, I wanted us to listen to Jared Lowell and just get off this crazy island now. I didn't know where Buck was or what he was doing. I didn't care. I wanted to go home. I wanted to go home not just for me but, even more so, for Ema.
Jared had told us that she'd find heartache on this island. Bat Lady had warned us that the answer would hurt her. I didn't want anyone or anything to hurt Ema anymore. I didn't want anything to hurt Rachel or Spoon either, but the truth was, since I had entered their lives, they had all taken devastating hits. Rachel had been shot and lost her mother. Spoon had been shot and now lay paralyzed in a hospital bed.
If something happened to Ema . . .
"I'm going to knock on the door," Ema said.
"I'll go with you."
She turned and looked up at me. "Not this time, Mickey. Okay? Just trust me on this."
I didn't know what to say, so I just stood there. Ema walked to the door. She raised her fist, hesitated for a moment, and then knocked on the door. Time stood still. After what seemed like an eternity, the door opened. When Buck's mother saw who it was, her hand flew to her mouth as she choked back a cry.
Ema stepped forward. "My name is--"
"You're Ema," Buck's mother finished for her.
Ema looked confused. "Yes. But how did you--"
Buck's mother opened the door. "Please, come inside."
Time didn't stand still. It just passed by really, really slowly.
For the first ten minutes, I sat on the curb in front of the house. I got antsy. I stood and started walking just a little up the street, then a little down the street, hoping to catch a glimpse of something--anything--in the windows.
But there was nothing.
Another ten minutes passed. Then another. People walked by me. They eyed me with suspicion. It was clear to them I didn't belong here. This was a very small road on a very small island. Visitors didn't often loiter.
Ten more minutes passed.
What the heck was going on in there?
I stopped looking at the time and started looking at the sky. The sun shone down on my face. I closed my eyes and soaked it in. I stopped thinking about Ema and Buck. I stopped thinking about Troy's drug test. I even stopped thinking about my own Butcher of Lodz, the sandy-haired man named Luther.
I thought about my mom and dad.
You often hear that you only get one life and that life isn't a dress rehearsal. That was true, but it felt more direct to me. Simply put, this was it. What you're doing right now is life. This moment, every moment impacts and builds on the next. I could think about the days when my father was alive and my mother was sober. I could dream about going back in time to that moment and altering it, but that would never happen.
Time only goes forward.
My cell phone rang. I looked down and saw that it was Uncle Myron. I was about to hit ignore but I decided to answer it.
"Hey, Myron. I need to ask you something."
"Where are you?"
"It's not important," I said. "Why did Randy Schultz want your help?"
"I already told you. I can't talk about it."
"Did it have something to do with steroids?"
"Because I know Buck took steroids. And I know Randy dealt them. Did he get caught? Is that why he needed your help? Is that why you turned him down?"
"Where are you?"
"I'm right, aren't I?"
"I told you. I can't talk about it. Attorney-client privilege. Where are you, Mickey?"
The door to Buck's house finally swung open.
"I'll talk to you tonight," I said, and hit end before Myron could say anything more.
Have you ever seen one of those horror movies where someone goes into a house one way and then they come out another, like maybe they're a zombie now or their hair is gray or they're possessed? Like they walked through some portal and completely transformed into something else?
That was what I thought about as I looked at Ema.
She was still dressed the same. The black was still black. The tattoos were still the same. The silver jewelry gleamed just as it had gleamed before. But somehow everything about her seemed different. I know how crazy that sounds. Uncle Myron had told me that when my dad was about my age, he went inside Bat Lady's house and came out a different person. It almost felt like that, as if Ema had gone through the closet to Narnia and come back again. There was a knowing in her eyes, a maturity in her face.
She looked somehow more grown-up.
Or maybe, after all I had seen on this crazy island, I was big-time projecting.
She didn't so much walk toward me as float. She kept her head up high. Her eyes didn't meet mine like they always did. Instead she looked past me and just kept walking.
"Let's go," she said, and even her voice sounded more mature. "We can still catch the next ferry."
"Wait, what happened in there?"
She didn't reply. She just kept walking.
"It's over," she said.
"Come on. I want to be on that ferry."
"What do you mean, 'it's over'?"
She kept moving faster and faster as though she needed to put distance between herself and that house.
"Did you talk to Buck?"
She didn't stop. I put a hand on her arm. She shrugged it off. I jumped in front of her, blocking her path. I tried to make my voice as gentle as I could.
"What happened in there?"
"I can't tell you," she said.
"What do you mean, you can't tell me?"
She pushed past me and headed down the road. I caught up to her.
"You're kidding, right?"
"This has to be a joke," I said, which was dumb because I knew that she wasn't kidding and that this was the furthest thing from a joke.
"Remember when you couldn't tell me about who shot Rachel and her mother?"
"You're still mad about that? I told you. It wasn't my secret to tell."
She held up a hand. "You have it wrong."
"I'm not mad about it at all. I understand now. I'm using your example so you'll understand. I can't tell you. I made a promise."
I frowned. "To Buck?"
"It doesn't matter, Mickey. I can't tell you."
I jumped in front of her again. "This isn't the same thing. Buck isn't Rachel. I came all thi
Ema shook her head. "Sometimes you're better off not knowing."
"Really? You're going to pull that line on me?"
She walked away from me.
My hands formed fists and I shouted, "I didn't come here just for you."
"I came to find Buck for myself."
She nodded without slowing her pace. "To help Troy."
"To find the truth."
"You'll find it soon enough," she said.
"What does that mean?"
But Ema didn't speak again. Not on the road. Not on the ferry or the bus. Not even a good-bye when we went our separate ways back in Kasselton.
Spoon said, "Let it go."
Rachel and I were back in his room. I was filling them in on what had happened on Adiona Island.
"How can I let it go?"
"Ema is, like, totally awesome, right?"
"And you trust her one hundred percent, right?"
"So why stop trusting her now?" Spoon asked. "She said it's best if you don't know. So guess what? It's best that you don't know."
I looked at Rachel. She shrugged. I looked back at Spoon. He pushed his glasses up his nose and met my eye. Bat Lady had said that he was meant for great things. I started thinking back to the beginning of this, that first day when he introduced himself to me by asking if I wanted to use his spoon. It had been his idea how to get into that computer in the school office, his idea to get into Ashley's locker, his idea even how to get into school the night he was shot. It was Spoon who had told us to go to the Farnsworth School and to Adiona Island twice.
I had always thought that I was the leader of this group.
But maybe it was Spoon.
As though reading my mind, Spoon gave a small nod and said, "Give her time."
"So now what?" Rachel asked.
"Nothing," Spoon said. "Ema said it's over. It's over."
I shook my head. "I don't buy it."
"Neither do I," Spoon said. "But we can't force it. You want the egg to hatch on its own. You don't want to break it open. Do you see?"
Everyone in my life was talking like a fortune cookie all of a sudden.
"You break it open if you're hungry," I said.
"Stop playing with my metaphors. You got basketball practice, right? Go."
He was right.
"And," Rachel said, "I heard about your good news, so it should be a fun time."
I turned to her. "What good news?"
"You didn't hear?"
"They overturned Troy's positive drug test. He's back on the team."
Found by Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Young Adult / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes