The stranger, p.5
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       The Stranger, p.5

           Harlan Coben

  Adam bent down, picked them up, and put them back on the table. He stared down at the homework for a moment.

  Tread gently, Adam reminded himself. This wasn't just his and Corinne's dream at stake here.

  Chapter 6

  Thomas's game was just starting when Adam and Ryan arrived.

  With a quiet "Later, Dad," Ryan immediately peeled off to hang with fellow younger siblings and not risk being seen with a reallive parent. Adam headed to the left side of the field, the "away team" section, where the other Cedarfield parents would be.

  There were no metallic stands, but some parents brought folding chairs so as to have a place to sit. Corinne kept four mesh ones in her minivan, all with cup holders on both arms (did anyone really need two for one chair?) and a shade for above the head. Most of the time--like right now--she preferred to stand. Kristin Hoy was next to her, wearing a sleeveless top with shorts so tiny that they had Daddy issues.

  Adam nodded to a few parents as he strolled toward his wife. Tripp Evans stood in the corner with several other fathers, all with arms crossed and sunglasses, looking more like the Secret Service than spectators. To the right, a smirking Gaston hung with his cousin Daz (yes, everyone called him that), who owned CBW Inc., a high-end corporate investigation firm that specialized in employee background checks. Cousin Daz also ran less extensive background checks on every coach in the league to make sure that none had a criminal record or anything like that. Gaston had insisted the lacrosse board hire the high-priced CBW Inc. for this seemingly simple task, one that could be done far more cheaply online, because, hey, what are families for?

  Corinne spotted Adam approaching and moved a few feet away from Kristin. When Adam got close, she whispered in near panic, "Thomas isn't starting."

  "The coach is always rotating the lines," Adam said. "I wouldn't worry about it."

  But she would and she was. "Pete Baime started over him." Son of Gaston. That explained the smirk. "He's not even cleared from his concussion yet. How can he be back already?"

  "Do I look like his doctor, Corinne?"

  "Come on, Tony!" a woman shouted. "Make the clear!"

  Adam didn't have to be told that the woman shouting was Tony's mother. Had to be. When a parent calls out to her own child, you can always tell. There is that harsh ping of disappointment and exasperation in their voice. No parent believes they sound this way. Every parent does. We all hear it. We all think that only other parents do it but that magically we are immune.

  An old Croatian proverb Adam had learned in college applied here: "The hunchback sees the hump of others--never his own."

  Three minutes passed. Thomas still hadn't gotten in. Adam sneaked a glance at Corinne. Her jaw was set. She was staring at the far sideline, at the coach, as though willing him through the power of her glare to put Thomas into the game.

  "It'll be okay," Adam said.

  "He's always in the game by now. What do you think happened?"

  "I don't know."

  "Pete shouldn't be playing."

  Adam didn't bother responding. Pete caught the ball and threw it to a teammate in the most routine play imaginable. From across the field, Gaston shouted, "Wow, helluva play, Pete!" and high-fived cousin Daz.

  "What kind of grown man calls himself Daz?" Adam muttered.



  Corinne gnawed on her lower lip. "We were a minute or two late, I guess. I mean, we were here fifty-five minutes before game time, but the coach said an hour."

  "I doubt it's that."

  "I should have left the house sooner."

  Adam felt like saying that they had bigger problems, but maybe for now, this distraction would be helpful. The other team scored. The parents moaned and dissected what their defensemen had done wrong to cause the goal.

  Thomas ran onto the field.

  Adam could feel the relief coming off his wife in waves. Corinne's face went smooth. She smiled at him and said, "How was work?"

  "Now you want to know?"

  "Sorry. You know how I get."

  "I do."

  "It's kinda why you love me."


  "That," she said, "and my ass."

  "Now you're talking."

  "I still have a great ass, don't I?"

  "World class, prime Grade A, one hundred percent top sirloin with no fillers."

  "Well," she said with that sly smile she broke out far too little. "Maybe one filler."

  God, he loved the too-rare moments when she let go and was even a little naughty. For a split second, he forgot about the stranger. A split second, no more. Why now? he wondered. She made remarks like that twice, thrice a year. Why now?

  He glanced back toward her. Corinne wore the diamond studs he'd bought her at that place on Forty-Seventh Street. Adam had given them to her on their fifteenth anniversary at the Bamboo House Chinese restaurant. His original idea had been to stick them in a fortune cookie somehow--Corinne loved opening, though not eating, fortune cookies--but that idea never really panned out. In the end, the waiter simply delivered them to her on one of those plates with a steel covering. Corny, cliche, unoriginal, and Corinne loved it. She cried and threw her arms around him and squeezed him so hard that he wondered whether any man in the world had ever been hugged like that.

  Now she only took them off at night and to swim because she worried the chlorine might eat away at the setting. Her other earrings sat untouched in that small jewelry box in her closet, as if wearing them in lieu of the diamond studs would be some kind of betrayal. They meant something to her. They meant commitment and love and honor and, really, was that the kind of woman who would fake a pregnancy?

  Corinne had her eyes on the field. The ball was down at the offensive end, where Thomas played. He could feel her stiffen whenever the ball came anywhere near their son.

  Then Thomas made a beautiful play, knocking the ball out of a defender's stick, picking it up, and heading for the goal.

  We pretend otherwise, but we watch only our own child. When Adam was a newer father, he found this parental focus somewhat poignant. You would go to a game or a concert or whatever and, sure, you'd look at everyone and everything, but you'd really only see your own child. Everyone and everything else would become background noise, scenery. You'd stare at your own child and it would be like there were a spotlight on your kid, only your kid, and the rest of the stage or field or court was darkening and you'd feel that warmth, the same one Adam had felt in his chest when his son smiled at him, and even in an environment loaded up with other parents and other kids, Adam would realize that every parent felt the exact same way, that every parent had their own spotlight directed at their own kid and that that was somehow comforting and how it should be.

  Now the child-centricity didn't feel quite as uplifting. Now it felt as though that concentrated focus wasn't so much love as obsession, that the single-lens single-mindedness was unhealthy and unrealistic and even damaging.

  Thomas ran down on the fast break and dumped a pass off to Paul Williams. Terry Zobel was open to score, but before he could shoot, the referee blew the whistle and threw the yellow flag. Freddie Friednash, a middie on Thomas's team, was sent off for a one-minute slashing penalty. The fathers in the corner had a group conniption: "Are you kidding me, ref?" "Bad call!" "You gotta be blind!" "That's BS!" "Call them both ways, ref!"

  The coaches caught on and started in too. Even Freddie, who had been jogging off at a brisk pace, slowed and shook his head at the referee. More parents joined the chorus of complaints--the herd mentality in action.

  "Did you see the slash?" Corinne asked.

  "I wasn't looking over there."

  Becky Evans, Tripp's wife, came over and said, "Hi, Adam. Hi, Corinne."

  Because of the penalty, the ball was in the defensive zone now, far away from Thomas, so they both glanced toward her, returning the smile. Becky Evans, mother of five, was almost supernaturally cheerful, always with a smile and a kind word. A
dam was usually suspicious of the type. He liked to watch these happy moms for the unguarded moment, when the smile would falter or grow wooden, and for the most part, he always found it. But not with Becky. You constantly saw her cruising the kids around in her Dodge Durango, the smile alit, the backseats loaded up with kids and gear, and while these mundane tasks eventually wore down most in her maternal order, Becky Evans seemed to feed off it, to gain strength even.

  Corinne said, "Hi, Becky."

  "Great weather for a game, isn't it?"

  "Sure is," Adam said, because that was what you said.

  The whistle blew again--another slashing call on the away team. The fathers went nuts anew, even swearing. Adam frowned at their behavior but stayed silent. Did that make him part of the problem? He was surprised to see that the jeers were being led by the bespectacled Cal Gottesman. Cal, whose son Eric was a quickly improving defenseman, worked as an insurance salesman in Parsippany. Adam had always found him to be mild-mannered and well-meaning, if not somewhat didactic and dull, but Adam had also noticed of late that Cal Gottesman's behavior had grown increasingly odd in direct proportion to his son's improvement. Eric had grown six inches in the last year and was now a starting defender. Colleges were buzzing around him, and now Cal, who had been so reserved on the sidelines, could often be seen pacing and talking to himself.

  Becky leaned in closer. "Did you hear about Richard Fee?"

  Richard Fee was the team goalie.

  "He's committed to Boston College."

  "But he's only a freshman," Corinne said.

  "I know, right? I mean, are they going to start drafting them out of the womb?"

  "It's ridiculous," Corinne agreed. "How do they know what kind of student he's going to be? He just got into high school."

  Becky and Corinne continued, but Adam was already tuning them out. They didn't seem to care, so Adam dutifully took this as his cue to leave the ladies and maybe stand by himself for a bit. He gave Becky a quick cheek peck and started on his way. Becky and Corinne had known each other since childhood. They had both been born in Cedarfield. Becky had never left the town.

  Corinne had not been so lucky.

  Adam moved toward a spot halfway between the moms and the dads in the corner, hoping to carve out a little space for himself. He glanced over at the group of fathers. Tripp Evans met his eye and nodded as though he understood. Tripp probably didn't want the crowd either, but he was the guy who drew it. Local celebrity, Adam thought. Deal with it.

  When the horn blew, ending the first quarter, Adam looked back toward his wife. She was chatting away with Becky, both women animated. He just stared for a moment, lost and scared. He knew Corinne so well. He knew everything about her. And paradoxically, because he knew her so well, he knew that what the stranger had told him had the echo of truth.

  What will we do to protect our family?

  The horn sounded, and the players took the field. Every parent now checked to see whether his or her kid was still in the game. Thomas was. Becky continued to talk. Corinne quieted now, nodding along, but she kept her focus on Thomas. Corinne was good with focus. Adam had originally loved that quality in his wife. Corinne knew what she wanted from life, and she could laser in on the goals that would help achieve it. When they met, Adam had fuzzy future plans at best--something about working with the underserved and downtrodden--but he had no specifics about where he wanted to live or what kind of life he wanted to lead or how to form that life or that nuclear family. It was all vast and vague to him--and here, in stark contrast, was this spectacular, beautiful, intelligent woman who knew exactly what they both should do.

  There was a freedom in that surrender.

  It was then, thinking about the decisions (or lack thereof) he had made to get him to this point in life, when Thomas got the ball behind the goal, faked a pass down the middle, drove to the right, cranked back his stick, and shot a beauty low and in the corner.


  The fathers and mothers cheered. Thomas's teammates came over and congratulated him, slapping him good-naturedly on the helmet. His son stayed calm, following that old adage "Act like you've been there." But even at this distance, even through his son's face mask, even behind the mouth guard, Adam knew that Thomas, his oldest child, was smiling, that he was happy, that it was Adam's job as a father, first and foremost, to keep that boy and his brother smiling and happy and safe.

  What would he do to keep his boys happy and safe?


  But it wasn't all about what you'd do or sacrifice, was it? Life was also about luck, about randomness, about chaos. So he could and would do whatever was possible to protect his children. But he somehow knew--knew with absolute certainty--that it wouldn't be enough, that luck, randomness, and chaos had other plans, that the happiness and safety were going to dissolve in the still springtime air.

  Chapter 7

  Thomas ended up scoring his second goal--the game winner!--with fewer than twenty seconds on the clock.

  This was the hypocrisy in Adam's cynicism about the overly intense sports world: Despite everything, when Thomas scored that final goal, Adam leapt in the air, pumped his fist, and shouted, "Yes!" Like it or not, he felt a rush of pure, undiluted joy. His better angels would say that it had nothing to do with Adam himself, that the joy emanated from the knowledge that his son was feeling even greater joy, and that it was natural and healthy for a parent to feel that way for his own child. Adam reminded himself that he was not one of those parents who lived through his kids or looked at lacrosse as a ticket to a better college. He enjoyed the sport for one simple reason: His sons loved playing.

  But parents all tell themselves a lot of things. The Croatian hunchback, right?

  When the game ended, Corinne took Ryan home in her car. She was going to get dinner ready. Adam waited for Thomas in the Cedarfield High School parking lot. It would, of course, have been much easier to simply take him home right after the game, but there were rules about the kids taking the team bus for insurance purposes. So Adam, along with a bunch of other parents, followed the bus back to Cedarfield and waited for their sons to disembark. He got out of his car and made his way toward the school's back entrance.

  "Hey, Adam."

  Cal Gottesman walked toward him. Adam said hey back. The two fathers shook hands.

  "Great win," Cal said.

  "Yes indeed."

  "Thomas played a hell of a game."

  "So did Eric."

  Cal's glasses never seemed to fit right. They kept slipping down his nose, forcing him to push them back up with his index finger, only to have them immediately start their nasal descent again. "You, uh, you seemed distracted."


  "At the game," Cal said. He had one of those voices where everything sounded like a whine. "You seemed, I don't know, bothered."

  "Did I?"

  "Yes." He pushed the glasses up his nose. "I also couldn't help but notice your look of, shall we say, disgust."

  "I'm not sure what--"

  "When I was correcting the referees."

  Correcting, Adam thought. But he didn't want to get into that. "I didn't even notice."

  "You should have. The ref was going to call a cross-check on Thomas when he got the ball at X."

  Adam made a face. "I'm not following."

  "I ride the refs," Cal said in a conspiratorial tone, "with purpose. You should appreciate that. It benefited your son tonight."

  "Right," Adam said. Then, because who the hell was this guy to approach him like this, he added, "And why do we sign that sportsmanship waiver at the beginning of the season?"

  "Which one?"

  "The one where we promise not to verbally abuse any players, coaches, or referees," Adam said. "That one."

  "You're being naive," Cal said. "Do you know who Moskowitz is?"

  "Does he live on Spenser Place? Trades bonds?"

  "No, no," Cal replied with an impatient snap. "Professor Tobias Moskowitz at the Univers
ity of Chicago."

  "Uh, no."

  "Fifty-seven percent."


  "Studies show that fifty-seven percent of the time the home team wins a sporting event--what we call a home-field advantage."


  "So the home-field advantage is real. It exists. It exists across all sports, during all time periods, in all geographies. Professor Moskowitz noted that it is remarkably consistent."

  Adam said, "So?" again.

  "Now, you've probably heard many of the normal reasons given to explain this advantage. Travel fatigue--the away team has to go on a bus or a plane or what have you. Or maybe you've heard that it's familiarity with the playing field. Or that some teams are used to cold weather or warm weather--"

  "We live in neighboring towns," Adam said.

  "Right, exactly, which just strengthens my point."

  Boy, was Adam not in the mood. Where the heck was Thomas?

  "So," Cal continued, "what do you think Moskowitz found?"

  "Excuse me?"

  "What do you think explains home-field advantage, Adam?"

  "I don't know," Adam said. "Crowd support maybe."

  Cal Gottesman clearly liked that answer. "Yes. And no."

  Adam tried not to sigh.

  "Professor Moskowitz and others like him have run studies on home-field advantage. They aren't saying things like travel fatigue aren't a factor, but there is pretty much no data supporting those theories--just some anecdotal evidence. No, the fact is, only one reason for the home-field advantage is supported by hard, cold data." He held up his index finger in case Adam didn't know what one meant. Then, just in case he was being too subtle, he said, "Just one."

  "And that is?"

  Cal lowered the finger into a fist. "Referee bias. That's it. The home team gets more of the calls."

  "So you're saying the refs are throwing the game?"

  "No, no. See, that's the key to the study. It isn't as though the referees are purposely favoring the home team. The bias is completely unintentional. It's not conscious. It's all related to social conformity." Cal's scientist hat was strapped down tightly now. "In short, we all want to be liked. The refs, like all humans, are all social creatures and assimilate the emotions of the crowd. Every once in a while, a referee will subconsciously make a call that will make the crowd happier. Ever watch a basketball game? All coaches work the refs because they understand human nature better than anyone. Do you see?"

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