The stranger, p.4
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       The Stranger, p.4

           Harlan Coben

  Adam headed back to his room and sat on the bed. Corinne's scent, still a powerful pheromone after all these years, lingered, or maybe that was just his imagination working overtime.

  The stranger's voice came back to him.

  "You didn't have to stay with her."

  Adam laid his head on the pillow, blinked up at the ceiling, and just let the gentle sounds of his still home overwhelm him.

  Chapter 5

  Adam woke up at 7:00 A.M. Ryan was waiting by the bedroom door. "Dad . . . ?"


  "Can you check the e-mail and see if Coach Baime sent out the results yet?"

  "Already done. You made the A team."

  Ryan didn't outwardly celebrate. That wasn't his way. He nodded and tried to hold back his smile. "Can I go to Max's after school?"

  "What are you guys going to do on such a beautiful day?"

  "Sit in the dark and play video games," Ryan said.

  Adam frowned, but he knew that Ryan was pulling his leg.

  "Jack and Colin are coming over too. We're going to play lacrosse."

  "Sure." Adam swung his legs out of the bed. "Did you eat breakfast?"

  "Not yet."

  "You want me to make you Daddy eggs?"

  "Only if you promise not to call them Daddy eggs."

  Adam smiled. "Deal."

  For a moment, Adam forgot about the night before and the stranger and Novelty Funsy and It had, as such things do, taken on a dreamlike quality, where you nearly question whether you had imagined the whole thing. He knew better, of course. He was blocking. He had, in fact, managed to sleep pretty well last night. If there had been dreams, Adam didn't remember them now. Adam slept well most nights. Corinne was the one who stayed up and worried. Somewhere along the way, Adam had learned to not worry about what he couldn't control, to let go. This had been a healthy thing, this ability to compartmentalize. Now he wondered whether it was an ability to let go or simply to block.

  He headed downstairs and made breakfast. "Daddy eggs" were scrambled up with milk, mustard, and Parmesan cheese. When Ryan was six, he loved Daddy eggs, but like most things with little kids, he outgrew them, labeling them "lame" one day and vowing never to touch them again. Recently, his new coach had told Ryan that he should always start the day with a high-protein breakfast, and so Daddy eggs had been revived like a nostalgic musical.

  As Adam watched his son attack the plate as though it had offended him, he again tried to picture the six-year-old Ryan eating this same dish in this same room. The image wouldn't come to him.

  Thomas had a ride, so Ryan and Adam drove to school in comfortable silence, father and son. They passed a Baby Gap and a Tiger Schulmann's karate school. A Subway had opened up in that "dead" spot on the corner, that one storefront in every town where nothing seems to work. It'd already housed a bagel shop, a jewelry store, an upscale mattress chain, and a Blimpie, which Adam had always thought was the same thing as Subway anyway.

  "'Bye, Dad. Thanks."

  Ryan hopped out of the car without a cheek kiss. When did Ryan stop kissing him? He couldn't remember.

  He circled across Oak Street, headed past the 7-Eleven, and saw the Walgreens. He sighed. He parked in the lot and sat in the car for several minutes. An old man hobbled by, his prescription bag death-gripped between his gnarly hand and the top of his walker. He glared at Adam, or maybe that was just the way he looked at the world now.

  Adam headed inside. He grabbed a small shopping basket. They needed toothpaste and antibacterial soap, but that was all for show. He flashed back to his youth when he'd throw a bunch of toiletries into a similar container so it wouldn't look as though he was just buying condoms, which would remain unused in his wallet until they started cracking from age.

  The DNA tests were located near the pharmacist. Adam walked over, doing his best to look casual. He looked left. He looked right. He picked up the box and read the back: THIRTY PERCENT OF "FATHERS" WHO TAKE THIS TEST WILL DISCOVER THAT THE CHILD THEY ARE RAISING IS NOT THEIRS.

  He dropped the box onto the shelf. He hurried away as though the box might beckon him back. No. He would not go there. Not today, anyway.

  He brought the other toiletries up to the counter, grabbed a pack of gum, and paid. He hit Route 17, passed a few more mattress chains (what was it with northern New Jersey and all the mattress stores?), and pulled into the gym. He changed and worked out with weights. Throughout his adult life, Adam had cycled through a potpourri of workout programs--yoga (not flexible), Pilates (confused), boot camp (why not just join the military?), Zumba (don't ask), aquatics (near drown), spin (sore butt)--but in the end, he always returned to simple weights. Some days he loved the strain on his muscles and couldn't imagine not doing it. Other days he dreaded every moment, and the only thing he wanted to lift was the postworkout peanut butter protein shake to his lips.

  He went through the motions, trying to remember to contract the muscle and hold at the end. This was, he'd learned, the key to results. Don't just curl. Curl up, hold it a second while squeezing the bicep, curl down. He showered, changed into his work clothes, and headed into his office on Midland Avenue in Paramus. The office building was four floors and sleek glass and the architecture stood out only in the sense that it was stereotypically an office building, indistinguishable from every other. You would never mistake it for anything else.

  "Yo, Adam, got a second?"

  It was Andy Gribbel, Adam's best paralegal. When he first started here, everyone called him the Dude because of his scruffy looks similar to the Jeff Bridges character. He was older than most paralegals--older, in fact, than Adam--and could easily have gone to law school and passed the bar, but as Gribbel once put it, "That ain't my bag, man."

  Yes, he had said it just like that.

  "What's up?" Adam asked.

  "Old Man Rinsky."

  Adam's legal expertise was in the field of eminent domain, which involved the government trying to take away your land to build a highway or school or something like that. In this case, the township of Kasselton was trying to take away Rinsky's house for the purpose of gentrification. In short, that area of town was politely labeled "undesirable" or, in layman's terms, "a dump," and the powers that be had found a developer who wanted to level all the houses and build shiny new homes, stores, and restaurants.

  "What about him?"

  "We're seeing him at his place."

  "Okay, good."

  "Should I bring the, uh, big guns?"

  Part of Adam's nuclear option. "Not yet," Adam said. "Anything else?"

  Gribbel leaned back. He threw his work boots up on the desk. "I got a gig tonight. You coming?"

  Adam shook his head. Andy Gribbel played in a seventies cover band that played in some of the most prestigious dives in northern New Jersey. "Can't."

  "No Eagles songs, I promise."

  "You never play the Eagles."

  "I ain't a fan," Gribbel said. "But we are debuting 'Please Come to Boston.' You remember that song?"


  "What do you think of it?"

  "I ain't a fan," Adam said.

  "Really? It's a heartbreaker, man. You love the heartbreakers."

  "It isn't a heartbreaker," Adam said.

  Gribbel sang: "Hey, ramblin' boy, why don't you settle down?"

  "Probably because his girlfriend is annoying," Adam said. "The guy keeps asking her to go with him to a new city. She keeps saying no over and over and starts whining about him staying in Tennessee."

  "That's because she's the number one fan of the man from Tennessee."

  "Maybe he doesn't need a fan. Maybe he needs a life partner and a lover."

  Gribbel stroked his beard. "I see your point."

  "And all he says is 'Please come to Boston for the springtime.' The springtime. It's not like he's asking her to leave Tennessee forever. What's her response? 'She said no, boy.' What kind of attitude is that? No discussion, no hearing him out--just no. So then h
e gently suggests Denver or even L.A. Same response. No, no, no. I mean, spread your wings, sister. Live a little."

  Gribbel smiled. "You're nuts, man."

  "And," Adam continued, feeling the rant rising up, "then she claims that in these massive cities--Boston, Denver, Los Angeles--that there ain't nobody like her. Full of yourself much?"



  "You may be overthinking it, my brother."

  Adam nodded. "True."

  "You overthink a lot of stuff, Adam."

  "That I do."

  "It's why you're the best attorney I know."

  "Thanks," Adam said. "And no, you can't leave work early for your gig."

  "Aw, come on. Don't be that guy."




  "The guy in that song. The rambling boy who asks her to come to Boston?"

  "What about him?"

  "You got to be fair to the girl."

  "How so?"

  "He tells his girl that she could sell her paintings on the sidewalk, outside the cafe where he hopes to be working soon." Gribbel spread his hands. "I mean, what kind of financial planning is that?"

  "Touche," Adam said with a small smile. "Sounds like maybe they should just break up."

  "Nah. They got a good thing. You can hear it in his voice."

  Adam shrugged and headed into his office. The rant had been a welcome distraction. Now he was back in his own head again. Bad place to be. He made some calls, had two client meetings, checked in with the paralegals, made sure the right briefs had been followed. The world moves on, which is an outrage. Adam had learned that when he was fourteen years old and his father died of a sudden heart attack. He had sat in the big black car next to his mom and stared out the window and watched everyone else in the world living their lives. Kids still went to school. Parents still went to work. Cars honked their horns. The sun still shone. His dad was gone. And nothing changed.

  Today he was being reminded yet again of the obvious: The world doesn't give even the slightest damn about us or our petty problems. We never quite get that, do we? Our lives have been shattered--shouldn't the rest of us take notice? But no. To the outside world, Adam looked the same, acted the same, felt the same. We get mad at someone for cutting us off in traffic or for taking too long to order at Starbucks or for not responding exactly as we see fit, and we have no idea that behind their facade, they may be dealing with some industrial-strength shit. Their lives may be in pieces. They may be in the midst of incalculable tragedy and turmoil, and they may be hanging on to their sanity by a thread.

  But we don't care. We don't see. We just keep pushing.

  He flipped radio stations on the way home, finally settling on mindless arguments on sports radio. The world was divisive and always fighting, so it was nice when people fought over something as meaningless as professional basketball.

  When he reached his street, Adam was a little surprised to see Corinne's Honda Odyssey in the driveway. The car dealer had called the color Dark Cherry Pearl with a straight face. On the back cargo door, there was an oval magnetic decal with the name of their town written in black, a seemingly perquisite automotive tribal tattoo in suburbia nowadays. There was also a round sticker with crossed lacrosse sticks that read PANTHER LACROSSE, the town's mascot, and one with a giant green W for Willard Middle School, Ryan's.

  Corinne had gotten home from Atlantic City earlier than expected.

  That threw off his timing a bit. He had rehearsed the upcoming confrontation in his head nonstop all day. It had been on a loop for hours now. He had tested out several approaches, but none had felt exactly right. He knew that there was no point in planning. Talking about what the stranger had told him--confronting her with what he now believed was the truth--would be pulling the proverbial pin from the proverbial grenade. You had no idea how anyone would react.

  Would she deny it?

  Maybe. There was still the possibility that there was an innocent explanation for all this. Adam was trying to remain open-minded, though it felt more like false hope than anything in the "don't prejudge" camp. He parked next to her car in the driveway. They had a two-car garage, but there was old furniture and sports equipment and other trappings of consumption that had taken precedence. So he and Corinne parked in the driveway instead.

  Adam got out of the car and started up the walk. The grass had a few too many brown spots. Corinne would notice and complain about that. She had trouble simply enjoying and letting be. She liked to correct and make right. Adam considered himself more live-and-let-live, but others might confuse the attitude with laziness. The Bauer family, who lived next door, had a front yard that looked ready to host a PGA event. Corinne couldn't help but compare. Adam didn't give a rat's ass.

  The front door opened. Thomas came out with his lacrosse bag over his shoulder. He was wearing his "away" uniform. He smiled at his father, his mouthpiece dangling out of his mouth. A familiar warmth rushed through Adam's chest.

  "Hey, Dad."

  "Hey, what's up?"

  "I got a game, remember?"

  Understandably enough, Adam had indeed forgotten, though this explained why Corinne had made it a point to be home early. "Right. Who are you playing?"

  "Glen Rock. Mom is going to drive me over. You coming later?"

  "Of course."

  When Corinne appeared at the door, Adam felt his heart fall into his shoes. She was still a beautiful woman. If Adam had trouble visualizing his two sons at younger ages, something close to the opposite was happening with Corinne. He still saw her only as the twenty-three-year-old stunner he fell in love with. Sure, if he looked hard enough, there were the lines around her eyes and some softening with age, but maybe it was love or maybe it was because he saw her every day and so the changes were too gradual, but she never looked any older to him.

  Corinne's hair was still wet from a recent shower. "Hey, hon."

  He just stood there. "Hey."

  She leaned in and kissed his cheek. Her hair smelled wonderfully of lilacs. "Will you be able to get Ryan?"

  "Where is he?"

  "A playdate at Max's."

  Thomas winced. "Don't call it that, Mom."


  "A playdate. He's in middle school. You have a playdate when you're six."

  Corinne sighed but with a smile. "Fine, whatever, he's having a mature gathering at Max's." Her eyes met Adam's. "Could you get him before you come to the game?"

  Adam knew that he was nodding, but he didn't remember consciously telling himself to do so. "Sure. We'll meet you at the game. How was Atlantic City?"


  "Uh, guys?" Thomas interrupted. "Can you chitchat later? Coach gets pissed if we aren't there at least an hour before game time."

  "Right," Adam said. Then, turning back to Corinne, he tried to keep it light. "We can, uh, chitchat later."

  But Corinne hesitated for half a second--long enough. "Okay, no problem."

  He stood on the stoop and watched them walk down the path. Corinne hit the minivan's remote, and the back yawned open like a giant mouth. Thomas tossed his bag into the back and took the front passenger seat. The mouth closed, swallowing the equipment whole. Corinne gave him a wave. He waved back.

  He and Corinne had met in Atlanta during their five-week precorp training for LitWorld, a charitable enterprise that sent teachers to needy parts of the world to teach reading. This was before the days when every kid took a trip to Zambia to build a hut so they could put it on their college applications. For one thing, all of the volunteers had already graduated college. The trainees were sincere, maybe too sincere, but their hearts were in the right place.

  He and Corinne didn't meet on the Emory University campus where the training took place but in a bar nearby, where students over twenty-one could drink and hit on one another in peace over bad country music. She had been with a group of her female friends, he with a group of males. Adam had been looking for a one-ni
ghter. Corinne had been looking for something more. The two groups met slowly, the guys coming over to the girls like some cliched dance scene in a bad movie. Adam asked Corinne if he could buy her a drink. She said sure but that wasn't going to get him anywhere. He bought her the drink anyway with the awesomely clever line that the night was young.

  The drinks came. They started talking. It went well. Somewhere late into the night, not long before closing time, Corinne told him that she had lost her father at a young age, and then Adam, who had never talked about it with anyone, told her the story of his father's death and how the world hadn't cared.

  They bonded over their paternal tragedies. And so it began.

  When they were first married, they lived in a quiet condo off Interstate 78. He was still trying to help people as a public defender. She was teaching in the roughest neighborhoods of Newark, New Jersey. When Thomas was born, it was time to move into a proper house. That, it seemed, was just the way it went. Adam hadn't cared much where they lived. He didn't care if the house they chose was contemporary or something more classic like this one. He wanted Corinne happy, not so much because he was a great guy but because it didn't matter to him much. So Corinne had picked this town for obvious reasons.

  Maybe he should have stopped it then, but as a young man, he hadn't seen the point. He had let her pick this specific house too, because it was what she wanted. The town. The house. The garage. The cars. The boys.

  And what had Adam wanted?

  He didn't know, but this house--this neighborhood--had been a financial stretch. Adam ended up leaving his job as a public defender for the far higher pay at the Bachmann Simpson Feagles law firm. It hadn't been what he wanted so much as the smooth, well-paved path that men like him simply ended up taking: a safe place to raise his children, a lovely home with four bedrooms, a two-car garage, a basketball hoop in the driveway, a gas grill on the wooden deck overlooking the backyard.

  Nice, right?

  Tripp Evans had wistfully called it "living the dream." The American dream. Corinne would have concurred.

  "You didn't have to stay with her. . . ."

  But of course, that wasn't true. The dream is made of delicate yet invaluable stuff. You don't casually destroy it. How ungrateful, selfish, and warped to not realize how lucky you are.

  He opened the door and headed into the kitchen. The kitchen table was a mess, done up in Early American Homework. Thomas's algebra textbook was open to a problem that asked him to complete the square in the quadratic function f given by f(x) = 2x2 - 6x = 4. A number two pencil lay snuggled in the book's crevice. Sheets of white-with-light-blue-squares graph paper were strewn everywhere. Some of the sheets had fallen to the floor.

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