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Prologue

Their names were Alexander and Lillian Budd, but no one ever called them by their names. They weren’t “Alexander and Lillian,” they were simply “the twins.”

The two had their own individual faults and imperfections, but together they were a single, almost indestructible, unit. A shortcoming in one was compensated by an exceptional talent in the other. Certain children excel from a young age at complicated mathematics or classical violin or competitive eating, but the Budd twins were prodigies with an inherent ability for life itself.

As they grew up, it was clear that when the two of them were together—which was almost always—nothing could stand in their way, nothing would be too difficult or devious, nothing couldn’t be conquered by the simple force of their indomitable will. Not even high school.

Beaumonde Academy is the most elite private high school in New Orleans: it was probably founded more than a hundred years ago, and it surely has a minuscule teacher-student ratio, and those teachers are probably wise and attentive and better paid than most university professors, and Beaumonde students almost certainly go on to become well-rounded success stories who thank their beloved Latin teachers when they win Nobel Prizes and National Book Awards and Daytime Emmys.

But none of this mattered to the twins. To them, Beaumonde Academy was simply another challenge to conquer, another ingenious puzzle to solve.

In their first semester at Beaumonde, if the twins were known at all, they were known only as “that overdressed snob with the hot-ass sister.” By the end of the year, however, the two of them commanded the underclassmen; soon, being overdressed and snobby was not only okay, it something that all the boys wanted to be and all the girls wanted to be with.

The Budds knew that you didn’t win by playing the game…you won by controlling the game itself.

Alexander Budd had a seductive charm, a quick wit, and a stunning wardrobe. Before long, he was the pride of the school, the pinnacle of the student body, and the absolute beating heart of Beaumonde Academy. He knew everyone, he was aware of anything that happened within the school and was often the catalyst behind most of it. He had no official title at the school, he participated in no extracurricular activities, but he was responsible for almost everything that transpired there. He made introductions, he granted favors, he played matchmaker.

His stunning sister Lillian was quiet and fierce and intelligent and chaste and looked like a particularly fine specimen of a long-thought-extinct race of ancient beings. Because she looked so different from anyone else at the school—and, it was suspected, anyone else in the entire world—she almost never caused the sort of resentment and jealousy that other women have towards the gorgeous in commercials for low-fat yogurt and diet soda. Alexander could charm hundreds for an afternoon; Lillian could inspire life-long loyalty, one person at a time.

The twins were, to use the vulgar and simplistic term, “the most popular kids in school,” but mere popularity was never their aim. It wasn’t enough for them to run Beaumonde Academy…they had to recreate it from the ground up. They had to make it Proper.

At the beginning of sophomore year, Alexander described for his classmates a nightmare in which every teenager bought identical outfits at the same three or four stores at the mall. The clothes were poorly made with low-quality material; they were ill-fitting because an XL of twenty years was now labeled an M. The uniform of the American Teenager was jeans that didn’t fit, paired with a cheap cotton T-shirt adorned with the logo of the store where they’d bought it on clearance.

There was a time, he said, when the young, educated, and reasonably attractive actually dressed and acted as though they were these things. But no more…today the gravest sin was to stand out from the crowd. Now, in the Age Of Comfort, equality had been achieved at last, not by lifting up but by stooping down: sweatpants and baseball caps for all, and let anyone who refuse them be labeled arrogant, pretentious, elite.

Adults were no longer interested in looking like adults, Alexander told them. When you’re forty and you dress like a toddler, you begin to act like a toddler. And so the social fabric was beginning to unravel..etiquette was forgotten, email replaced stationery, grown men bragged about how long it had been since they’d worn their one suit.

But there was hope. In an world where every day a tailor went out of business, where every wannabe rebel wore the same t-shirt bought at the same store, where advertisers insisted you could only be a true original by buying their mass-market products…in a world like this, to dress and act like adults from a forgotten age was actually a victory of subversive non-conformity.

If a small and dedicated group of teenagers became passionate about how they looked, how they dressed, and how they acted, then they would begin to change their school and, eventually, the world. This was the only rebellion left in this ruined age, and—if done right—it would be revolutionary.

Style is substance.

• • •

The Beaumonde Academy prom was the crowning event of the Budds’ junior year. Traditionally held the night before graduation, the Beaumonde prom is actually more of a formal dinner with an hour or so of stiff dancing tacked on at the end. That year, however, the students attempted the waltz, the tango, and the foxtrot to varying degrees of success and dignity. The chief attraction of the dance floor, though, wasn’t the dancing but the chance to show off their Budd-approved evening attire and the air of effortless sophistication with which (they hoped) they were wearing it.

Three years into the Budds’ reign at the school, Beaumonde Academy had been transformed. The students had thoroughly embraced Alexander’s vision and had slowly reinvented themselves. Soon the halls of the school were filled with boys in neckties and fitted trousers talking to girls wearing tailored dresses and simple unadorned jewelry. There were pen knives and monogrammed handkerchiefs, perfumed letters and cigarette cases.

The students, though, knew what the twins had established wasn’t even about the clothes. It was about discovering a way to live with grace and poise, about always knowing what to say and do without agonizing over it like other teenagers. It was about believing in and being a part of something that was larger than yourself, and the feeling of satisfaction that comes from doing a small part to make it happen.

After the jazz combo brought the last dance of the prom to an end, the boys bowed to their partners and escorted them back to their seats. It was time for the final and most important event of the evening, the presentation of the McMillan Award. This award, the highest honor at the school, supposedly went to the grade that best exemplified the spirit of Beaumonde Academy, but it was only technically a contest: the winners were allegedly determined by a mysterious and arcane set of guidelines, but the fact is it just went to the graduating seniors every year.

Well, almost every year. That year, for only the fourth (or was it the fifth?) time in their school’s history, the junior class upset the seniors to win the McMillan. It really shouldn’t have shocked anyone, considering what an impact the Budds, their Gang, and the rest of the class had made on the Academy, but at the time it seemed unfathomable. The McMillan Award is completely meaningless, and therefore obsessed over by the students, teachers, and alumni of Beaumonde Academy. This made the juniors’ win a Very Big Deal, as it hadn’t been won by a class other than the seniors in over ten years.

This was the night that everything would change. As the juniors celebrated their win—tastefully and Proper, of course—they knew this was the turning point. Junior year was over…just ahead would be the triumph of senior year.

And after senior year the real work would begin. After graduation, Beaumonde students would spread out across the country, doing for their colleges and universities what the twins had done for their high school. Soon, what had begun as a rebellion would become a revolution, as tens of thousands of Proper college graduates spilled out into that vulgar world beyond, ready to rebuild it in their own more elegant image.

It was a ridiculous goal, a laughable one, and no one except the twins ever took it very seriously. But on prom night, as the rest of the juniors took pictures of the Budds holding the McMillan, it didn’t just seem plausible…it seemed inevitable.

They said it would be the night everything would change, and it was true, nothing would be the same again. That same night, just a few hours later, City Councilman Lucas Budd—the twins’ father—would be sprawled on a sidewalk on the edge of the French Quarter, handcuffed and raving, with clothes askew and legs akimbo, as police photographers carefully cataloged the powders and pills being gently lifted from his trunk. There were even reports that a young man fled from the scene, but they were never proven.

Overnight Lucas Budd would go from being one of the city’s only true crusaders to political poison, and within two weeks, Mrs. Budd would announce that she and the twins were spending the summer in her childhood home of Lafayette, shielding her family from the toxic media environment her husband’s activities had created.

Back at the prom, though, this was all yet to come. No one there knew exactly how much things were going to change that summer…all they knew was that they were at the end of an extraordinary year and a triumphant night.

Everyone was happy, everyone was loved, everyone was Proper. But the student body knew that none of what they’d achieved—the clothes, the award, the elegance—would have been possible if it weren’t for the unsmiling siblings at the front of the reception hall, posing for pictures with the McMillan Award.

Their names were Alexander and Lillian Budd, but no one ever called them by their names. To everyone at Beaumonde Academy, they were better known—out of admiration, out of jealousy, out of fondness, out of envy—as simply The Darling Budds.

This is not their story.

Part One: June

One

Emily Bellecastle had a picture in her mind of how the morning would go.

Instead of driving, she would ride her bike seven blocks across the Garden District to the Budds’ house. The front basket of the bicycle would be full of flowers picked fresh from her mother’s garden, and would also hold the vintage Polaroid camera her boyfriend Alexander had gotten her two years before. She’d share a sisterly hug with Lillian and a passionate but short clinch with Alexander. Then, after some snapshots (two goofy, one serious) she would look into her boyfriend’s eyes and promise that no matter how long he was gone—two weeks or even a month—she would always be here for him.

As they pulled away, she had planned to make the sort of dramatic scene that Alexander would have loved: standing in the middle of the street, she would wave her handkerchief after his mother’s quickly disappearing car, as though he were leaving forever. Her crying eyes would be covered by a large pair of sunglasses, and a discreet scarf would cover her hair. Au revoir! Au revoir, my love!

It didn’t quite turn out that way. First, she was run out of her mother’s garden by her mother’s gardener before she could pick a single flower. Second, her camera was out of film and only the camera shops still carried the old kind of film it used. Finally, she couldn’t decide what to wear. She knew the sunglasses and scarf combo was perfect—Alexander would love it—but what about the rest of her? By the time she finally settled on a pair of capri pants and a fitted top, she realized that she was running late.

The bike ride was also a little longer and a lot hotter than she’d anticipated. Even at nine o’clock in the morning, New Orleans in June was not the Proper place for a head scarf. Just around the corner from Alexander’s house, she realized that it was just sticking to the side of her face and she ripped it off and threw it in the bike’s empty basket. Unfortunately, the scarf grabbed a barrette on the way off and she had to stop her bike to fix her hair.

Frustrated, she snatched the scarf back up and, removing her sunglasses, wiped off her face. She looked up at the sky…though hot and humid, it was actually a bit overcast. No need for sunglasses, really. Defiantly, though, she slipped them back on and pushed her bike around the corner to the Budds’ house.

There were two cars parked in front of the house. The first was a nondescript sedan that might as well have had UNMARKED POLICE CAR stenciled on the side. A full-faced man with graying red hair turned his head to watch her in the side mirror as soon as she came into view. Emily ignored him.

The second car was—”Oh, fuck me.“—an ActionNews 12 van. Of course, the whole street had been crammed with local news crews two weeks ago, when Lucas Budd had been arrested, but Emily thought they would have all cleared out by now. Then again, not a lot that’s newsworthy happens in a Louisiana summer.

The passenger door opened and a prim young lady hopped out, taking one last bite of a danish and grabbing a microphone off the floor. She was smartly dressed in a no-name skirt and matching blazer. Emily knew who she was: Alyssa something. The boys in The Gang had recently wasted a Thursday evening compiling (and loudly debating) a list of the “hottest” local newscasters. Though not the winner, Alyssa had ranked high on their final list. In real life, though, Emily saw just how much make-up she wore and how that only barely hid her poor skin.

“Ms. Bellecastle? A word?”

Emily laid her bike down on the driveway and looked around, as though the reporter was talking to someone just behind her. “Uh, how did you know my name?”

The reporter offered her hand, and Emily took it slowly. “Alyssa Beam, ActionNews 12. I covered your father’s press conference after that lawsuit over your adoption was filed last year.” She smiled, turning her head to the side. “You looked so cute up there in that peach dress. What was that, Dior?

“Um.”

“And how are your parents, anyway?”

Emily’s mother had been an infamous New Orleans debutante who’d left home at 17, traveling the world as the high-profile girlfriend of minor rock stars and B-list actors, before finally marrying an international financier who was only 32 years older than her. Thanks to her mother, Emily was one of the cutest girls at Beaumonde, and thanks to her father, she was certainly the richest. This made her the ideal candidate to be Alexander’s girlfriend.

Emily started to answer, but the large side door of the van slid open as a skinny cameraman hopped out. He flipped on a bright lamp on top of his camera, and a small red light came on just over the lens. Emily jumped back with a yelp and, as her mom had taught her once, raised both of her middle fingers in front of her face.

The skinny cameraman laughed, but Alyssa stopped smiling and cocked her head to the other side. She frowned a little, like Emily was a difficult kindergartner. “Now, there’s no reason to be rude…”

Emily backed up the driveway, still staring at the scene through both of her middle fingers. The cameraman took a step towards her, but stayed on the sidewalk. “It’s so we’ll have to blur her face,” he chuckled.

“Yeah, no kidding,” Alyssa whispered back. “Let me do my job.”

But Emily had already turned away from them. She could still feel the camera’s attention on her back; she hoped she didn’t have a wedgie from riding her bike. Her cell phone was vibrating, and she fished it out of her pocket.

The caller ID said Alexander. “Well, congratulations: you finally got the media circus you’ve always wanted.”

“Emily?” It was Alexander and Lillian’s mother, Anita Monroe-Budd.

“Hello?”

“Emily, don’t talk to that girl!”

“What? I wasn’t!” Emily turned around a little, and saw that the cameraman had inched a few feet onto the driveway. She pointed at the ground at his feet and yelled “Private property! Private property!”

“Hello?”

“I’m here! I just came over to say goodbye to Alexander and Lillian, can somebody let me in?”

“Oh, Emily, honey, we’re really busy right now. We’re running around like chickens with our heads cut off.”

“I know, I’m not-”

“I’m afraid we don’t have any time for a big scene. Alexander will call you when the three of us get settled in Lafayette. Okay, sweetheart?”

Emily heard the van door shut behind her…the cameraman had gotten back in. Alyssa Beam still stood on the sidewalk, though, her microphone by her side. One of them had stood her bike up and put the kickstand down.

“But all I want to do is say goodbye…” Emily hated the wet pleading in her voice.

“I know, I know,” Anita Monroe-Budd said, in a soothing but distracted voice. “Don’t worry, three months isn’t that long-”

Three months?”

“I know it seems like a long time now, but it’s not. And if we decide to come back in the fall, you’ll be the first to know…”

Emily straightened up immediately. “What do you mean, if? You mean you might not come back?”

“No, no…we plan on coming back, we really do. But we’ll just have to see how the youknowwhat turns out. We can’t exactly make 100% definite plans in this situation. You understand, don’t you?”

“I guess so,” Emily said. They might not come back! “Well, uh…well, maybe I can visit you guys over the summer, then?”

There was a commotion on Anita’s end of the line. “Alexander, I said two suitcases, period…no, that certainly does count as a suitcase.”

“Are you there?”

“Emily, dear, I have to go. We’ll call you when we get there.”

“Okay…” she said, but the line was already dead. Taking a few backward steps, Emily looked up at Alexander’s window, and she was surprised to see his silhouette there. She waved at him, then gestured for him to come down. He didn’t respond, and after a few minutes she realized that, with the still-rising sun in her eyes, she couldn’t tell if he was facing the window and silently watching her, or if he had his back to it. A few seconds later he moved off to the side, and it was the last she saw of him.

With a shaking sigh, she walked back to her bike. No, the morning hadn’t turned out the way she’d imagined at all. As she pushed her bike back to the street, Alyssa Beam came back over to her. “Now do you have anything to say?”

“Moisturize?” Emily offered, hopping on her bike. As she pedaled away, the man in the police car folded down his newspaper and watched her pass without interest.

• • •

Five minutes later, Emily sat at an abandoned bus stop drying her eyes on a not-too-sweaty part of the head scarf. Don’t cry, you baby, she told herself. Alexander wouldn’t want you to cry for him. No, wait, he totally would, but he’d at least want you to do it in front of him.

A middle-aged jogger passed her, his eyes mirrored by hideous Oakleys. Emily watched him pass, snuffling a little to herself. He doubled back and stared at her, jogging in place. “You cool?”

“What?”

“Hold on.” He took one of his headphones out of his ear. “Are you cool? You’re crying?”

“No, no…I’m fine. Thanks, though.”

The man was still jogging in place. “’Cause if you want to talk about it…”

“What? No. I’m okay.” She laughed a little, but it didn’t sound terribly convincing.

“Suit yourself,” the man shrugged. “I’ll be back by in, let’s see, 24 minutes. If you change your mind.”

That’s great, I’ll keep that in mind. “Mom, Dad…this is my new boyfriend. He’s twice my age, but he’s such a good listener! Oh, how did we meet? Funny you should ask: I was crying at a bus stop and he came jogging by…”

Emily sat staring at traffic for a few minutes. Two more joggers passed her as she folded her scarf up (Who are these people? It’s nine-thirty, don’t they have jobs?) and decided who she should to call first. Probably Michael Karlinoff, Lillian’s boyfriend, but she guessed he already knew. With a quick flash of jealously, she wondered if he got to say goodbye to Lillian. Or, oh god, was he in the house when she came over? That would be…that would be so unfair.

She wished she’d come off a little better with Mrs. Monroe-Budd. Emily was usually more self-possessed around adults, but today she wasn’t herself. And then she had made that stupid joke to Alyssa Beam, who had registered a quick wounded shock beneath her professional demeanor. Emily had actually hurt her feelings…which made sense, since Alyssa had probably had skin trouble since she was Emily’s age and now her face was her job. Emily knew she shouldn’t have taken her frustration out on her.

A bus pulled up and opened its door. Emily smiled at the driver, an older but muscular black guy with the sleeves of his RTA uniform rolled tight to his biceps. She watched to see who was getting off, but nobody stood up from their seat. The driver turned towards her, and Emily waved at him a little.

“What’s up?” the driver called to her.

“What do you mean? Oh! No, god, sorry…I was just sitting here. I have my bike.”

The driver shook his head at her slowly, almost sadly, as he closed the door. With a blast of dark fumes, the bus jolted back into traffic. Emily sighed and watched it move down the street. She knew what she had to do.

• • •

Alyssa Beam sat in the ActionNews van, going through the email on her Blackberry. She had five new messages, but all of them were dumb forwards from her mom. Is there anything more depressing than an inbox full of mail from your mom and all the subject lines begin with ‘fwd:’? Well, at least her mom had given up on trying to get her to move back to Tulsa.

Derek, her cameraman, sat in the back of the van in one of his yoga poses, going through a pocket dictionary with a highlighter. He’d been doing this for a few hours now, and always in a really obvious way that meant he wanted Alyssa to ask him about it. She refused to give in, though, if only on principle. Though admittedly something of a show-off herself, she deplored the trait in others.

There was a quick blur to her right and then a tapping on her window, right by her head. Alyssa jumped and cried out, then rolled down her window. Standing on the sidewalk, straddling her bike, was the Bellecastle kid from a few minutes before. Alyssa wished she could remember her first name.

“Hey. Jesus, I didn’t see you come up.”

“Sorry,” the girl said. (Was it Amelia? No, Emily!) “I just came back to say that it was shitty of me, what I said.”

“Why, what did you say?”

“You know, about moisturizing?” Emily mumbled.

“Oh. Uh, it’s okay.” Alyssa shrugged. “I’m pretty tough.”

“I was just upset, you know? But it wasn’t cool to take it out on you.”

Alyssa glanced at her cell-phone and put it in her lap. “Well, it was cool of you to come back like this. Very…ha. I was about to say ‘very mature,’ but then I remembered I wasn’t your grandma.”

Emily smiled at her, brushing her bangs out of her face. She really was a cute girl…Alyssa wondered what she was doing with the Budd kid, who was a couple rungs down the cuteness ladder.

“So, why didn’t you stick around to see your boyfriend leave?”

Emily’s face fell. “They’re already gone?”

“Yeah, they pulled out a few minutes after you left.”

“Oh.”

“They’re just going away for the summer, right? It’s for the best, it really is. Things are pretty crazy here with their dad and all. You can understand why their mom doesn’t want to be around.”

“Yeah, I know.” Emily looked up the street and put her foot up on one of her pedals, about to push off. “How did you know I was dating Alexander?”

“My keen journalistic instincts. Hey, it’s pretty crazy about their dad, huh? Did you ever see him acting weird or anything?” Alyssa winced even as she said it, at the way she must have sounded.

Emily rolled her eyes. “Heh. Nice try.”

“Hey, just doing my job.” She started digging in her purse, a Louis Vuitton that Alyssa put in her lap, hoping Emily saw the logo. “Look, here’s my card. If you want to talk—on the record, off the record, whatever—give me a call.”

Alyssa watched Emily chuckle at the card. Alyssa had two sets of business cards; one was totally professional, but the other was for people she was trying to loosen up. Along with her phone numbers and email address, it said:

Alyssa Beam
Big-Time Reporter
ActionNews 12

“Well, don’t count on it,” Emily said, tucking the card in her back pocket.

“I’m not. Hey, be careful on your bike.”

“I will, grandma,” Emily said, pushing off. Only too late did Alyssa realize she should have asked Emily something about her dad’s lawsuit. And then she got bummed out thinking about how she would have bungled that, too, with that insincere “just rappin’ with the kids” tone she’d somehow developed since becoming a reporter. I’m only 24, she thought. Am I already too old to talk to teenagers?

Alyssa happened to glance over at the Budd house and did a double-take. Standing in the large picture window, the curtains pulled back just enough, an unshaven Lucas Budd watched Emily ride away.

“Derek.” Alyssa twisted around in her seat. “Derek!”

“What?” The cameraman looked up slowly from the dictionary, his highlighter poised.

“…never mind.” As soon as Emily had turned the corner, the curtains had twitched and Lucas Budd had retreated back into his dark and empty house.

 

Part One: June

Two

Elizabeth “Litta’Bit” Hunyh woke up for a second time, sitting sideways on the couch. The clock in the living room said it was just before noon. She’d been awake about an hour before, just long enough to crawl into the living room and turn on the TV before falling heavily asleep again. She woke up suddenly, convinced she’d heard a sound. After a few seconds of listening to the house, she realized that she had dreamed the sound, and was probably home alone. She had the guilty feeling she’d been snoring.

“Jason?” she called, but her mouth was too dry for more than a croak. Litta’Bit licked her lips a few times and thought about getting some water, but just then the kitchen seemed unrealistically far away. The TV was on mute, showing commercials for the benefit of whatever hypothetical consumer watched TV at noon on a Tuesday.

Litta’Bit fished around in the couch cushions and found her cell phone, a beat-up clam shell with a Chococat sticker that dated to junior high. She called her best friend David Sebastian, for no reason except habit. Almost every day, within minutes of one of them waking up, they were on the phone with each other. They didn’t even realize that they did this every day until the rare occasion, like this morning, when one of them didn’t answer.

Litta’Bit didn’t leave a message; she hung up and immediately called David back. Again, no answer. She closed the phone and sighed…David, usually so fun and hyperactive, had been withdrawn and melancholy for two weeks now, ever since Lucas Budd’s arrest, and she was ever so slightly getting tired of it.

She picked up the remote and tried to remember when the local news came on. She wanted to see if there’d be anything about the Budds leaving town, if that was a big enough story to make the news. Did the news come on at eleven? Or noon? Did they even show the news in the middle of the day anymore? The more she thought about it, the more old-fashioned it seemed.

She punched random numbers into the remote until, finally, she found ActionsNews 12. She left the TV on mute, though…no way she was listening to some boring story about the upcoming mayoral race.

Just then Litta’Bit remembered that she had a headache, just under each of her temples. She wondered if she’d taken any aspirin when she’d woken up the first time. Well, even if she had, she could stand to take two more. However, the thought of getting up and trudging upstairs for the pills seemed worse than just suffering through the dull throb.

It felt like a hangover, but that didn’t make sense. Sure, it had been a late night, but she hadn’t had that much to drink. She’d only had the two and a half glasses of wine at dinner, then the two or three Cape Cods at the bar, then something gross with whiskey in it while waiting for the cab. Oh, fine, it was a hangover.

It seemed a waste to suffer today for such a dull night, though. After dinner, she’d gone out with a few girls from school—Litta’Bit always had a cloud of indistinguishable Beaumonde girls buzzing about in her orbit—and they had ended up at a bar off St. Charles with a lenient policy regarding high school students. There’d been a few other Beaumonde students there, sipping at highball glasses in the corner booth, but the bar was mostly full of kids from other high schools, with their untucked shirts and LSU caps. Litta’Bit tried talking to one boy who showed promise, but as soon as he opened his mouth all illusions were shattered. “Damn, girl,” he drawled, slowly running his gaze down her five-foot frame, across the curves of her short black Mod dress, then back up. “I can see why they call you Litta’Bit…”

“Could you hold this?” she asked him, offering her almost-empty cup with a smile. When he took it, she thanked him, rolled her eyes, then went back over to her table. He was cute, though, with his strong shoulders and single dimple, so she gave him a small consolation prize: she let him see how good she looked walking away from him.

Back in her living room, an old man on the news was interviewing another old man about a bribery scandal at a sewage treatment plant run by the city. Or at least, that’s what Litta’Bit figured out from squinting at the silent screen. One of the old men was shaking his head sharply at the reporter, mouthing, “No, no, no…” the way you would to a frustratingly dense child.

The phone rang, and though Litta’Bit knew it was the cordless, she picked up her cell phone out of habit. Luckily, the cordless was sitting on the coffee table, so she didn’t even have to get up.

“’Lo?” Litta’Bit smacked her lips a few times and tried again: “Hello?”

“Hey, it’s me.”

There was a Post-It on the back of the phone, and Litta’Bit peeled it off without taking the phone away from her ear. The note, in her mother’s cramped and tortured handwriting, said: Gone to store, lazybones. Be up when I get home.

“Me who?” Litta’Bit asked.

“Emily.”

“Oh. Hey. What’s up?” Litta’Bit crumpled up the note, then thought better of it for some reason and smoothed it out. The fake boxer shorts she was wearing had a back pocket, and she put the note back there. She found two dollars in the pocket, which surprised her.

“Nothing.” Emily’s voice sounded odd, like she had just run a great distance. “Alexander’s gone. Lillian, too.”

“Yeah. I know.”

“You do?”

“It’s noon, I figured they’d be gone by now.” Litta’Bit remembered now: she had put two dollars in the pocket to tip the delivery guy a few days ago, but in the end her boyfriend Robert had paid for the food. “You said goodbye for me?”

“I…I actually didn’t even get to see them. They left without me.” Emily’s voice got soft and damp; Litta’Bit wondered if she should comfort her—though friends, they had never been particularly close—but in the time it took her to make up her mind that, yes, she should probably say something, Emily had recovered. “So, I guess we should get together tonight.”

“Me and you?”

“Everybody. The Gang.”

The Gang was Beaumonde’s nickname for the twins’ entourage of closest friends. (“The Gang” is a pretty dull name, of course, but you should always be suspicious of people who come up with overly-cute nicknames for their groups of friends.) The Gang consisted of Alexander’s girlfriend Emily and Lillian’s boyfriend Michael, as well as the twins’ childhood friends Andre and Robert, Robert’s girlfriend Elizabeth and her best friend David, and David’s next door neighbor Josephine.

“Oh. Yeah, I guess we should.” Actually, Litta’Bit didn’t know what more could be said…the twins were gone for the summer. It sucked, yeah, but what could they do about it? “I’ll get the phone tree started.”

“The what?” There was a ruffling sound on the other end of the phone. Litta’Bit guessed that Emily was wiping her eyes or her nose.

“The phone tree? Like, instead of you calling everyone, it’s: you call me, I call Robert, he calls Andre, Andre calls whoever-the-fuck. Well, okay, that’s more of a phone chain, actually. In a phone tree each of us call two people, but you get the idea. I don’t know, maybe it’s a Vietnamese thing.”

“Wait…so you’ll call Robert?”

“If I have to. (Joke.)” Robert Johnson was Litta’Bit’s boyfriend, tall and stoic and loyal. “And I’ll get him to call Andre.”

“I’ll call Michael,” Emily said. “Oh, and I guess one of us should call David, tell him we’re coming over.”

“I just tried calling him. No answer, but I’ll try again.” Suddenly there was a shaky shot of the Budds’ house on the television. The garage door was closing slowly and Mrs. Budd’s sedan was pulling out of the driveway. It was over before Litta’Bit even registered what she was seeing. She started to say something to Emily, but instead she thought better of it and asked what time they should get together.

“I don’t know…seven? Does it matter? It’s not like any of us have any obligations.”

Litta’Bit chuckled a little. “Well, who knows how Michael spends his time.”

“That’s true.”

Michael, Lillian’s boyfriend, was striking and debonair—the object of roughly 80% of all crushes at Beaumonde—but also somehow distant. He wasn’t exactly mysterious, he just had a particular way of being able to deflect any question about himself, so that only afterwards did you realize that you’d learned nothing about him.

“Okay, so…wait, are we forgetting anyone? I’m calling you and Michael, you’re calling Robert and David, Robert’s calling Andre. Is that nine people?”

Litta’Bit turned the TV off. “The twins are gone, that’s seven. Let’s see: me, you, David, Andre, Michael, Robert…”

“Oh! Josephine, duh.”

“Oh yeah. I’ll make Andre do it.”

On the other end, Emily sniffled. “You’re evil.”

“You love it.”

• • •

You have two new messages.

First new message, received on Monday, June 4 at 12:16 pm:

David, It’s Litta’Bit…answer your fucking phone, you drama queen. Look, The Gang’s coming over tonight around seven to talk about everything, so try to pull yourself together. Blow your nose, wipe the mascara off your cheeks, whatever. Call me.

Press 1 to save the message, 2 to forward the message, 3 to era-
3
Message erased. Second new message, received on Monday, June 4 at 12:23 pm:

Hey, it’s Litta’Bit again. Look, everything’s going to be fine, alright? I’m worried about you, so call me back, okay? I love you, and things will be fine, I promise…

Press 1 to-
1
Message saved.

Part One: June

Three

Robert Johnson stood on the second floor landing of his family’s home and stared through the large plate glass window at the tour group gathered on the sidewalk in front of his gate. He sipped his after-lunch tea and wondered idly what sort of person not only decided to come to New Orleans in June, but then decided that they should take a walking tour in the middle of the day.

Though no one outside could see him, Robert made an imposing figure, staring down at them from the landing with a heavy brow. His white classmates frequently described him as “chill” which not only irritated him to no end but was fundamentally untrue. His demeanor was in fact far beyond chill, past inscrutable, and well into the territory of the statuesque.

This was a particularly ill-looking group today; they looked like rejects from a Midwestern hall of wax left on the curb to melt in the sun. Thick streams of sweat ran up and over their round cheeks, then dripped off one of their chins and into the complementary Mardi Gras beads that are foisted on tourists by hotels, restaurants, and tour companies.

The tour guide was gesturing up at the front of the house with an honest-to-god walking stick. He had his back to Robert, so all Robert could make out was a ponytail (as thick and silky as an actual pony’s tail), some sort of felt vest, and a leather fanny pack. He seemed to be the kind of person who spent his free time doing magic tricks or dressed as a medieval jester. Possibly both.

A tour group stopped in front of Robert’s house a few times a week. Robert often wondered why. Their house was large, yes, and classically beautiful, but so was every other house in his neighborhood. Maybe it was because of who his father was, but he couldn’t really imagine that people flew in from Wisconsin just to stare at a city councilman’s house through sweat-stung eyes.

Once, Robert had been forced to slip politely through a crowd of tourists gathered by his gate. He’d kept his head down and moved with a guilty purposefulness, as though he were being led from a courthouse to a waiting police escort. He didn’t know why…possibly because he didn’t want to hear the true and infamous story behind his home: the legend of a mad widow’s ghost, perhaps, or the gory massacre of a wealthy family two centuries before, never solved.

But as Robert stood at the window with his tea, however, he realized that there could be another explanation why he’d hurried past that day…maybe he was afraid to hear a more banal story behind his house: a unique style of window sash, say, or a typically New Orleans shingle.

Above him, Robert could hear his mother’s heels come down the second-story hall, pausing as she caught sight of him. He could actually detect the falter of her step before she finally stopped. He knew she was staring down at him, probably adjusting an earring. Robert watched the tour group stumble on down the sidewalk as he took a final sip of his tea, holding the saucer up to his chest to catch an unlikely drip.

“It’s 12:30, Robert,” his mother said.

“Thank you.”

His mother didn’t move for a moment, then she clicked off down the hall. What she had meant, of course, was that it was 12:30, the end of the lunch period Robert had allocated for himself, and that it was time for him to get back to his self-imposed summer studies. His parents never forced him to spend his vacation preparing for the upcoming school year, but they certainly approved and facilitated it.

According to the schedule he’d drawn up just the week before, Tuesday at 12:30 meant AP Physics for an hour. He would have to pick up his sister Miranda at the stables at two, which allowed him a generous half hour of driving time.

Back to work. Robert drained his tea and carried the cup and saucer to the downstairs kitchen, then stepped into the small unused pantry he used as an office. He slid the thin plywood door shut behind him. The room was small, barely larger than the cheap desk in the exact center of the floor. Robert had to shuffle sideways on tiptoes to get behind it.

Robert had a desk in his bedroom, of course, a sturdy oak desk that had been his great-grandfather’s at Temple, and his house had plenty of other flat surfaces he could study on, but he liked his little pantry. It was hot in the summer and cold in the winter, it was cramped and stuffy, and it was his favorite place in the world.

Sitting behind the desk, he slipped off his loafers and corralled them together with his foot. He flipped on the surge protector with his besocked toe, and the desk lamp and small fan turned on.

Robert pulled down the AP Physics workbook Mr. Parker had recommended, and placed it before him, its spine parallel with the edge of the desk. In the larger of the two drawers was a neat stack of legal pads, and each one was labeled with a different subject in his girlfriend’s bubbly handwriting. He chose Psychics—Litta’Bit had been listlessly hanging around the night he was making the labels and he finally put her to work; she thought “Psychics” was hilarious—and gently pushed the drawer closed.

Finally, Robert uncapped his plain black MontBlanc and rested it on the first blank yellow page of his pad. He scooted his chair forward and opened the workbook to the second chapter, tucking the bookmark deeper into the book. With a satisfied sigh he picked up the pen and began writing the date at the top of the page.

His cell phone rang between June and 4. “Damn it,” he whispered. One of the advantages of his “study” was that he got terrible reception in there, and most of his calls went straight to voicemail.

He answered the phone without looking up from his writing. “This is Robert,” he said.

“What?” It was his girlfriend Litta’Bit. “Hello?”

“Hey, hello.” Robert slid out from behind the desk, pleasantly surprised. Litta’Bit usually waited for him to call her. “Hey, I thought about calling you earlier, but I didn’t want to wake you…”

“Yeah, I just got up.”

Robert quickly slid past the desk and stepped back out into the kitchen. He felt silly in his socks, but the reception was much better. “What did you get into last night?”

“Not much. Just hung out.” In the background, Robert could hear her typing something on her computer.

“Oh. Hey, you wanna get together? I gotta pick up Miranda at two, but after I drop her off I could swing by afterwards…”

Litta’Bit sighed. “No, I gotta help my mom clean the house for the dinner party.” Ms. Huynh was having a reception that weekend for some members of the New Orleans school board.

“Ah.” Robert knew it was no good mentioning that Litta’Bit’s family used—in fact, owned—a cleaning service. Litta’Bit’s mom felt that the maids should have as little to do as possible in her home, and tried to get the house spotless before their visit. She didn’t use maids so they’d clean her house; she used maids so they’d brag to their friends and neighbors about how clean Ms. Huynh kept her home. As far as she was concerned, she got her money’s worth.

“So what’s up?” Robert asked. As much as it pained him to admit this, he couldn’t imagine that his girlfriend had called him up just to talk.

“Oh yeah…the Budds left town today.”

“Really? Today?” Robert leaned forward over the sink and stared at his teacup. There was a minuscule puddle of tea in the bottom, with three tea-leaf scraps stranded on the shore. “I thought it was later. I talked to Alexander, I don’t know, three days ago, he didn’t mention it.”

Litta’Bit didn’t answer for a second. She seemed distracted, and Robert tried to remember which of her soap operas was on right then. “Yeah, well, they’re gone. Emily wants us all to get together tonight at David’s around seven.”

“Emily, huh? Classic.”

“Totally. Can you call Andre and let him know?”

“Yeah, absolutely.” Robert had been friends with the cynical and sarcastic Andre Meyer since grade school. “So, you want me to pick you up tonight? I could come early, we could get some dinner.”

“No, it’s stupid to run all the way out here just to come right back to town.”

Robert straightened up. “Well, you pick me up, then.”

“Why can’t we just…? Okay, fine, I’ll see you tonight.”

“Okay. I love you.”

“You too.”

Robert set his phone down and had washed out the teacup before he’d even realized he’d done it. The twins were already gone, and for the whole summer. He tapped his middle finger on the screen of his phone, lost in thought, before finally shrugging. Well, there was nothing he could do about it; time to get back to Psychics.

But instead, he found himself climbing the stairs to the second story. Maybe there was something he could do about it after all.

Tabitha Johnson, Robert’s mother, was sitting at a small table in the room they called the “second upstairs study.” In Robert’s house, any room left unused for too long was eventually turned into a study by his mother. However, almost none of the family actually studied in these rooms: Robert had his pantry; Miranda, like all 14-year-olds, cloistered herself in her bedroom; and their father, of course, did his work in his home office. (When things were particularly hectic, like before one of his wife’s fundraisers, Councilman Johnson was known to take a legal pad and move into his SUV for hours at a time.)

Only Robert’s mother, in stubborn allegiance to her renovations, did any work in the studies, moving to a different one whenever she felt it was being neglected. She’d been using the second upstairs study for a few days now. When Robert was a kid it had been known as the game room.

She sat in an over-stuffed armchair by the large French windows, with her heels off and her feet tucked up underneath her gray skirt. Various shades and hues of unopened envelopes waited on the small table beside her, mostly Thank You notes and invitations for the upcoming wedding season. A small silver letter opener lay perfectly across the pile as though posed. (Which it probably was, Robert having acquired this trait from her.) She was carefully eating a small bag of Cheetos with a pair of teak chopsticks.

His mother hadn’t seen him in the doorway, and Robert couldn’t decide if he should speak to her or even clear his throat. Maybe he should tiptoe down the hallway backwards, then re-approach the study while dragging his feet, jingling his keys, maybe even whistling.

Mrs. Johnson looked up suddenly at Robert, a Cheeto delicately poised between the bag and her mouth. “Oh, Robert. You startled me,” she said, though she didn’t seem that startled.

“Sorry. I was hoping I might have a word with you.”

“Of course. Any time.” She pushed the chopsticks into the snack bag and set it beside her correspondence. With a slight tilt of the head, she indicated the antique wicker chair across from her, the one that looked out the large French windows and across the backyards of their neighbors.

Robert sat down across from her and crossed his legs, adjusting the cuff of his trousers. “Is that a new necklace?”

His mother’s hand went up to her throat and fingered the large necklace. “It is, actually. I got it at Valerie’s little shop the other day. Do you like it?”

“I do.” It was a large necklace made of wooden beads, which looked like—though obviously weren’t—polished chestnuts. It looked good with her outfit, though Robert had to admit that this wasn’t his mother’s usual style. She usually favored precious metals over earthen artifacts. Robert had noticed some other changes in his mother’s wardrobe recently; a few weeks ago she had her hair pinned up in a leather contraption that looked…well, Robert hated the word ethnic, but still.

Robert wondered if this was the new direction his mother was moving towards in anticipation of middle age. According to the family picture albums, a teenaged Tabitha Morris had perfected the look of the all-American girl-next-door. (“Black Barbie,” Robert’s Uncle Tony had said once, notably when his sister-in-law wasn’t within earshot.) After meeting Jerome Johnson at a Alpha Kappa Alpha social during her senior year at Tulane, her style changed slowly from Promising Lawyer’s Fiance to Politician’s Wife to Hardworking Mother, and had in the last few years finally morphed into Successful Careerwoman.

Now Robert saw a few softer elements creeping into her wardrobe of business suits and high heels, and he sensed a new gradual shift beginning. Was she preparing herself early for her role as Earth Goddess In The Guise Of Loving Grandmother? Robert tried to imagine his mother a decade from now, wearing a brightly colored silk caftan, with graying dreadlocks tucked into a turban, lullabying a half-Asian toddler in an old rocking chair. The thought was ridiculous.

Robert cleared his throat. “The twins left town today.”

“I just saw that on the news. Was it a surprise?”

“Not entirely. We knew they were leaving, we just didn’t know when.”

Tabitha Johnson shook her head sadly. “God, when I think about what that poor woman must be going through…”

“Who?”

“Mrs. Budd, silly.”

“Oh.” Robert parted the thin linen curtains and glanced outside into the perfectly still image of the backyard’s landscaping. The only thing moving was the mirage of rising heat. He could feel the warmth on his knuckles through the glass. “Isn’t there anything Dad can do?”

Robert was still looking out over the neighborhood, but he could sense his mother tilting her head at him. “What do you mean, Robert?”

He dropped the curtain and met her eyes. “I mean, Dad’s gotten plenty of other people out of trouble. Uncle Tony, lots of people. I just don’t see why-”

“Robert,” he mother said softly, folding her hands in her lap. “Don’t you think he’s doing everything he can? Mr. Budd is your father’s best friend, they’ve known each other since they were at Beaumonde together.”

“I know, that’s why I thought-“

“Your father is a powerful man to have on your side when you’re in trouble, Robert, and I assure you he’s doing everything he can to get this worked out. But Lucas is accused of some pretty nasty stuff, remember. No matter how much we love him we don’t want to use our positions to set a guilty man free, do we?”

“I guess not.” It actually hadn’t occurred to Robert that this was anything other than a ludicrous misunderstanding. “No, of course not.”

His mother picked up her letter opener and a baby blue envelope. She pulled a cheap card out of the envelope and glanced inside it. It’s A Boy! a teddy bear on the front announced. She frowned at the card and set it to the side.

“Is that why Dad hasn’t been around lately? Last night I was in bed before he got home, and the last few weeks he’s barely been here at all.”

“Well, things have been very hectic for your father lately. Lucas Budd and your father were partners, you know, so your dad has his hands full ensuring the rest of their allies that Lucas’ arrest won’t affect their plans for the city.” Mrs. Johnson opened another envelope, this one ivory, and skimmed the handwritten letter inside. She folded the letter up before she’d finished it, stuck it sideways in the envelope, and placed it on the tray. After a second, she reconsidered and moved the envelope on top of the birth announcement. “Was there anything else?”

Robert looked up at her. “Nothing else, no. Thank you for talking to me.”

“Good heavens, Robert, you don’t have to schedule time with me, I’m your mother.” Tabitha Johnson picked up an azure envelope with a golden seal. “You’re as bad as your father.”

Robert stood up and made a show of looking at his watch. “I’d better get Miranda. It’s getting late.”

His mother reached up and grabbed his hand. Giving it a soft squeeze, she said, “Robert, I’m sorry this happened to your friends. They’ll be back before you know it.”

“I know.”

On his way out of the second upstairs study, Robert noticed a small statue of an elephant that he’d never seen before. He paused in the doorway and turned back to his mother, who was carefully threading her letter opener under the rich blue flap of an envelope.

“Mom? You don’t think Lucas Budd really did all those things, do you?”

Tabitha Johnson paused for a second, holding Robert’s gaze. “Now that,” she said, ripping the envelope open with a quick slice, “is a very interesting question.”

Part One: June

Four

There was a full-length mirror in the guest bathroom, and Andre Meyer stood in front of it without his shirt on. This wasn’t the sort of thing he usually did, of course, but this morning, as he pulled off the black t-shirt he used as a pajama top (just before putting on the black t-shirt he was going to wear that day), he’d happened to glance down at his chest and saw something surprising, something he’d wanted to inspect in detail.

It was his gut. Andre took off his glasses and rubbed them on one of the guest towels and put them back on. It was no good: his belly was definitely getting bigger. Though his arms and legs were thin, Andre’s belly had been round and hard since before kindergarten. But now, as he looked at himself in the mirror, he realized that the fat had grown soft and was starting to droop down over the button of his black jeans. His baby fat was becoming adult fat.

There was a noise upstairs. Andre cocked his head and listened, even though he knew what he was going to hear: his father shuffling from the bedroom to the bathroom, then to the kitchen, then back to the bedroom. Andre had left a muffin and a few paperback science fiction novels out for him; there wasn’t any more noise upstairs, so he guessed his dad found them.

He went back to the examining his belly. For as long as Andre could remember, he’d been a little…well, not fat, really. And certainly not obese. Just chubby. Well-rounded. Voluptuous, even. But now, Jesus, even his chest size seemed to have increased. Having passed up Josephine Brooks’ A-cups sometime last year, he wondered with a shudder if he was challenging Lillian Budd’s chest yet.

Andre was just moving on to looking at his hairline when his cell phone beeped three times in his room. Suddenly there was a noise upstairs and Andre froze, listening. His father must have sat down heavily on the side of the bed or something, because there wasn’t another sound. Finally, Andre heard, or imagined he heard, the springs of his father’s mattress creak under his reclining weight. Andre pictured him upstairs, hair fuzzy from sleep, his glasses just a bit crooked, a Star Trek novel in one paw. He would be fighting with a pillow, trying to plump it up, already sweating and out-of-breath from the effort. The glass on the nightstand would be polka-dotted with condensation.

The text message just said “Call me – Robert” which Andre admired as a classic Robert move. It may have been minor, but the meaning was clear: Robert didn’t have to call you; you had to call Robert. Andre had been friends with him for over ten years, though, and it made him chuckle more than anything else. He started to call him back, then hung up quickly. Self-consciously, even laughing at himself a little, he put his shirt on. It would have been weird to talk to Robert while shirtless.

The phone rang ten or fifteen times. Andre assumed he was getting voicemail, but finally someone picked up. “This is Robert.”

Andre looked at the phone, then put it back to his ear. “Hello?”

“This is Robert.”

“What!?”

“Andre?” Robert said.

“That’s how you answer the phone now? ‘This is Robert?’”

Robert sighed. “I’m trying it out. A trial run.”

“Well, it sounds a bit douchey.”

“Noted. We’re meeting-”

Alexander sat down heavily behind his computer. “You know, Alexander Graham Bell never said ‘hello’ on the phone.”

“Ah.”

“You know what he said? He said, ‘ahoy, ahoy.’ You should try that one.”

“I’ll take it under consideration. We’re meeting at David’s tonight.”

“What about?”

“About seven o’clock.”

“No, I meant-”

“I know what you meant.” (To us eavesdroppers, this makes Robert sound like kind of a dick. But the two of them have been best friends since grade school and had fallen into this well-worn routine years ago.) “We’re meeting because the twins left today.”

“Really? Today? I thought they were leaving…I don’t know, later.” Andre looked down at his socks. “I didn’t even get to say goodbye.”

“I don’t think any of us did,” Robert said, his voice a bit softer.

Neither of them said anything for a moment. An instant message popped up on Andre’s computer. It was just this guy he knew from another school, inviting him to play Scrabble online. Andre closed the window.

“So…seven o’clock?” Andre asked.

“Seven it is. Oh, and I don’t suppose you could call Josephine, could you? I’m terribly busy over here.”

“You asshole.”

“What? I can’t hear you. I get such terrible reception in the pantry…”

“You can hear me, you conniving fuck. Did your girlfriend put you up to this?” Andre asked. Suddenly, Robert began spitting and hissing into the phone. “What the…? Are you beatboxing?

A few seconds later, the sound stopped. “It was supposed to be static.”

“I’d work on that, if I were you.”

“Seven?”

“Sure, I’ll see you at seven.”

“And call Josephine.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Andre said, and hung up. Then he thought of calling Josephine and said it again, this time to himself: “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Josephine Meyer was the bashful and self-conscious daughter of Beaumonde’s headmistress, and the twins had tried to pair her up with Andre since at least late ninth grade, but to no avail. Others in The Gang, especially Litta’Bit and David, had taken up the challenge, but Josephine—who was otherwise so shy she mumbled and blushed whenever anyone spoke to her—stood her ground, stood her ground, apparently strengthened by her contempt for him.

Andre looked around his room, at the clothes on the floor and the open pizza box on the dresser. It wasn’t quite a disaster, but it was getting there. Things were just out of place. He knew that upstairs was ten times worse, and his Aunt Marissa would be there in exactly a week on her inspection tour. He’d have to spend at least that long getting everything in order before she got to New Orleans, to prove to her that he had everything under control.

And now the twins were gone.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he muttered, dialing Josephine.

Part One: June, Uncategorized

Five

Summer was always an awkward season for Josephine Brooks. By eight in the morning, it was often too hot to go running, so she had to wake up at sunrise to jog before the temperature got too high. But that meant that the only item on her to-do list—work out—was crossed off before the rest of the world even got out of bed.

And it’s true, too, that Josephine’s house wasn’t the most entertaining place to waste away long summer days, either. Her and her mother had a television, but it was a small and ancient black & white set, purchased before Josephine’s birth, for occasional PBS viewings. For the last few months the screen had been blocked by a stack of textbooks that Josephine’s mother was evaluating for the upcoming school year. The rabbit ears had gone missing a few years before—Josephine suspected that her sister had taken them with her to L.A.—so now the only stations they could get were a staticky NBC and four separate “Jesus channels” which, of course, came in crystal-clear. So TV wasn’t really an option.

Neither was the Internet. Josephine had a computer for schoolwork, but she wasn’t allowed to have it in her room; her mother, after a rare night of insomnia and television, had decided that the internet was populated almost exclusively by sexual predators who possessed endless tricks for ensnaring underage girls. Therefore, Josephine had to move her computer into the “office,” where the monitor faced the doorway. For about two weeks, Josephine’s mother would silently sneak up and spy on her daughter as she looked at running websites, looked up diabetic-friendly recipes, and shopped unsuccessfully for a new bicycle.

Eventually, Josephine’s mom was satisfied that her daughter wasn’t trawling the web for sexual partners, or running a voyeuristic webcam, or innocently falling into the ingenuous trap of a pedophile, and she stopped spying on her. In her mother’s defense, she had never seriously thought that Josephine was up to something like that, but that episode of Dateline had been very convincing.

The Internet never really interested Josephine that much to begin with, however, and after an hour online she would would come away feeling bored and itchy. One of the few things Josephine remembered about her father was that he would lullaby her with a song from his own childhood, one that went “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?” Well, Josephine didn’t know where they came from, but she knew where they went: they all had blogs.

(Also, the office was actually her sister Catherine’s old room, kept pretty much as it had been years before, and Josephine didn’t like being in there.)

Both of her parents were academics—her father had been a teacher at Beaumonde before he died of lymphatic cancer when Josephine was in second grade—so their house had a lot of books, and Josephine did read a lot. In fact, she was probably one of the most well-read members of the Gang, but nobody knew because she never made a big deal about it. (Also, she suspected that others got more out of books than she did.)

For the last few years she’d been working through her father’s library. Every now and then she would find some light underlining or a small dot in the margin. Occasionally, she’d even come across a little note in his handwriting: a few weeks before she’d found a section in Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography bracketed off, with “Ridiculous!” penciled in softly in her father’s hand. It had made her happy for days afterwards.

Unfortunately, Josephine couldn’t spend fourteen hours a day reading, despite her best efforts. What else was there, though? She wrote in her journal, but as summer stretched on and the days became longer, her diary got caught in a sort of feedback loop where the only thing she had to write about was having written in the diary the day before. It was depressing.

The afternoon that The Gang’s meeting was being organized, Josephine was in fact just finishing up her journal entry for the day. She wrote about her jog, and how long she had written in her diary yesterday, and (just to have something to write, really) an essentially pointless story about finding a dead caterpillar on the back porch as she did her before-bed stretches.

She usually wrote in her room, but today she had felt cooped up and restless, so she’d moved to the kitchen table. Her mother, Dr. Ellen Hayes, the headmistress of Beaumonde Academy, was sitting across from her, working on a grant proposal for the school. The house was completely silent, as her mother preferred to write without music. This was something she picked up from Josephine’s father, who often decried the modern world’s “mania for constant distraction.”

Josephine reread what she’d just written with a sort of flinching disgust at what she saw as a useless entry told with the most uninteresting and straightforward prose possible. She closed the plain fake-leather journal—it was actually a sketchbook, and she had twelve identical volumes stowed away under her bed—and frowned at the blank cover. She was experiencing a vague emotion, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. She was…anxious? No, that’s not quite right. She was listless? No. She flipped through her mental thesaurus, trying to come up with the right word for what she was feeling. Finally, she realized what it was.

“Mom?” she said.

Her mother held up a finger and continued writing, finally coming to the end of her sentence. “Yes?”

“I’m…I’m bored.”

Dr. Hayes capped her pen and tilted her head. “I thought it was nice, the two of us sitting here…”

“No, it is nice, I just mean in general. I’m bored. Summer days are too long. What am I supposed to do all day? How does a person fill up a day?’

“Oh, honey, just wait a few years…the world has a way of answering that question for you.” This caused her mother to giggle a little, which briefly angered Josephine. Seeing this, her mother tried a different approach. “Why don’t you walk down to David’s house, see what he’s doing?” David Sebastian, another Gangmember, had lived three doors away from Josephine since grade school.

“No, he’s been weird ever since Mr. Budd got arrested. Well, we all have, but him especially.”

Her mother tapped the table with her pen. “Well, let’s see. I’d let you borrow the car to go…wherever, but I need to run over to St. Odo’s at 5:30. Do you want to come with me? Maybe a few of your old teachers will be there.”

“Not really. I wonder what Grandpa’s doing?”

“I’m sure he’s at the jewelry store. You know, a couple weeks ago he suggested getting you a summer job down there, but I didn’t think you’d be interested.”

“I guess I’m not. I don’t know. I’m just bored.

Her mother sighed and looked at her, with what Josephine thought was a not-entirely-sympathetic look. “Maybe tonight, after my meeting, we can go see a movie. There’s a documentary about Uganda playing downtown…”

“Maybe.” Josephine folded her arms on the table and put her head down, her chin on the diary.

“Oh, I talked to your sister. She said she has some big news, but she didn’t want to ruin the surprise because it might fall through.”

“Maybe she’s knocked up,” Josephine mumbled.

“Josephine!”

“Or maybe she’s getting married.”

“That would be nice,” her mom said. “I just hope it doesn’t involve her quitting her job again.”

Josephine smirked a little. “I don’t know, I thought her designer t-shirt company was a good idea.”

“I can never tell when you’re joking, Josephine, but if you are: be nice. Your sister’s just ambitious. She’ll find her place in this world eventually.”

“I just hope she finds my bike…”

“You really need to let the bike thing go, okay? She was moving to a big city, I thought you were about to outgrow bike riding. Do you want a new bike for your birthday?”

“No, I’m too old for bikes.”

Her mom stood up and put her papers back in a manila folder. “Well, you’re certainly in a mood today…”

Josephine sighed. Her mother was right, she was being a brat. “No, I’m sorry. I’m just…you know.”

“You’re bored.”

“Right.”

“Well, honey, I’m sure something will turn up. Look, I’ll be right back.” Dr. Hayes opened the kitchen door and stepped outside. She had quit smoking when Josephine was a little kid, but lately she had been dating this guy (his name was Roger!) and she’d started back up again. Every morning, when Josephine crept out of the darkened house, she would always grab her mother’s improvised ashtray and empty it out in the garage, noting with dismay that over the last few weeks the number of cigarettes had grown from three to four and now to five.

Josephine stayed at the table, her head resting on her forearms, when she heard the oddest sound. It was a loud chirping, like an annoyed robot bird, and it was coming from the back of the house. Josephine straightened up. Was it the smoke detector?

Josephine crept down the hallway, following the bird call. It seemed the sound was coming from her room. She wondered what she had in her room that would make a noise like that. They’d moved her computer out, so that wasn’t it. When she got back to her bedroom, the noise had stopped.

She looked around, confused and little bit freaked out. Finally, she saw that her cell phone was blinking on its charger and the screen said 1 missed call – Andre. Now, I’m sure it was obvious to you that it was a phone ringing, but nobody ever called Josephine and it really never occurred to her that somebody would.

Josephine had never liked the idea of phones, frankly. There were machines that—if the right buttons were pushed—made a bell ring in her house? It was weird. She sat on the edge of her unmade bed and gently, as though it were very hot, picked up the phone and stared at it. Why in the world was Andre calling her? What did he want?

She was still staring at the phone a few seconds later when a loud beep announced that she had a new voicemail. Josephine yelped, almost dropping the phone, and quickly put it back on the charger. She scurried out of the room, pulling the door shut behind her just in case.

Part One: June

Six

Across town, Michael Karlinoff stood in his underwear as an older man knelt before him and ran a hand up his inner thigh. Michael ignored him; they were talking about football.

“Well, I think it will the same story as every other season. The Saints’ll lose the games they have no business losing and win the games they have no business winning.” Michael said all this with a detached air of having seen it all before, but in fact he rarely watched football. He had merely heard a local sportscaster say this same thing just that morning as he prepared to go downtown.

The older man cried out and made a mark on a little notepad he kept in his shirt pocket. “Another half-inch, Michael. I suppose I could let out of few of your newer trousers, but we’ll simply have to make you a few more pairs. You’ll put your father in debtor’s prison, you continue to grow at this rate.” Having finished with Michael’s inseam, the tailor draped his measuring tape around his neck and struggled to his feet, ignoring Michael’s outstretched hand.

This was Sam, one of Michael’s favorite tailors at Underhill Men’s Haberdashery. Sam was Indian, and his actual first name was dauntingly long, but it had the letters s and a and m in it, more or less in that order, and so almost everyone called him Sam. Though he spoke perfect English with a beautiful British accent, Michael often heard him use a fake “tank you veddy mooch” voice with customers he didn’t like and wanted to get rid of.

“Now, as for the bloody Saints, I don’t know why they don’t let McElvoy run with the ball more. That is why we drafted him, after all.” Sam didn’t care much for football himself—his game was cricket—but he’d overheard a customer that morning say the very thing. “Left or right?”

“Excuse me?” Michael asked.

“Left or right?” Sam repeated, throwing a pointed glance at Michael’s lap.

“Oh, um…uh, right. You should know that by now.”

Sam jotted an R down on his pad. “And yet somehow I never grow tired of making you squirm by asking. Especially in front of your father.”

Michael’s father had indeed entered the fitting room, but he apparently had other things on his mind than his son’s minor embarrassment. He glanced disapprovingly at Michael being in his underwear, getting fitted for yet another pair of pants, and grunted. By the time Michael had deciphered the meaning of this particular grunt—Mr. Karlinoff had a surprisingly expressive lexicon of grunts, snorts, and harrumphs—his father was already walking through the opposite door, towards the fabric room. Whenever they were at Underhill, his father was always distracted.

No one at Beaumonde knew much about Michael, though not for lack of trying. They knew that he was as beautiful as his girlfriend Lillian, with his olive skin and dark curls flawlessly complementing her fair hair and pale complexion. They knew he was born in Macedonia but raised in America from a very early age by his strict father, a mysterious shipping magnate and a prosperous trader of…something. No one was really sure.

And finally, they knew he was Proper.

• • •

“Proper” was the twins’ term for anything that lived up to their exacting standard of elegance. Proper was the ultimate goal of every student of Beaumonde, and having Alexander nod at your outfit and mutter those two magic symbols would be the highlight of your semester.

Proper didn’t necessarily just cover what clothes somebody wore. Instead, being Proper was more about knowing the when and why and how clothes were worn. Almost nothing one could wear or do or say was universally Proper or otherwise; only the context made it so.

Though Proper often called for somewhat more formal clothing than most teenagers wear, it wasn’t about just dressing up all the time no matter what. A three-piece suit was Proper when out to dinner or at a party, but if worn to school or a movie it only betrayed how little the wearer grasped the concept.

As part of educating Beaumonde in Proper, the twins spent most of ninth grade teaching their classmates the difference between fabrics, cuts, and styles. They gave out grooming tips, often unsolicited. They demonstrated how different colors and shapes of clothes are best for different colors and shapes of people. But mostly, they taught them how to recognize when a look was Proper.

Then, at the beginning of tenth grade, a student transferred to Beaumonde from parts unknown, and the students at last met someone who was not just a student of Proper, not just an enthusiast, but rather the living embodiment of the concept. This was Michael Karlinoff.

• • •

Back at Underhill, Michael’s cell phone began ringing, causing Sam to roll his eyes. “One of your girlfriends, I suppose,” he said, leaving the fitting room. Michael hated for his cell phone to ring in public, and was mad at himself for not turning it off. He finally found the phone (on the floor, inside his leather bag, covered by his trousers) just as his ringtone—the Beaumonde Academy school song—was finishing.

“Hello?” Michael grabbed his trousers and, in a superfluous attempt at privacy in the already-empty fitting room, stepped into a small dressing booth and pulled the curtain closed.

On the other end, someone had just hung up.

Michael stared at his phone, wondering if he had gotten a prank call. He was just checking his Incoming Calls when the phone began chirping out the school song again. “Through the halls of Beaumonde Academy / as later so through life-”

The caller ID said Emily, but Michael didn’t answer the phone. In fact, he didn’t do anything at all for approximately three seconds, and if anyone else could have fit in the dressing booth with him, they would have watched him hold his breath and undergo the most curious transformation: suddenly, Michael’s face was contorted and twisted; his free hand curled into a tight fist; even his toes, inside his leather shoes, clamped together.

While clenching every muscle in his body, Michael quickly visualized the inside of an old book-lined study. Michael saw himself sitting in the center of the study, with one leg draped rakishly over the arm of an expensive easy chair, idly perusing a leather-bound volume as he occasionally sipped from a snifter of brandy. In this vision, his cell phone rang and, after slowly digging it from the pocket of his velvet smoking jacket with an air of disinterested curiosity, he saw that it was Emily.

Back in the real world, Michael—still in his underwear, remember—exhaled and relaxed all of his muscles. He was now in the correct frame of mind to talk to another member of The Gang.

“Hello,” he said, more a statement than a question. His eyes still scanned the page of the book he was reading; he swirled the brandy around with his free hand.

“Michael! Did you just pick up?”

“Of course. How else would we be talking?”

“No, before. Like, three seconds ago.”

“The first time you called? I answered just as you were hanging up.”

“Oh, thank god. I thought I heard you say ‘hello,’ so I called you back but then I wasn’t so sure and I didn’t want you to see two missed calls from me and think I was stalking you.”

Michael chuckled. “I would never accuse you of stalking me…” He slowly closed the old leather volume and glanced distractedly through the large windows of his estate’s library.

“No, I guess not,” Emily said. Then: “Oh, Michael, they’ve already left!”

“Who has?”

“The twins, Michael! They’re already gone…”

“What do you mean, left?”

“I mean they’re gone…they’re in Lafayette with their mom and their grandparents.”

Michael closed and opened his mouth, then closed and opened his eyes. “For how long?”

“For how long? Michael, haven’t you talked to anyone else in The Gang? Haven’t you talked to Lillian?”

Michael hadn’t talked to anyone else in The Gang; they rarely called him about anything. As for Lillian: “I saw Lillian last night, but she didn’t say anything about going anywhere.”

Emily drew in her breath. “You saw her last night? Did you see Alexander?”

“No, she came over to my house to deliver a letter. She seemed odd, but I thought that was just because of her dad.”

“She didn’t tell you that her mom was taking them out of town for the summer? My god, she’s known about it for a week. Everyone else knows.”

Michael couldn’t think. He had to hang up, had to get his head straight. “She didn’t say anything about it…she just gave me a letter and said it explained everything. We talked for awhile about nothing and she drove home.”

“What did the letter say?” Emily asked. “I mean, if I can ask…”

“I, uh, I don’t know.”

“Okay. If it’s personal or you don’t want to tell me, I understand.”

“No…I mean, I really don’t know what it said. It’s…hmm. It’s in code.”

Emily was quiet. “It’s in code?

“Yeah. It’s a thing we do; we write our letters in code, see how long it takes the other person to figure it out. She always beats me.”

“And you haven’t…you haven’t ‘cracked the code’ yet?”

Michael laughed in spite of himself. “No. God, no…her’s are tough. Ingenious. Once, she just sent me a grid with a collection of points drawn on and eventually I realized…wait. When is she leaving?”

“She’s already gone, Michael. I went over and saw them off. Well, I tried to.”

Michael cocked his head. “She’s gone. She’s in…Lafayette, you said? For how long?”

“I don’t know. I thought it was just for a few weeks or a month, but now they’re saying it’s for the whole summer. And Mrs. Budd mentioned that there’s a chance they might not even come back at all.”

“What!?” The books burst into flame, the windows shattered, the library exploded. “What? What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. She just said that, depending on where the trial was in the fall, they might not come back. Actually, she didn’t even really say that, she just hinted at it. She implied it. But this is crazy, they’re going to come back.”

“I…I need to go. I can’t talk, I have to think about this.”

“We’re meeting at David’s tonight, seven o’clock. Do you think your dad will let you come?”

“David’s? Tonight? Yeah, I can come.”

“Do you want me to pick you up?”

“I have to go. I have to- Thank you for calling me.”

“No, wait, don’t hang up,” Emily called.

So he didn’t hang up, just held the phone to his ear as he breathed heavily and tried to think, and neither of them said anything for a long time.

“This is ridiculous,” Michael finally whispered. “They have to come back.”

On her end, Emily swallowed loudly. “Of course they will. They wouldn’t miss their senior year at Beaumonde.”

“It’s just for a summer. We did without them last summer.” As soon as Michael said this, though, he realized that they also did without him last summer. Also, last summer Lucas Budd wasn’t facing forever in prison.

They were quiet again. Emily eventually broke the silence: “I thought you knew they were leaving. If I’d known, I swear I would have called you.”

“I know. Thank you.”

“I’ll see you tonight, then. Call me back if you want a ride.”

No goodbyes were said. They were quiet for a while longer, each of them listening to the other breathe. One of them finally hung up; later, they would never remember which one.

Michael sat in the dressing booth for a long time, just staring at his phone. Eventually, he stood up and put his pants back on, mechanically tucking in and adjusting his shirt so that it was just perfect. Then he sat back down and stared at his phone some more. He thought about calling Lillian, but something wouldn’t let him.

Even as his father passed by twice, calling for him, Michael didn’t move. Eventually, Nikolaos Karlinoff drew back the curtain on the dressing booth and glared at his son, unleashing a string of Macedonian that we’ll have to assume was not positive reinforcement.

Part One: June

Seven

That night, Emily pulled her silver Mini Cooper into David’s driveway just as Michael was going through the front gate. She parked quickly behind Andre’s (dad’s) Volvo and hopped out to catch up with him. Michael saw her coming, and he slowed down to wait for her. Turning away, he clenched his eyes shut, made a fist, and then relaxed slowly, arching a single eyebrow as she walked across the manicured lawn towards him.

“Did you walk over here?” she asked him, adjusting her skirt. She was carrying her vintage Polaroid camera, as always.

“It’s a nice evening.” In fact, this was patently untrue. It was June in New Orleans, and the humidity was a physical force. Small lines of sweat ran down his hairline, and his shirt was stuck to his back underneath his light cotton suit. Michael had heard that in other parts of the country there was a phenomenon known as spring fever, caused by excitement over the end of winter. In Louisiana, there was a different term for this: summer dread.

“Wow. You walked all the way over here? That’s, like, twenty…no, thirty blocks.”

“I needed the exercise,” Michael said vaguely. Again, this was also untrue. Not only was Michael in perfectly fine shape, he hadn’t walked over to David’s to begin with. He’d walked three blocks, gotten on the St. Charles streetcar, then hopped off at Washington Avenue and walked another two blocks to David’s house. As Emily looked at the other cars in the driveway, Michael wondered—not for the first time—why he’d lied so easily about it when there was no reason at all to do so.

“Andre’s here. Josephine lives down the street, so she’s probably here. There’s Snoopy’s Head”—Litta’Bit’s gigantic white SUV—“so Litta’Bit’s here and probably Robert. Who are we missing?”

“Nobody,” Michael said in a low voice.

“There’s only three cars here, this can’t be all of us…” Emily did the math in her head. There were nine of them. No…seven, now. She and Michael were two, Robert and Litta’Bit four, Andre and Josephine were six, David seven.

“I wonder if they took their car,” Michael said, as much to himself as to Emily. He meant the red MG, the two-seat convertible the twins shared. The car was famous among the under-18 crowd of Uptown New Orleans.

Together, Emily and Michael walked through the front door of the Sebastian family’s house without knocking. (Well, okay, let’s face it: the Sebastian family’s mansion.) They spent so much of their time at the house that it never occurred to either of them to knock.

In one of the hallways, there were framed black ‘n’ white pictures of Lillian and David, modeling clothes, jewelry, and furniture from Mrs. Sebastian’s French Quarter boutique. Emily noticed that Michael tilted his head, not even looking over at the pictures.

The two of them stopped for a second in the kitchen to pay their respects to David’s dad, a popular personal-injury lawyer whose commercials ran non-stop on late night TV, during the courtroom shows and the dating shows. Mr. Sebastian was smoking—a sure sign that Mrs. Sebastian wasn’t home—and making what he claimed was pesto in the food processor. “Hey, you two crazy kids. David says your friends left town today. I don’t blame them, me. A world of shit…sorry, a world of crap is about to fall on their dad’s head.”

“They’ll be back soon,” Michael said. He always had such an easy manner with adults, a way of making them treat him as an equal and not a 17-year-old. Alexander had the a similar ability, but Alexander worked to impress the adults…Michael effortlessly blended in.

“Oh, sure. Look, by the time school rolls around again there’ll have been at least five more local politicians arrested for corruption and nobody will care one way or the other about Lucas.” Harry Sebastian looked around the counter, apparently trying to find something.

Emily picked up the olive oil and handed it to him. “So you think he might get off?”

“Thank you. What? No. Christ, the stuff they’ve got him on…I mean, that’s not my professional opinion or anything, I’m just a humble ambulance chaser, but judging from what I read in the paper and the scuttlebutt around town, I’d say he’s pretty well fuc-screwed. Now, if he’d rear-ended a guy, I could tell you with certainty that he would walk, especially if he called The Law Offices Of Yours Truly. But drugs? Young guys? Hey, nice knowin’ you, pal.”

“But you don’t think he actually did all those things, do you?”

Mr. Sebastian turned back to his pesto, chuckling. “You’re asking the wrong question.”

Emily and Michael found the rest of The Gang in the large sunroom at the back of the house. When not scattered by the pool, this room was where The Gang usually hung out at David’s. His parents had ceded it to him and his friends, and it—along with Andre’s family room—was the closest thing they had to a secret clubhouse. In fact, their frequent appearances at the Sebastian house had given them their name: David’s dad would often say “the gang’s all here” when they gathered in the sunroom, and eventually “the gang” became The Gang.

Robert, Litta’Bit, Andre, and Josephine were playing a dispirited game of Bridge. A gaunt-looking David, his hands shaking, sat looking out at the courtyard. without seeing it at all. The card game was forgotten mid-hand as soon as Emily and Michael entered, as none of the players had even been paying much attention to the game to begin with.

As Emily and Litta’Bit exchanged a brief impersonal hug, Michael went to the bar to fix himself a gin and tonic. The Sebastians were relaxed about David’s friends drinking at their house, one big reason The Gang tended to congregate there. Mr. Sebastian joked that he let them drink at his house to drum up business: they might get a DWI and hire him.

Emily turned to Josephine, whose eyes briefly flashed with the helpless terror that she, too, was about to be hugged. But Emily, of course, would never dream of actually touching Josephine. “How are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m okay,” she mumbled. “I jogged by their house today and it looked abandoned. It was so weird.”

Nobody said anything. Josephine was usually a bit more monosyllabic than this. She looked up and saw all of them watching her. Her face collapsed into a deep shade of red. “This just really sucks,” she finally said.

“It does,” Emily said. “David, how are you?”

David looked up and stared right through her with bloodshot eyes, then slowly turned away and stared out over the swimming pool and into infinity. The rest of The Gang exchanged a certain look with each other, one that was understanding by not entirely sympathetic. David had been in love with Alexander for almost three years now and they were all used to his occasionally overdramatic ways, Andre even dared to roll his eyes, for which he received a firm whack in the chest from Litta’Bit.

“Has anyone even talked to the twins?” Andre asked, rubbing his chest.

“I saw Lillian last night,” Michael said. “She gave me a letter.”

“Really? What did it say?”

“It said she wanted to break up with him because she was madly in love with you, Andre,” Emily said. “It’s none of your business. I talked to Alexander last night, but just for a few minutes. I was supposed to come over and say goodbye to them this morning, but they left before I got there.”

Robert said that he’d spoken to Alexander a week before, but he’d been nervous to bring up the arrest, so he’d ended up just listening while Alexander opined on what shoes Robert needed to take his wardrobe “to the next level.”

“Well,” Emily said, “you didn’t need to worry about hurting his feelings. He finds the whole thing hilarious.”

Michael sat his drink down. “Yeah…Lillian, too, in her own way.”

“So…uh.” Robert ran a hand over his barely-there scalp stubble. “Does anyone believe that Mr. Budd is guilty?”

“Nice!” Litta’Bit said, cutting him with a look. “Some friend you are.”

“No, I just mean…I don’t know. I’m incapable of thinking clearly about it. I’ve known the Budds longer than anyone else in this room, and Mr. Budd’s been a part of my life since I could remember…he’s like my uncle. Trying to decide if he’s a gay junkie is like trying to decide if your mother is into hardcore S&M.”

“Thank you so much for that.”

“What I’m trying to say is, finding out that he’s just another guy with desires is almost more shocking than finding out what his specific desires are. But like I said, maybe I’m too close to it. So I wanna know…is this as hard for you guys to believe as it is for me?”

“I don’t know,” Andre finally said. He had known the Budds almost as long as Robert had. “It’s weird, I’ve never really gotten a good grasp on who he is, you know? I’ll see him on the news doing something spectacular in court or at a city council meeting and I can never really reconcile that with the guy who comes home with his tie undone and disappears upstairs with Barron’s.”

Emily spoke up. “Same with me. He’s always cordial to me, and interested in whatever I tell him, but that’s it. I’ve never really given him any thought at all, which is sad to say. Well, okay, sometimes I’ll stare at him and Mrs. Budd and wonder where in the world their kids had come from, but if we start talking about that, we’ll be here all night.”

David had turned around when everyone had started talking about Lucas Budd. “I don’t know about the drugs,” he whispered, “but he’s not gay.”

“How do you know?”

“Uh…I know, okay?” David managed a weak laugh. “I don’t have much, but I have a killer gaydar.”

No one really knew how to respond to this, and finally Emily stood up and faced all of them. “Well, look…here’s what we know. Alexander and Lillian are gone for at least a month, probably the whole summer. But, hey, they weren’t around last summer, either. None of us were, but nothing changed when we all got back into town.”

The previous summer, The Gang had been temporarily broken up: The Darling Budds went to see their Grampa and Gramma Monroe in Lafayette, then headed northeastward with their mother; Robert and his sister went off to his family’s country house for the summer; Andre went to live with his Aunt Marissa in Phoenix; David visited his uncle in Chicago; Litta’Bit and her brother were given summer jobs at one of their mother’s many businesses; Emily and her family went on a months-long trip to Europe; and poor Josephine was forced to visit her sister in Los Angeles.

Nobody heard from Michael. When he finally reappeared a week before the start of school, it turned out that he’d been sent back to Macedonia by his strict father, who wanted him to get a taste of his homeland. Michael didn’t talk about it very much.

“How do we know they’re coming back at all?” Andre asked, and was immediately shouted down.

“They’re coming back,” Emily said firmly.

“But how do you know that? Their dad is going to prison, their last name is a punchline…would you come back? You guys can yell at me all you want, but nobody in here knows anything.”

“I know, okay?” Michael said, suddenly looking up. “I saw Lillian last night, remember? She told me in her letter that they were definitely coming back. Their mom wants them to finish high school at Beaumonde. They might not live in the same house anymore, but they’re coming back.”

“Why didn’t you just say that before?” Robert folded his hands in his lap. “You could have saved us some time.”

“Yeah, well, I’ll believe it on the first day of school,” Andre muttered.

“Look, guys…” Michael walked up and stood beside Emily. “Just because The Darling Budds aren’t around doesn’t mean we can’t be a Gang anymore.”

Everyone on the patio, including David and even Josephine, chuckled darkly to themselves. Andre and Robert openly sneered at each other.

“What?” Michael asked. “What did I say?”

Emily put a hand on his arm. “It’s just…well, there was an earlier period in our lives when the twins freaked out and weren’t really around for a while. And we had a big meeting to talk about it and I stood in front of everyone and said pretty much what you just said. That just because the twins weren’t around, we could still hang out.”

“When was that? I don’t remember that.”

Emily smiled a little, but just a little. “It was in tenth grade, when you first started at Beaumonde.”

“It was because you started at Beaumonde,” Andre said. “You started school and the twins went nuts and we didn’t see them for, like, two months.”

“Really?”

“Yes, Michael, really. We’re not playing a prank on you. Jesus.” Andre rolled his eyes at Robert. “And then they made you a member of The Gang all of a sudden without asking any of us and the next thing we know they’re back to normal.”

“That’s not entirely fair…” Emily started, but Robert cut her off.

“I agree with Andre. Look at the two of you, standing up there like you’re about to take over for the twins. Is that was you think? This must be the most exciting thing to ever happen you two.”

“Honey, shut the fuck up,” Litta’Bit said.

“Let him talk,” Emily whispered.

“You know, nobody asked either of you to join the Gang. You were forced on us by the twins. I mean, Emily, you’re cool and all, and Michael, you have your moments, but everyone else became a member of The Gang because we liked each other and were friends. But you two were just…introduced to us as our new best friends. And there was no discussion, no anything. You were just squirted in by the Budds and we had to like it. And now they’re gone and the two of you are standing up there—and you two are the newest members, by the way—holding a meeting about the future of the Gang like you’re our leaders.”

At this point, a few small things happened at once. Michael clenched and unclenched his hands several times, then took a small step backwards. Emily smiled sadly at Robert and shook her head. David buried his face in his hands. Andre nodded his head fiercely at Robert and actually said “Hear, hear,” which caused Josephine to glare even harder at the floor.

(Litta’Bit didn’t do anything. She just watched her boyfriend’s face as though from a great distance.)

“Well, I’m sorry you didn’t want me in The Gang,” Emily finally said. “But we’re not trying to take over, that’s ridiculous. This isn’t a coup. This isn’t Parliament. There’s no reason to- Look, they’re coming back in, like, three months.”

David looked up at Emily. His face was wet and his nose was running in a way that would have grossed Alexander out forever. The Gang was used to his histrionics but they’d never actually seen him cry. It was enough to shut everyone up for a few seconds…which, frankly, was all he really wanted.

“You guys, don’t fight. We have to stick together…this is, this is a big deal, you know? This could change everything. We can’t fight and…” He said more, but that was all that they could hear. Litta’Bit moved over beside him and he pushed his face against her shoulder. “You don’t understand,” only she heard him whimper. “None of you understand what it’s like.”

Emily sat down beside him and put her arms around both of them. Everyone else looked around uncomfortably. Robert, his rare outburst over, silently observed the scene with an impassive face. Andre adjusted his black shirt a bit so that it covered his belly. And Josephine suddenly became very very involved in cleaning up after everyone.

A few minutes later, Litta’Bit, Emily, and David were drying their eyes and the meeting was pretty much over. Nothing had really been resolved, though everyone made some vague plans to get together again in a few days and begin the summer right. Possibly with a casual dinner party.

Finally, David cleared his throat a little and slipped out the door, and everyone else followed him gratefully. Michael was the last to leave. The prom had only been seventeen days ago. Seventeen days!

He finished his drink, set the glass down, and turned out the light.

Part One: June

Eight

After the pretty-much-disastrous meeting, Emily eventually convinced Michael to let her give him a ride home. Her Mini moved through the slowly cooling streets of the city, as the exhausted maples drooped low, eclipsing the streetlights. It hadn’t rained in days, but the humidity clung damp and miserable on everything.

They passed under a blurry greenlight before Emily realized that she should have turned. Well, she’d meant to take the long way anyway, so she could talk to Michael. But now she couldn’t think of how to start or even what she wanted to talk about, and Michael didn’t speak up.

“Well, I guess that could have gone better,” Emily finally said, a block from Michael’s house.

“It was fine. It was what it was. They were just freaked out, you know? We were just freaked out.”

“I guess.” Emily pulled up in front of the large stone house where Michael lived. All but one of the lights were out, even though it was only 9:30. “Do you really think it was a good idea to lie to them?”

Michael stiffened beside her. “What do you mean?”

“I mean about you saying Lillian told you they were definitely coming back. Is it a good idea to give them false hope like that?”

“It’s not false. You and I know they’re coming back, right?”

“I guess. Yeah, definitely.”

“I was just helping things along.” Michael reached to take off his seat belt, then realized he wasn’t wearing it. “Okay, maybe it wasn’t such a great idea. At the time it made sense, like something Churchill would do to rally the troops.”

“Churchill?”

“Winston Churchill, the prime minister of-”

“Yeah, okay, thanks…I know who Winston Churchill is, Michael.”

“Sorry.”

Emily sighed. “No, I’m sorry. This has been the worst day. At least I haven’t had to deal with my mom. Well, who knows, there’s still a few hours left before bed, maybe I spoke too soon.”

“Here, I’ll-“ Michael started to say, then appeared to think better of it.

“What?”

He shook his head. “I don’t even remember. It’s late, though…my dad-”

Emily looked over at him, but he was looking straight ahead. He was trying to seem amused, almost distracted, but she knew him well enough to know he was stalling. “Michael, why…why do you always treat me like this? You’re nice to me, sure, but never an ounce nicer than is necessary. You’re so distant to me, and I’ve never done anything to you. Then every so often we’ll start to get along like real friends, and just when you’re beginning to enjoy yourself for real, you pull away again. Why?”

“Huh. I guess I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Michael said. “I should get inside.”

“Michael, please. It was like David was saying, we have to stick together. Especially us. As Robert eloquently pointed out, we’re apparently the outsiders in The Gang.”

“Yeah, that one was news to me, too.”

“So…tell me. What were you going to say just now?”

“It’s not important.”

“It’s important to me,” Emily said, mumbling the last bit because it sounded like a line from a soap opera.

Michael frowned to himself, then turned in his seat towards her. “Okay, look. This is going to sound really stupid, but…okay, you said you were really stressed out, and I-I thought I’d teach you a relaxation exercise, if you wanted.”

The car was silent. Emily stared at him, trying to decide if he was telling the truth, before finally laughing out loud. She put a hand over her mouth, but it was no good.

“Okay, never mind.” He started to open his door, but Emily grabbed his arm.

“No, no, tell me about it.”

Michael paused. “You’ll just make fun of me more…”

“I promise.”

“Okay…uh, okay.” Michael closed his car door, and they were in darkness again. “Relax, lay back in your seat. I mean, uh, lie back in your seat. Okay? Now, close your eyes.”

Emily, trying to fight a grin, did as she was told. “Wow, I’m seeing a whole new creepy side of you, Michael. You should know I have pepper spray,” she said, peeking out of one eye.

Michael reached over and shifted her car into park. “Okay, now take a big breath and hold it.”

“For how long?”

“Just do it.”

Emily inhaled deeply, then nervously laughed it all back out. “Hold on. Okay.” This time she was somewhat more successful at holding her breath.

“Now…still holding your breath, clench up all your muscles.” He watched her face go tight, and her arms and her fists and her legs. She was fighting another laugh, but she soon stopped. “Keep holding your breath. Don’t forget about your toes.”

Emily, with her eyes closed, tried to tighten all of her muscles. Just when she thought she had every single muscle pulled tight, Michael would remind her of a different part of her body, and she’d realize that she had overlooked that part. “And don’t forget the back of your knees. And your belly. And the part that makes your ears wiggle.”

With every word, it seemed that he was getting closer and closer to her. “And the back of your thighs,” he said softly. “And the…part above the back of your thighs. And your shoulder blades.”

With her eyes closed, Emily noticed things she wouldn’t have otherwise, like the soft ticking of her car’s engine. And she could smell Michael, smell his hair and his aftershave. (Michael shaves?) It was a boy smell, like camping and leather. “Your eyebrows,” he whispered. “Your armpits.”

“Michael,” she gasped, through clenched teeth. “I have to breath.”

“Okay, slowly exhale, and relax all of your muscles as you do.”

Emily breathed out, and as she did, she let go of everything. Her body melted down into the seat. She breathed shallow for a few moments, feeling parts of her she’d forgotten about go limp. At last she opened her eyes…she thought she’d felt him move closer to her, but Michael was in the same position he’d been in before.

“So, uh…yeah?” he asked, looking nervous.

“Yeah! Do you do that with Lillian?” With a limp hand she reached in the back seat and found half of a Diet Coke that had been back there for only a couple of weeks. “All naked and stuff?”

“No…” Michael said. In the dark of the car, Emily took a drink of warm cola and thought to herself: oh my god, is he blushing? Michael, for his part, was thinking: holy shit, am I blushing? “Actually, I’ve never told anyone else about it. I do it all the time when I’m alone and, you know, stressed out. I learned about it when I was a little kid. It was on Reading Rainbow.”

Emily didn’t say anything.

“I know, I know, it sounds dumb.”

Emily drank some more soda.

“It was an episode about dealing with stress or not throwing temper tantrums or something. I don’t know.”

Emily screwed the cap back on her Diet Coke and smiled at him a little. “You don’t just do it when you’re alone. I’ve seen you do it.”

“You have?”

“A few times, when you thought I wasn’t looking. But I didn’t know that you were relaxing, I thought you were trying to control your anger about something. It was funny, because I’d only ever seen you all suave and dreamy beside Lillian, but then a few times when you thought no one saw you’d just be totally overtaken with this silent fury. It made me think you had this whole other mysterious side to you, this fiery Macedonian temper you had to fight to control.”

“Oh. No…not so much.”

Emily shrugged. “Well, I guess it’s good to find out that you’re not a rageoholic.”

“You should have seen me a few weeks ago, trying to put on a bowtie for Prom.”

Emily opened her mouth, about to tell Michael a story about the beginning of the last school year. But then she thought better of it and said, instead: “Thank you for telling me about that.”

Michael shrugged. “Thank you for mostly not making fun of me.”

“Well, uh, I guess I’ll see you soon?”

“Of course.” Michael opened his door a crack, and the overhead light came back on. “I heard somewhere that just because we don’t have the twins doesn’t mean we’re not a Gang anymore.”

Emily laughed a little. “Well, that’s apparently up in the air right now. So…call me?”

“Sure. Oh, I put your car in stop for you earlier.” He nodded at the gearshift.

“You put it in what? In ‘stop’? You mean in park?”

“Stop, park, whatever.”

Emily covered her mouth with her hand again. “Oh my god, Michael…it just occurred to me. I’ve never seen you…I mean, you don’t know how to drive, do you?”

Michael’s lips were pursed. He looked out the window, ignoring Emily’s giggles. “My dad won’t let me get a car, you know that.”

“Yeah, but…this is too funny. You don’t know how to drive!”

“I thought you promised not to make fun of me…”

“Yeah, about the other thing. This is fair game. And I’m not even making fun of you, I’m just amazed. I mean, you know how to do everything. You get straight A’s, you’re dating the prettiest girl in school, you’re the best dresser without even trying. You’re, you know, beautiful. (Not that you had anything to do with that, so don’t get a big head.) Robert starts playing his guitar, you back him up on piano. Andre’s computer breaks, you help him fix it. Litta’Bit gets a Vespa for Christmas, you go over and show her how to ride it. Yet…weird, you don’t know how to drive.”

“Okay, okay.”

Emily smiled. “I guess Perfect Michael’s not so perfect after all.”

Michael laughed out loud despite his annoyance. “Who calls me Perfect Michael?”

“Not me…not anymore.”

Rolling his eyes, Michael got out of her car. “Goodnight, Emily.”

“See ya at the bus stop, loser.”

Michael walked around the back of the car, pulling his keys out of his pocket slowly. Emily, inside the car, chuckled softly to herself, then watched him walk up to his house. That was really nice, she thought. They’d never really joked around like that before. Like friends.

Walking away from the car, though, Michael immediately regretted having spent so much time with her, opening up to her, laughing with her. He found his door key and stopped in front of the huge stone staircase leading up to the house. He looked over his shoulder…Emily was still watching him, smiling. He waved at her, and she waved back, but she didn’t leave. You have to keep her at a distance. She’s always been the one who could destroy everything.

With a sigh, Michael climbed the steps and stood before the front door. But Emily’s Mini still didn’t move, so he found another key and opened the front door slowly. It’s already begun. She’s going to ruin you, she’s going to take everything away from you. Once he was inside the long hallway at the front of the house, though, Emily finally took her car out of stop and pulled away slowly.

Michael waited a full minute before leaving the dark hallway, stepping back outside, and closing the door silently behind him. Then he walked down the stone stairs and went around to the side of the house, where he entered a small door in the back.

Part One: June, Uncategorized

Nine

David Sebastian Has A Secret
Actually, as chief gossipmonger at Beaumonde Academy, David Sebastian had a lot of secrets, but some of them were more important than others. Here’s a silly one: David thought that nobody knew he was gay until he told them.

Which was just ridiculous, because David—with his soft voice, his slow flirty smile, and his large wet eyes—made Alexander look like a virile lumberjack.

Oh, and speaking of, let’s clear something up right now: Alexander was not, in fact, gay. He was undeniably a dandy, he had a personal style that was elegant to the point of being almost womanly, and he may even occasionally have been a “vicious little queen,” as Mr. Parker once described him in the Faculty Lounge. (Mr. Parker, himself a homosexual, was upset because Alexander had made fun of his socks.)

But he wasn’t gay. In fact, ever since puberty, Alexander had shown a precocious affinity for heterosexuality. In seventh grade, he was caught making out with the daughter of a successful local entrepreneur who was a close associate of City Councilman Budd. To make matters worse, Alexander hooked up with the girl at her family’s own Christmas party.

The two were discovered in a Alexanderly dramatic fashion: the hostess of the party had told the other adults about a family heirloom she recovered during a recent trip back home, and led them into the supposedly empty guest bedroom where they found…oh, snap.

(Lillian, who was supposed to be on look-out for adults, decided in one of her periodic bursts of sadism to not warn the other two teenagers. This made Alexander angrier with his sister than he’d ever been, and he refused to speak to her for almost three hours.)

When the family got home that evening, their father was too upset (also: drunk) to do anything other than go upstairs to bed. But Anita Monroe-Budd kept Alexander up in the family room so she could glare at him a while.

His mother walked over to the couch, where Alexander had artfully flung his wool peacoat and scarf across the back. She fished through the pockets of the coat until she found a silver monogrammed case. At 13, Alexander didn’t smoke yet, but he always carried a pack of foreign-made cloves cigarette to offer adults.

Anita Monroe-Budd lit up and watched her son as she inhaled. This wasn’t the first time that Alexander had gotten caught being inappropriately straight.

“You know what? I wish, I really wish that what everyone said about you were true,” she said. When she didn’t get a reply beyond a cocked eyebrow, she exhaled slowly. “I really think my life would be a lot easier if you actually were gay.”

David Sebastian’s parents never told him that they wished he were gay. His father called David ‘champ’ and ‘stud’ and tried not to think about his brother-in-law, a bachelor who worked in the publishing industry in Chicago and who’d lived with the same roommate for 16 years. After all, sometimes this stuff skips a generation.

David’s mother, in an almost-heroic attempt to ignore the, like, totally obvious, tried to introduce him to the daughters of the women she went to lunch with. Then, when things didn’t work out, she told these same women that David was just shy and a late bloomer.

In fact, David was neither of these things. From an early age, he suspected that he wasn’t like other guys. During seventh grade’s Christmas break—the same time Alexander was corrupting innocent girls in guest bedrooms—David used his natural lack of shyness to confirm matters once and for all. He wasn’t like the other guys.

The boy’s name was Eric Horton. They had met on a New Year’s Day movie trip for the children of his father’s employees and clients. Since there were kids of all ages on the trip, the law firm had rented out a theater playing a cartoon about a young English girl who follows a well-dressed but tardy rabbit into a fantastical world.

Only about half of the adult chaperones had actually shown up, and the ones who had were too hungover to care about much. So the older teenagers, bored by the kid’s movie, snuck outside to smoke pot or made out in the back rows.

David met Eric Horton in the lobby before the movie, and they had talked about skateboards and Ferraris while glancing at each other, smiling, and quickly looking away. When they went into the movie, Eric Horton ignored David and didn’t sit with him, so David spent the beginning of the movie staring at the back of Eric Horton’s head and clutching his own stomach. He curled his toes and released them. He was terribly thirsty.

All he wanted was for Eric Horton to turn around and smile at him. Then, a second later, he would pray that this didn’t happen. Finally, after twenty minutes of agony, Eric Horton got up and walked up the aisle with a slow sidelong look at David.

David breathed through his mouth and counted to a hundred. He started to get up, but he just couldn’t do it. He counted to seventy-five, then to a hundred again, and finally made it out of the theater.

Eric Horton was waiting for him in the men’s bathroom. David instinctively knew that’s where he would be, even though they could have gone anywhere else, like outside or the back of another theater. To David, a closeted 13-year-old Catholic virgin, it made sense: when you wanted to do something private, something dirty, something you didn’t want other people to find out about, you went to the bathroom.

They kissed for almost ten minutes. David held Eric Horton’s hair and his back and tried to think about what he was doing—this is happening…this is actually happening—but he was dizzy and nervous and all he could think about was that Eric Horton’s lips weren’t greasy from popcorn butter. In the books David had read, whenever teenagers kissed at the movies, their lips were always greasy from popcorn butter.

When they broke apart, Eric Horton leaned back on the edge of the sink and smiled at David. He took a tube of Chapstick out of his back pocket and slowly slid it around his mouth. David, who was thinking about how the phrase ‘weak in the knees’ is literally true, absent-mindedly held out his hand to take the tube. Eric Horton made a face.

“Ew, gross…I don’t share my lip balm.”

On the ride home, David showed his dad that he’d gotten a girl’s phone number. For a few weeks, he tried calling Eric Horton, but the other boy could never talk for long. During this time, David imagined a future world in which he would meet up with Eric Horton at one of the big malls outside of town, and they would kiss in the parking lot and then walk around the mall holding hands and then kiss in the food court with greasy pizza lips and finally Eric Horton would shyly ask David if he wanted to exchange class rings.

Finally, one day in mid-January, Eric Horton answered the phone and said, “Look, I don’t want you calling here anymore. I don’t like you and I’m not queer and if you keep stalking me I’m gonna call the police.”

David hung up the phone slowly and bowed his head. He bit his tongue and then hugged himself as the tears dropped off his chin and into his lap. The phone rang, and David grabbed at it like a life preserver.

“Eric?”

“You’re a faggot!” Eric Horton yelled.

“Okay, now that’s just childish…” David started to say, but the line was already dead.

The next boy was named Billy Hayden. He was visiting his grandmother for two weeks and when he went back to Connecticut he never answered any of David’s email.

So began the endless pattern of David’s dating life:

1. Flirt with a boy.
2. Daydream about fun and romantic things they would one day do together and how when other people saw them together these other people would feel warm and maybe a little lonely because the two of them were Just. So. Perfect.
3. Get crushed.
4. Mourn.
5. Flirt with a boy.

He never had much trouble finding a new boy interested in destroying him. As you no doubt know, not all effeminate guys are gay and not all gay guys are effeminate, but in David’s case the musty sterotype fit. He might not have been the most handsome guy in school, but he was certainly the prettiest.

David had been repeating this cycle for almost three years, and he still remembered each of their names: Eric Horton. Billy Hayden. Aaron Jenkins. Paul Barry. And so on.

But none of them—not even Patrick Weldon, whom David met when his family visited his Uncle last winter—had come close to hurting him like the love of his life: Alexander Budd.

When they were freshmen, an ascendant Alexander took David under his wing. He stopped people from making fun of his precise diction and dramatic expressions. He convinced David’s parents that David had a crush on his sister Lillian…and his sister might like him back. He even tried to set David up with one of Beaumonde Academy’s other gay students, a junior who edited the yearbook. (It didn’t work out; see above.)

And Alexander would flirt with him! Lingering gazes, seemingly innocent touches…David was sure that Alexander had feelings for him beyond friendship that he was too nervous to express. David would stay up at night thinking about being Alexander’s boyfriend and how all it would take was a little initiative on David’s part, and then…

…and then…

…and then Alexander would act horrified and pull away and tell David to keep his hands to himself and later make sly jokes in front of The Gang that would make David feel like he was about to die.

(Then, a few days later, the flirting—and the pattern of David’s life—would start up again.)

The rest of The Gang loved David because he was a good friend who was never doing anything so important that he couldn’t talk on the phone for three hours. He could always be counted on to tell them exactly what he thought, too, because as we know he isn’t shy. Also, he made excellent and fun mix CDs that weren’t nearly as obscure as Andre’s. And his house had the biggest pool of the bunch, and his parents were always more than happy to have The Gang—well, the girls, anyway—over for the entire afternoon.

No one in The Gang cared about David being gay. It was mostly a non-issue, as David’s dad would say to a colleague. But for some reason that he couldn’t quite put his finger on, he felt that it set him apart from his friends. This was David’s real secret: deep down, he knew that he was different from the rest of The Gang.

Part One: June

Ten

A week after the Budds left town, three weeks after Lucas Budd’s arrest, David woke up at nine p.m. and decided that he was going to be okay. Enough time had passed wallowing around. He made an active decision to get over it, and…he just got over it. Some people might have wasted time on self-reflection, but David had more important things to do.

He sat up slowly, rubbing his left eye. He hated waking up after dark, it always threw his sense of time off. Through the wall he heard his father, grunting as he played Madden in his home office, and though David knew that the sun had only just set, it still felt like was an ungodly hour for his dad to be up.

David stretched, the hem of his t-shirt rising above the hem of his boxers and exposing a few inches of his smooth belly. He cracked his neck and ran his hand through his hair a few times because he wanted it to look intentionally tousled, not…you know, bedridden.

David played with his bangs and tried to remember when he’d gone to bed. It must have been sometime in the afternoon, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on when. His mom had come home for lunch around two, and he was still awake then, sniffling on his bed with a sheet around his shoulders. Pathetic.

This morning—well, in the strictest sense it was the evening—David was a new man. He shook off the depression and sadness of the last couple of weeks, literally shook them off, starting with his fingers and moving all the way down his body, and he was ready to become a useful member of the world again. He needed a shower.

And pancakes. Yeah, pancakes! That’s exactly what he needed. What better way to reboot your life than with a big plate of hot, buttery, syrup-drenched…

David opened the door of his bedroom and sniffed the air tentatively. Dinner at David’s house was always a random affair, dependant on a variety of factors. Sometimes it happened as early as seven, sometimes at nine, occasionally as late as Letterman. At least half the time it didn’t happen at all, despite the best intentions of everyone involved.

He couldn’t smell anything, certainly not pancakes. There was a hint of vanilla in the air, but that probably signaled that his mother breezed through the house recently, between “work” and—what day was it? Thursday?—her book club.

David rolled off his bed and did exactly three push-ups, then grabbed his towel and strolled down the hallway towards the guest bathroom. He had a bathroom of his own, of course, but he’d locked the maid out of his room for about three weeks now and, well, a man couldn’t be reborn in a slightly mildewy bathroom.

He passed by his father’s overstuffed office. His dad was behind the desk, his shoes off but his suspenders still on. He was holding a video game controller and cradling a phone between his shoulder and ear as he guided the New Orleans Saints to a second-round playoff victory. “Hello, Lambert Funeral Home? I need to cancel that hearse. Yeah, sorry…turns out my son is alive after all.”

David ignored him. “Who’s winning?”

“Who do you think?” Harry Sebastian was a lifelong Saints fan, and his Madden sessions were dedicated to recreating the happiest day of his life: the Saints’ Super Bowl victory over the Colts. “Wanna play?”

“Shower,” David said, in way of explanation, and moved off down the hall. He was smiling by now, though, because David Sebastian has another secret: he’s a morning person. (“Morning” being a term loosely defined as “when one eventually gets out of bed.”) He knew so many people, Litta’Bit especially, who made such a big deal out of being total grumps when first waking up that David was always slightly ashamed of being, as his Uncle Arthur always said, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Forty-five minutes later, David was back in his bedroom, pulling on his second-favorite pair of jeans. One advantage, however small, of Alexander being out of town was that he could get away with wearing his jeans as often as he liked. He grabbed a graphic tee—some sort of oversized curlicues were silkscreened up near the shoulder—and cut the tags out before putting it on. No better way to restart your life than with the starchy smell of a new shirt; he knew he’d been holding this one aside for a reason.

Socks, a leather necklace, some bracelets…he was ready to face the day. Night, that is. He sighed happily and, sitting down behind his computer, got to work on correcting three weeks of absenteeism.

First he looked at his cell-phone. He’d missed three calls while he slept that afternoon, all of them from Litta’Bit. She didn’t leave any messages, though. David knew it was because she hadn’t planned out the conversation beyond “Hi.” She’d been alternately worried about and mad at him the last few weeks, and he guessed he deserved it. He would have to do something nice for her, maybe send her flowers or at the very least find an online greeting card. Maybe he’d do something with construction paper if he felt particularly inspired later that night.

Moving on to the computer, he checked his email and answered a couple that were particularly important. His uncle had sent him an itinerary for his upcoming Chicago trip; and Patrick (his special friend in—what a coincidence!—Chicago) had written him a few delicious notes. The rest were spam or easily ignored for another day or so.

He started up Messenger and flipped through all the off-line messages he’d gotten in the last few weeks. They started off casual, but then eventually became variations on the same theme: “Where are you?”, “wots up, where u been??”, etc. David looked through his truly startling Buddy List to see which of his hundreds of Buddies were online.

Litta’Bit was off-line, which meant either Robert was over at her house or the power was out in her neighborhood. Otherwise, she would have been online and probably no more than five feet away from the computer. Andre was online, but he didn’t answer any of David’s messages. This wasn’t surprising…Andre was always registered as being online regardless of whether he was actually around or not. Andre was so rude, it was like he’d never heard of an Away message. Geesh.

Now this was interesting, though: Emily was online, which didn’t happen too often. She tended to only be on Messenger when she wanted to chat with people. She was old-fashioned like that.

DAVID: Marco?

DAVID: Marco?

DAVID: Marco?

EMILY: Polo!

DAVID: Finally.

EMILY: Sorry, I was playing Minesweeper.

DAVID: LOL

EMILY: No, I really was.

DAVID: Come on, it can’t be that boring over there.

DAVID: Get your Dad to play Monopoly with you with real money.

EMILY: Wow, that’s the best you can do?

DAVID: Sorry, just woke up.

They chatted for a little while as David sorted his email. Emily told him she was bored, that there was nothing to do with her boyfriend out of town and The Gang apparently on hiatus. Also, her mother kept bothering her. David told her that he was a new man, and that he wanted pancakes.

He thought about inviting her over, but his room was messy and even though it was only about ten, it felt a lot later than it really was. Besides, he still had so much to get done…being reborn could be kind of a hassle.

After a while, Emily said she “guessed” she was going to bed, and that she’d talk to him soon. David told her they needed to hang out sometime, and then she was gone. He felt bad for her, but not for any reason he could put his finger on. He’d have to tell Litta’Bit to take her shopping or something.

David opened up his browser and checked his Twitter stream, his Tumblr dashboard, his old LiveJournal page, and his Facebook feed. (And then he checked his secret Facebook feed, the ones his parents and most of his friends didn’t know about.) He had a lot of work to do…some people can disappear from the web for a few weeks and no one’s the wiser. It’s safe to say that David isn’t one of these people.

He was just updating one of his Blogspot sites when his dad yelled up the stairs for him to come down. In his office, Harry Sebastian had taken his Saints back to the Super Bowl. He had an unlit cigarette in his mouth and he had on one of the fedoras he wore in all of his TV commercials. He looked up at David and whistled. “I haven’t seen you this dressed up in a few weeks. Or even dressed.”

David sat down beside his dad on the small leather sofa. “I’m a new man, dad.”

His father pointed at the screen, where the pixelated Saints had the ball and were up by five, with :57 seconds left in the fourth quarter. “I paused it with a minute left to go so you can watch us take it all the way.”

Almost immediately, though, the Colts intercepted, and David’s dad swore softly. “But will it be enough?” John Madden asked them. David knew more about sports than the rest of The Gang put together; part of this was because of his dad, of course, and part of it was his more personal interest in certain athletes. He thought for a second about picking up the other controller and taking over, but he knew better than that. He was a better player than his dad, and if David pulled out a Colts victory at the last second, well…

“Oh hey, your mom called during one of your seven consecutive showers.” His father didn’t look up from the screen. Brady threw a 35-yard bomb that connected for a first down. “Damn it. Dang it. Anyway, her affair with Antonio the Latin lover is running long tonight, so us boys have to fend for ourselves.”

David and his dad had so many running jokes that their conversations were often incomprehensible to eavesdroppers like us. Her affair with Antonio the Latin lover was actually his mom’s Thursday night book club. The women spent about an hour sipping wine and talking half-heartedly about whatever book they didn’t quite get around to reading. If it was running long, though, it meant that the women had dispensed with the pretense of the book altogether and were just drinking cocktails and gossiping. David could relate.

It came down to the last play of the game. The Colts were within ten yards of a touchdown with only seconds left to go. Peyton Manning lofted a slow pass over the heads of his opponents. The clock ran out. A lone unguarded Colt waited patiently in the end zone, watching the ball float right towards him. Finally, with a desperate lunge, a Saints linebacker flew forward and, with just the tips of his fingers, knocked the ball to the ground.

The game was over. All throughout the city of New Orleans, every bar—from the poshest lounge to the grossest dive—erupted in frantic cheers. Enemies embraced and ancient rivalries were temporarily forgotten. Old men sat wordless in front of their television sets, and the images they never thought they’d see were reflected in their tears. Fireworks went off, guns were fired in the air, and bonfires sprang up in the streets. Giddy policemen ran their sirens just for the joy of the sound. A bewildered Satan looked up from his throne of skulls as the first flakes of snow began to fall on his sulfurous kingdom. The New Orleans Saints had won the Super Bowl.

David’s dad jokingly pumped his fist and even got his son to high-five him. “Boo-ya!” he muttered as he turned off the game, and David wondered where in the world he’d picked that up.

But the game was soon forgotten—after all, the Saints won the Super Bowl at least a few times a week in their house—in favor of the discussion about where the two of them would go out to eat. “What time is it, 10:15? I think Canizzaro’s seats until 10:30, but Rocco would let us in if we got there a little late. Where else? Chez Fillíon is closed, but the upstairs bar serves food…”

“Hey, dad?” David looked up at his father and smiled. “Isn’t IHOP open all night?”

Part One: June

Eleven

Out beyond the city of New Orleans, across the Mississippi River and past the shopping malls and strip malls and outlet malls, is a series of increasingly upscale gated communities. One of the newest is Westwood Village, which was open to anyone but because of its location and marketing was populated almost exclusively by the successful children of Vietnamese immigrants. The area had only recently been reclaimed; two years before it had all been swampland and dirtbike trails.

At one o’clock on a Sunday night, the entire development was quiet and dark and, because it was so far outside of the city, a few stars could even be seen in the sky over the unused golf course of the Village. In just a few hours, the doctors and lawyers and IT professionals would have make the commute into town and begin the sixty hour work weeks that paid for their houses, so they jealously clung to the last of their sleep.

There were only two lights on in the whole subdivision. One was at the guard shack by the front gate, where a retired policeman watched Cheaters on a small black & white television with the sound turned down, while he listened to a police scanner out of habit and nostalgia.

The other light was in a window on the top storey of the Huynh house, the largest and nicest home in Westwood Village. It was a pink gumdrop lamp, covered with both a white lampshade and an old silk scarf, and it sat on Litta’Bit’s nightstand casting a weak light on her and Robert as they lay beside each other on the bed.

Litta’Bit was on her back, with a pinch of hair between two of her fingers. She’d been staring at her dead ends, but now she seemed to be looking past them, towards the ceiling. Robert watched her face.

“What are you looking at?” he asked softly. He knew he’d have to be going home soon. He didn’t really have a curfew, but he didn’t want to give his mother a reason for giving him one. Besides, he started his summer studies at nine; Mondays were AP English.

The Huynh’s house was the centerpiece of Westwood Village; it lay at the end of the main avenue that all the other streets grew out of, and was in the center of a cul-de-sac. This meant that only a few people ever needed to drive by their house, and certainly not in the middle of the night. Robert hadn’t heard a car for hours; actually, after a little thought, he realized he couldn’t remember ever having heard a car pass by.

Earlier that night, Robert had driven around with his girlfriend and a reborn David in what they called Snoopy’s Head. From the side, Litta’Bit’s car—a boxy white SUV with black trim—sorta kinda resembled Snoopy in profile, so The Gang referred to it as Snoopy’s Head, though no one could remember who came up with the nickname.

It was good to see David, but Robert had wished he’d gotten to be alone with Litta’Bit more. So it was good being in her bed at the end of the night. Litta’Bit lived so far out of the city that her backyard butted up against the end of civilization…if you jumped her fence and kept walking, you could make it to the Gulf Of Mexico without seeing another human. In the dark and quiet of Westwood Village, he felt cocooned with her, floating through space in her pink and girlish room. The soft bass from her brother Jason’s room next door was as gentle and as slow as a mother’s heartbeat.

Robert was propped up on an elbow beside Litta’Bit, looking down at her as she twirled her hair and stared at the ceiling. They were mostly clothed, and Robert knew this was unlikely to change. As a consolation, he had his hand under her hoodie, resting flat on the soft midriff swell just under her belly button.

Litta’Bit blinked and looked over at him without moving her head. “You need to apologize to Emily.”

“What?” he said. “Why?”

“You know why.” She twirled her hair for a second, the curl at the end describing a soft circle.

Robert pushed himself up a bit higher. “I don’t regret saying any of that. In fact, I think I was more than justified in…”

Litta’Bit dropped her hair. “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it. You hurt her feelings.”

“You’ve talked to her?”

“Not since that night. But I know she’s hurt. The boy she loves had left town, maybe for the summer, maybe forever-”

“They’re coming back.”

“I know they are, but Jesus, Robert, this was the day they left, you know?”

“You want me to apologize to Michael, too? Maybe send him some flowers?”

“Don’t be a jerk, Michael can take care of himself. But Emily was-”

“Since when are you best friends with Bellecastle?”

Litta’Bit rolled her eyes. “God, never mind.” She took up another lock of hair and began inspecting it intently. In the other room, the soft bass stopped suddenly. After a minute or two, there was the hushed sound of water flowing through pipes and the bass started up again with a different rhythm. Robert heard a train blow its whistle three times very far away, and he understood finally that it wasn’t a train, but a ship on the Mississippi River.

Robert whispered, “This is nice, just the two of us.”

He expected her to roll her eyes again, but to his surprise she sighed happily and settled back against his chest. “It is nice.”

They were quiet for a few minutes. Litta’Bit closed her eyes and lay against Robert’s chest. He slowly moved his hand off her stomach, sliding it higher and feeling Litta’Bit’s body tense slightly under the movement. His hand ran over her belly and up to her ribcage—delicate and small, as though carved with great precision by master craftsmen—before she pushed it back down to her midsection. She let go of his hand, but he kept moving it down lower and lower until she grabbed his wrist and threw it off of her.

She slid away from him a little. “You’re out of your mind. Grabbing my tit didn’t work so-” But Robert suddenly pulled her close, crushing her chest to his. He took her leg and pulled it up over his hips, then stared at her eyes. He meant to look passionate, but he knew he just looked crazed.

Litta’Bit’s body tightened under his grip as she pushed on his chest. “Get off of me, you goon,” she cried in a whisper, but with the very slightest hint of amusement in her voice. “You’re crushing me. God.”

Robert knew he’d made a mistake, and suddenly he couldn’t remember why he had thought this would work or what he’d wanted to accomplish. She was even giving him an out by attempting to laugh it off. But instead he pushed his mouth up to her ear. “What is wrong with you?” he whispered.

Litta’Bit pushed his hand off her leg. “What’s wrong with me? Classic.” She slid her leg off his hips, but Robert still held her against his chest. “I’m just not horny, okay? I’m not your hooker.”

“You never want to.” Robert sighed and let go of her. She scooted back a little and straightened herself out, but to his surprise she stayed in his arms. “Elizabeth, we haven’t done anything since before the Budds left. Since before school let out, really. I mean, not even on Prom night…”

“You’re still talking about that? I think I had alcohol poisoning, Robert…”

“It’s not just about that, though. You never call me, you never want to talk. We never hang out.”

“We hung out tonight!”

Robert sat up on the edge of the bed and rubbed his right eye. “No. You hung out with David while I drove Snoopy’s Head around.”

“That’s not fair. He’s my best friend, I hadn’t really seen him in three weeks.”

Robert didn’t say anything. He looked over and saw that one of Litta’Bit’s feet was laying beside his thigh. He put his hand over it, and pressed his thumb into the arch.

“Besides,” Litta’Bit said, a bit softer now, “didn’t we hang out earlier this week? Like on Wednesday?”

Pushing harder with his thumb, Robert turned a bit and placed her soft foot on his lap. “On Thursday, yeah. But only because David was still in mourning and you were lonely. Also, I mostly just sat right here and watched you play Grand Theft Auto.”

Litta’Bit scooted down in the bed and pushed her foot further into his hands. He was rubbing the top of her instep now. “You could have played if you wanted.” She groaned a little. “Could you…right, the heel. God.”

Litta’Bit had the disconcerting ability to articulate each of her toes, spreading them out like a tiny hand. It was unsettling and a little gross, but Robert never said anything. The one time he’d remarked on it, Litta’Bit had claimed it was because she did yoga and had better control over her muscles than other people, and in fact she found it weird and disgusting that other people couldn’t do it. (However, as far as Robert could tell, Litta’Bit had taken up and abandoned yoga over the course of three weeks during freshman year.)

“That’s perfect, just a little harder,” Litta’Bit sighed.

“You know, if you didn’t wear heels every single day…”

“Oh, please…” Robert didn’t have to look up at her face to know that Litta’Bit had just rolled her eyes at him. She did it a lot.

Robert moved back a little and picked up her other foot, then pulled the sheet back down over her bare knees. He quietly rubbed her feet for a few minutes, and then a few more. He remembered reading somewhere that, after a fight, Amish husbands wouldn’t apologize in words but would meekly wash the feet of their wives. Wait, was it Amish? It was late, Robert couldn’t remember. Maybe it was just in a movie, actually.

“Of course,” he said softly, as he carefully squeezed each of her delicate toes, “you wouldn’t really call it playing Grand Theft Auto, would you?”

Litta’Bit didn’t say anything, and Robert continued rubbing her feet. He’d teased her about this before, and he knew that she was making her playful “mad kitten” face at him.

“I mean, all you really do is steal one car then drive around the city listening to the radio…”

Litta’Bit still didn’t say anything, and Robert smiled a little. Finally, he stole a look up at her face, expecting to see her still cutely glaring at him. But instead, he found her asleep with slightly parted lips. He smiled and continued massaging her arches.

After a few minutes, he gently placed both of her feet back on the bed and covered them with the sheet. Litta’Bit didn’t move, so he stood up and tucked his shirt back in carefully, then sat down at her vanity and adjusted his socks, which had gotten twisted around on the bed. He slipped on his black monkstraps.

Litta’Bit had hung his suit jacket up on a never-used hook behind her door. Her own clothes migrated from the laundry room to her loveseat, then from her body to the floor, all without ever approaching her closet. But whenever Robert visited, even if they were fighting, she was always careful with his clothes.

Robert slipped the jacket on and stepped in front of his girlfriend’s full-length mirror to adjust his cuffs and collar. He noticed his head was getting stubbly…he’d have to shave it the next day. His father and Uncle Tony, both legitimately bald, reacted with bemusement and horror to his shaved head, telling him he should enjoy his hair while it lasted, but Robert liked the look.

In the inside pocket of his suit jacket were his “driving glasses,” a pair of prescription-free lenses that Robert wore when driving at night. He claimed they cut down on glare from oncoming cars, but the truth was that Robert was a Young Black Male driving a new car through nice neighborhoods at night, which is pretty much a scientific formula for getting pulled over by the police. Not so much anymore—most of the NOPD knew his car by now, and who his father was—but it was a Sunday night in June and there were sure to be a lot of bored cops in the twenty miles between Litta’Bit and home. Wearing glasses seemed to help for some reason.

Robert sniffed at the sleeve of his jacket. David and Litta’Bit had been smoking pot at David’s house earlier that night, and though Robert had been careful to stay away from the smoke he had to be sure. Getting arrested for smelling like marijuana when he vehemently avoided drugs was an irony he wasn’t prepared to live through. He found Litta’Bit’s Febreze in the closet and gave himself a few squirts. Not that getting pulled over reeking of air freshener was any better, though…

Just as Robert was ready to go, Litta’Bit stirred and opened her eyes a little. “Why are you leaving?” she mumbled.

He chuckled and squatted down beside her. “Because you’re dead asleep.”

Litta’Bit didn’t answer right away, drifting off for a minute. “What time is it?” she whispered.

“Almost two,” Robert guessed.

Litta’Bit stirred a little, stretching inside of her clothes and opening her eyes just enough to see Robert by the side of the bed. “You and your glasses.”

“Yeah.” Robert reached out and took a lock of her hair between his fingers. He tried caressing it, but he noticed that in his hands it looked more like he was analyzing the hair for its scientific properties.

Litta’Bit was asleep again.

“Elizabeth, listen. I’m sorry about before…” he whispered, and she didn’t move.

Why do I always do that? he thought to himself. I’ve already apologized with my actions, why do I have to do it in words?

“But baby, listen: if things aren’t going to change, if things are always going to be like this…then I need you to break up with me because I’m not strong enough to do it myself. And I am going out of my fucking mind.”

Litta’Bit didn’t move or wake up. Robert watched her sleep for a while, running her silky hair through his fingers. Then he turned off the little pink lamp and fled, ashamed, into the night.

Part One: June, Uncategorized

Twelve

Twenty minutes later, just as Robert was easing back into his own neighborhood, Litta’Bit was sitting up in the dark, sniffling into a Kleenex with her childhood blanket balled up against her stomach. She had heard Robert’s last whispered ultimatum, had felt his hand touch her head in love and pity and worse, and now that he was gone his words and touch remained.

She hadn’t been asleep; in fact, she’d never been asleep, she’d only been pretending from the beginning because she wanted him to leave and it was the easiest way. She let out a low moan and one gasped sob at the memory. She was so terrible to him, and all he did was love her back stronger each time…it wasn’t fair to him. (It wasn’t fair to her.)

Why couldn’t she love him back? Why couldn’t she at least have kissed him and held him and sent him home flushed and warm? Litta’Bit wiped her nose. She could come up with a thousand reasons, but she knew what the main one was, no matter how much she would never admit it out loud: he bored her. She wanted to believe that she wasn’t really the attention-deficient party girl she pretended to be for a laugh, but it was a role that, once taken on, had infected her life.

What had Alexander told her and David once? The worst crime one person can commit against another is boredom. Ever since then Litta’Bit had lived as though this was true, even though she knew that it wasn’t. In fact, off the top of her head, she could think of four or five worse things you could do to another person.

Like lead them on. Like ignore them. Like take their love and give them neglect and contempt in return, and watch how it made them only love you more. Litta’Bit pulled the hood of her sweatshirt up over her head and then over her face and sobbed into the cotton and the darkness.

It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t fair. Nobody knew what it was like for her. David could stay in bed for three weeks, but she had to hide it all behind a dumb smile and bright blinking eyes. And she couldn’t tell anyone.

She sat up enough to fumble on the nightstand for her phone. The pink lamp swayed but didn’t fall. Opening the phone, she squinted at the bright display and slowly tapped in the first six of Alexander Budd’s seven digits. She didn’t dial the seventh one just yet, and she waited so long that her phone, assuming she’d hit the numbers by mistake, cleared them out for her. She knew she wouldn’t dial them again. Who else would be awake? David, but he’d never understand. Maybe Andre. She closed her phone and, still holding it, pulled her little baby blanket up to her chest and held it tight.

Robert had said that he wasn’t strong enough to do it himself. If she loved him, if she cared about him at all, she’d have to do it on her own. It was for the best. To treat him right she’d have to hurt him one more time.

It would have to be tonight, with her shaking chest and the damp tissue still in her palm. Litta’Bit knew that tomorrow she wouldn’t remember how she felt right now. She’d convince herself that it was just the hour or stress or PMS. And Robert would call in a couple of days with an offer of dinner or a movie and, disgusted with reruns, she’d say yes and the cycle would continue.

Tonight. She’d have to be strong for the both of them and end it tonight. She couldn’t be easy on him or give him any hope of a future. She’d been a bitch to him so often before and she’d have to do it one last time. She had to be strong enough to hurt him, to help him.

She opened her phone and called him. Before the phone rang, though, she hung up. She couldn’t talk to him…he had a way of arguing that she couldn’t resist. She’d have to disappear.

Litta’Bit remembered what Robert had said just before he left: “I need you to break up with me.” She opened her phone again and sent him a text message instead:

Consider it done.

She closed the phone and curled around it. He’d be calling her soon, asking her why and how and what he could do to change her mind. But she prepared herself, put on her fiercest mask, and waited for his call. She’d be strong for both of them.

She woke up ten hours later with the phone still in her hand.

Part One: June

Thirteen

Emily always hated bringing people over to her house for the first time. They’d pull up in front of the large wrought-iron gate in her silver Mini-Cooper and, grimacing a little, the richest girl in school would mumble, “Well, we’re here.”

And her passenger would always look around at the other houses on the street, trying to decide where Emily lived. “Which one?”

“Uh, this one.”

The Mini would be parked in front of the Mercer Mansion, a white three-story estate that filled up the entire block. A wraparound porch surrounded the house on each level, and a hungry-looking Doberman paced the grounds. Though in the same style as the houses around it, Mercer Mansion was many times larger than its already-gigantic neighbors…it looked like a plantation house that lived on a steady diet of smaller and weaker plantation houses.

Emily’s companion would invariably look around. “This is a house? This is your house!? I didn’t know anyone lived here. I thought it was a museum or a courthouse or…I don’t know what.”

“It used to be a school.”

“Like a private school?”

Emily would wince. “A college. But a little one…a teacher’s college.”

“You live in a college!?”

By this point they’d be through the massive gate and Emily would be rubbing the belly of Gormenghast, the would-be guard dog. Far from a killer, the Doberman had a depressive streak and would mope around for days if Emily didn’t pet him every time she came home. “It’s not as big as it looks…it’s a U, hollow in the middle.”

This was true, but even then the house was enormous. After Mercer Teacher’s College merged with Tulane in the 50s and moved uptown, the mansion sat empty for years. The space was too large to live in, but too residential to be anything else. And there were too many weird details that made potential buyers wary. For example, there were over 75 rooms in the mansion, but since many of these had originally been classrooms, almost none of them were connected to each other…you had to walk outside to get to another room. After being abandoned for decades, however, a Swedish billionaire finally bought the house as a wedding gift for Belinda Bellecastle.

Belinda Bellecastle, Emily’s mother, had been just another student at Beaumonde Academy when, at 16, she snuck out of the house and went to see a rock concert at Lakeside Arena. The band was filming the show for a concert video, and as she was walking into the arena she was picked to stand in the front row with other pretty young girls. Just before the encore, a security guard asked her if she wanted to meet the band, and her life changed forever. Within six months she had changed her name to Bonnie Belle and left New Orleans behind.

Eventually, Bonnie Belle convinced herself that she was tired of the jet-set lifestyle, and moved back in with her scandalized-but-forgiving parents. A year later, even though she wasn’t quite sure she really had been tired of her lifestyle after all, she decided on a whim to sample the domestic world and married Erling Hammarskjöld, an international financier almost three times her age.

Their wedding was the social event of the season, which isn’t really saying too much, since again not a lot happens during a Louisiana summer. The guest list included the privileged aristocracy of both New Orleans and Stockholm, not to mention New York’s financial district. Erling’s ex-wife and adult children also attended, as did many of Bonnie Belle’s former boyfriends and their wives. The bride wore a Betsey Johnson bridal gown—cut roughly eleven inches above the knee—and Billy Joel played at the reception.

Erling Hammarskjöld, despite his wealth, had been living in a modest bachelor apartment a block away from his investment firm. However, once he was engaged, he knew he needed a decent place to bring his wife…she came from old money, after all, and not just any house would do. Almost as a joke, his real estate lawyer suggested the old Mercer campus, and Erling knew it was the only house that would suit his bride.

Actually, Erling’s plan had been a little less lovestruck than that. He had thought they would live in the front of the mansion, and use the two arms of the U as the New Orleans branch of his investment firm. After the wedding, he drove his new bride to the newly-renamed Mercer Mansion (“This is a house? This is our house!?”) and, in spite of his age, easily and proudly carried her across the threshold.

Almost immediately, Erling discovered that the Garden District Homeowner’s Group was serious about their whole “Mercer Mansion is zoned residential, not commercial” deal and were willing to challenge him in court to keep his company out. Erling could have eventually won the case—in a fight between tradition and money, always bet on money—but he didn’t want to be a bad neighbor. Besides, by this point his company had grown so big that they wouldn’t have comfortably fit in Mercer Mansion anyway, so Erling built a large flagship office across town. He used construction companies owned by his new neighbors, and all was forgiven.

For a few years, the couple, soon joined by a toddler named Emily, lived in only about ten rooms at the front of the house. However, Belinda Bellecastle slowly discovered that, like nature, a housewife abhors a vacuum. For example, having a room dedicated exclusively to storing Halloween decorations seems like a luxurious extravagance to you and I, and Belinda would wholeheartedly agree with us in theory. But when you have a bunch of rubber jack-o-lanterns and fake plastic cauldrons you need to store, and you also have this empty room on the third floor…

Emily spent her childhood at a boarding school in New York, and when her father brought her home at 14, it was decided that it might be more comfortable for everyone if she were given her space. In the bowl of the U-shape there was another, much smaller, house living in the shadow of Mercer Mansion, which had originally been the home of Mercer College’s headmaster. When Emily came back from New York, this cottage was cleaned out (Erling had kept his bicycles in it) and turned over to Emily. At first she didn’t like the idea, and stayed in the old bedroom where she’d spent her school holidays. But before too long—a night here, two nights there—she made the move into the cottage.

After being at home for a while, Emily discovered there were advantages to living in a house the size of Mercer Mansion. For example, 75 rooms meant that there were lots of places to hide from her mother, which she was currently doing on a Thursday afternoon.

At breakfast, her mother had suggested that the two of them have a Girl’s Day Out when she got back from running her errands. Manicures and martinis were suggested. Emily had given her bowl of Cheerios a non-committal grunt in response. She could feel her mom watching her, waiting for an answer, and she studied the Etro ad in the new Vogue very carefully.

Part of the problem with arguing with her mother was that Belinda Bellecastle was essentially a 17-year-old girl at heart, and would react as emotionally as Emily to any argument. “Fine, be a grump, see if I care,” her mother had finally said. “God forbid someone try to cheer you up.” She stalked off, her stiletto heels and oversized keychain clanking in a stuttering rhythm. The front door, which was solid oak and eight inches thick, was almost impossible to close, much less slam, but she did her best anyway.

Emily had heard the hurt tone in her mother’s voice and felt loathsome. She found a place to hide so that when her mom got home from her errands, Emily could postpone the apology part of the ongoing cycle they were engaged in. This time Emily hid out in the three-car garage, in the oversized backseat of an antique car. The other two slots were empty; her mother would park her spotless Audi convertible on the street until she was home for good, and her father had driven his 1987 Nissan Sentra to work. Besides, the 70-year-old sedan (an anniversary gift from her mom to her dad) was comfortable, with seats as cozy as any couch.

She sat cross-legged and barefoot on the brown leather, looking through a shoebox that was covered with stickers and full of Polaroids she’d taken of the Gang. She had four more similar shoeboxes on the floorboard, but this one had the most recent photos in it. Emily would take up a handful of pictures and slowly look at each one under the garage’s florescent lights, remembering a time that had only recently passed, but seemed impossibly long ago.

Here was a group shot of everyone except Emily (who was taking the picture) and Josephine (who’d melted away at the sight of a camera), hanging out in the Budds’ family room. Lillian and David were about to arm-wrestle, and Andre was pretending to take bets from the rest of The Gang, his glasses pushed up on his forehead.

Here was a close-up of Michael the night the girls had attacked him with their make-up bags, putting on eyeliner and mascara and curling his already-long eyelashes. Litta’Bit had said that it made him so hot that you could only look at him out of the corner of your eye, like a solar eclipse. (Robert, without looking up from the art book he was flipping through with Josephine: “That’s not how you look at a solar eclipse.”)

Here was another group shot—who was taking the picture?—at the Parent-Teacher Easter Brunch that Alexander had organized just two months before. The girls in white, the boys in white and pastel, everyone beautiful on a Saturday afternoon because Alexander hadn’t been able to convince the school to actually have the event on Easter. Josephine and Andre were missing, but Emily couldn’t remember where they’d been. Oh, right: Easter. Duh.

Emily’s cellphone chirped and she gave a little jump. She’d forgotten she’d tucked it into one of her empty shoes. Robert, of all people, had sent her a text message: I’m sorry about the other night.

Emily read the message a few times, then closed the phone. She looked at another picture—a fuzzy blur of a statue in someone’s backyard—but she was only thinking about the message, and what her response would be. She had been inclined to ignore it, but the message was so straightforward and, well, un-Robert-like, that it gave her pause. If he’d written it in his usual constipated prose, something like I regret any hurt feelings my actions may have caused when last we spoke, she probably wouldn’t have replied. He’d been a dick; the least he could do was call her.

But his message touched her slightly. She assumed Litta’Bit or maybe David was behind it, but still. She wrote back It’s OK, Robert.

Here was a candid picture of Josephine sitting by David’s pool, the first swimming day of the year. She was wearing a one-piece burgundy swimsuit with her lean muscled legs dangling in the water. Everyone else was upstairs, making fajitas with David’s dad, who was playing hooky from work. Emily had come back downstairs to get her camera so that she could get a picture of the chaos in the kitchen, but she caught Josephine sitting by herself, her hair tucked behind her ear, staring into the water. There was a leaf in the water, curved like the hull of a boat, and an undetectable spring breeze tried to push it towards the edge. Josephine would occasionally blow until the leaf drifted away, only to be pushed back towards her. When Emily had taken the picture, she expected Josephine to react in horror, but she’d just looked up and ducked her head, smiling shyly. Emily never showed anyone the picture, and Josephine hadn’t asked to see it. Later, Emily rescued the leaf and taped it to the bottom of the Polaroid, where it remained.

The cell phone chirped again. It’s not okay with me. LB is right: I was a jerk and I’m sorry.

Emily chewed her lip for a few minutes, then wrote back: Thank you, Robert. I really appreciate that. This is hard for all of us. She wasn’t happy with the stilted way it sounded, but sincerity was hard to convey when you were typing with your thumbs. Especially when your boyfriend forbade you and your friends to ever use any shorthand when writing text messages.

Here was a shot from one of the twins’ birthday parties. Since Alexander’s birth had taken so long, the twins were actually born a day apart and had different birthdays and, usually, two separate parties. Emily squinted at the picture, which was of everyone’s shoes lined up by the door. The Budds had gotten new carpet put down over the winter, and Anita Monroe-Budd had decided that hers would be one of those houses, where you have to take off your shoes before you come in. As she was leaving to run to the store with Litta’Bit, Emily noticed that their shoes were lined up in order of color, from David’s white leather loafers to Andre’s black Doc Martins. Emily was pretty sure the line of shoes had happened at Lillian’s party, which would have been on a Friday, but she couldn’t remember.

Another text message from Robert: Lunch soon? My treat. Please don’t make me cook.

Emily smiled and started to answer the message when the side door of the garage opened. Her mother came in and walked across the concrete floor, straight towards the car, as though she’d known all along where Emily was. Belinda got in behind the wheel and pretended to start the car up, looking at Emily in the rearview mirror. “Where will it be, bub?” she growled in a gruff voice.

“Mom…”

“When you were little, sometimes the only way we could get you to sleep was to take you for a taxi ride. It had to be a taxi, I don’t know why. There was this one driver that Clyde would always beep—do you know what beepers were?—and they’d drive around for hours, whispering about sports. A hundred bucks a pop to get you to sleep. We probably put his kids through college.”

Emily had never heard this story before, actually. She was about to ask her mom about it when Belinda suddenly looked around the car, curiously. Emily had rolled down all the windows, of course, and her mom stuck her hand out of the car as though checking for rain.

“Hey, you know what’s weird? The garage is air-conditioned. Why?”

Emily looked around. “That is weird.”

“It never occurred to me until just now.” Belinda turned around in the front seat and peered over at Emily’s Polaroids. The last time she’d mentioned them, she’d called them ‘Emily’s little pictures,’ causing her daughter to storm off to her cottage. She didn’t say anything at all this time. “I’ve been thinking about you all morning, and I think I know what you need.”

“A manicure?”

Yes. It looks like Franz trims your nails with a weed whacker. But that’s not what I’m talking about.” She narrowed her eyes at her daughter. “You need an adventure.”

“Mom, no…” Emily groaned. Her mother, convinced that Emily was a sullen and uncreative teen, had proposed adventures before. Most of them had been ill-considered at best, like when she’d used peer pressure to convince her to shoplift a candy bar from the local supermarket, only to reveal later that she’d walked out of the store with an entire steak in her Fendi purse. Belinda Bellecastle wasn’t a bad parent, not really, but when she tried to teach her daughter a life lesson she usually got so caught up in the excitement that she forgot what wisdom she was trying to impart long before the “adventure” was over.

“No, hear me out. You’ve been so bummed out because Alexander’s gone, and I don’t blame you, it sucks, but you need to snap out of it. This is your last summer of high school. You should be out getting in trouble and worrying me sick. You need some adventure in your life.”

Emily sighed and continued looking at her pictures. “Mom, you don’t even know anything about it…”

“Fair enough, fair enough. But I know this: you can’t spend the summer out here in the garage. I’m not going to let you. So here’s the deal…I’m not going to tell you what to do, I’m not going to take you on mother-daughter shopping sprees, I’m going to leave you completely alone for one week. A week from today, if you still haven’t gotten your gypsy blood warmed up, then we’ll put our heads together and figure something else out. Deal?”

One year after their wedding, Belinda and Erling had adopted a two-year-old named Emily, who may have been the first toddler whose picture appeared in both Rolling Stone and Fortune. Some adopted kids are incredibly curious about their birth parents, and some couldn’t care less. Emily was mostly the latter.

The family joke for as long as she could remember was that they had bought her from a roving band of gypsies. Whenever she got into trouble as a kid, her parents always blamed it on her gypsy heritage showing through. Emily didn’t actually believe this, of course, but this had been the stand-in answer to the “Where did I come from?” question for so long that it no longer occurred to her that there was another, more real, answer. It wasn’t a lie that was better than the truth; it was a lie that made the truth unnecessary.

“Mom,” Emily said, “you don’t have to threaten to punish me with hanging out with you.”

“You’re seventeen; I can remember what that was like. It was only, what? Twelve years ago.” Belinda put her finger up to her lips and gave an exaggerated wink. “When I was your age I posed in just body paint in an Interview spread and almost got the photographer and editorial board arrested on child porn charges. And all because I didn’t want to go to shopping with your grandma…”

“Did that really happen?”

Belinda’s eyes widened. “I never told you about that? The ACLU got involved, there were free speech protests… it was a hoot! It really put a damper on my relationship with that photographer. I should have told him I was only seventeen, I guess, but those were different times. Oh, that totally reminds me…guess who’s coming to visit?”

When Belinda Bellecastle asked you to guess something, no matter how impossible it would be to actually guess, you were expected to make at least one attempt. It drove Emily crazy, but she was actually enjoying this conversation and didn’t want to ruin it.

“Uncle Francois?” Emily guessed, because he had a history of taking pictures of her mother without her clothes on.

“Oh god, thank you so much for saying that. I have to send his birthday present out tomorrow. Three weeks late is still okay…we can blame it on the merde-y French postal service.” Belinda paused, clearly backtracking the conversation in her head. “Oh, so guess who’s coming to visit…? Uncle Sammy! Isn’t that exciting?”

Neither Uncle Francois nor Uncle Sammy were Emily’s uncle. All of Emily’s “uncles” were actually Bonnie Belle’s former lovers of various degrees. She’d stayed friends with all of them, even after she’d given up on her own adventures and married Erling, and her ex-’s were part of Belinda Bellecastle’s coterie / fan club / extended family even today.

Uncle Francois was a photographer who had become famous shooting candid snapshots of rock musicians. Bonnie Belle knew a lot of musicians, and she had the uncanny ability to show up in the background of many of his published pictures. Eventually she followed him home and stayed around long enough to star in a series of “artistic nudes” (one of which still hung in her dressing room) before drifting back to one of her musicians.

Uncle Sammy was one of her musicians.

Emily smiled for her mother. She liked all her Uncles—and they loved her—but Uncle Sammy had always put her off. “What’s he doing in town?”

“A top secret project, apparently. He’s not talking. Did you know Laura has a new book out?” Laura, Sammy’s wife, was a model turned writer of inspirational books. “Oh, and they’re going to be on Larry King tonight. Set your TiVo.”

“What’s he going to be on Larry King for?” Emily asked, but her mom was looking past her, doing the ‘what were we talking about, again?’ face. It never took more than a couple of seconds—Belinda Bellecastle wasn’t nearly as dumb as she wanted you to think she was—and Emily found as she got older that the split-second gesture, which used to infuriate her, was becoming almost touching.

“Wait. Okay.” Belinda made a stern face at Emily. “One week. I’m serious. If you’re not at least on your way to an adventure by then, I’m taking over.” She brightened up. “Hey, we can get matching tattoos! Something ugly we’ll immediately regret. A daisy on my ankle.”

“Or one of those creepy photorealistic tattoos of Dad and Gormy.”

“Some sort of abstract design on the small of my back,” her mom suggested. “Slightly off-center.”

“Calvin peeing on something we don’t like.”

Belinda pointed at her daughter. “Yeah! Old people!”

“The words Deb Life on our bellies in gothic font.”

Her mom, still smiling, paused slightly. “I don’t get it.”

Emily was about to explain when Robert Johson walked into the garage and looked around, confused, until he finally saw the two women in the car. He was dressed like a newspaper editor from a black & white movie: trousers, matching vest, rolled-up sleeves.

Belinda saw Emily looking past her and turned around. “Oh, look, a hitch-hiker. Should we pick him up?” She took the wheel and pretended to be driving towards Robert. (“I hope he’s not one of those squeegee guys,” she whispered over her shoulder.

“Oh my god, Mom, that is so offensive.”

“What? Why…? Who’s Calvin?”)

Robert, for his part, seemed to understand what they wanted. He stood sideways, facing the side of the car, and shuffled to his right towards them, as though they were pulling up to a stop in front of him.

Belinda was delighted. “Robert’s funny,” she told her daughter, then turned around. “Hey, you’re funny.”

Robert leaned down and looked in the car window, as unsmiling and serious as always. “Yeah, I get that a lot.”

“He is funny,” Belinda whispered to her daughter. Emily leaned forward over the seat and smiled at her friend.

“Were you sending me text messages from in front of my house?”

Robert nodded once, one side of his mouth sorta kinda smiling. “I was on your porch, actually. I came by to visit you, but when I knocked no one answered.”

“Yeah, that never works.”

“So I sat on the porch and sent you those text messages and petted your guard dog. He…he has problems, doesn’t he? When I was petting him he kept making this weird noise in his throat.”

Belinda nodded. “Yeah, he was trying to purr. The pet shrink says he must have been raised with a litter of kittens. Hey, you’re making me nervous, get in the car already. But don’t get any funny ideas, mister…you’re getting in the front with your chaperon.”

“Ignore her, Robert.”

But Robert had already walked around the car and was getting in the front seat. “So I sent you those messages but then your security guard came out and tried to run me away.”

Both of the girls laughed at that. “Our what?”

“The security guard? The German guy?”

“I’m so going to tell him you said he was German. That’s just our gardener. He’s Austrian.”

“Well, he was telling me to leave and shaking some kind of tool at me, so I started to get up, but the cook, I think, saw us and brought me inside. She told me you guys were out here for some reason. She also wanted me to tell you that Clyde has a late meeting, so dinner won’t be until eight.”

Belinda sighed. “Oh, let me go call him. We had a deal about late meetings.” For the last few years, she had been trying to convince her 71-year-old husband to go into a semi-retirement that meant only working fifty hours a week. But he loved his work and it kept him young, so she didn’t put her foot down very often. “I’ll see the two of you at dinner.”

Robert quickly glanced down at his watch and flicked his eyes back up. Emily guessed it must have been about three o’clock. “Oh, thank you, Ms. Bellecastle, but I can’t stay that long.”

Emily’s mother shut the heavy door of the car and leaned back in the open window. “Are you a vegetarian, too? I should tell Cindy now if you are. She’ll make you some of what Emily is having.”

“Mom, I’m not a vegetarian! I just don’t eat red meat. It’s gross.”

Ms. Bellecastle winked at Robert before walking off. “She’ll grow out of it.”

When her mom was safely out of earshot, Emily groaned loudly and put her forehead on the back of the front seat. “She’s driving me crazy, Robert.”

Robert shrugged. “I don’t know. I think she’s cute.”

“Of course you do. Everyone loves her. The twins come over just to hang out with her. Her and David gossip on the phone for an hour at a time. But none of you have to live with her.”

Emily still had her head down on the seat, and Robert allowed himself a sly smile. Then he looked around the car, admiring the pristine dashboard and authentic styling. “I didn’t know you guys had a Ford Deluxe Sedan stashed away in here. You should drive this to school instead.”

Emily had straightened up and brushed her bangs from her face. “I like my Mini, thank you.”

“Yeah, but this is a pretty sweet ride. As the kids would say.”

“Yeah, I don’t think the kids would say ‘pretty sweet ride,’ actually.”

Robert opened the glove compartment, which indeed really held a pair of lady’s gloves, and he grimaced approvingly. “What is this, a ’36? Earlier?”

“Robert, do you really think I know the answer to that question?”

He just shrugged again. Emily noticed he was making a big deal of acting casual—he even let out a low whistle when he looked at the odometer—but he clearly wasn’t comfortable with it. It was as though he’d Googled “how to act nonchalant in a car” and written a crib sheet on his palm.

She let him off the hook. “It really is okay, Robert. Everyone was out of their minds that night.”

Robert slowly turned all the way around and held Emily’s gaze for a few heartbeats before nodding gratefully once, closing his eyes on the way down. One thing that was nice about dealing with Robert, Emily knew, was that once you learned how to decipher him, everything was right on the surface. There was no game, no drama involved: he knew he’d messed up, so he’d apologized, and she’d accepted it, and they’d never mention it again.

“Who’s Clyde, anyway?” he asked.

Emily rolled her eyes at him. “Oh my god, I thought everyone knew this. It’s so dumb…it’s my mom’s pet name for my dad, basically. My mom’s nom-de-skank was Bonnie Belle, right? Well, she always hated the name Erling, so when they first started dating she just called him Clyde instead. You know, like Bonnie and Clyde…hardy har har. I told you it was dumb.”

“Oh.” Robert jerked and looked around the interior of the antique car, as though he’d suddenly remembered something. “Oh! So the car…”

Please don’t make me explain about the car.”

“No, I get it. A gray 1934 Ford Deluxe Sedan…just like the Bonnie And Clyde death car.” Robert laughed loudly, to Emily’s surprise. “That’s really clever.”

“You think so? Really? They got it last year for their 15th wedding anniversary. They switch off: my dad does even years, my mom does the odd years. So she had Andre’s dad (or maybe just Andre? Are we talking about that?) reserve a theater and, after dinner, they watched the old Bonnie and Clyde movie in a private screening. And then, when they left the theater, my dad’s car had been replaced with the Ford.”

“Ah, that’s fantastic.” And already Robert was thinking: how can I do something like that for Litta’Bit? “What did your dad get her?”

“I don’t know. Another island, I guess.” Emily shrugged, then laughed at Robert’s stunned expression. “That was a joke. Hey, since when do you know so much about cars? And criminals?”

“Well, Bonnie and Clyde were ambushed in Louisiana. Not that far from my family’s summer home, actually. Every couple of years we’ll have a picnic and visit the site. My dad and Miranda are into that kind of thing.”

“But how did you know what kind of car this was?”

“I went through a car phase. Most boys do.” Robert kept his inscrutable mask on, but Emily saw through it.

“Really? Like drawing Corvettes in your Trapper Keeper, stuff like that?”

Robert turned away. “Of course not.”

You did. I didn’t know you went through phases…what phase are you in now? Asian fetish?”

Robert slid behind the steering wheel and studied the dashboard. Emily knew that, despite his outward stoicism, Robert was surprisingly easy to tease. Only after spending years around him did his true nature become apparent to those who knew how to read it. Robert Johnson’s impassive stare may have resembled the statues at Easter Island, but behind it lay the throbbing brain of a stuttering worrywart.

Neither of them talked for a few minutes. Robert inspected the car more closely, and found it comfortingly Proper. Emily looked at a couple more Polaroids.

“Have you seen anyone?” Robert finally asked. “I saw David on Sunday. He’s better, it seems. He molted, or whatever it is he does. And I see Litta’Bit, of course.” But as soon as Robert said it, he realized he hadn’t heard from her all week, not since she’d sent him that random text message on the way home Sunday night. Consider it done. What did that even mean? She probably meant to send it to someone else.

Emily didn’t answer, and Robert turned around. She offered him a Polaroid. “Remember this? When we all wore each other’s clothes?”

Robert looked at her for a second, then took the picture. “Look at this. Hilarious. Lillian looks so funny in Josephine’s clothes.”

“Yeah, but look at Josephine dressed as your girlfriend…”

Robert looked on the back of the picture, then flipped it back over. “Who took this?’

“Andre, remember? Because we all knew he wouldn’t fit in anyone else’s clothes but nobody wanted to say anything, and he finally volunteered to take the picture?”

“Oh yeah.”

“And remember how you threw a fit because you didn’t want you and Michael to wear each other’s clothes?” Emily laughed, but with affection, and even Robert chuckled himself.

“I’d hardly call it throwing a fit…”

Emily picked up another picture and squinted at it. “Oh. Ha…look at this one.”

Robert tried to peer at the blurry silver image but couldn’t make it out. “What is it?”

“It’s the monogrammed bracelets Alexander and Lillian got from their parents this year, on their birthdays. See…you can sort of make out the ALB here. And you’ll have to take my word for it, since this isn’t exactly my best work, but right here is the LAB.”

“No, I can sort of see it.” Robert looked in the shoebox and saw a picture of his girlfriend looking exceedingly odd. “What in the world is going on in that one?”

Emily laughed and held it up for Robert to stare at. Eventually he realized what he was seeing. It was a picture of Litta’Bit doing a handstand, but Emily was holding it upside down, so it looked like she was standing up. It was taken the afternoon before Prom, and Litta’Bit was letting her pedicure dry by standing on her head. Not shown in the picture was later, when Emily and Litta’Bit had to forcibly hold Josephine’s feet down—she claimed she was ticklish—while Lillian quickly daubed nail polish on her squirming toes.

That picture lead to another one, and that one lead to the next one. Before the two teenagers knew it, they had gone through two shoeboxes of pictures, and the garage door was rolling up for Erling Hammarskjöld’s beat-up Sentra. It was ten minutes to eight, almost dark out, and they were starving. Robert stayed for dinner after all.

Part One: June

Fourteen

A few hours earlier, around five o’clock, Michael Karlinoff sat in his living room playing the piano as his father read the Wall Street Journal. Well, actually, it was a large electronic keyboard, but both Michael and his father called it “the piano” and since we’re guests in their home, we’ll follow their custom.

Michael had taken piano lessons for about seven years, until he was talented enough to know that he would never be very talented. His father, who had spent most of his youth and early adulthood trying to be a famous musician, had hoped his son would fulfill his long-ago ambitions. But when Michael asked to give up the lessons—roughly three weeks after transferring to Beaumonde—his father let him quit without a fight.

As Emily had said a few weeks before, Michael was good at things. She’d meant it as a compliment—and it was true, he could pick things up faster than most other people—but in the three weeks since he’d heard from anyone, he began to wonder if this wasn’t really his downfall. Since school let out, he’d been working for his father, sorting out the fabric warehouse, which meant eight hours alone with just himself, his iPod, and the question he kept coming back to: was he doomed to be good at everything, but great at nothing?

He hadn’t heard from anyone in the Gang. He’d missed a call from Emily a week before, but she hadn’t left a message and he’d made himself not return her call. Lillian hadn’t called him, either, and whenever he called her, he got her voicemail. He never left a message.

Michael began playing a piece from a movie score by Thomas Newman. It was soft, unspeakably sad and, best of all, very easy to play. His father turned back a page in the paper and ran his finger down the stock symbols. He didn’t own any stocks—he had other investments—but he followed the markets the way other people follow sports. He cheered on his favorite corporations and rejoiced in the misfortunes of their rivals.

As he played the slow deep chords of the song, Michael thought about the summer that awaited him. He doubted he’d hear from The Gang. Only Lillian and Alexander thought he was indispensable, and they were gone. So he’d work for his father and save up some money for when the Budds came back (and they were coming back) just like when he’d “gone back to Macedonia” last year.

He wondered if The Gang had been hanging out in the last three weeks. He was sure they were. Maybe they were even together right now, and no one had called him. Were they eating dinner at Emily’s, drinking cocktails on David’s patio, watching a movie at-

“What you want, I should suicide?” His father threw the paper down on the old coffee table.

Michael turned a few degrees on his bench, glancing over at him. “What do you mean?”

“This music is what I mean! So depressing, are we at a funeral?”

“Oh. Sorry.” Michael began playing a jaunty ragtime tune, but stopped after a few bars. He turned around on his stool and shrugged.

Nikolaos Karlinoff ran a hand through his thick hair. “Like a ghost, you’re been haunting this house. Ever since your little girlfriend left town, I can’t have two minutes alone.”

“Sorry,” Michael said again.

His father took off his reading glasses and slipped them into his dark red dressing gown. Though gruff and merciless in public, Nikolaos Karlinoff chose to spend his rare evenings at home living like an elderly Old World aristocrat: he wore velvet slippers, he drank claret, he listened to classical music. In short, he was everything Alexander wanted to be when he grew up, and Michael had dedicated his life to making sure the two never met.

“And how is the warehouse coming? You are almost finished with the counting?”

“Oh, it’s coming really well. I think I’ll be done in three or four days. Then I guess I’ll-”

“You’ll guess nothing,” Michael’s father said softly. “When you’re done with counting warehouse, I want you should take time off.”

“What do you mean, take time off?”

“Is your last summer at home before college. Next summer will be crazy, both of us running around before you leave. You should enjoy yourself…go have fun like a young boy should.”

Michael reached behind himself and absently flicked the piano off. Outside on the street, a car alarm bleep-blooped a warning at a pedestrian. “But what about money for next school year?”

Nikolaos Karlinoff waved his hand, dismissing the argument. “Michael, you have friends other than Miss Lillian…not that I’ve ever met them, God forbid. Go visit them.”

“That’s kind of complicated right now, Dad.”

“Bah. At 17, everything is complicated. Listen to me, here is what you do.” He dug in his robe and pulled out some money. “Here’s ten, twelve dollars. Put on your new suit, the one Sam made for you, and take bus into downtown. Now, find a bar. Hotel bar is best.”

“I can’t go into a bar, I’m only-”

His father, a passionate speaker, slapped his hand on the coffee table to shut Michael up. Michael, so used to his father doing this, had tried the same thing with Lillian and Litta’Bit once, and they were so scared they avoided him for days.

“Please,” his father said. “When I was seventeen, I…well, not for tonight, this story. Listen, what have I told you since you were child? Look like you belong and no one will ask one question.” He tapped his temple with two fingers. “The secret of my success. And yours too, I am thinking.”

Michael didn’t say anything.

“Now, find bar with piano in it, start playing something that does not make people want to jump off bridge, and you have two pretty girls on each lap before you finish first song.”

“Dad.”

“Okay, these girls, maybe not as pretty as your girl, but who is? Besides,” and here he leaned forward and winked at him broadly, “I do not see pretty Lillian. Do you?”

Michael lauged and shook his head. “Okay, Dad, I get your point. I do. I’ll stop moping around…”

“Point?” His father turned his hands towards himself. “I have no point. Get out of house, leave me alone. That is my point.”

Nikolaos Karlinoff stared at him and pointed to the door. Michael turned to look at the door, then look back at his father. There was something about his gruff face, the exaggerated gesture…

“You have a date,” Michael said.

Picking up the Wall Street Journal, his father slapped it against his hand and threw it back onto the coffee table. “Do I hear this? I try to get son to enjoy last summer before he is adult, and he accuses me. Here, Michael, son, I go into kitchen and get knife for you. Will be easier.”

“You do have a date!”

“You should too! Let me borrow your face for just one night, I will show you how to use it.” This was ridiculous, of course; Nikolaos Karlinoff was young by Dad standards, only 19 when Michael had been born, and very handsome. He had dates—usually with women only a few years older than Michael—a few nights a week.

He stood up and adjusted his dressing gown, tucking the newspaper into one of the oversized pockets. “Now, change clothes, leave house, play piano, meet girls, smile, use protection. Goodnight.”

Ten minutes later, Michael was standing in front of his house in the cream linen suit Sam had just made for him a few weeks before, staring up and down the street. He wasn’t entirely sure what he was going to do. The idea of taking a bus into town and playing piano in a bar to meet girls was so far away from what he was capable of that it was basically science fiction. Besides, he had a girlfriend.

But he had to do something, since his father had banned him from the house that evening. He had wanted to grab a book before he left, but he didn’t want to be stuck carrying it around. Instead, he’d picked up Lillian’s coded letter and slipped it in his breast pocket. Maybe he’d go over to Tulane’s library and spend some time trying to decipher it. How late were they open on summer evenings, though?

Or maybe not. He stood at the bus stop for five minutes, still not entirely sure what he’d do when the bus showed up. Eventually, he realized that he’d left his bus pass upstairs, but there was no way he could go upstairs and get it now. His father was very particular about his date preparations.

Michael didn’t really need his bus pass since he had twelve dollars in his pocket. But the bus cost $1.25 and he didn’t have a quarter. There was a Starbucks on Tulane’s campus, about four blocks away, where he could get something to drink and get change. Four blocks is way too far to walk in a Louisiana summer, but what else did he have to do?

The walk wasn’t actually that bad, though; the sun was almost down and his new suit was as light as a pair of pajamas. As he crossed Calhoun Street and entered the campus, he looked around for signs of life. The college students had been gone for a few weeks now, but the campus was surprisingly busy. A few kids ate Subway on the ground in front of the Butler dorm, and a couple of shirtless guys played catch in the street as a bored security guard in a golf cart looked on. Michael tried to walk as if he belonged there.

As he passed them, the baseball bounced on the ground and knocked up against the wheel of a Jetta right in front of him. He bent over and picked it up without really breaking his stride. Turning towards the guys, he started to just toss it back to the one closest to him, then thought better of it and threw it overhand at the guy farthest away.

“Thanks, bro,” the guy said before he even caught it.

“No problem.” Michael hoped he sounded like just another college kid.

“Where’s the wedding?”

Michael had no idea what this meant—he guessed it probably wasn’t college slang, though—so he pretended he hadn’t heard and kept walking. Behind him, the girls on the ground started giggling, and Michael felt the back of his neck grow warm. The security guard blinked heavily at him and waved away a fly that had landed on the miniature steering wheel.

The Starbucks was empty. No customers, no employees, only lite jazz and empty chairs. Michael looked around and thought about sneaking back out. A head—a cute head with curly brown hair—popped up from behind the counter and smiled at him before disappearing again.

Michael peered over the counter and found her squatting on her Converses, pulling shrinkwrapped CDs (Starbucks Presents: The Sounds Of Summer) from a cardboard box and placing them haphazardly into a long drawer.

The girl looked up at him and smiled. “I’ll be with you in a second.” She had that raspy voice that made her sound like she’d been out all night smoking and screaming. But some girls sounded that way naturally…most of Litta’Bit’s friends, for example.

She turned around, still squatting, and began to put the rest of the CDs in another cabinet. As she leaned forward, her shirt rode up, and between the green straps of her apron Michael could see her back and a slim line of white cotton just above her jeans. She had two shallow dimples on her back. Lillian had those, too.

The girl slammed the cabinet door, put one empty cardboard box inside the another, and hopped up to her feet. “Ta-da! I’m like a Megan-in-a-box.” She tapped at her nametag with a chipped black fingernail. “I’m Megan.”

“I see.” Without moving, without dropping his smile, Michael quietly held his breath and tensed up all of the muscles below his neck. He exhaled softly and introduced himself.

“Well, nice to meet you, Mr. Michael.” Megan held out her hand and gave Michael a firm handshake, her jelly bracelets rustling together. “Man, you look great. That suit is awesome.”

Michael knew exactly what to say here. Alexander had taught them that there was only one Proper way to answer a compliment: “Thank you, Megan. That’s nice of you to say.”

“I didn’t realize you guys were in rehearsal already.”

“What…? What do you mean?”

“Your costume…you guys are doing dress rehearsals? The high school drama camp?”

Michael shook his head. “No, I go here. I’m a student.”

“Oh my god, I’m sorry.” Megan put her hand up to her mouth and laughed. “I just thought…you know. So, why are you so dressed up? Got a hot date?”

Alexander would have said that dressing well was its own special occasion, and that needing an excuse to look good was the first step in a journey that led inexorably to cargo pants and flip-flops.

“No, I just…this is how I dress. I like to look this way.” Stupid! Stupid stupid stupid!

“I hear ya. That’s cool, that’s cool.” She rested a hand on the edge of the cash register, but otherwise she didn’t seem terribly interested in taking his order. “Do you live on campus?”

“Yeah. Just across the street. Where do you live?”

“You live in Willow?” Megan cocked her head to the side. “I didn’t think Willow was open yet.”

“It’s not.” Michael licked his lips. “But I’m an international student, so I get to live there through the summer.” When he said this, his voice got just a little deeper, a little thicker, as though he’d spoken English since grade school, but still dreamed in his native tongue.

Megan bounced on her heels a little. “Really? That’s so cool. Where are you from? No, wait…let me guess.” She leaned over the counter and peered carefully into his face. Michael grew slightly nervous and played it off by striking model poses as she studied him. “You’re funny. Let’s see. I think you’re from….Brazil?”

“Wow, that’s right! I’m impressed, you’re really intuitive,” Michael wanted to say, but didn’t. The way this conversation had been going, she’d probably end up being fluent in Portuguese. “You were close. I’m from Macedonia. How about you? Where are you from?”

“Macedonia? Is that an island?”

“Sorta. It’s in Europe, just above Greece.”

Megan nodded her head deeply. “Right on, right on. I’m trying to save up money to go back to Europe. It’s so beautiful over there…I can’t even describe it. Maybe I’ll hit Macedonia next time.”

Michael smiled. “Well, we’ll leave a key under the mat for you.”

“You’re a funny guy, Michael Macedonia,” Megan said, digging in her apron’s pockets. She put a tube of Burt’s Bees on the counter and kept searching. “Hey, do you like hip-hop?”

No. “Yes.”

“Cool, cool. Look, I do the hip-hop show on the college station? Maybe you’ve heard of it? Anyway, my roommate and I host a thing at that club Voicebox every other Thursday, you should totally come tonight.”

Megan had found what she was looking for, and pulled a club flyer from her apron. There was photocopied graffiti on it, and a drawing of a robot dressed like a breakdancer. Hip-Hop Thursdays at The VoiceBox. Old School, Underground, Freestyle. With WTUL’s DJ Megatron and Lady Maximum.

“That’s me, Megatron. I know, it’s totally dumb, but we were making the flyer and the computer lab was closing and I just blanked on a name. Megan, Megatron. Now I’m stuck with it.” While she was talking, she wrote something on the back of the flyer, then folded it in half. “So, you’re gonna come, right?”

“I’d like to, but I don’t know if I can. My dad’s pretty strict about me going out at night.”

Megan narrowed her eyes at him. “News flash: your dad’s in Europe. I’ll make you a deal…if you come tonight, I promise I won’t tell him.”

Michael laughed. “Okay, you got me. The real reason I can’t come is that my girlfriend is out of town and I don’t think she’d like it if I went out to a club while she’s gone.”

“Oh my god, how cute are you? That’s adorable.” She opened up the flyer and wrote something else on the back, then folded it up again. “And it’s a good thing you’re not going to come if you have a girlfriend…in America, when a girl asks a boy to her DJ night, it means she’s totally going to molest him.”

Michael laughed and looked at his shoes for a second. “Ha. Yeah. Listen, Megan, it’s been nice talking to you, but I have a bus to catch.”

“It was nice talking to you, too. You should come back and visit me.” She leaned across the counter and tucked the folded-up flyer into the breast pocket of his suit. “I’m here in the afternoon, Thursday through Sunday.”

Touching the back of his hair, Michael smiled at her. “Don’t worry, you’ll see me again soon.”

“Wait, did you want a drink or anything?”

He shrugged. “Not really. I was just walking by and saw a girl I wanted to talk to.”

Megan smiled wide and even bit her lip. “That’s good. We closed, like, half an hour ago. I just forgot to lock the door.”

There was an awkward second or two while they silently negotiated whether they were going to shake hands again or what—Megan finally just patted his hand on the counter—and Michael was back out in the evening heat. Behind him her heard the chunk of the front door being locked. He resisted the temptation to turn around and wave.

Outside, the guys playing catch were gone, as were the girls and the security guard. A small pile of ice melted into the curb. Michael hadn’t gotten the quarter he needed for the bus, and he idly wondered if he could just give the driver two dollars and be done with it. Surely that had happened before.

That whole interaction with Megan could have gone a lot better. It wasn’t her, he knew that…he had plenty of experiences dealing with girls like her at school. Sure, she was a bit older, and he’d fumbled a few of his stories and she’d called him on it, but that wasn’t it. Was he just out of practice? Was it because the twins were gone?

He missed Lillian, of course, and he missed Alexander. He missed the rest of The Gang, too, even if they’d never really considered him one of them. He missed Emily…he never even smiled at her, but she always cheered him up. He missed David and Litta’Bit and Robert, Andre and Josephine. And, in a way he only barely understood, he missed himself.

A few minutes later, he stood at the bus stop down the street from his house. His father was clearly home, so he couldn’t run upstairs and get a quarter or a book to read once he got wherever he was going. He reached into his pocket and glanced at the coded note Lillian had left him, but the sun had gone down enough that it was difficult to make out the letters.

As he put it back, he found the flyer in his breast pocket and pulled it out. Angling the paper towards the streetlight, he could just read Megan’s two notes. The first said You have beautiful eyes and then the second read Your girlfriend is really lucky.

He had just refolded the flyer and was putting it back in his pocket when an older Camry pulled up slowly in front of his house and idled. The dome light came on as the woman inside checked her lipstick and hair in the rearview mirror. She was older than most of his father’s dates—she might have been 35—but she nervously primped like a junior high girl. Michael’s father, who must have been waiting in the foyer, walked down the large stone steps of the house and kissed each of her cheeks. Michael was too far away to hear what he said, but the woman blushed and turned away.

They got into her car, stopping briefly at the intersection where Michael waited for the bus. His father caught his eye and gave him a deep nod and wink, laying one finger against the side of his nose. Michael smiled and turned away.

After they were gone, Michael went up to the apartment to get his bus pass, then realized that now that his father was out of the house there was no need to go downtown anymore. So instead he took off his jacket and stretched out on his bed. He picked a book up off his nightstand—Brideshead Revisited, which Alexander had been pretending to read for so long that Michael had gotten curious about it himself—but after only a few pages he fell heavily asleep, the way only teenage boys can on summer evenings. It was barely nine, and he hadn’t even taken his shoes off.

At 2:30 in the morning, he woke up with a start when his phone beeped loudly. Emily was on his front porch, sending him text messages.

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Fifteen

That night, Andre sat in what he still thought of as “the family room,” with the TV on mute and his laptop perched on his gut. About two years ago, when Andre had first moved downstairs into the guest bedroom, one of the advantages was that he’d be right across the hall from the family room. But as the months passed, the separation between Andre’s bedroom and the family room became more tenuous, and eventually he’d ended up just taking over the entire basement.

Andre was going through his father’s email. His dad owned every movie theater in New Orleans, and though his company had executives and business managers that handled of almost everything, there were still a few matters a week that needed his attention, usually in the form of a rubber stamp. Andre had been taking care of this stuff for about a year and a half now, while his dad was, you know, sick.

Every now and then, Andre would alt-tab over to his secret blog—which no one else in The Gang knew about—and check his newest entry for comments. He’d just posted the entry twenty minutes before, though, and only a few people had read it yet. It was about the shameful customer service he’d just endured at the family-run pharmacy up the street, where he was getting his dad’s Vicodin prescription filled. Andre didn’t know where they got these people to work behind the counter. Special-ed classes, apparently.

On the blog, which he’d named This Toilet City, Andre writes long and vitriol-filled entries (he calls them “his daily rants”) in which he turns his jaundiced eye on New Orleans and, increasingly, on the rubbish that passes for entertainment these days:

If it’s a movie, Andre always hates it, calling it a “McMovie for the zombie-eyed masses.” (Unless it’s the re-release of a classic, then he’s appalled at the subtle nuances the audience will surely miss.) If it’s a new album, he always sadly informs his readers that the band sucks. (Unless it’s a band on a small label, then he’ll just say he preferred their first album.)

If the subject of television comes up, Andre will always make a big deal about how he’s totally lost because he simply never watches TV. “Who are these people again? I don’t understand how some people can follow such insipid mediocrity.” However, like most people who say they never watch TV, he actually watches quite a bit of it. In fact, the TV was on as he worked on his blog.

Andre looked up at the quiet screen and flinched a little. Someone he knew was being interviewed on Larry King. It was Emily’s so-called uncle, the one-hit wonder Sammy Spade. Andre had met him at Emily’s Sweet 16 party a year ago, and had made a point of not shaking his hand as punishment for releasing such an ear-bleedingly terrible song into the world. He wasn’t sure that Sammy even noticed, but Andre had at least stood up for his ideals.

(Later, though, the two of them been standing around, waiting for the cake to make it back to them, when out of nowhere, Sammy told Andre a sotto voce joke that was shockingly crude and wildly blasphemous. Andre was impressed, and he felt bad he’d been rude to him.)

On TV, Sammy was dressed in jeans and leather, as though he had just run offstage after a massive arena show, even though as far as Andre knew his band wasn’t even together anymore. These days Sammy was better known in the magazines as the “and rocker husband” half of his marriage.

Laura Brennan-Spade, his wife, had been a swimsuit model when she was young and even not-so-young. At 28, just when her life as a model was drawing to its inevitable end, career rejuvenation showed up in the form of ovarian cancer. Celebrities appeared on Inside Edition and Access Hollywood to wish her well. The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue that year featured a spread of her model friends wrapped up in one very long and strategically-draped pink ribbon as a show of support for Laura. People Magazine featured her on the cover twice—once for her Brave Struggle and once for her Miracle Recovery. Andre remembered that there had been a Lifetime movie, too, with Luke Perry as Sammy Spade.

Ten years later, she’s become an outspoken advocate for cancer awareness and, lately, stem-cell research. Her two memoirs were both check-out lane bestsellers, and she’s always in the more-respectable celebrity magazines for hosting fundraisers and galas. To Andre, it seemed like she was on Oprah about once a week trying to convince her viewers to get yearly pap smears or whatever.

Andre opened the file on his desktop where he kept ideas for future This Toilet City entries. He wrote: Cancer “awareness”…who the fuck isn’t aware of cancer? He paused, trying to think of something to add to it, but nothing came.

Apparently, Laura and her rocker husband were on Larry King because she’d written a new book about how she and Sammy can’t have children due to her cancer, and how it’s taken her years to come to terms with that. At the bottom of the screen she was identified as Author/Model, which made Andre snicker as he turned the sound on.

“I know this is a controversial issue,” Laura was saying, “and I knew I’d have to make sacrifices to speak out about it. But as I’m doing book-signings and readings, couples keep coming up to me and saying, you know, that my book had given them strength and thank you for talking about this. And I feel I owe it to them to let their voices be heard.”

Typical talk-show bullshit, Andre thought, about to change the channel. But then Larry put a caller on who accused Laura of hating children and wanting pornography in prime-time, which got Andre’s attention, as these were both causes he supported.

“No, I’m not saying that…by all means we should protect the children. What I’m talking about is our attempts to make our whole society child-friendly. We don’t have to pitch our entire culture to a third-grade level. My husband and I should be able to enjoy a television show aimed at an adult audience, with adult themes—not pornography, thank you—that’s on at a reasonable hour, without having to worry that some hypothetical eight-year-old who’s up way past his bedtime is being corrupted by something his parents shouldn’t let him watch in the first place.”

“Whoa,” Andre said out loud.

Onscreen, Larry leaned forward. “Now, you haven’t thought about…because a lot of my viewers are sitting at home and they’re asking themselves why not: you haven’t adopted. Sammy, you don’t have any kids of your own?”

Sammy shrugged. “None that I know of, brother…but I was in a band, if you get my drift.” Everyone on the set laughed at this, and Andre rolled his eyes so hard he thought he might sprain something.

“That’s not the point,” Laura said to Larry. “Whether we adopt or not. In fact, that’s exactly the sort of mindset that my book and my organization are trying to change: the idea that couples without children, who don’t have children either by choice or otherwise, are somehow broken. And if they can’t have kids of their own, then they should adopt so that they’re almost like a ‘real’ family.”

Andre was impressed. So impressed that when the next caller—some hillbilly from Little Rock, Arkansas—was telling Laura she was just bitter that she couldn’t have kids, he changed the channel so he wouldn’t have to hear her sputtering. He flipped up a few channels, then back down to CNN. Laura was defending herself:

“What I’m saying is that working parents—and god bless them, I’m not saying that what they’re doing isn’t hard—but working parents are given a certain leeway at their jobs that their childless colleagues aren’t. If the babysitter isn’t on time, then by all means, come in half an hour late. Or if your kid’s sick, hey, just take the day off. And parents are given weeks and weeks of paid maternity—heck, even paternity—leave.

“And who has to pick up the slack at the workplace? That’s right, the childless workers who don’t get to come in late or take the day off. The same people who aren’t given as many tax-deductions or as much health coverage and who are constantly condescended to as though they aren’t really a couple because they don’t have kids.”

Larry turned to Sammy and pointed the eraser of his pencil towards him. “Now, Sammy, I’m told you have a fascinating new project coming up…”

Andre turned off the TV…the last thing he needed to hear about was Sammy Spade’s new solo album or reunion tour. Andre had vague ideas of going to bed, even though it was only midnight. He had a long day tomorrow; his Aunt Marissa’s plane landed the next afternoon at 4:18. (Why so specific?).

Andre had been cleaning the house for the last week, but he still had just a little more to do in the morning. Then there would be the task of getting his dad up, putting enough coffee and pills in him to make him function for at least half a day, then getting him showered and shaved and dressed. Let’s see, to get him to the airport by four, he’d have to wake him up by eleven, eleven-thirty. Fuck.

Yeah, he knew he should try to lie down, see if he could fall asleep. Instead, he Googled Laura Brennan-Spade to see what sort of reaction her book was getting. Alone Together: Building Our Empty Nest, seemed to be a sort of boring “journey of self-discovery” to some phony catharsis about not having kids. The reviews Andre skimmed were vague and positive, as though Entertainment Weekly and Redbook didn’t want to hurt her feelings. The controversial views she just expressed on TV were apparently a more recent development.

Finally, almost reluctantly (although he knew all along that he was going to), he looked up fan sites of Laura’s earlier modeling days. They were terrible, of course, with names like Heavenly Creature: Laura Brennan and Beauty And Courage: A Tribute To Laura Brennan. There was poorly-Photoshopped “fan art” (Laura as an angel, Laura as a superhero, and so on) and tinny music started playing out of his laptop’s small speakers. Jesus, dudes with boners could be so corny.

But the actual pictures weren’t bad. The swimsuits were cut weird, and the haircuts were a little out-of-style, but Laura Brennan had been a knockout. She hadn’t just been a swimsuit model, either…she’d started out on the runway, but then heroin chic came along and had pushed her into modeling clothes more suiting her generous figure, like bikinis and lingerie. Andre dug a little deeper and he even found a few black & white nudes shot by a famous Italian photographer, now dead.

Soon, in a secret place on his hard-drive, he’d added a new folder, titled laura_b. Andre was stretched out on his couch, the laptop perched on his belly. (He noted with disgust the way the screen jiggled when he breathed in or out.) Andre flipped through the pictures he’d downloaded, but he always kept coming back to this one shot, a scan of a Victoria’s Secret catalog.

Laura was in a thong, just a thong, standing on a large balcony in (what looked like) France. Her back was to the camera, with her fingers delicately touching the iron railing, but her head was turned—her eyes large, her lips parted just slightly—as though she was looking back at someone…someone who had just come in and found her there waiting.

Looking back at Andre, who had just come in. Who was taking off his black jacket now, not breaking eye contact with her as she turned towards him and stepped down off the balcony, leaving the French windows open behind her as she walked towards him in heels (heels? No, no, heels are tacky) barefoot across the suite’s decadent carpeting, wearing only the thong and a simple strand of pearls against her throat that somehow made her more nude. And she was in his arms now, smelling his throat, her waist curving under his hands, her fingers lightly on the back of his neck and she loved him, loved his writing, loved his critical mind and his flat stomach and his clothes, and she loved his kisses and the way he touched her when he pulled her close to him, her heavy breasts pushed up against his chest as his hands…

Okay, okay, let’s give the boy some privacy.

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Sixteen

When his cell phone began beeping loudly, Michael jerked awake in a panic and instinctively reached for his night stand, where his hand knocked over an empty water glass that teetered then fell softly to the carpet. Michael, on his stomach, pushed himself up and squinted around the room. The phone was beeping incessantly. He rolled off the bed, searched his desk and his bookcase. The phone was beeping so loudly and so constantly—there was no way his dad didn’t hear it—yet he didn’t see it at all. What time was it?

Finally, Michael woke up enough to figure out that it was coming from his jacket, which was folded in half and resting across the back of his desk chair. He fumbled with the jacket as the phone continued to beep, growing more frustrated because he couldn’t figure out where, exactly, the pocket was. Sam always hid a pocket exactly the size of Michael’s phone in all of his suits, so that he could discreetly carry his phone and not ruin the line of his silhouette. But now, half awake at who-knew-when (morning? evening?) Michael couldn’t find the little beeping pouch. Okay, if I’m wearing the jacket and it’s on my right, then when I’m holding it like this…

Finally, out of irritation, Michael just put the jacket on and pulled the phone out the very second it stopped beeping. Of course.

He had four text messages, all from Emily. It was 2:34…Michael squinted outside and saw that it was dark, and after some math, realized that it was 2:34 in the morning. The first message came in just a minute ago:

Are you cycle?

followed immediately by

Are you awake?

Michael sat down on the edge of his bed. When typing on a cell phone, the numbers 29253 defaulted to cycle instead of awake…he knew that much. But he had more important questions, like what day it was. The next message said:

Wanna go for a bike ride?

Michael shook his head hard and came completely awake: he’d fallen asleep reading, it was two-thirty on Friday morning, Emily was texting him to see if he wanted to go for a bike ride, he was only wearing one shoe.

I’m outside of your house.

Michael stood up quickly and looked down through his window. The thin metal fire escape and small patch of backyard was empty. Emily wasn’t there…she was at home, playing a joke on him for some reason. Out of instinct, Michael opened his bedroom door an inch and glanced across the hall. His father’s bedroom door was closed, but he couldn’t remember if it had been like that when he’d left for his date, so he could have been home or he could still be out. Michael closed his own door and switched on his overhead light.

Michael crossed back to his window, and was about to answer Emily’s weird text messages when she came spinning around the corner of his house, wearing a long white sundress that flapped behind her. She stood in the square of light his bedroom window threw on the grass below and smiled at him with an embarrassed little wave.

Emily opened her phone and Michael quickly turned his ringer off. A second later he got her text message:

I didn’t know which room was yours!

Michael held up a finger and moved away from the window, looking around for his other shoe. His phone flashed again and he glanced at it.

Oh my god, is that what you sleep in?

Outside, he heard the muffled sound of Emily beginning to climb his metal fire escape. The sound was unmistakable. Michael flew back to the window and held up both of his hands, then waved her back. You may have already suspected that Mr. Karlinoff might not be as strict as Michael has claimed, but even so, it wouldn’t be a good idea to get caught sneaking a girl into the house in the middle of the night.

He found his other loafer, but then changed his mind and quietly dug into the back of his closet and found his low-top Converses. He pulled them on, then slipped out of his jacket and shirt and into a faded blue T-shirt he grabbed at random.

Michael climbed out on his fire escape and put a finger up to his lips. Emily nodded, watching him lower the window to within an inch of being closed. Too late he realized that he should have turned the light off, in case his dad was home and went to the bathroom before dawn.

Michael knew from experience that the metal steps of the fire escape made too much noise in the dark quiet of the night. No matter how softly he tried to walk, the thin steps attached to the stone walls of his house reverberated even the slightest touch. In the handful of times he’d snuck out in the past, though, he’d come up with a system. Gesturing at Emily to hold on, he climbed over the railing and quietly lowered himself down until he dangled from the ledge. His feet were now only about three feet above the ground, and with a slight swing, he dropped softly to the grass. He stumbled backwards but caught himself.

“Show-off,” Emily whispered, the same thing Lillian had said the first time he’d done it.

Michael ignored her. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Why?”

“Why?” Michael stuttered softly. “Because you show up in the middle of the night, scare me to death, make me sneak out my house…”

Emily gave him a lopsided smile. “I was bored. I thought you might want to hang out.”

“Hang…out. At three o’clock in the morning.”

“Yeah. Wanna go for a bike ride?”

Michael looked at her strangely, trying to decide what she was up to. “Where to?”

“I don’t know. Around.” When Michael didn’t respond to this, she added: “I’ll show you something cool…it’s just down the street.”

“But…it’s late. It’s dangerous.”

“It’s not that dangerous. Even criminals sleep, Michael. Besides, if any girls try to rape you, I’ll beat them up, I promise. Just say the word.”

Michael smiled in spite of himself. “You do have pepper spray…”

“So you’ll come?”

He ran his tongue back and forth behind his teeth. His legs were suddenly restless. “Yeah. Okay.”

Emily bounced up and down on her flats and cheered silently. “Yay! My bike’s around the corner. Well, I hope…I didn’t lock it up.”

“Good thing the criminals are asleep, huh?” Michael whispered.

Soon the two of them were riding down the middle of a deserted State Street that sighed and cooled in the dark. Emily was on her ancient heavy cruiser. It had been her father’s when he was in college fifty years before and he had kept it in perfect condition ever since. When Emily was seven or eight, her dad’s doctors told him that his morning five-mile jog was doing irreparable damage to his knees, so he began riding 25 miles along the Mississippi River levee six days a week on a futuristic fiberglass bicycle that weighed only a little more than a paperback. The cruiser had gotten handed down to Emily. Her Polaroid camera sat in the large basket on the front, just in case.

Michael rode the old ten-speed he’d found at a flea market before he’d started at Beaumonde. It was just a disposable Wal-Mart bike from the 80s (he’d probably replaced everything on it at least once) but he’d liked the curved handlebars, which you could no longer find once the mountain bike style became ubiquitous. The ten-speed made him feel like an over-articulate New Yorker from the 70s, riding his bike to the university, to the racquetball court, to the foreign film festival. Originally black with silver lightning bolts, he’d repainted it yellow and added grip tape made to look like light brown leather. He rode with the right leg of his cream trousers loosely folded up to his calf.

About four blocks ahead, a white Volkswagen pulled up to a red light, then slipped through it. The teenagers could faintly hear the sounds of music, muffled by windows and distance, fade away as the car disappeared down a side street. The city smelled of uncut grass and freon.

They rode mostly in silence. Sometimes, Emily would point something out—the shadow of a saint’s statue on the side of a Catholic school—but otherwise, Michael rode just slightly behind her without speaking, letting her guide the way. Emily seemed to know where they were going, and when she showed him something it was as though she’d known it was there all along and had remembered to share it with him.

Eventually, after riding towards the river for about two miles, Emily pulled ahead of him and turned left on Camp Street, a block before Magazine Street. They slowed down because the street was bumpier and dark, the dirty yellow streetlights obscured by the dense trees that grew in almost every front yard. They left the sleepy barks of a dozen dogs in their wake.

They crossed Nashville Avenue, then eventually Jefferson Avenue. At Jefferson, an oversized pick-up truck idled in front of a closed coffeehouse a block away, as a thick man in gloves filled a paper box with the next day’s Times-Picayunes. Emily waved at the man, and he saw her and nodded deeply.

“Did you know him?” Michael asked.

“What? No, just being polite.” They had moved a few blocks past Jefferson and Emily looked behind her at the street sign. “It’s right up here.”

A few streets later, Emily slowed down and eventually came to a stop on a corner. Michael’s brakes squeaked as he pulled up beside her and a cat the color of cinnamon, sleeping curled up in an empty planter, glared at him in distaste, then disappeared behind the shotgun house.

Emily pointed up at the crooked street sign. They were on the corner of Camp and Bellecastle Street. “It only runs for a few blocks,” she whispered. “It crosses Magazine but doesn’t make it up to St. Charles.”

“Was it named after your family?”

“I’m not sure. I asked my grandfather about it once, but forty minutes later we were still talking about the Bellecastles of 18th century England and I stopped paying attention. But there have been Bellecastles here for two hundred years, so I guess so.”

Michael smiled, still looking up at the bent street sign. “That’s really cool, having something that ties you to the city like this.”

“There’s no Karlinoff Expressway in Macedonia?”

“No, not that I know of.” He laughed. “ ‘Sorry I’m late. There was a wreck on the Karlinoff and traffic was backed up.’”

“Heh. I’ll tell you something dumb. There’s a Hammarskjöld Plaza in New York, and back when-“

“Wait, really? After your dad?”

“No, no. After Dag Hammarskjöld…he used to run the United Nations before we were born. No relation to my dad. Apparently it’s a common name in Sweden, I think? Anyway, when I was at the boarding school, if I’d get homesick I’d sneak away from class and go eat lunch there. You know, because it reminded me of my dad.” Emily opened up her Polaroid and turned the flash on. “Here, I want to take your picture.”

Michael, by now, was used to Emily’s Polaroid camera and her impromptu photoshoots, but there was something he’d always been curious about. He’d never asked it, though, because he felt he needed to keep her at arm’s length. But this night was different, and so much had changed in their lives that he found him asking the question before he even knew he was speaking. “Why don’t you just get a digital camera?”

Emily looked at the glowing red light on top of the camera. “Oh, I have one. I use it for school projects and stuff like that. But it can take, like, a billion pictures and…I don’t know, I just like how limited these Polaroids are. I only have ten pictures I can take, so I end up appreciating each one a lot more, you know?” She brought the camera up to her face and looked through the viewfinder. “Don’t smile.”

Michael didn’t smile. The flash of the camera popped, and the picture whirred out of the bottom, the image still swaddled in gray.

“What color was the flash?”

“I don’t know, white?”

“Good. If you’d said orange, it meant you’d closed your eyes and seen the flash through your eyelids. Pretty clever, huh?” Emily blew on the picture once and put it in her basket, followed by her camera.

Inside a house, a small dog began jumping at the glass of a front door, barking at the sound of the two of them. They pushed off, Emily leading them up Bellecastle, then another street, towards St. Charles Avenue.

“It’s like when we were little kids and we only had two or three CDs,” she said as they peddled slowly through the quiet streets. “No matter what they were, we listened to them over and over again, because they were all we had. Now we’re grown up and we have hundreds of albums on our computers—and I’m not complaining—but we never really listen to the music the way we used to when we only had two choices.”

They had reached St. Charles, and Emily steered them to the right, towards downtown. She reached into the basket and handed Michael his now-developed picture. In it, he stared quizzically out at the viewer, one eyebrow cocked. The Bellecastle street sign had caught the flash and was shining above his head.

St. Charles is a major street in uptown New Orleans, and even at 3:30 on a Friday morning there were cars occasionally moving past the two cyclists. Just past Napoleon Avenue, there was a closed bar where a bouncer with a towel tucked into his jeans and a slight limp stacked up the patio chairs stranded on the sidewalk. He paused for a second, bent to pick up an empty plastic cup, and watched them as they rode past.

The closer they got to downtown, the less residential the avenue became. Large, carefully maintained mansions gave way to apartment buildings, which in turn became hotels and convenience stores. Michael was surprised at how much was going on, even in the dead of the night. Doormen swept already-spotless sidewalks as taxis pulled up to or away from the cab stands in front of the hotels. A police car without its headlights on idled in the parking lot of a 24-hour drugstore. The driver of a large refrigerated truck unloaded his cargo into the back of an expensive restaurant as a security guard watched.

As if reading his mind, Emily looked over her shoulder and called out, “I don’t want to sound too, you know, precious, but I love being out this time of night. There are so many things you miss if you’re asleep. The night is like the desert…most people think it’s just totally empty, but secretly it’s alive.”

They were passed slowly by a deserted city bus lumbering towards Canal Street. Emily pointed at the large advertisement on the side, a huge photo of David Sebastian’s father holding a check. His trademark fedora was set at an angle. Injured in an automobile accident? I’ll make the insurance companies PAY. The two of them had seen some variation of this ad for as long as they could remember, but seeing it tonight seemed important somehow.

Michael wondered if his own father had discovered that he’d snuck out yet. He hadn’t gotten caught the other handful of times he’d done it, but he’d prepared in advance for those. If his father had caught him, he surely would have called him by now, but then Michael remembered that his phone was still on his desk. There was no way to know if he was in trouble or not. Well, he did tell me to go out and have fun tonight…

They passed Lee Circle—“In the center of New Orleans is a statue in honor of a failed revolutionary,” Andre once pointed out—and even the gas stations seemed to be closed. They were in the foothills of the Central Business District, just before the skyscrapers that made up the modest skyline of the city. Michael had to be careful, now, because the streetcar ran right on the street, and his bike’s narrow tires would fit inside the embedded tracks.

Regardless of the time, both of them were sweating in the humidity of the June night. Occasionally, one of Michael’s curls would grow heavy and eventually release a drop of sweat before bouncing softly back up. He wished he’d worn a jacket…it would have made him warmer, but it would have hid the large wet smear on the back of his T-shirt. Emily, in the sundress, had more skin exposed to the air, but her arms and chest were shiny with perspiration. She seemed almost lacquered.

They paused at a stoplight for no other reason than it was red…though Poydras Street is wide, it was empty enough at that time of night to cross against the light. Emily pointed up over their heads at a skyscraper.

“See how every light is off, except for that one line?” A single band of light circled the building, about three-quarters from the top. It seemed as though every light on a certain floor was on. “That’s the cleaning crew. They start at the bottom and clean each floor, then turn out the lights and move up another level.” The streetlight turned green and Emily pushed off slowly. “I wonder if you could tell what time it is just by looking at where the lights are…?”

Just a few blocks later they were at Canal Street, the wide avenue that separated uptown from downtown, where all the numbers started and all the street names changed. It was also the beginning of the French Quarter, but the two of them stayed on the uptown side of the six-lane street, not crossing over into the Quarter.

They were just across from the beginning of Bourbon Street. Fifty yards away, across the thin traffic of Canal, tourists bubbled up out of the Quarter. They wore feather boas and held frozen daiquiris. There was a lot of hooting involved.

Michael was distracted. They were on the sidewalk in front of Underhill Men’s Haberdashery, and he was anxious to move on. Emily didn’t appear to notice. She watched the out-of-towners trickle up onto Canal Street with a small smile.

A police car drove by them slowly, and the young black officer in the passenger side glanced over at them as he passed. Michael focused on looking like he belonged there, one foot on a bike pedal in case they had to scatter home. Emily, though, grinned at the policeman and even waved the fingers of one hand without taking it off of the handlebars. He smiled back, oddly enthusiastic, and nodded deeply at her twice. The car didn’t even slow down.

“Do you know him?” Michael asked.

“Why do you think I know everyone all of a sudden?” Emily looked over, then glanced past his shoulder and seemed to see Underhill for the first time. “Oh, look at the new summer suits…Alexander will be so jealous.”

“We should go.” A few tourists had made it halfway across Canal and were headed more or less towards them.

“Did I tell you about trying to find those baby blue socks for David? Everyone else treated me like I was crazy, but when I called Underhill they were like ‘What shade? We have baby blue, cerulean, (I don’t know) azure…’”

“Can we get out of here, already? There are adults all over the place.”

But Emily didn’t move, and Michael felt her gaze on the side of his face. He didn’t dare look over at her. He clenched and unclenched his hands on the handlebars of his bicycle.

“Why don’t you ever go to Underhill, Michael? They have really great stuff.” Michael heard Emily laugh, but she still stared curiously at the side of his face. “It’s weird, I don’t think you’ve even mentioned the store once since I’ve known you…”

Michael pushed off on his bike, swerving around her. “Let’s go,” he whispered.

They headed back uptown, riding down Magazine now because Michael had the idea that he’d drop Emily off at her house in the Garden District before continuing on alone. Michael rode steadily, not necessarily fast but determined to get both of them home quickly. This had been a terrible idea.

The bright lights of the business district faded out as they rode farther uptown, replaced by occasional streetlights that seizured yellow every few minutes. “Michael…” Emily called out behind him, and he looked back to see her almost two blocks behind him. He must have been riding faster than he’d meant to.

He slowed down and waited as she caught up with him. They were in front of a day laborer service, homeless men already piled up around the doorway, when she pulled up beside him.

“Would you slow up? My bike is heavier than yours.”

“Sorry.”

“What’s gotten into you? One second everything is cool, and…oh!” There was the sound of fabric tearing. Emily had stepped on her long white dress while trying to pedal and part of the hem had torn open, so that there was a large mouth towards the bottom. “Damn it, this is one of Alexander’s favorite dresses.”

They coasted to a stop underneath the massive Mississippi River bridge. Hundreds of feet above their heads traffic could be heard distantly humming past. Emily reached down and picked up the loose band of fabric, then let it go. The tear in the dress draped open, somehow vulgar, even though all that could be seen was the swell of Emily’s calf.

Michael put his bike down on the concrete and squatted by her feet. He looked at the tear from both sides, clearing away a few minuscule scraps of thread. “This isn’t that bad. The cotton isn’t torn, just the stitching. A needle and thread is all you need.”

As he said this, he straightened up a little and slid his wallet out from his back pocket. He fished into a small compartment and found two safety pins, one threaded into the other. Separating them, Michael asked Emily to pull her dress taut, and he pinned the fabric back into place. It wasn’t a perfect repair, but it kept the tear from getting worse.

“Thank you, Michael,” Emily said, genuinely touched, and he felt the end of his fingers tingle softly. “Do you carry safety pins around to rescue women in the middle of the night?”

Michael got back on his bike. “I just have them if I lose a button, or if it’s windy and I don’t have a tie clasp. Mostly, though…uh, you know when you have a white pocket square folded all crisp with only a little line showing above the pocket? That’s called a banker’s straight edge, and unless you’re Alexander you pretty much need to use a safety pin to keep it straight.”

“Your secret’s safe with me.”

Michael reached into her basket and lifted up her Polaroid. Emily showed him how to turn everything on, and he leaned over the side of his bike and took a picture of his repair. He handed her the picture and the camera, and she smiled at him but didn’t say anything.

They rode beside each other slowly now, the two of them talking softly. Emily told him about Robert’s visit earlier that day. The night sky was still pinkish-gray, hazily reflecting the city’s lights. The sun wouldn’t rise for a few hours yet, but a few birds were already singing out in the distance.

Soon they were at the corner of Magazine and First, a few blocks from Emily’s house. Michael slowed down, but Emily kept moving and had to double back. “What’s up?”

“This is your turn, right?”

“I’m having a really good time…I thought we could stop at that all-night coffeehouse by Ninth and get something to drink.”

Michael shifted his feet on the pedals. Emily had kept riding, circling him in the street. “But won’t you get in trouble if your parents catch you sneaking out of the house?”

“I didn’t sneak out. I left a note.”

Michael had to laugh. “You left a note? Like ‘4 am, went for a bike ride, be home soon.’”

“Yeah, pretty much. They trust me. Besides, when my mom was my age she was living in Majorca with an Italian who made slasher films. Or maybe it was in Italy with a Majorcan. No, that doesn’t really make any sense. So…coffee?”

Asterisk (or, as the sign simply said: *) was one of only two 24-hour coffeehouses uptown, and the only one on Magazine Street. The employees of * had come up with names for the three distinct phases of business they had each day: Morning Rush, when commuters ran in on the way to work; Study Hall, when med students and college kids spent their evenings hiding behind laptops and headphones; and Graveyard, when young adults who claimed to be antisocial and maladjusted and unique hung out all night in large boisterous groups in which everyone looked exactly the same.

But four in the morning was at the tail-end of Graveyard—even vampires have to sleep—and when Michael and Emily came into the gratefully air-conditioned coffeehouse, there were only two other people there. They sat looking down at a chessboard, both wearing complicated black outfits that made them seem like medieval monks. One was skinny, with curly black hair and a carefully sculpted goatee. His eyebrows swept up towards his forehead, as though he teased them upwards. He sat with one leg pulled up to his chest.

The other was squat, with a shaved head and wire-frame glasses. He had a goatee, too, but his showed that he was a redhead before he’d shaved his head. When Michael and Emily entered, he stood up slowly, still looking down at the board. He was wearing a black T-shirt tucked into black cargo pants, with a large metal necklace dangling around his neck. He carefully slid his rook one space diagonally, and smiled up at Emily.

“Why hello, Miss Emily,” he said, with a gruff yet surprisingly kind voice. “What are you doing here this time of night?”

“Hey, Dickie…I could ask you the same. Where’s Sissy?”

Dickie walked behind the bar, wiping his hand on a towel. “I’m covering her shift. One of her nephews has a birthday tomorrow and she’s taking him to the zoo. Or at least, that’s the story she told me.”

Michael glanced over at the chess board, distracted. Rooks don’t move diagonally. The board was laid out curiously, too: one side was missing a king, and all the pieces were on the black squares. He realized that they were actually playing checkers, just using chess pieces.

“Who’s your friend?” Dickie asked her.

“This is Michael. We’re taking a bike ride together.”

“Nice to meet you, Michael.” Dickie had intricate silver rings on each finger, even his thumb, and when he shook Michael’s hand he held on to it, saying to Emily, “It’s a good thing Sissy is off, huh?” The two of them laughed and Dickie let go of Michael’s hand.

Emily tried to order a lime Italian soda, but Dickie reached behind the counter and brought up a large glass bottle of Coca-Cola imported from Mexico. He pointed to the ingredients list on the back and told them how in Mexico soft drinks are still made with cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup, which made for a richer, smoother soda. They bought two bottles.

Michael started to sit down near Dickie and his checkers opponent, but Emily ignored him and walked back out front, sitting at one of the outside tables. Michael followed her.

“This way we can talk in private,” she said, pouring the cola over her glass of ice.

“Talk about what?”

She shrugged. “Anything at all. Wanna get a paper? We could do the crossword. The Friday crossword is super-hard.”

“Yeah, okay. I don’t have any quarters, though.”

Emily dug through her purse. “I only have two.”

“Yeah, that’s how much a paper is.”

She looked up at him. “Really? Fifty cents? That seems cheap.”

“How much do you think a paper costs?”

“I don’t know. Two bucks?”

Michael went over to the paper box and put in the two quarters. The Friday paper hadn’t been delivered yet, so he took the last remaining Thursday paper out of the rack. When he came back to the table, Emily was excitedly pointing at his soda bottle.

“Try it…Dickie was right, it’s way better.”

“You know, I was going to say: you really do know everyone.”

Emily rolled her eyes. “He works at a coffeeshop within walking distance of my house. It’s not exactly a miracle.”

The Thursday puzzle was tough, but with both of them working on it, they made it through in about thirty minutes. The hardest part was sharing the one ink pen Emily had found in her purse, and dealing with the slight breeze caused by the occasional passing car. Michael eventually weighted the paper down with his keyring.

When they’d filled out as much of the puzzle as they could, there were five empty squares they couldn’t figure out. They stared at the clues for a few more minutes, but it was no good…they’d never get the last five letters. Finally, Emily took the paper and filled in their initials—ESB, MK—in each of the squares, and that was that.

While the two of them had worked the puzzle, a subtle, almost undetectable, change had taken place, nudging the city past Very Late Night and into Very Early Morning. It was still totally dark, and would be for more than an hour, but there was more movement on the street. A garbage truck had passed by without stopping, the Friday papers were delivered, and janitors, breakfast cooks, and pastry chefs drove by, still half-asleep. A bus slid past, holding three women in hospital scrubs. Inside *, the skinny checkers player read a thick paperback covered in a handmade book cover while Dickie restocked the shelves behind the counter. Graveyard was over, Morning Rush would begin soon.

Michael drew thicker squares around each of the initials, highlighting their signatures. Then Emily centered the puzzle on the table, lay the ball-point pen across the top, and took a picture of the tableau. She was killing time, she knew, because she was scared to bring up what she really wanted to talk about. Neither of them spoke—Michael finished his Mexican Coca-Cola—and the solid gray of the Polaroid developed into a smeared and blurry grid, impossible to recognize.

“Michael…do you like me?”

He shrugged. “You’re okay for a girl.”

“No, I’m serious now. Do you like me at all?”

Michael looked up at her, and she smiled a little and looked away. “Yeah, of course I do. You’re my best friend’s girlfriend. And, uh, my girlfriend’s best friend.”

“Well, I like you. And I want to hang out with you this summer. I mean really hang out, not just talk about it and then never call each other. Robert apologized to me about the other night, but I think he was right: you and I aren’t really part of The Gang, and I feel like we owe it to each other to hang out. Wait, that sounds lame…mostly I want to be friends with you because when you’re not totally cold to me you’re actually pretty fun to be around. But also…I don’t know, I feel like we owe it to the twins to stick together.”

Michael nodded. “Yeah, totally,” he said, but he was already thinking of excuses he could make. Maybe he’d have to go back to Macedonia again.

“Good. But Michael…” Emily put her hand over his, running her fingertips over the knuckles and gently encircling his wrist. He looked down at her hand, surprised. Emily chewed her lip for a second, then blurted it out before she had a chance to lose her courage: “…is there something you need to tell me?”

Michael looked up at her sharply, and she could feel his arm tense up and quickly relax before he answered. “I don’t know what you mean.”

Emily looked down at the table, then back up into his eyes. She concentrated on appearing as harmless as possible. Michael felt his heart beating in his toes and his vision became spiky on the edges. “Michael, this isn’t some big dramatic deal. But I want to spend time with you this summer, and I can’t do that if you’re not honest with me.”

Michael’s arm jumped under Emily’s hand as he tried to pull it back, but she was faster, holding on tightly around the wrist. “What are you talking about?” he managed to get out in a strangled voice. “Let go of me.”

“Michael, calm down.” Emily looked around, but there was no one to hear him. “It’s okay.”

He tugged harder on his arm, but Emily held on tight. He probably could have pulled free if he’d really tried, but that would have meant pulling her out of her chair and possibly across the sidewalk. “No, it’s fine. I’m cool. I’ll go home, I won’t bother you again. And I’ll transfer back to my old school. So it’ll be over, okay? You win.”

Emily tried to put his arm back on the table, to calm him down, but she wasn’t quite strong enough. “Michael, please, it’s not about winning. Stop freaking out. Besides, you can’t go home…I, uh, I stole your keys a few minutes ago and hid them in my purse.”

Michael’s eyes flashed up at her. Calm down, he told himself, and she’ll let you leave. Then walk away forever. “Okay. Fine. Fine! I’ll just walk home, I don’t care. God…! I always knew it would be you.” He swallowed heavily and repeated the words, this time sadder and softer. “I always knew it would be you.”

Michael covered his face with his free hand and kept it there. He didn’t say anything else, and after a while Emily slowly let go of his other hand. Michael left it where it was. She reached into her purse and put his keyring on the table, but Michael didn’t move, except to rub his temples.

“It’s okay, Michael. You don’t have to say anything. You can go home if you want.”

Michael didn’t speak, but he didn’t get up and leave, either. Slowly he brought his other hand up to his face and continued rubbing his forehead. Emily didn’t think he was crying, just hiding. A bird landed on the table next to them, pecked at a muffin crumb, then fled back into the dark.

“Michael, I’m sorry…I didn’t realize how important this was to you. I’ve known for so long-” here Michael sucked in his breath quickly, as though in pain “-and I guess I thought you always saw it as a game, and we could talk about it like…I don’t know, like two con men…no, I mean, like two magicians who are in on a trick together.”

Michael sighed and pulled his hair back from his face. He looked up at her slowly, shell-shocked, almost but not quite meeting her eyes before drifting back down at the table. He reached out and nudged his keys with his finger.

Emily had expected a lot of emotions on his face, from anger to panic to arrogance to relief, but she hadn’t expected what she actually saw. Michael, who was always so confident and aloof, looked at her with a face full of exhaustion and sorrow. He was beaten, he was broken, he was done.

“It’s not like that,” she whispered. “It’s okay. Will you say something? You’re freaking me out. Please?” This wasn’t how she wanted it to go at all. She thought it would a formality, just both of them acknowledging what they’d always known. She thought he’d be relieved to have someone he could talk to about it. Emily felt tears seeping up from her eyes; Michael wasn’t crying—he seemed beyond that—but now she was. “Damn it,” she whispered.

Michael looked up at her and, without thinking, reached in his back pocket and pulled out his handkerchief. Emily took it with a teary smile and dried her eyes. She ran her thumb lightly over the damp monogram…MK, because Michael had explained once that Macedonians don’t use middle names. But who knew if that was even true?

“The twins promised me they would never tell,” Michael finally said.

Emily was shocked. “They never did. Even when we were alone, even after he knew that I knew the truth, Alexander never let on. The few times I brought it up, he acted like I was reciting Jabberwocky. Like what I was saying was total nonsense. I mean, to the end, Michael, neither of them said anything.” Emily folded and refolded the handkerchief. “I thought you always knew: it was Josephine.”

“Josephine?” Michael said it as though he were trying to place the name. “Josephine knew all along.”

“Michael, before the twins. I don’t think she did it on purpose. But her mom’s the headmistress, she was bound to find out at some point. It was probably innocent at first, Dr. Hayes probably just said something over dinner about the new boy in school whose dad is a tailor. But then after she knew, she had to watch you, well, lie to everyone, and she came to me about it. She was sick about it, Michael, she didn’t know what to do.”

“When was this?”

“Right after you joined The Gang. Josephine came over to my house the night of the Halloween party. She wasn’t in costume, said she wasn’t going. I thought it was just Josephine being Josephine, but eventually I got the reason out of her. This was when you were being introduced to the rest of the school, and she thought you were getting away with something. She’d tried to tell the twins, but for some reason it didn’t work out, and so she came to tell me. She was trying to protect the Budds, and the rest of us.”

Michael blinked hard at his fingers, spread out on the table as though he’d just counted to ten. “And after she told you she told everyone else.”

“No, I don’t think so. (You really don’t know any of this?) I…I’m not sure she even told the twins, actually. All she said about that was that it ‘backfired.’ But I don’t think she told anyone else in The Gang about you. I mean, I think everyone knows that you have, um, things going on…but I don’t think anyone suspects the truth. Don’t get mad, but I think that’s why they’ve never become super-close to you…there was always a part missing.”

“I guess.” He closed his hands, then folded one over then other. He swallowed, and finally looked up at her. “Are you mad at me?”

“Michael, no, this was never about that. It’s just…tonight and the other night in the car was so nice, and I felt like I was getting to see the real you, and I liked it. I just knew I couldn’t be around you if we didn’t talk about this at least a little. But I’m not angry at you, not really.”

“Not really?”

Emily shrugged. “I’ve known for almost two years. I had my chance to be mad at you, remember…? I didn’t talk to you for almost two months, Halloween to Christmas. Finally I just more or less got over it.”

Michael nodded slowly. “More or less.”

“People don’t like to be lied to, Michael. But I swear I didn’t know it was going to be like this. I never meant to attack you or whatever. I didn’t even plan to do this tonight…this wasn’t a set-up. I just wanted to take a bike ride. I’ve been really lonely and tonight I was having a really good time with you, then we were in front of Underhill and I thought we should clear the air so I teased you a little bit. I thought you would just be like, ‘Oh, you know, too? Ha ha.’”

He shook his head, and a lock of his hair landed on his eyelashes. Michael brushed it away. “No,” he whispered. “Oh god, no. Never like that.”

“I know, now. I mean, I hadn’t really thought about this, but I’m sorta relieved you weren’t casual about it. I guess things would be different, actually, if you had laughed it off.”

Pinching the bridge of his nose, and then placing a thumb and finger on his closed eyes, Michael opened his mouth. But he didn’t speak for a few minutes, then finally he lowered his hand. “I don’t know how to start.”

“It’s okay.” Emily put her hand over his and squeezed. “You don’t have to.”

Michael sighed and looked past the veranda’s high ceiling at the darkness above. The dark crust of the night sky was crumbling away, leaving a deep blue glowing underneath. It was quiet for a long time before he finally said “I have to be home before the sun rises.”

“Because of your dad?”

“Partially, yeah. But also because…I don’t know why, I just feel like this—all of this—belongs to the night. And yes, I know how that makes me sound.”

Emily smiled at him. “Let’s go. I’ll ride back with you.”

“You don’t have to.” He stood up and tossed the melted ice from his glass into the street, then couldn’t remember why he felt like he had to do this.

Emily stood up, too. “Michael, I made a solemn promise that I’d protect you from rapists, and I intend to live up to it.” She caught Dickie’s eye through the window and waved goodbye. She pointed at the empty bottles, her eyebrows raised, and he shook his head happily. No need to bring them inside. Emily bounced up and down, excitedly rubbing her belly and she could hear his laughter through the glass.

On the ride home, they talked easier than they ever had before. There was nothing explicitly different between them, but there had been a small shift—like cracking your neck after an uncomfortable nap—that seemed to change everything.

They both pedaled quickly through the streets, passing sleepy dog-walkers and iPodded joggers. (They kept an eye open for Josephine, but they didn’t see her.) The two of them dodged the wrong way down empty one-way streets and weaved back and forth around each other. They were racing against the sun, trying to get back to Michael’s house before it peeked over the edge of the downtown skyscrapers and found them wandering the streets.

“I never really liked the idea of sunrises,” Michael said over his shoulder. Emily had been riding a little behind him, but on the sidewalk, and at the end of the block she dropped down to the street and pulled up beside him.

“What could that possibly mean?”

Michael crinkled his nose. “Well, think about it. We’re standing on the Earth while it spins us forward towards the sun, head over heels, at ten thousand miles an hour. It’s freaky. Sunsets are no better, falling backwards like that.”

Emily swerved around a pothole. “Is it really ten thousand?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

By the time they arrived at Michael’s house, almost half the sky was the color of a legal pad and already radiating warmth, but the itself sun hadn’t quite slipped above the skyline. Michael put a finger up to his lips as they locked their bikes up.

“What time is it?” he whispered.

Emily reached into her purse and looked at her cell phone. “6:17.”

Mr. Karlinoff was an early riser, often at work by seven-thirty. He was usually awake by now, and the first thing he usually did in the morning was open the curtains in his bedroom. The curtains were closed. His dad was either sleeping in or hadn’t come home last night.

Michael crept up the fire escape slowly, skipping two steps at a time to minimize noise. He tried not to make too much of a racket, but it was unavoidable and he was probably louder than if he’d just run up the metal steps.

He climbed into his bedroom window and paused, listening to the house. Nothing. He slipped on his jacket. He had the vague idea that if his dad had heard him come in, he could pretend that he’d just gotten home from entertaining young ladies at a hotel piano bar. Not that this was any better than having snuck out in the middle of the night, but he didn’t have time to consider that. He hadn’t missed any calls, and when he stuck his head out into the hallway, the house was still dark.

Michael took off the jacket and climbed out the window. He slipped back down the fire escape and took Emily by the hand, pulling her up to his room. “Michael…” she whispered, but didn’t resist. Neither of them had talked about her coming up to his room, but it was assumed without being spoken.

She was the first person in The Gang, other than Lillian, to see Michael’s room. It didn’t look anything at all like what she thought it would…it was just a teenage boy’s bedroom. Cleaner than most, and with more books, but mostly the same. In Emily’s imagination it had been spare, like a Renaissance artist’s studio, with every surface covered in papers and low-burning candles. Shades of red and brown, a seamstress dummy in the corner. She hadn’t even realized how ridiculous that was until she was actually up in his small room, with a made-but-rumpled bed and a plastic cup full of ball-point pens. The sight of a GameBoy Advance scandalized her more than anything else that had happened that night.

She bent over on her side and looked at a couple of books on his desk—Modern Romany In Eastern Europe; Bury Me Standing—but a large row of Big Chief notebooks caught her eye. She ran her fingertips over the red and white covers of the composition books. “Proper,” she said.

Michael was on one knee in his closet, pulling an old doctor’s bag from a small shelf in the back. “What is?”

Emily showed him one. “Are these your diaries?”

“Not really.” He chuckled. “Well, maybe…take a look.”

The first page of the notebook had a carefully drawn illustration of an extra-wide necktie. After staring at it for a few seconds, though, Emily realized that it was actually a pattern, a tie unsewn and laid flat.

Most of the other pages will filled with short handwritten entries, some of them in complete sentences, some of them in a quick shorthand:

Don’t have cashmere dry cleaned. Wash on the delicate cycle with cold water. Lay it flat to dry.

TO DO: Light blue shirt, chocolate tie. Not BLUE, of course…teal, almost. Mint?

Always walk on the outside of the sidewalk, with her on the inside. Let her walk first across a restaurant. BUT: get in a taxi before she does…esp if she’s wearing a skirt.

Gingham dress shirt:
• Summer only
• Wear it with a khaki suit. (Not linen, of course.)
• Wear a tie so you don’t look like an ass.
• Solid colored ties: brown, navy, or gray. Black?

TO DO: Research one button suits. (Maybe Sam knows something about these?) You’ll never have to worry about which button to button.

If you wear a coat over a layered outfit, it must be longer than the jacket underneath. Maybe a trench or a mackintosh?

TO DO: Buy a Proper umbrella. A print, but nothing too loud. Curved handle a must.

If your pocket square is bright, your tie should be plain. And the tie pattern should always be bolder than that of the shirt. (Duh!)

Emily flipped through the notebook, then two more. All of them were filled with the same sort of thing. “This is very James Gatz.”

Michael was poking around in a dresser drawer, glancing back and forth at Emily’s legs. “Yeah, that’s where I got the idea, actually. Heh.” He pulled out three spools of white thread.

“You should totally type these up. You could sell them at school for hundreds.

“Yeah. Michael Karlinoff’s Guide To Looking Halfway Decent.” He held each of the three spools of thread up to Emily’s dress. Though they seemed completely identical to Emily, Michael immediately set one of them aside, then peered at the remaining two spools carefully. He covered one with his free hand, then the other, and finally decided on the second. “Better make that The Darling Budds’ Guide…they have a stronger brand presence.”

“What does this mean?” She held up the inside cover of one of the notebooks. Written sideways in magic marker were the words Ostentatious Plainness, and below it were a few symbols in Vietnamese.

Michael put the other two spools of thread back in his drawer and sat on the edge of the bed. Placing the doctor’s bag on his lap, he pulled out a small cardboard envelope that had slots for various sizes of needles. “Oh, it’s just something I’ve been thinking about. It’s another way of saying Proper, I guess: plain, but in a flashy way.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s like that notebook you’re holding, or anything else. If I’d just bought a bunch of spiral-bound notebooks at Rite Aid for 99 cents, they would have been way too plain. But if I’d gotten some leather-bound journal with marbled paper, it would have been pretentious and boring.” He squinted quickly at the needle and effortlessly threaded it. “But those classic old-school Big Chief notebooks—or maybe a little Moleskine, though those are fairly played out—they’re just about perfect. Uh, not to brag.”

“No, you’re right. Ostentatious plainness…I like it. What’s the Vietnamese?”

Michael kneeled by her feet and pulled her flats off before she realized what he was doing. “Stand up on the chair.”

“What?”

“Stand up in the chair so I can see your dress better.”

Emily tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and laughed once, nervously, then stepped up on the folding chair in front of Michael’s desk. She bounced up and down on the balls of her feet until he put his hand over her toes and she stopped. He carefully removed the safety pins.

“The Vietnamese was this fortune cookie I got when my dad and Lillian and I went over to August Moon one night. It said Everything should be made as simple as possible…but not simpler.” He leaned over and dug in his doctor’s bag, pulling out a jeweler’s loupe that he placed on his left eye. “I thought that pretty well summed up what I was trying to say, so I had Litta’Bit translate it for me one night when she was over at Alexander’s. We’d been drinking Manhattans and I had this totally retarded idea that I’d get it tattooed on one of my forearms. Not that tattoos are ever Proper, so it would have defeated the purpose.”

Michael squinted through the loupe and, pulling the dress tight with one hand, began to stitch the long hem back onto the bottom of the dress. Suddenly, though, he paused and waited, listening. He pulled the loupe from his eye and placed it silently on the desk.

“What is it?” Emily asked, but Michael placed a finger to his lips. The front door of the apartment had opened softly, and someone was tiptoeing up the steps. Michael stood up and turned out the light. He stood by the door, but didn’t open it.

Slowly, one step at a time, footsteps came down the hall, before finally pausing in front of the bedroom door for a few seconds. Emily, still standing on the chair, looked at Michael and at the door. Michael knew that it was his dad sneaking back into the house, but a wild quick thought hit him: are we being robbed?

Finally, after pausing in front of the door for what felt like minutes but was probably only fifteen seconds, the man on the other side of the bedroom door turned and moved back down the hallway. He coughed slightly once, and Michael knew it was his dad.

Emily felt vulnerable up on the chair, looking down on Michael as he gravely concentrated on listening to the door, but she didn’t dare get down while he was holding up a warning finger towards her.

In the hallway, Michael heard his father go into his bedroom and begin noisily changing clothes. He would be changing out of his jacket and shoes, both of which were too casual for work. His clients expected him to be overdressed at all times. Michael listened to him pull on a new jacket and then sit on the bed as he swapped out his shoes. His office at Underhill had a full bathroom, and he would probably shower and shave there. He also had plenty of clothes there, of course, so Michael wasn’t sure why he’d even come home.

Finally, as though he’d just woken up, Mr. Karlinoff stuck his head out into the doorway and yelled down at his son. Michael heard “Son! Are you up? Are you awake yet?” but to Emily, who’d never heard him speak before, it sounded like “Zun! Ar yoo ap? Ar yoo uh-vlake yat?”

Emily covered her mouth and silently giggled. Michael turned to her and widened his eyes. “What?” he mouthed. Emily replied by flapping her arms, then covering her nose with the inside of one elbow. “What!?”

“He sounds like Dracula!” she whispered, then bit down on her lip.

By this point, Mr. Karlinoff was halfway down the hallway. “Zun? My-gl?” Michael quickly locked his bedroom door barely a second before his father jiggled the handle.

“Dad, don’t come in! I’m…I’m busy!” he yelped, then winced at Emily. Great…now instead of thinking he had a cute girl in his room, his dad thought he was spending the morning beating off.

“Oh…okay,” his dad mumbled, sounding a lot less like Dracula this time. “Sorry.”

Michael shook his head sadly and laughed silently in spite of himself. His father moved away from the door and walked back towards the kitchen, where he opened and closed the fridge quickly.

“Michael,” he called, and I’ll spare you the dialect from here on out, “I’m going to the shop early. Lots of work to do. No time for breakfast, even…ha ha! You are awake? Good. I will…I will see you at lunch.” They heard him move to the head of the stairs and pause. “Okay, then. Yes. Goodbye.”

The front door closed behind his father, but Michael still shushed Emily. He crept over to his window and watched his father get into the Toyota Camry from the night before. His date was wearing large oversized sunglasses. She smiled at Mr. Karlinoff as he got in and he touched the tip of her nose with his finger.

“You know what’s funny?” Michael said out loud as the car pulled away. “He didn’t want me to know that he spent the night with someone. So he had her drive him all the way up here just to sneak in and pretend to wake up, then make a big deal about leaving for the day.” He said it with a smile, but Emily heard the sadness in his voice.

“He sounds adorable.”

Michael came back over and knelt before her. Picking up the needle that was dangling from the end of the thread attached to her dress, he continued sewing. He left the loupe on the desk. They were both quiet for a few minutes, then finally Michael spoke. “He’s not rich, Emily. He’s not an importer or anything like that…he’s just a tailor.”

“Michael, I know, it’s okay. You don’t have to say anything.”

Michael didn’t look up at her. “I want to tell you. I want to say the words to you. Listen: We came to the States when I was two…I don’t remember any of it. His family was rich in Macedonia, but that’s not exactly the same as being rich in America, okay?”

“Okay,” Emily whispered. Michael’s voice was slow and thick and deliberate, and she wanted to touch him on the arm or the hand as he talked, but she was stuck on the chair.

“His family owned a store in Skopje, the capitol, and people flew in from the rest of Europe to have suits made for them. They were famous for their neckties, which they’d ship all over the world. My father and his brothers were trained to take over the business, but he wanted to be a musician. He’d stay up all night in the cafes and bars, playing music, then show up at work the next morning. But when I came along, he knew that he had to take care of me. He found a way to bring us to America, and he came over here and got a job at Underhill and he put away his music, just like that…we have a piano and he almost never plays it.”

Michael pulled the needle free and examined his work, lining up the rest of the tear with the dress. He looked at the dress for a long time, and Emily heard him breath, heavy and ragged. “Honey, sweetie, please…you’re breaking my heart,” she whispered. Michael took the needle and poked her in the thigh. She yelped in surprise but not in pain…at the last second he’d turned the needle around and jabbed her with the dull end.

“I went to public school, and everything you’ve heard about public school in New Orleans is pretty dead-on. I wasn’t the only white kid, but I was the only white kid who spoke English. My dad explained it to me: we had money for private school or college, but not both.

“I didn’t have tutors, like I claimed…except I guess I did, my dad and this other tailor named Sam were always giving me books and quizzing me on them. Every night I had school-work and then I had home-work, you know? Oh, and my dad bartered lessons for me…he can play any instrument by ear, but he wanted me to really know the fundamentals, so he’d make a new suit every year for a German transplant in exchange for a year of piano lessons.

“In, like, seventh grade, my dad bought this house—we live up here and rent out the bottom—and then he got a loan to buy out the lawyers who owned Underhill. The store hasn’t been owned by an actual Underhill since the 60s, by the way. So we just had no money, even though ironically I guess we were richer, or at least owned more.

“Middle school was rough. But middle school is rough for everyone, right? I was at P.S. 38, Fitz Johnson Middle School. My teachers didn’t know what to do with me. Not because they were concerned I’d get lost in the shuffle, but because they were as dumb as any of the students and intimidated by me even though I tried to just stay out of their way. I guess things might have been different if there had been some sort of hard-working young teacher who took me under his wing, like in the movies, but no. They were just counting the days until their pension started.

“Anyway, the kids were way worse. Fitz Johnson is on Claiborne, and all the other students came from that side of Claiborne, and I was the only one who came from this side. Everyone else down here goes to private school. So at Fitz Johnson there was already this idea that I was some rich white kid slumming it in their school. And then…it didn’t make any sense to spend money on clothes when my dad was a tailor, so I’d wear clothes from Underhill, these fitted trousers and custom-made shirts. That was pretty much a recipe for disaster, right there.

“By the way, I don’t think any of this was because I was white…well, not most of it, anyway. I think if I’d been this nattily-dressed black kid from the good side of the tracks, it probably would have been ten times worse.

“By the end of ninth grade I was miserable. Sam, my dad’s right hand man, even offered to mortgage his house to send me to a private high school. So my dad and I had a talk. He said I could use my college fund to go to a private high school, in the hopes that if I did really well there I could get a full ride to college. It was a gamble, though, you know? So I told him I’d only do it if he taught me how to be a tailor like him. That way, if I disappointed him in school at least I’d be able to take over his business one day. That lead to an authentic Macedonian evening of tears and chest beating and bear hugs.

“So I applied to the big schools and I got into all of them. Beaumonde offered me a half-scholarship, but even with that help…oh my god, the tuition. My dad…my dad’s Eastern European, right? So after I made up my mind to go to Beaumonde he went to the bank then drove over to the school with a briefcase full of $100 bills, my full tuition for four years, and put it right on Dr. Hayes’ desk.

“So over summer things had totally changed. I went from being the ‘richest’ kid in school to being the poorest. I mean, not that I was poor—my dad does own a successful luxury clothing store—but compared to all that old money at school…yeah. And suddenly my clothes weren’t exactly the liability they’d been at Fitz Johnson.

“But, Emily, I need you to understand this. Remember how when we were little kids and we got lost at the grocery store, when our parents finally found us they weren’t overjoyed…they were mad?” Michael stopped sewing for a second. “Wait, never mind, that’s a terrible analogy. But when I arrived at Beaumonde I was angry, and I think in sort of the same way. Here was a school full of kids that had everything just given to them, and they couldn’t give a damn. When I met with the principal of The Parvenu School, he warned me that Beaumonde was an excellent school that didn’t demand excellence from its students. And that seemed true.

“What I’m saying is, I didn’t see you—well, not you, I mean the other students—as my saviors. I saw you as my enemy. It wasn’t about finally meeting people who were like me. It was about revenge.

“So when I came to school I kept everyone at arm’s length. I wanted to get everything I could out of the school—I wanted to demand excellence—and then get out of there. I didn’t want to have anything to do with any of you. I would be polite and I would be invisible.

“I wanted to blend in and be forgotten. Emily, listen…” He looked up at her for the first time since he’d started talking, squatting on the floor at her feet. “I’m not trying to justify what I did, or make it sound like I had no other choice. But for whatever reason I felt like telling a lie was the easiest solution. It’s like…” Michael squeezed his eyes shut, and Emily tried to put her hand on his head, but could only reach far enough for the top of his hair to brush against her fingertips. She wasn’t sure if he even felt it. “It’s like I have something inside of me that won’t let me tell the truth even if there’s nothing to gain from lying. Do you understand? I fight it every day, and usually I lose.”

Michael opened his eyes and smiled at Emily’s hand. He reached over to the desk and picked up the jeweler’s loupe. “Look, I got this loupe out, and it’s helpful, but I didn’t really need it. I was just trying to impress you. Another lie.

“So, anyway, I had this idea that if I lied once, about who I was and where I came from, then I wouldn’t have to repeat it ever again. That it would just be accepted as the truth and people would leave me alone. So I dropped hints about being rich, about having private tutors. I said that my dad was super-strict because then I wouldn’t have to hang out with anyone after school, since I had a job at Underhill and no money.

“But obviously you don’t just lie once. You have to lie a hundred times, and before you know it the lying comes easier and easier. I even wrote down answers to questions I knew I was going to get, got the wording right. And it was starting to work, it seemed. I was just boring enough that people had already started to forget about me when the twins became obsessed. Suddenly the entire school followed me around like paparazzi.

“I guess you know more about this period than I do…all I know is that over Fall Break sophomore year I was working at Underhill when the twins came in, looking great and having fun, laughing and admiring my clothes, and they took me out to lunch. I tried to wriggle out of it, but Sam was there and I knew he’d tell my dad about how I was making friends at school or whatever, so we walked across the street to the Palace Café, where these two 14-year-olds had reservations.

“We ate lunch and over desert they made their offer. Now that I know that Josephine knew all along, I guess what happened is that she went to them and told them what I’d been telling the school and how it wasn’t true. I don’t know, I’m just guessing. Anyway, they made a deal with me over lunch. Either I joined The Gang, or one day everyone would know exactly who I really was.”

Michael had all but finished the sewing. He grabbed the loupe now and, without putting it in his eye, inspected his work. “Wait. That makes it sound like it was ruthless. It wasn’t. They were very charming, very friendly. I never felt pressured or anything. They weren’t threatening me, they just told me flat-out, and with affection, that I wasn’t good enough to do it on my own. I was going to need their help, and they were offering it to me. Protection. They were giving me what I wanted, but in a way that had never occurred to me. I wanted to be left alone, and they were offering to make me untouchable.

“I mean, I don’t feel like I was tricked by the twins or whatever. I sorta started dating Lillian that day, but it wasn’t like they traded her to me. We hung out and I genuinely liked her and her brother, and in a lot of ways that afternoon helped clear up a lot of issues I had about transferring to Beaumonde. Things were going to be okay. All my earlier objections to being friends with them just started to seem ridiculous. The way they talked about their Gang, too, it seemed like a good way to hide from the rest of the school. And, well…they could protect me. I hate to say it, but it’s true.

“And that was it. They invited me to movie night and I was introduced to you guys and the rest is history. I didn’t even have to lie any more, not about that…they did it for me. And the lie became my life, and the closer I got to all of you—yes, even you—the more desperate I got to live up to it.

“I guess that’s everything.”

Michael reached into his doctor’s bag and pulled out a small pair of scissors, severing the thread and laying the needle on the desk. He offered his hand to Emily, who stepped down to the floor and then sat in the chair. She didn’t know what to say, or if she was even supposed to say anything, so she looked at her dress instead.

“Wow, this is really good. It looks brand new.”

Michael sat back on the floor, crossing his legs. “It would have looked better if I could have used our machine. But then you would have had to take it off, and you running around my house in your underwear is the last thing I need.”

Emily dropped her dress and smiled. “That’s always so nice to hear.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

Outside it was fully day. The sun, bright and warm, threw crisp elongated shadows against the far wall as it rose. A car drove by and beeped once, and someone walking by yelled a hello.

Emily reached forward and put her hand on the side of Michael’s face. He closed his eyes and she ran her fingers back into his hair. “Thank you,” she said softly.

“It took two seconds,” he whispered. “It was nothing.”

“You know what I meant.” She felt Michael relax under her hand, and she ran her thumb across the side of his face. She asked herself: Is this something I’d do to a friend? Is this something I’d want Alexander to do with a girl? She decided it was time to go home.

“Bedtime, Michael.”

Her jerked quickly, as though he’d been having the same thoughts as her. “I don’t know how much sleep I’m going to get.”

“What time do you have to be at work?”

Michael stretched without getting up. “Nine. But I have to leave here around eight to wait for the bus. My alarm’s already set for seven-thirty.”

Emily snuck a glance at her cell phone and frowned. “Well, you can lie down for a little while, anyway.”

Now that Michael had decided to go to bed, he seemed to focus completely on it. As though telling her his story had drained the last of his energy. He crawled up and over the foot of the bed, losing his shoes in the journey. Emily moved ahead of him, getting the doctor’s bag and spools of thread out of his way. He left room on the bed for her, but she didn’t know if that was an accident or not.

“Thank you for taking me on a bike ride tonight,” he mumbled. “This was a good idea.”

“I had a good time, too.” She thought about sitting down on the bed next to him, but instead just leaned over him. “Close your eyes,” she said, though they were already closed. “Relax. I’m going to count to three. When I get to three you will fall into a deep trance.”

Michael smiled with his eyes kept closed. “Don’t make me act like a chicken or anything.”

“And when you awake…you will remember none of this. One.” She ruffled his hair and moved back from the foot of his bed. He seemed to already be dozing off…this game always worked with Alexander, too. Boys sure were good at falling asleep. “Two.” She put her shoes on and then slid the window open and began to step through, pausing halfway between his room and the summer morning. “And three.”

Michael dimly heard the last number, and he barely registered the sounds of Emily going down the fire escape, and then he let go and drifted down into sleep.

Seven minutes later, his alarm went off and he stumbled off to the shower.

• • •

When Emily got home at eight am, she parked her bike in front of the cottage so her mom would see it and know she was back safely. The note was missing from her front door, and when she keyed in, yawning massively, she found it folded up and slipped under her door. Her mom had written something on the back, using her weird conception of how to communicate with a teenager:

Out at 2, not back by 7!? Pretty impressive, girlie. You just better be out there partying, not hanging out at that coffeehouse reading some dumb book. Don’t lie to me, I’ll totally know! LOL

Be home / awake by noon. Grandma wants to get into “flipping” real estate, and we’ve been drafted as her assistants today. Bummer, dude.

BB

Email Clyde when you get home. You know how he worries.

Emily collapsed on her bed and, opening the MacBook on the night stand, sent her dad the shortest email possible.

To: Dad
Subject: Home

She closed the laptop and told herself to get up and change out of her dress or at least take it off, but she knew in her heart there was no way that would happen.

“One,” she said out loud.

“Two.”

“Three.” She waited for sleep to overtake her, but it didn’t work quite as well on her. Instead, she curled up around a pillow and ran her fingers along the stitches Michael had repaired earlier.

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Seventeen

Robert Johnson Has A Secret
Robert Johnson was the only black student at Beaumonde Academy, probably through some sort of statistical fluke. In New Orleans, where more than half the population is black, the only possible reason that Beaumonde would have just one black student must be clerical error, right?

Robert Johnson doesn’t like to think about any other explanation.

The Johnsons have been wealthy for generations, longer than any other Gangmembers’ family. In 1819, Fitzwilliam Johannsen, the owner of the Opelousas Plantation, freed his favorite slave and personal valet after he’d shown exceptional courage protecting the plantation house during a late summer brush fire.

Fitzwilliam Johannsen, it must be said, was a kind and progressive man by the standards of his time. However, he was also a product of his time, so the offer he made the slave (who had been named Eugene Johannson when he first arrived at the plantation 25 years before) might strike modern ears as being a bit of a raw deal:

In exchange for his freedom, Eugene would continue to work as Fitzwilliam’s valet, with free room and board but no pay. His wages, which he was now entitled to as a free man, would instead be applied towards buying his wife and two sons from the Johannsen plantation.

Fitzwilliam Johannsen’s friends—other rich white plantation owners—considered this a foolhardy and potentially dangerous plan that would only come back to hurt him. They were also afraid it might give their own slaves some uncomfortable notions of what they were entitled to. Eugene had a different, though just as negative, opinion of the arrangement.

Now comes a point in this short history where an extremely complicated and frankly implausible series of events must be glossed over for the sake of brevity: after earning their freedom, the former Johannsen slaves and their offspring—now known simply as the Johnsons—grew more successful than anyone could have predicted.

Within fifty years, Eugene Johnson’s sons owned a successful farm nearly twice the size of the Opelousas Plantation. Soon, they had diversified their income with a both a textile mill and a prosperous trading business. The end of the Civil War brought the family an abundance of former slaves who could be employed as cheap labor.

This short overview makes this accomplishment sound easy. Of course it wasn’t, of course it wasn’t. They were black in the South in the 19th century, and former slaves at that. They had to fight bitterly for even the smallest victory. They prospered only through back-breaking hard work, an unwavering desire for freedom, an unyielding faith in both God and their fellow man, sheer dumb luck, and a canny appreciation of political corruption.

To detail their implausible rise any further would require portraits of each important family member, the vital role each played in the early years, the fantastic triumphs, and the crushing setbacks, all of which is outside the scope of this narrative. Curious readers are directed instead to This Is Our Land, This Is Our People: A History Of The Johnson Machine. Volume 1: The Early Years, 1819-1867, by Reynolds J. Dalton. (Tulane University Press, 1994.)

The year 1868, nearly a decade after Eugene’s death, was an early turning point for the Johnson dynasty. That year, the deed to the family’s huge farm was suddenly voided for arcane and ridiculous reasons—basically, it had been written before the War and was somehow therefore illegal—but of course real reason was that the enormous success of the Johnson family was cutting into the profits of their white neighbors.

Upon hearing about the trouble with the deed, Fitzwilliam Johannsen, now almost 95, made the long and difficult trip to address the Louisiana State Assembly on behalf of the legitimacy of the Johnson farm. He didn’t have to do this—and in fact, the Johnsons were his main competitor and the reason the Opelousas Plantation had declined over the years—but he had always thought of the late Eugene Johnson and his family as close friends.

(Neither Eugene nor the rest of the family had felt the same way about Johannsen, to say the least. However, before his death, Eugene had paid social calls on Fitzwilliam periodically and took him for carriage rides through the countryside. It’s possible he had felt pity on the lonely old man once Fitwilliam’s only child had married a rich landowner named Jessup Monroe and moved to Lafayette. It’s also possible he merely wanted to show off his carriage, a sleek black landau imported from London.)

Johannsen’s speech to the State Assembly was surprisingly fiery, especially coming from such a stooped and palsied old man, and it condemned his fellow plantation owners for being co-conspirators in a crime to defraud the Johnsons, whom he praised as “superior specimens of an inferior race, and a shining example to all other Negroes.” Yikes.

The old plantation owner helped sway the minds of the state senators, partially because his speech stirred the hearts of the Assembly, but mostly because behind closed doors he called in favors, debts, and concessions owed to him for years and even decades, negotiating a morally questionable but politically sound compromise that reinstated the deed to the Johnson farm.

The Johnsons finally had their farm back, and they never forgot the kindness of Fitzwilliam Johannsen…or his example of the power of secret political maneuvering. Indeed, in the next two generations, there were three Fitzwilliam Johnsons, a Fritz Johnson, a Johanna Johnson, and two William Johnsons. And when the old man himself finally passed away seven years later, the family found a way to repay their gratitude.

Over the next 130 years, the Johnson family only grew richer and more powerful as they spread across southern Louisiana. A significant contingent moved to New Orleans in the early 20th century, where they became successful real estate developers and political power-brokers. Since then, the Johnson family and their allies—better known as The Johnson Machine—have helped determine the political atmosphere of the city, using methods both legitimate and otherwise.

The primary heir of this legacy, the great-great-grandson of the great-great-grandson of Eugene Johannsen, is seventeen-year-old Robert Johnson. As the direct male descendant, it’s expected that one day he will take over for his father as the head of the Machine and lead his family into the 21st century.

However, at this point in his life, Robert’s a little less concerned with living up to his birthright than he is with other, more immediate concerns: fitting in with the rest of the Gang, making sure that Michael doesn’t steal valedictorian away from him, and getting his girlfriend to spend some alone time with him a bit more consistently.

Which isn’t to say that Robert’s not proud to be a member of the Johnson family. There are about five or six different families that truly run the city, and his is one of the most prominent. Sometimes it seems to him that half the municipal building in the city are named after one of his long-ago relatives. His father is a well-respected City Councilman who, it’s rumored, is considering running for mayor.

No, Robert’s very proud of being a Johnson, and he’s proud to be black, too. His Uncle Tony is always giving him lectures about what it means to be a proud black man, and though Robert agrees, he doesn’t really see what the point is.

After all, he says to himself, this is long after the civil rights movement and all that, right? The only thing that matters these days is money and power, both of which his family has. What does it mean to be black when you barely even know any other black kids? When you have a lot more in common with the rich white kids who are your best friends than with anyone else? When your mother and father have lived in New Orleans their entire lives but still named you after the most famous blues musician of all time, not out of tribute but because they’d somehow never heard of the guy?

These aren’t the sorts of questions that keep Robert up at night.

Sometimes, Robert thinks he’s more interested in being black in a epidermal sense than a cultural one. Often, a girl will tell him how nice his skin is, how she wishes hers were as smooth and flawless as his, and sometimes (if he’s lucky) she’ll even stroke his face or arm with her fingers.

In seventh grade, Lillian Budd was visiting the Johnsons with her parents and brother for a small New Year’s Eve dinner party. Robert has known the Budd twins since kindergarten; until very recently, both of their fathers were on City Council together.

At one point, Lillian and Robert were standing alone in the dining room, waiting for everyone else to come in. He told her about the guitar he’d wanted but didn’t get for Christmas, but Lillian seemed distracted. She wasn’t even looking at him as he spoke. Or, rather, she was, but she was looking at his reflection in the large ornate mirror on the opposite wall.

Finally, she took his hand and led him over to the mirror. Still looking at his reflection, she pressed herself to the side of his body, so that her right side was against his left. Lillian had grown the year before, and she was the exact same height as Robert.

“What are you…?” he whispered, but she just put her arm around his waist and pushed her face softly against the side of his own.

She smiled a little as she regarded their faces side-by-side in the mirror. Using her free hand, she silently pointed into the mirror at the similarities and contrasts between their faces. They both had perfect skin, his dark brown and hers almost without any pigment at all. Their faces were nearly the same shape, and they had the same eye color.

Robert couldn’t help but copy the slight smile on Lillian’s face. She brought her finger right up to the glass and traced the bottom of her full lip, then placed three fingertips over the reflection of his mouth. He looked into her eyes in the mirror and, self-consciously, kissed the air as though her fingers were really touching him.

Lillian smiled and stepped away from him. Turning towards him, she looked into his real eyes for the first time, then glanced at the floor. Her lower lip became even fuller, as she pulled a coy pout.

“I…” Robert said. He put a hand on her thin shoulder. “I better see what’s keeping the others.”

There was no need. The rest of the dinner party was already coming down the hall, and the remainder of the evening went as planned. Lillian sat beside Robert and chatted with him as though nothing happened. At midnight, she pecked her brother and Elizabeth Huynh on the cheek and didn’t even glance over at Robert.

And that was that. Over the next five years, Robert has wondered what that evening meant. Did Lillian want him to kiss her? And if he hadn’t chickened out, what would that have meant? Would she be dating him now instead of Michael? And how would her skin look, pressed against his as they spooned in bed, her hand reaching back to caress his head while he kissed her exquisite neck and…?

Now these are the sorts of questions that keep Robert up at night.

Much like his friend David Sebastian, Robert is hopelessly in love with one of the Budd twins. And, like David, he can never quite admit to himself that probably nothing will ever come of it.

The fact that he’s black almost never comes up around The Gang, unless you count Alexander’s frequent racist jokes. (These would be appalling coming from anyone else, but Robert tells himself that this is just Alexander’s way.) Yet it seems like it’s always set him apart, in a way Robert can’t quite put his finger on, from his friends.

One difference between David and Robert is that David always suspects that he’s different from the rest of his friends. But Robert knows that, aside from his skin color, he’s pretty much exactly the same as everyone else, if only they could see it. In his heart of hearts, Robert knows that he’s not at all different the rest of The Gang.

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Eighteen

Andre was disappointed to discover that, even with the Darling Budds gone and The Gang mostly disbanded, he was still in the thrall of someone who disapproved of his clothes. His Aunt Marissa had only been in town for three hours, but she’d already told him his pants were too tight, his shirt was too loose, and he needed new shoes. In fact, the first thing she said to Andre after getting off the plane was “Whoa, you grew up!” while staring at his midsection. Three hours down, two weeks to go.

And now, after he’d come up to the kitchen in the clothes he’d intended to wear to Temple that night—black pants, untucked black short-sleeved shirt—she’d sent him back downstairs to “try again.”

Aunt Marissa was supposedly in New Orleans to visit her hometown, but the real reason for her visit was to check up on Andre and his dad. Andre had spent the last week completely cleaning the house and making it seem like a normal domestic unit in preparation for her visit. The only room he didn’t touch was his own, under the assumption that this was a private space and therefore outside of Aunt Marissa’s jurisdiction. Besides, Andre felt it lent an air of authenticity to leave his bedroom a mess; he was a teenage boy, and normal teenage boys have messy rooms.

Marissa was the baby of the Meyer family, eleven years younger than Andre’s dad, and she had always fought to keep up with her older siblings. She lived in Phoenix, where she owned a tile store she won in the divorce from her first husband. She was remarried now, to a plastic surgeon who went by his first name (Dr. Ray), and she had two kids about half as old as Andre. They were the sort of family you saw in sports drink ads…the parents roller-blading as the kids rode their bikes in the park. All of them in helmets, of course.

Andre rooted around in the laundry room, eventually finding a white dress shirt of his father’s from years before. It fit him almost perfectly, he was shocked to discover…he’d always thought of his dad as being much bigger than him.

He tucked the shirt in, then pulled it out as much as he could to hide his real shape, and found the black jacket that matched his pants. There was no way he was putting a tie on, not in June. Andre stood in front of the mirror: he looked like a waiter.

When he came back upstairs, his aunt had all the kitchen cabinets open and was staring into the refrigerator. “Andre,” she asked, “how can the two of you be so fat when there’s no food in the house?”

Andre didn’t answer. In fact, he barely even heard her. This was the way the Meyer family talked to each other, and only when someone’s feelings got truly hurt did the family grudgingly admit that there was affection under the teasing. In incredible cases, they even refrained from tormenting the injured party for up to half an hour.

Besides, there was food in the house. Andre had gone to the grocery store just that morning, and had stocked the house with breakfast cereal and sandwich supplies…it just hadn’t occurred to him to buy anything that took longer than two minutes to make.

“Grilled cheese it is,” Aunt Marissa said, straightening up and pushing a mess of black curls from in front of her face. She looked at Andre’s clothes. “Much better. Tuck your shirt in, though, you look like a sad little mushroom.”

Andre sat down at the kitchen counter and found the in-flight magazine Aunt Marissa had left there. “Where’s Dad?”

“He’s in his room, getting ready. Maybe you could check on him in a few minutes.” She began opening the loaf of Bunny Bread that Andre had bought that morning. “I got your report card the other day. Not bad, mister. But what’s with the B in Calculus? You had an A—a low A, but still—all last semester.”

Andre looked up from the magazine and started to answer when, incredibly, his cell phone began ringing in his pocket. He shrugged at his aunt and tried to pull it out of his pocket, but it was stuck. (Okay, maybe his pants were a little tight.) He stood up and fished the phone out. He would have talked to anyone, but he was surprised to see Litta’Bit’s name in the caller ID window.

“Sorry, I have to take this,” he said, and his aunt rolled her eyes. “Hello?”

Litta’Bit sounded surprised that he’d answered. “Oh hey, Andre…have you heard from Robert lately? Like at all this week?”

“Hey, kiddo!” Andre said loudly. “I was going to call you when we got back from Temple.”

There was silence on the other end of the line. “Andre? This is Litta’Bit…”

Andre walked out of the kitchen, still talking. “No, it’s okay, but I can’t talk too long. Aunt Marissa is making grilled cheese.”

Litta’Bit caught on. “Oh…I get it. Come on, it can’t be that bad.”

He started to go downstairs to his room, then caught himself and walked towards his dad’s bedroom. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that, exactly.”

“You still can’t talk?”

“Not yet, no. Hold on.”

Andre slipped out of the hallway and into his father’s room. He had trashed it already, of course, only a day after Andre had cleaned it. The sheets were off at the corners and were twisted on the bed. The closet door was open and there was a mess piled up around the opening, as though his father had been frantically excavating the closet at some point in the night.

Reuben Meyer himself wasn’t in the room, though. Andre listened and thought he heard water sloshing around behind the closed bathroom door, followed by a deep snore. Ridiculous. His dad goes a week without taking a bath, then has two in five hours. He’d probably already forgotten about the first one.

“Okay, I can talk.”

Litta’Bit laughed. “No, seriously, it can’t be that bad.”

Andre pulled a suit and a clean shirt out of his dad’s closet and threw them on the bed, followed by a pair of dress shoes and socks. “It’s not, not really. She can just be really…brusque, sometimes.”

“I don’t know what that word means.”

“Rude, blunt.” Andre glanced over his shoulder to make sure that his aunt hadn’t followed him, then reached in his back pocket and pulled out a flask, which he slid into the jacket on the bed. Seconds later, the flask was joined by a folded up square of paper containing a half dozen pills. “So what’s up? You’re looking for Robert?”

“Yeah, have you heard from him this week?”

“No, I haven’t heard from anyone. Well, David and you, and just on Messenger.” Andre banged twice on the bathroom door. On the other side, there was the sudden sound of sloshing water, as though a tremendous weight had jerked awake in surprise. Andre knocked twice again.

“What are you doing over there?” Litta’Bit asked.

Two knocks hit against the bathroom wall, and Andre could hear his father mumbling. “Yes, yes, yes.” Water began draining out of the bathtub and Andre walked away.

“Have you tried calling Robert?” he asked.

“No, not really. Things are weird between us. I don’t know.”

“Again? Still?” Andre slipped past the kitchen. His aunt had her back to the doorway, searching through the drawers for, presumably, a spatula. He went downstairs, towards his ordinary teenage boy’s messy room.

“Yeah.” Litta’Bit sighed. “We broke up on Sunday. Or I think we did.”

“You think? You don’t know?”

“Well…it’s weird. I broke up with him by text message on Sunday. Classy, I know. But then I haven’t really heard a word out of him all week. I expected him to at least call me and try to patch things up.” He heard her rustling on the other end of the line. It sounded like she had crawled into bed. “But I don’t know, the message was sorta unclear, I guess he could have taken it a bunch of different ways.”

“Yeah,” Andre said, shutting the door to his bedroom. He thought about turning the light off, but didn’t. He sat on the edge of his unmade bed and looked at the side of his Doc Martens. “I don’t know…maybe he’s just sick of the bullshit cycle this time.”

Litta’Bit didn’t speak for a moment. If anyone else had said this to her, they would have been hung up on, and possibly subjected to two or three profanity-filled text messages.

“You could be right,” she finally said.

“I mean, I haven’t talked to him or anything, so who knows? But maybe…this is what, the seventh time you’ve broken up with him? Maybe he’s just like ‘fuck it,’ you know?” There was a bit of dried mud on the side of his boot, and he flicked it off. “But then again, that doesn’t sound very Robert-like, does it? He puts up with a lot when it comes to you.”

Litta’Bit sighed. “Tell me about it.”

If any other member of The Gang had been eavesdropping on this conversation, they would have been stunned at what they’d just heard. And not just Litta’Bit’s willingness to accept criticism from Andre, of all people, but also Andre’s ability to deliver it. In fact, Andre and Litta’Bit were closer friends than anyone in The Gang suspected.

There were practical reasons for this: they were both known for staying up later than anyone else—they got most of their sleep during long afterschool naps—and neither of them were ever very far away from their computer. At any given point during the night, long after most of their other friends had gone to sleep, there would be a chat window open between the two of them. Usually, their late-night messages were short and disjointed, often with hours between responses, but they were there for each other in the middle of the night, after everyone else they knew was in bed, and a certain closeness had grown between them.

Occasionally they would end up in actual conversations, chatting about whatever, sending each other links to websites and videos. And sometimes, as the night wore on and they grew sleepier, these conversations would move to the telephone, where they could finish talking as they got ready for bed, and even afterwards, as they both lay in the dark of their rooms, mumbling into their hands.

This didn’t happen too often, but it was profound. After they had both relaxed into their beds, their daytime personalities began to recede, leaving something perhaps more genuine behind. Andre would always start out disdainful and sarcastic, and Litta’Bit would still have her casual, even unintentional, flirtiness—“Hold on, my bra is too tight to sleep in…let me take it off”—but while whispering secrets in the dark their other selves would be revealed to each other. As their voices became softer, they would tell each other things they had no one else to tell, what they hoped for and what they were scared of. Sometimes Andre talked about his dad; once he even talked about his mom.

Andre never told anyone about these phone calls, and he was sure Litta’Bit never did either. His friends would only hear the part about talking to a hottie in bed, but it wasn’t like that. They never had phone sex, never even really talked about sex. What they had was more intimate than sex, and for the length of the phone call at least, brought them closer than a hook-up ever would.

These occasional conversations made a deep impression on Andre. He had never had a girl open up to him like that, and it affected him for days afterwards, as he dwelled on every aspect of their talk. One night about a week before Prom, Litta’Bit had called him at three in the morning, and Andre—in what he considered one of the first truly adult decisions of his life—didn’t answer. The next day at school, he was prepared to tell her that he had already been in bed, but she never brought it up.

“Would it really be such a bad thing, though, if Robert were finally blowing you off?”

“What do you mean?”

Upstairs, a pan was noisily extracted from an overstuffed cabinet. “I just mean, wouldn’t it be sort of a relief if he were just ready to move on? No fights, no breaking up…”

“I guess so. I mean, yeah…totally.”

Aunt Marissa stomped twice on the floor of the kitchen, which was Andre’s ceiling. He angled the door open an inch and yelled, “I’ll be up in a second!”

“Okay, that was my ear,” Litta’Bit said.

“Sorry. I should go in a minute.”

“Okay. How’s the visit going so far?”

Andre took his glasses off and blinked heavily a few times. “Well, so far so good, but she’s only been here a few hours. Call back in a week and a half, maybe I’ll take the shotgun out of my mouth long enough to talk.”

“Come on…”

“No, I mean, it’ll probably be better than last year, sure. But it’s a such a tightrope I have to walk. On one hand, I have to make it look like my dad’s still competent enough to take care of me. On the other, we both know what’s really up, so I have to prove that I’m competent enough to take care of him, without making it too obvious at the same time.” Andre slipped his glasses back on. “My one advantage is that she doesn’t really want to take me back to Phoenix with her and put my dad somewhere. What a pain in the ass, right? But if things are bad enough, well…I’m her nephew, and he’s her big brother, and she’ll do what she has to.”

“Well, be good,” Litta’Bit said after a pause. “The Gang’s lost too many members this month as it is.”

“Andre?” Aunt Marissa called. Andre opened his bedroom door and looked up into the stairwell, where his Aunt Marissa was leaning over the first floor balcony, her hair dangling down in front of her face.

“Yeah?”

“Lookin’ for butter…or margarine…maybe some olive oil…”

Shit.

 

“Cooking spray, god forbid? Or Canola? Crisco, in a pinch?”

“Uh.”

“Anything to get between the bread and the pan, really. Maybe a little vegetable oil?”

“Oh! There’s a gallon jug of popcorn butter under the sink.”

Aunt Marissa made a face but went back to the kitchen. Andre closed his door and sat back on the bed.

“Yum,” Litta’Bit said.

“One of the advantages of owning movie theaters…we’re never short on Yellow Death. Although I just sentenced myself to an entire dinner of jabs at my gut. Uh, metaphorically speaking.”

“No…” The Gang had stopped making any mention of Andre’s weight long ago. Well, except for Alexander, of course. “She doesn’t.”

“She does nothing but. It seems that it’s going to be the theme of this visit, in fact. Apparently the ability to take care of myself is inversely proportional to the size of my waistline. Watch, by the end of this visit she’ll have me doing Pilates and eating tofu burgers.”

Litta’Bit didn’t say anything, and suddenly Andre felt panicked.

“All wearing spandex, doing Tae-bo,” he said.

“You know, that wouldn’t necessarily be the end of the world.” Litta’Bit spoke slowly, cautiously, as though choosing her words very carefully.

“Working on my glutes. Hanging out at a juice bar.”

Litta’Bit was quiet, and after mumbling “all watching my carb intake,” Andre fell silent, too.

“I mean, tell me to shut up if you want, but you’re not an ugly guy, Andre. Please…I haven’t talked to an ugly boy since ninth grade, and that was, like, an accident. And it’s not like you’re obese. You need to lose, what? Twenty pounds?”

Andre just sighed, and on the other end of the line, he heard what sounded like Litta’Bit cringing.

“Don’t start ranting, okay? I’ll shut up.”

Andre laughed. “No, it’s cool. It is, it’s cool. But you don’t understand. You’ve never had a weight problem-”

“Oh my god, are you kidding? I’m a total cow right now.”

He laughed again, surprising himself. “I’m not talking about having a soft little tummy that boys want to nibble on. I’m talking about…look: you and Aunt Marissa and I guess everyone else we know sees me and is like, ‘Why doesn’t he just lose some weight?’ like that’s the solution. But…Jesus Christ, you know? It’s not the solution, it’s the problem. Why don’t I just lose weight?”

Litta’Bit was quiet, and after a while it was clear that Andre was done.

“So. Anyway.” Andre stood up and ran his hand through his hair. “I better go.”

“Okay.”

“Hey, but before I go, let me say this: I don’t know what’s going on with Robert—if you want I could try to find out—but I know that he really loves you.”

“I know,” Litta’Bit said, then chuckled darkly. “But it’s like you just said. That’s not the solution, that’s the problem.”

“Right.”

“Enjoy your tofu burger,” Litta’Bit said. “And keep your head together, two weeks isn’t that long. Stay in touch…maybe I’ll come rescue you one night and we’ll hang out.”

“I’d like that,” Andre said, and he meant it, even though he knew it would never happen.

Uncategorized

Nineteen

Introduction: Good [morning / afternoon]. My name is Josephine Brooks, and I’m a rising senior at Beaumonde Academy. I’m here to apply for the ________ job advertised [in the newspaper / online]. If the position hasn’t yet been filled, I’d like to complete an application and make an appointment to be interviewed.

Experience: Though I haven’t had a job before, my mother is the principal of Beaumonde Academy, and I frequently assist her in various roles involved in running the school. I have also occasionally helped out at my grandfather’s jewelry store on Veteran’s Highway, particularly during the holidays.

Transportation: My mother and I share a car, though since she’s in the education field, she has the summer off and the car will be available to me…

Josephine stopped writing with a disgusted sigh and re-read what was on her yellow legal pad. Pitiful. Was English really her first language? “Complete an application?” “The car will be available to me?”

Josephine had made up her mind a week ago that a summer job would cure her of her boredom. She had thought about taking her grandfather up on his job offer, but she wanted a clean break. So she looked through the paper every morning, during the time between finishing her run and her mother waking up, as she sipped exactly eight ounces of orange juice from a coffee mug. Most of the jobs she found were in the suburbs, and all of them wanted you to apply in person.

The idea of a job interview mortified Josephine. She decided to write out the answers to every question she thought she would be asked, then memorize them. (Perhaps she would even make flash cards.) When the subjects came up, she could just recite her pre-written answers. Unfortunately, even writing the answers made her nervous.

Ellen Hayes, Josephine’s mother, came into the kitchen, adjusting an earring. It was Saturday evening, and she was getting dressed up for a date with Roger. She was even wearing a pair of high heels. Josephine turned her legal pad face-down as slyly as she could.

“I might be out late,” Dr. Hayes said, absentmindedly. “The play doesn’t even start until nine-thirty. Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

“That’s okay, I’m going to bed early.” Josephine got up at five to run, and so was often asleep by nine. Tomorrow was one of her ‘rest days,’ but she tried to stay on the same sleep schedule even on her days off.

“You should do something tonight. It’s Saturday night, I don’t like you sitting here alone. I’m sure Roger’s driving to the theater, so the car will be here if you want to go somewhere.”

“Okay.” She shrugged.

“Maybe you could go see a movie. Oh, that reminds me: I saw one of your friends at Temple last night.”

Josephine looked up quickly. “Who?”

“Andre Meyer.”

“Oh. Great.”

Ellen Hayes looked at the dim reflection of her midsection in the microwave door. She smoothed down the front of her dress and adjusted the straps tied around the waist. Then she smoothed the fabric out again. “He was there with his aunt…the young one. Melissa? Do you remember her name? It was driving me crazy.”

“Marissa.” The previous school year everyone in The Gang had heard Andre rant passionately about his summer living with Aunt Marissa in Phoenix while his father spent what ended up being three useless months in a luxury treatment center in the desert.

“That’s it! I knew Melissa wasn’t quite right.” Though not technically Jewish herself, or even very religious, Ellen Hayes had attended the synagogue with her husband for years  and had made a lot of close friends there. After he passed away, she continued going to Temple at least once a month, sometimes with Josephine. “His dad was there, too. Oh, Josephine, he looks so bad. Have you seen him lately?”

“Not really.” Josephine actually had to think about it. They had movie night at Andre’s every week, but she almost never saw Reuben Meyer. Back in the winter, maybe February, there had been a stumbling and cursing in the hallway outside of the large home theater. Andre struggled out of his recliner and opened the door slightly. Only Josephine, sitting in the back, could see the dark silhouette slumped against the hallway, gasping in ragged wet breaths. Andre spoke in a voice she’d never heard him use before, then closed the door behind himself and walked his father back upstairs.

“I hadn’t seen him since Joanie’s funeral, and I was really shocked. He was so pale…his hands were shaking so much Andre had to prop up his elbow while he shook my hand. It was really sad.” She glanced towards the front of the house for a second, as though she heard something. “You know, Andre’s had a tough stretch. Maybe you could call him up, get together with him. I bet he’d like that.”

“Yeah, I bet he would,” Josephine mumbled.

Di-di-di-di-ding-dong, the doorbell sputtered quickly.

“I thought I heard someone at the door. He certainly seems impatient tonight. Should I invite him in?”

Josephine turned her palms up and widened her eyes, like: Don’t ask me. This was a loaded question, and she was leaving it up to her mother. Roger had been dating her mom for almost two months now, and he and Josephine had a couple of brief and wary meetings. He was an “entrepeneur,” whatever that meant, and he looked like a Victorian adventurer: broad-chested and strong, with wavy hair and a thick mustache. The few times they’d spoken, he’d laughed heartily at everything she’d mumbled, whether it was a joke or not, and had made Josephine want to hide. Once, as he laughed, he even put his hand on her shoulder.

As her mom went to get him, Josephine re-read what she’d written on the legal pad, then removed the top sheet. She wasn’t the type to ball up a piece of paper, but she folded it fiercely many times before putting it in the back pocket of her jeans. She’d throw it away in a neighbor’s garbage can the next time she went jogging.

“Why Josephine, look…you have a gentleman caller,” her mother announced, in a terrible impression of a Southern belle.

It wasn’t Roger at the door, it was David Sebastian, carrying a messenger bag. “I do declare!” he said, sitting down across the table from Josephine. He gave her a friendly wink, and she replied with a facial expression that her friends knew to interpret as ‘a warm smile.’ David looked back up at her mother. “Oh my god, Ellen, since when do you two lock your door? I almost broke my nose.”

“Oh, I had to get the doorknob replaced because it kept jamming, and the new one can only be opened with a key. The locksmith says it will give me a break on my insurance, but I just think it was the only one he had in his truck that day.” As she was talking, she reached on top of the fridge and found a small manila envelope. She removed a bright new key and placed it in David’s already-waiting palm.

The doorbell rang again, and suddenly David looked excited. “Did you girls order pizza?”

“Why would you think that?” Josephine asked, but David wasn’t listening. He had seen Ellen Hayes suddenly primping nervously, and he put two and two together with frightening speed. He stood up and twirled her quickly, then grabbed the straps tied around her waist and yanked them to the side for a jauntier look.

Josephine’s mom started to touch her hair, but David gave her a forbidding look. “Don’t. It’s perfect. Now go break his heart.”

With something almost like a giggle, Dr. Hayes went to the front door. Josephine rolled her eyes at David. “Let’s go to my room,” she said.

“Is this still Roger the smoker?”

Yes.”

“Oh, I wanna see!” David said, pretending to crane his neck out into the hallway as he sat down on Josephine’s bed. He kicked his Sambas off and sat cross-legged on the edge, with his messenger bag in his lap but still slung over a shoulder.

Josephine pushed the door most of the way closed and turned her desk chair around. She had a lot of time on her hands this summer, and she kept her room as spotless and—to her eye—as lifeless as a room in one of her mom’s home decor magazines. It looked like a dollhouse bedroom.

David was digging in his messenger bag. “When you hear a doorbell ring, your first thought isn’t ‘Somebody ordered pizza!’, really?” He looked up at her. “Huh. I guess that says a lot about the differences between our families. Here, I brought you a present.”

It was really just something wrapped up in a Target bag. Josephine opened the bag suspiciously and peered inside, then looked up at him with a smile that would have been recognized even by strangers. “David…”

Inside the bag was a three-pack of generic white cotton socks, still in the wrapper. Josephine loved brand new socks, the way they felt the first time she pulled them on and how they nuzzled her feet for hours afterwards. She only wore them around the house as slippers, and never with shoes. Once they’d been worn and washed the first time, a significant part of the magic was gone, and she often handed them down to her mother or David after wearing them only a handful of times.

In a life of stoic self-discipline, these were her one of her only indulgences, and Josephine tried not to overdo it. She didn’t want to get so used to the sensation of new cotton socks that she became immune to them, so she only allowed herself one new pair of socks every three weeks as a reward for fifteen solid workouts. (Only one new pair a month wasn’t nearly enough, but she thought that every two weeks seemed decadent.) Josephine never told anyone about her sock fixation for fear of sounding affected, and only someone who’d known her since grade school would have thought to bring her such a gift.

He shrugged. “I didn’t have time to make you a peanut butter and jelly smoothie.”

A few tentative high-heeled steps were heard in the hallway. “All right, kids, I’m leaving,” Ellen Hayes called. “I’ll be in late, so…don’t wait up.” This last was said with enough sarcasm that bellowing laughter exploded from the foyer. Josephine winced, then stuck her head out into the hallway.

“Bye, mom. Enjoy the play.”

“I’ll be home around one. Shut your door when you go to bed so I don’t wake you up.”

“Okay. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Back in her bedroom, David was peeking through the blinds at the driveway. “Homeboy drives a Jag.”

“Yeah, I know.” Josephine picked up the package of socks and gave it a gentle squeeze. “They met at the mechanics.”

David had apparently gotten the look he wanted. “Oh my god…that’s Roger? Seriously? Hellooo, daddy!”

“Okay.”

“You go, Ellen!”

“All right.”

David sat back down on the bed as the sound of the Jaguar moved away from the house. “You really don’t like him?”

“I don’t know him. She seems to like him,” she said. “He’s fine, I guess. He smokes.” She put the socks back on her desk. “It doesn’t really have anything to do with me.”

David nodded. “Have you heard from Alexander? Or Lillian?”

“No. Why, have you?”

“Nah. I don’t know, I thought for some reason they might have called you.”

They could have moved back out into the house now, but they were both comfortable, so they stayed in her bedroom. Josephine hadn’t really seen David since the Budds left town, and she certainly hadn’t seen him well, so they spent a long time catching up in the peculiar lopsided way they’d always had.

David loved to talk, and did so often, but he wasn’t particularly good at having a conversation as such. He asked Josephine how she was doing, but then proceeded to tell her how he was doing. He asked her what her plans for summer were, then listed his in great detail before she could answer. He even jokingly asked about her love life, if she were going to be having any passionate whirlwind affairs this summer, then interrupted her denials with news of his upcoming trip to Chicago to visit Patrick and, oh yeah, his uncle.

Josephine didn’t mind any of this. In fact, if she were the type of girl who smiled to herself, she would certainly have been smiling to herself a little as David excitedly talked. She and David had known each other since before either of them had even heard of The Darling Budds, and she was used to him. She even found his one-sided conversations almost endearing when they weren’t completely infuriating.

Besides, Josephine wasn’t that fond of answering personal questions anyway.

David was in the middle of a day-by-day, even hour-by-hour, itinerary of his Chicago trip, and Josephine asked him when he left. He groaned loudly. “Not for an entire month, yet.”

“Oh. I thought it was sooner.”

“No, I leave like three days after your birthday. Which I haven’t forgotten about, by the way. In fact, I’ve already started.”

“You don’t have to do anything,” Josephine said, just like she did every year.

And just like every year, David rolled his eyes at her. “Please, I couldn’t forget about you.” He put his messenger bag down on the floor and, without looking up at her, said, “I mean that, you know.”

Josephine already felt her cheeks growing red. “What do you mean?”

He straightened up and, looking at the ceiling, tried blowing his bangs away from his face. “I just, you know…I hang out with Litta’Bit, and she hangs out with Robert, and both of us talk to Andre online. Okay, I mean, I haven’t talked to Emily that much, and who knows what’s up with Michael? But my point is: I don’t think anyone’s thought about you.” He grimaced. “Ouch. I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant that, uh, I thought about you. That’s all.”

“It’s okay,” Josephine said softly, staring at her carpet. “I understand. Thank you.”

“Please.” David waved it away, literally waving his hand in front of his face. Someone else may have indulged in a self-serving speech about what good friends they were and how he’d always remember her, but he knew that with Josephine a little means a lot. They were such good friends they didn’t have to keep reminding each other of it. “Hey, you wanna go swimming?”

Josephine, still blushing and breathing slightly through her mouth, looked up at him. “Right now?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I have to get up early on Monday to run, so if I stay up late tonight…”

About halfway through this protest, David had flopped back on the bed and began snoring loudly.

“I’m serious, David.”

His only answer was even louder snoring, now punctuated with mumbling, “…can’t do anything fun…gotta work out…gotta look hot for Leonard…” Josephine picked up the package of socks and threw them at David, who laughed and sat up. “Come on…I’ll make mojitos with, like, wheat germ and creatine in them.”

She sighed. “Okay.”

“Really? You mean it?”

Josephine smiled ever-so-slightly at him. “Yeah.”

“Yes!” David threw both of his fists in the air. “David wins again!”

“Let me get changed.”

“Okay.” David his lowered his arms slowly and the two friends sat there in silence for what felt like a full minute. “What?” he finally asked.

Josephine tilted her head towards the bedroom door.

“Oh. Right.” He slinked out of the room, dragging his now-empty messenger bag behind him. “Litta’Bit wouldn’t make me leave,” he grumbled.

Josephine shut the door behind him and locked it, just to be safe.

As she got ready, David kept up a steady monologue on the other side of her door: “Hey, don’t wear that one piece you bought at the mom store. Don’t you have any bikinis? Just wear bra and panties, no one’s gonna see you.”

He tapped at the door impatiently. “Hurry up. Hey, remember that time after the Spring Formal, I think, when we turned off the pool lights and all of us swam around in the dark? Let’s do that again, just me and you. If I’m lucky, maybe my mom will think we’re getting it on.

“Oh my god, are you really changing into that swimsuit? You work out all the time and you have such a hot body, but I only get to see it like once a year. And even then I have to sneak up on you…it’s not fair. Look, seriously, let’s just swim in our underwear. Make it a thong, too, and don’t worry about wearing a bra. No, wait…just the bra!”

Josephine unlocked and opened her bedroom door. She was wearing the burgundy one-piece she always wore, with a long wrap tied around her waist.

“Rats.”

Uncategorized

Twenty

David and Josephine weren’t the only Gangmembers who had decided to go swimming that Saturday evening. A few blocks away, Robert sat with his feet dangling off the side of his family’s pool, wearing damp swim trunks and a snug V-neck t-shirt. He’d pulled himself out of the water about an hour before, when the first wave of his sister’s slumber party had shown up, and now he was all but dry. The sun had just gone down, but the evening was still bright and warm. The automatic pool lights hadn’t yet kicked on, but they would soon.

Floating in front of Robert was an inflatable tray, bobbing occasionally in delayed reaction to five 14-year-old girls in the pool. The tray was intended to hold cocktails, but it had probably never been used for that purpose even once, as Robert and Miranda had confiscated it almost immediately for pool-set chess games.

Robert rubbed his bottom lip with an idle index finger, a gesture of his father’s he’d subconsciously copied almost since birth, and stared down intently at the magnetic board as it swayed in the current in front of him. It was still anyone’s game, but Robert was on the defensive, where he hated to be. These girls were aggressive.

Robert played a fair amount of chess; it was his main past-time. (It had been a long time since he’d considered his guitar a mere “hobby.”) For awhile, he’d studied the game, poring over books of strategies and openings and gambits. He would set up the fancy board in one of the downstairs studies and work through famous matches in history—The Immortal Game of 1851, Paul Morphy’s Opera Game—but he found the more he studied the less he enjoyed playing. Eventually, he made the un-Robert-like decision to give up his chess regimen in favor of just playing the game, though he knew this would never make him a grandmaster.

His only consistent opponent in the Gang was Andre, but Andre wouldn’t focus the way a good chess player needed to, and Robert almost always beat him. (Recently, though, he had let Andre eke out a victory after Michael had declared that he would play the winner.)

Robert frowned and leaned forward over the floating chess board. This was the third game he’d played against his sister and her friends. He’d barely won the first game, and the girls had rallied in the second and won a war of attrition. He took hold of his remaining rook, turning it sideways to break the magnetic seal without lifting the board off the tray, and moved it four squares to the left. He kept his finger on the piece as he examined the move, finally relinquishing it only after he was satisfied with his decision.

The five girls were scattered about the pool. Two of them, a blonde and a brunette, floated in the deep end on rubber rafts, slowly drifting around each other and talking in a low voice, apparently about a boy that the blonde liked. Neither were interested in playing chess, though the brunette had gotten out of the pool at one point to fetch two Diet Cokes and had taken a turn moving for the girls. His sister and the other two girls were across the shallow end from Robert, laughing and splashing each other. Occasionally one would slip under the water and do a handstand, and the others would inevitably push her over.

This was the earliest wave of a slumber party that would eventually leave Robert stranded in his room for the night. There would be more girls showing up later, after a debate team practice finished up. These girls were a year behind his sister and the other girls in the pool, and they would be staying at St. Odo’s next year instead of moving to Beaumonde or Parvenu. “The debate team practices during the summer? On a Saturday evening?” he had asked them, incredulous, and they had looked at each other and rolled their eyes as though he would never understand.

Apparently a lot had changed in the three years since Robert had attended the junior high. From what he could tell by accompanying his parents to Open Houses and Quiz Bowl tournaments, a small group of aggressively academic girls had taken over the school and transformed the student body. Suddenly all the girls at St. Odo’s began competing fiercely in extracurricular activities that, when Robert had been a student there, had barely existed: Model U.N., the chess team, math competitions. As far as Robert could tell, the junior high had become a forbidding matriarchy—the boys of the school, in response to the girls’ dominance, had become sub-literate and aggressive—and the architects of this transformation were apparently scattered around his pool.

Satisfied with his rook’s move, Robert picked up a small brass bell he had beside him and rang it a few times. Halfway through the first game, he’d grown tired of yelling to get the girls’ attention whenever he moved, which he found exhausting and uncivilized, and had gone inside to get his chess clock. However, on the way up to his room he passed by the cat bowl and the bell they rang every time they fed her, a tradition dating back to Miranda’s fourth-grade science fair project on the Pavlovian response. He brought the bell outside with him, and used it to signal to the girls that he had moved. Unbeknownst to any of them, every single time he jingled the bell a fuzzy white head would appear in one of the upstairs windows, looked crazed and excited at the prospect of a meal.

An Indian-American girl held her breath and swam underwater towards him, surfacing just in front of the board and blinking the water away. For years Robert had known this girl as Heather, but within the last six months she had decided to start going by her middle name, Sanjuta.

“I moved my rook,” Robert said, sliding his finger across the board.

“You don’t say…” Sanjuta mumbled, not quite sarcastically. Even though the water was shallow enough for her stand up comfortably, she chose to tread water as she stared across the board. “Has it ever occurred to you that maybe you’re just not cut out to be a chess player? There’s no shame in admitting it, you know.”

Robert ignored her. The girls had been trash-talking their way through three games now, and no matter what move he made, it was clearly the product of an inferior intellect that deserved a solid mocking.

Sanuta put her finger on a bishop for a moment, but then moved her hand away. “Have you ever played Go?” she asked, in a different, less-confrontational voice.

Robert looked up at her. “Not yet. I’d like to, but I don’t know anyone else who plays. The online players can be pretty daunting.”

“I prefer it to chess. We play at school, and-”

“Really? There’s a Go club at St. Odo’s?”

“It’s not a club…we just play over lunch, usually the 9×9 board. I don’t get to play that often, but a lot of the girls are really into it. It’s like a clique, I guess.”

Robert found himself in the unlikely position of wishing he could go back to junior high. “Fascinating. Miranda never mentioned this to me.”

“Oh, she’s not one of the Go girls. She has more important things to do over lunch.”

Robert’s cell phone began beeping out the Beaumonde Academy school song before he could ask her what exactly Miranda had to do during lunch. He pulled his shins from the water, careful not to nudge the board, and pushed himself up. On one of the patio tables near the edge of the concrete, Robert had—without consciously doing it—created a still life out of a perfectly folded beach towel, a smartphone not quite centered on top of the towel and at a slight angle, and a water bottle that was three-quarters full and covered in condensation. Normally this tableau would have been joined by a pair of vintage aviator sunglasses, but Robert had forgotten them in the car earlier that afternoon.

He reached the table just as the song was cycling through for the second time. It was Litta’Bit calling, and he anxiously grabbed at the phone.

“Hello?”

“Hey, babe, what’s up?”

“Is everything okay?”

On the other end of the line, Litta’Bit laughed. “Everything’s fine. I can call you just to talk, can’t I?”

“Of course, of course. How are you?” Underneath the table was a pair of black sandals, which Robert only ever wore from the house to the pool and back again.

“I’m fine. A little bored, maybe. Are you busy?”

“No, not at all.” Behind Robert, Sanjuta picked up the little bell and began ringing it at him impatiently. He nodded quickly at her and turned away, putting a finger in his ear. She rang the bell a few more times, then swam back to her friends. “Why, what’s up?”

“I don’t know…I’m in your neighborhood, I thought maybe you’d like to hang out or something.”

“Right now?” Robert looked around his backyard, as though he’d see Litta’Bit walking in.

“Yeah, of course right now. Why? Do you have a girl over?” She laughed again.

“I do, actually. Four of them…and with more on the way. Miranda’s having a slumber party. Where are you?”

“I’m pulling into your driveway. Come let me in.”

Robert hung up and looked around for a second in a daze. He ran his hands over his stubbly scalp, then tugged at his t-shirt. He didn’t like walking out to greet her in a pair of soggy swimming trunks, but what could he do? He put the phone back on his towel and hurried around the pool, walking as quickly as his loose sandals would let him.

Miranda taunted him as he passed them. “We’re gonna take your queen…” The other girls giggled.

“What?” He looked across the water at the floating chess game. He couldn’t quite see what move Sanjuta had made, but his queen still stood on the board. “Okay, wait…I’ll be back in a second.”

Around the front of the house, Snoopy’s Head was easing carefully into the driveway. Robert’s house had been built a century before the Automobile Age, and even the gate in the fence pre-dated the SUV era. Litta’Bit had to back up a bit to straighten her tires before pulling fully into the driveway.

“What a nice surprise,” Robert said, opening her door for her as she turned off the ignition.

“Look at you…so casual. You look sexy.”

He chuckled. “I do? Okay.”

Litta’Bit climbed down out of the driver’s seat. She was wearing a short tennis skirt and a low-cut top, with a pair of oversized sunglasses that made her look like a sexed-up larva. “Modesty is a sin, Robert.”

“I don’t think it is, actually.”

“Whatever.” She poked at his belly, then let her finger run down the front of his shirt. “You wanna go for a drive?”

“That would be nice. Uh, let me get changed. My sister and her friends are in the back, you wanna hang out with them while I get ready? Or you could come inside and say hi to my mom.”

“I’ll just wait in the back.” At just the mention of Tabitha Johnson, Litta’Bit pinched the shoulders of her top and self-consciously pulled the front up slightly. “You’re not going to be long, are you?”

“No, no at all.”

By now they were on the side of the house. As with most houses in New Orleans, though the front and back yard was large, there was very little space on the sides. The last light of the summer evening still glowed in the back yard, but the walkway leading around the side was already dark.

“Hey,” Litta’Bit said, tugging on Robert’s hand. “Hold up.”

He turned towards her. “Oh, sorry. Of course.” He leaned over and presented his cheek. Litta’Bit kissed it deliberately, but then moved her head around and softly kissed his mouth, surprising Robert with a quick hint of tongue against his bottom lip. He softened against her and pulled her closer. She put one hand against his stomach and another, still holding her keyring, pressed into his side. Her hand slipped under his shirt for a second and pressed a warm palm against his tummy.

Robert broke the kiss first, with a guilty glance up towards the windows of his house. Litta’Bit laughed at him and pulled away. “I haven’t heard from you all week…” she whispered.

“I know, I’ve just been busy.” But in fact he had been forcing himself to not call her. He was carrying out an experiment to see how long she would go without calling him. It had made sense at the time—he had idly imagined confronting her: “You haven’t tried to call me in a week!”—but now that she was here in his arms, with her mouth warm and hungry against his own, the whole business seemed childish and petty.

“I thought you didn’t love me anymore,” she said, pulling an exaggerated pout. It was meant to be playful, but there was an edge to it, too.

“What? No, are you crazy? That’ll never happen.”

“You promise?”

“I do.” He kissed her forehead. “I promise.”

“Hmm…okay. I believe you.”

With a laugh, he led her back to the pool. Amanda and Karen, the two girls who had been meandering around the deep end, had abandoned their floats and joined Miranda, Sanjuta, and Heather. The girls were talking intently as they treaded water. The sky beyond the backyard was the color of a safety vest.

The soles of Robert’s sandals slapped with every step, and Litta’Bit’s heels clacked against the stone tiles of the walkway. The girls looked back at the sound of the extra footfalls, and Miranda waved tentatively at her brother’s girlfriend. “Hey, Litta’Bit.”

“What’s up, bitches?” Litta’Bit asked. The girls in the pool glanced nervously at each other, not sure how to respond, but Litta’Bit didn’t notice. She had just taken off her large sunglasses for the first time in hours, and was glancing around at the world with wonder. “Oh wow, it’s still really light out. I thought it was, like, almost dark.”

Robert picked up his phone and his towel. “Okay, I’ll be back in five minutes, if not sooner. There’s some water here, if you want it.”

“Thanks.” Litta’Bit lowered herself smoothly into a chaise lounge, keeping her short skirt tight against her thighs with her free hand. The girls in the pool were observing her cautiously, occasionally staring quickly at one another without a word. “You girls are in my brother’s grade, right? Jason Huynh?”

None of the girls spoke, but all of them giggled nervously and cut their eyes towards Karen, whose cheeks were suddenly deepening into red.

Inside the house, Robert quickly changed into a fitted shirt and a pair of light trousers. He glanced in the mirror and thought it looked too formal, so he slipped on a pair of white canvas loafers without socks. He wasn’t crazy about how it all looked together, but he didn’t want to leave Litta’Bit waiting.

After a quick detour in the bathroom—mouthwash, deodorant, cologne, all applied at roughly the same time—he found his mother reading in what they called the original downstairs study, sitting back in his father’s beloved overstuffed leather chair. An empty teacup set on the small table by her side, with a lemon slice mangled on the saucer. Her posture was usually so precise, and it was odd to see her stretched out in his father’s easy chair.

Robert’s father, Jerome Johnson, was out of town that night on business, in Baton Rouge to attend a special memorial ceremony at a large African-American Baptist church and then meet with members of the State Legislature the next afternoon. He could have come home that night and driven back the next day, but Miranda had been wanting to have this slumber party for weeks now and had to wait until her father was out of town.

Robert thought this precaution was unnecessary, but his mother explained that with all of Lucas Budd’s troubles, Jerome Johnson didn’t need to be in a house full of teenage girls. The media was hungry, she said, and even the appearance of impropriety was too much. All of them needed to be on their guard.

“Mom?”

Tabitha looked up and, in one fluid motion, took off her reading glasses, slid a thin wooden bookmark into the pages, and set the book aside with the glasses on top. He couldn’t make out the title from where he stood, but there was an artistic photograph of a young woman’s naked back on one side of the cover, and the curve of a cello on the other, forming one symetrical shape. “Robert,” she said, with a smile. “I thought you were swimming.”

“I was, but Elizabeth showed up out of the blue.”

His mother looked past him, into the darkening hallway. “Is she here?”

“She’s out on the deck with the girls. She wants to take me on a drive.”

Tabitha Johnson raised her eyebrows. “A drive?”

Robert had no response, and years of living with his mother had taught him what to do in that situation: he said nothing.

“How pleasant,” she said at last, with a playful smile. “It’s going to be a lovely evening.”

“What are you reading?”

Tabitha looked over at the side table as though surprised to see a book there. She slipped her reading glasses back on and picked it up. “Oh, just something for Valerie’s book club. Grandma’s diary, Prague in the 30s, a Jewish cello instructor.” She held the cover at arms’ length and squinted at it. “A Symphony Of Stones, by Timothy Sobotka.”

“I bet love wins out in the end.”

“Either that or ‘the redeeming power of art’…at least that’s what it says on the back.” She set the book back on the table, but left her reading glasses on. “Have a good time with Elizabeth. Be careful out there…lots of drunk drivers tonight.”

“I will.”

“And Robert…no curfew tonight. In fact, why don’t you call one of your friends and see if you can spend the night when you’re done with Elizabeth? I saw David on Thursday at Valerie’s boutique, and he said you should come by sometime. And didn’t you tell me Andre was a night-owl? The two of you could have midnight movies.”

“Well, Mom, I don’t-”

“It was just an idea. I thought that since all these girls are going to be here…I think Miranda invited half the school, and maybe you might like to be somewhere else tonight. What with all the makeovers and pranks and who knows what all. I bet your Uncle Tony would love to hang out with you. You’re an adult now, you don’t need a permission slip from me to spend the night wherever you want. All I ask is that you show up on time for Mass tomorrow.”

“I will.” Robert cocked his head at his mother, but she just smiled at him and picked up her book again. “Okay, I guess I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Have fun.”

Robert started to leave, and was almost out of the room before he turned back towards his mother. “Mom…” he began.

Tabitha Johnson didn’t even look up from her book. “It’s a whole new world we live in these days, Robert.” She turned the page crisply. “All it takes is one lie, one rumor. None of us are safe right now.”

Before going back outside, Robert stopped by his room and packed an overnight bag. Alexander would have been appalled at the sloppy manner in which he folded his suit, and in fact Robert wasn’t too thrilled about it either, but he was suddenly in a hurry.

Outside, it was almost fully dark. The pool lights had switched on, throwing watery shadows against the sides of the house. All five of the girls were lined up by the edge of the water, at Litta’Bit’s feet, listening intently as she described Beaumonde Academy. The chess game, now forgotten, drifted out towards the dark center of the pool.

“Let’s see,” Litta’Bit said, “first-years take Life Sciences, which is either with Ms. Kern or Mr. Jenkins, but I think maybe Mr. Parker might teach one class of that, too. Kern is a total lunatic, so try to get in Jenkins’ class. Oh, and don’t take your choice of lab partner lightly…do you guys know Adam Sidd? He’s gonna be a senior this year? Well, anyway, take my word for it, he’s beyond cute and he was the odd man out in my class so he had to do all his lab experiments by himself…and all because I said yes to the first girl who asked me because I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.”

Robert stood over her, trying to will his overnight bag invisible so that his sister wouldn’t see it. “I’m ready.”

“Speaking of beyond cute…” Litta’Bit said, smiling wickedly up at him. “But you should have seen this guy as a first-year. I’ve really cleaned him up. He had cornrows, a platinum grill, and a tear tattoo’d on his cheek…”

Most of the girls, especially Miranda, giggled at this, and Robert, who was suddenly in a very good mood, threw back his head and laughed louder than he probably should have.

(“He did?” Amanda asked incredulously, but the other girls just ignored her.)

With one hand held out for Robert to hold, Litta’Bit stood up from the chaise lounge with a graceful unfolding motion. “That totally reminds me: you guys have to call yourselves ‘first year students’ or just ‘first years.’ You can’t call yourselves freshmen, because Dr. Hayes is a stickler about that. She says it’s sexist, like only men get educations. Whatever. If she gives you any grief, just find me. Her daughter has a mad crush on me.”

Robert chuckled. “Stop lying. Let’s go already.”

Litta’Bit took his arm and waved back at the slumber party. “Good night, girls. Nice talking to you.”

“Good night, Litta’Bit,” they called, in one voice, then cracked up at how it sounded. Their laughter turned into taunting, which quickly turned into splashing and dunking.

“I feel old,” Litta’Bit said after they left the backyard. “I wish I were going to be a first year again. So full of promise.”

“You do?”

“Well, no, not really. Those girls are gonna go through hell. But it can be fun hell.” She tugged on the strap of his bag. “What’s this for?”

“I’ll tell you in the car.”

“Mysterious.”

Robert carefully backed Snoopy’s Head out of the narrow driveway and into St. Charles Avenue, a maneuver Litta’Bit had never actually attempted, then he put the SUV in park. The truck was so large it didn’t have a center console, so it was trivial to slide out of the driver’s side and into the passenger seat. Litta’Bit, who was sitting in the back, hopped up into the front and they pulled off.

“So, yeah, about the bag. My mom says I can spend the night.”

Litta’Bit looked over at him. “Really?”

“Not in as many words, but I got the distinct sense that I have her tacit approval.”

Litta’Bit slowly moved away from a stop sign, crossing Prytania and heading down towards the river. “What brought this on?”

“She said she considers me an adult, and respects my boundaries.”

“Huh.” She looked over at him and grinned. “Sounds like a set-up to me.”

“Maybe.”

They were deeper in the Garden District now, where overgrown maple and oak trees eclipsed many of streetlights. In a dark patch of open street, Litta’Bit pulled Snoopy’s Head off to the side and parked softly. “Give me a second, I just have to take care of something.”

She slipped out of the driver’s seat and, before Robert knew what was happening, she had straddled him. She kissed his face and his jaw-line, with her hands on his shoulders pushing him meekly against the seat. He tried to return her kisses, but she always moved her mouth away just a second before his lips touched hers.

“I missed you,” she whispered, ducking his kiss again.

“I missed you, too.” Robert put his hands on her waist, the ring finger of each hand touching the smooth flesh between her top and her skirt. She moved her hips slowly under his touch. He knew they should be moving on soon, but for the moment there wasn’t any traffic on the side street and the houses were dark and silent.

“I thought maybe you met someone else,” Litta’Bit whispered, then kissed his temple cautiously.

“What? No, of course not.” He held her back a little and looked into her shadowed face. “There’s no one else out there for me.”

She touched the side of his face, her fingernails lightly against his cheek and her thin gold bracelet cold against his chin. “Do you still love me?”

“Always.”

In the dark, her eyes softened. “Say it again.”

“Always,” he repeated. “I’ll always love you, Elizabeth Huynh.”

She kissed him voraciously now, cupping his head in her hands and pushing her body against his chest. Robert’s hands slid down over her skirt and touched her smooth thighs delicately, acutely aware of the callouses on the fingertips of his left hand. Litta’Bit lowered her body against his, exploring his neck now with wet greedy kisses, and her thighs slid under his hands until he was holding her thin soft hips, and the crease where her legs met her torso. The folds of her skirt brushed against his forearms.

Robert’s phone began to beep.

She laughed softly, biting his earlobe gently. “I think they’re on to us. They’ll never take us alive.”

But the spell was broken, and with two chaste kisses she slid off of him and back into the distant country of the driver’s seat. “Making out like a couple of teenagers,” Litta’Bit mumbled, looking over at him with a giggle. She put Snoopy’s Head into gear and pulled away from the curb.

Robert had gotten his phone out of his overnight bag and was examining the screen. His Uncle Tony had sent him three text messages, one right after the other. Robert cursed Miranda for ever teaching him how to text.

• whats up playa? Just got a call from yr mom. Wont be here if you wanna come over, but you know where the key is.
• Leave a note or something so I know if you’re here when I get in. Id hate to put a bullet in you. Thinking youre a burgular.
• PS if you want cereal in the morning pick up some milk. And some cereal ha ha.

Robert set his phone down, lost in thought for a second. “Hey, how about we curtail the ‘driving around’ part of the evening, maybe just go somewhere for a little while?”

Litta’Bit looked over at him and bit her lip. “That’s the best idea I’ve heard all night. I know just the perfect place.” She turned Snoopy’s Head around, aimed for the Mississippi River bridge, and headed towards her bedroom.

Uncategorized

Twenty-One

At exactly one a.m., Ellen Hayes quietly turned the key of her front door and pushed it open slowly. She waved at Roger and he flashed his headlights, then moved off down the street, passing Beaumonde Academy before making the corner.

Ellen slipped her high heels off, sighing with relief to have them off at last. As she bent down to collect them, she realized that the kitchen light had been left on. She tiptoed quietly towards the kitchen, but when she got close she saw that the light in Josephine’s bedroom was on as well, and the door was open. Ellen stood still in the hallway. She lightly licked her lips, then spit away a phantom hair from Roger’s moustache that she knew would be bothering her all night. The house was quiet.

On the kitchen counter was the Latin dictionary they kept with the phone books, a note from Josephine, and a single pill.

The note was written on a scratch pad that Ellen’s brother-in-law put in Josephine’s birthday package every year. At the top it read “From The Fevered Imagination Of Josephine Brooks.” Every year he changed the header; previous incarnations had featured The Elegant Mind, The Frightening Intellect, and The Tortured Soul of his niece.

Ellen ran a glass of water and swallowed the pill her daughter had put out for her, a woman’s once-a-day supplement that she would consistently forget to take if not for Josephine’s vigilance. She picked up the note and sat down on one of the two stools by the counter. The metal foot-rest, cool and hard, felt wonderful in the arches of her feet.

Abive cum Davide ut natermus. Fortasse apud eum pernoctem itaque mensorem meum mecum tuli, si forte necesse sint. Mane te videam.

She re-read the note, translating it in a mumbled whisper as she read. “I went with David…to swim. I might spend the night with him…so I brought my…measurer?…my meter with me…in case I need it. I will see you tomorrow morning.”

Ellen Hayes had been studying Latin since before she met Oliver Brooks, Josephine’s father, but she had never achieved the silent fluency of her husband. He could read, write, and speak in Latin (and ancient Greek) (and Hebrew) with the ease of a native speaker, but Ellen had to give voice to the words as she translated.

When Ellen was twenty-one, she was taking a bus across New Haven to her dorm and struggling with the Petronius excerpt she had been assigned. She read the words slowly, translating in a low whisper as she worked: “I saw her Cumae…I saw her at Cumae with my eyes hanging in…I saw her hanging in a jar with my eyes at Cumae. Ok. With my own eyes I saw her, hanging in a jar, at Cumae…”

The boy sitting in front of her gave a start and removed the headphones he was wearing. He turned around slowly with a look that combined both curiosity and fear. There was no nice way to put it: he looked like a wonder-struck Muppet—just an oval head with a tuft of curly hair at the top, bisected by glasses that were too small for his face—but he had looked at her with an intensity few had ever directed towards Ellen. Without introducing himself, he stared into her eyes and chanted, almost as though he were asking her a question: “…and when the young boys asked her, ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’, she replied, ‘I want to die.’”

He convinced her to get coffee with him, ostensibly to help with the Petronius, but really so he could fall in love with her. He was a senior, and she had seen him before in the Classical Studies building, always wearing his Walkman. (He claimed that it was for language tapes, but she soon discovered that it almost never held tapes or even batteries…he just didn’t want people to talk to him.) Soon, poems written in ancient languages would be pushed under her door for her fiance to find by mistake.

Back in the kitchen, Ellen opened up the Latin dictionary and looked at the inscription: Oliver Brooks, it had originally said, along with his address back home in Bangor. Eight months after they had met—after the broken engagement, after the admittedly pitiful late night scuffle with the former fiance that Oliver referred to for decades as a “duel at dawn”—she went to every book in his apartment and added a BA after his name. Two years later, as she packed up boxes for the move to Ellen’s hometown of New Orleans, she had added an MA. And three years after that, with baby Catherine crying in her crib in their small apartment, Ellen appended a Dr. and a Ph.D. to his name while he taught his first Latin classes at Beaumonde.

She closed the Latin dictionary and stood up. The note from Josephine got folded up carefully; under her bed were three rather large keepsake boxes. They read Catherine, Josephine, and Oliver. She took the ticket stubs and the program for the play out of her small silver purse and looked at them. There were other, much smaller, boxes under her bed, and she wondered if it was time to start a Roger box. She decided against it, and tossed the stubs and program into the trash. A few seconds later, she dug them out and placed them on the kitchen counter.

The play had been a broad comedy from a local writer and talk show host, the husband of one of Roger’s many nieces. He was known as “a character” and “a true New Orleanian.” The play was a gloss on Shakespeare, featuring caricatures of local stereotypes, called A Midsummer Yat’s Dream. It was put on at a cabaret nightclub, part of a “cocktail theater” series designed to get people to come to a show during the brutal summer.

Four of Ellen’s students had been at the play, and were by far the best-dressed group in the nightclub. They looked like they were attending a Broadway premiere during the Jazz Age. Ellen, along with everyone else in the cabaret, watched them take their seats at a small table towards the stage. One of the boys held the seat for his girlfriend, and pushed it in for her. The other boy, not to be outdone, quickly pulled out his pocket square and lightly dusted off the seat of the chair he was offering to his date. At this, the first girl gave her negligent boyfriend a chilly look as she lit a long pink Nat Sherman with a mother-of-pearl lighter, pointedly ignoring the gold Zippo he offered her.

These were typical Beaumonde upperclassmen. They weren’t particularly close with The Darling Budds or anyone else in The Gang, nor were they very well-known among their peers. (In fact, Ellen could barely remember one of the boys’ names.) This was just how her students behaved…she imagined all the restaurants, coffeehouses, and movie theaters across the city that were, at the very moment, being infiltrated by the exquisite aliens who attended Beaumonde. Other principals and headmasters had to deal with teen pregnancy and drug use; Ellen Hayes had to deal with Alexander Budd, and the culture he had created.

It was always awkward to run into her students in public, so at the play’s intermission—after the star-crossed lovers Boudreaux and Cherie had escaped into “da bayou” to elope, but before the Nick Boddum, a rude mechanic, was magically given the head of a giant nutria—she approached their table to say hello. The two boys immediately stood upon seeing her approach, and remained standing during the short conversation. After the play, Roger discovered that their drink tab had been paid by the four high school students who, with polite waves in their direction, had left just after the curtain call.

Ellen brushed her teeth, then turned off her daughter’s bedroom light. She walked through her dark house for no reason at all. It occurred to her for the first time that, in just a little over a year, Josephine would be in college and Ellen would end all of her nights like this, in a dark house by herself. She went back to her purse, which she’d left on the kitchen table, and found her cell phone. She used the screen to light the way towards the bedroom.

(Three doors down, Josephine and David were asleep in his sunroom, watched over by the dim glow of a muted home shopping channel. On the low coffee-table in front of them sat a half-eaten pizza, and two plates: David’s held three crusts, and Josephine’s held the pepperoni, sausage, and cheese that had been carefully picked off her one slice. Josephine was growing more and more horizontal, though she could still be said to be upright. David, though, was thoroughly curled up on the couch, with his head in Josephine’s lap and her wrap thrown over his shoulders.)

Ellen got down on her knees and, feeling under her bed for Josephine’s keepsake box—it was actually a large cake box covered in contact paper—slipped this most recent note in with the others. She was feeling sentimental, probably because of the wine she’d had at the play, and she thought about pulling Oliver’s huge box out and reading through his old letters. She quickly decided against it, because no good ever seemed to come from that any more.

She stood up and sat down on the edge of her bed, feeling suddenly dizzy. Definitely the wine. She already knew what all of Oliver’s letters said anyway, having re-read them so many times, even the ones she had to translate, in the ten years (ten years!) since he’d died.

Oliver Brooks had been sick for a long time before he passed away, and he’d used the time to write annual letters to each of his girls—Ellen, Catherine, and Josephine—that were taken out of the safety deposit box each year on their birthdays. The third letter Ellen had gotten, three years after his death, had included this unexpected advice: “Take off the black veil, my Penélopê, and fashion it into a mini-skirt.” The next year’s letter had included a humorous personal ad she could run, and a rigorous essay exam to weed out the insufficiently educated among her potential suitors. But she had waited another year, after Josephine had started junior high, before she began going on not-quite-dates with a few of her student’s divorced fathers, and a couple of teachers from other private schools.

Thinking about the letters reminded Ellen of Josephine’s upcoming birthday, and she felt a quick rush of guilt and sadness. She turned on the bedroom light and opened her phone. She punched in the ten digits of Roger’s number, having always thought of speed-dial as cheating. Roger lived across Lake Pontchatrain, and would probably still be on the 24-mile bridge headed towards home. He answered almost immediately, but she had to wait as he closed the sunroof and turned down the classic rock so he could hear her.

“No,” Ellen said, “everything’s fine. … I just wanted to call and say goodnight. … It turns out that Josephine is spending the night with a friend, so- … No, sir, you are not turning around. You’re heading home, same as before.” She laughed. “You’re right, that is my teacher voice. … I’m serious! I won’t even let you in the driveway. … But I’ll make you a deal: you can talk to me while I get ready for bed.”

Ellen Hayes turned off her bedroom light.

Part One: June

Twenty-Two

A few hours later, when Michael tapped against the window at the back of her cottage, Emily Bellecastle woke up immediately, and with a smile. Her clock said that it was 6:02 a.m., but she realized that, even without knowing it, she had been waiting for Michael to come to her window one night soon.

They had talked on the phone a few times since their bike ride Thursday night, once for almost half an hour. It was really nice, especially after not being around The Gang for almost a month, even if it felt odd to become friends only after being around each other daily for two years. Last night, Michael had told her that she would see him on Sunday, and now as she crawled out of bed she knew that he’d come across town to repay her late night visit.

She had fallen asleep without clearing off her bed, and her open New Yorker now had a sunburst crease in the middle where she’d rolled over on it during the five hours she’d been sleeping. She looked around her room for something dumb she could put on before she went to the window, something like a weird hat or a mask, but nothing jumped out at her and now Michael was tapping again. She thought about stripping off her shirt and pulling back the curtains with just her boxers on, with one arm covering her breasts and a goofy bewildered look on her face. Eh, maybe that wasn’t such a great idea.

Instead, she just put on a broad sweet smile…it was good to see Michael, and cute that he was visiting her so soon (even if he was sort of being a copycat about it.) Maybe they’d walk down to * and get coffee with the dogwalkers. She pulled back on the curtains, ready to wave at him and hold up a finger, meaning she’d be out as soon as she got dressed.

Standing outside her window in the morning pre-dawn light was an unshaven middle-aged man with messy dirty hair. The man was bent over, making a tunnel out of his hands as he peered into her room.

Emily jumped back with a scream, then clamped a hand over her mouth. In a panic, she began to do three things at once, succeeding at none of them: put on her dressing gown, find her cell phone, look for some kind of weapon. The man began tapping on her window again, this time more urgently.

Even though the cabin was nestled in the courtyard of the larger house, Emily’s father had installed panic buttons throughout the cottage, just in case someone was able to sneak in the gate and past the guard dog. The buttons turned on all the lights in Franz’s quarters and sounded an alarm. Emily hit the buttons by accident so often that it became a family joke so why couldn’t she remember where any of them were right now???

 

The man began rapping on the glass with his knuckle, now. With her heart still beating in her throat, Emily was able to pull her gown on, and find her phone wadded up in her sheet, and she remembered the impressively large letter opener one of her uncles had given her a few years ago. There was a panic button under her nightstand and beside her desk.

But before she could call anyone or hit one of the buttons or brandish the letter opener, she realized that if she trimmed and combed his hair, and shaved the thick stubble away, and changed him out of his dirty undershirt, the man knocking on her window was her boyfriend’s father. It was Lucas Budd.

Cautiously, she pulled open the curtain again. Mr. Budd was tapping on the window while looking back at the main estate. There were no lights on in the house, though, and he gave her a thumb’s up, like I think we got away with it. He looked like he was crazy, but he didn’t look crazed. He apparently hadn’t groomed himself since his arrest, but underneath his mad hermit look he appeared unchanged.

Mr. Budd waved her to come outside and join him, but Emily quickly shook her head. She closed her dressing gown—a Christmas present from Lillian—and watched him. He was wearing a pair of gray sweatpants and a pair of black dress shoes, no socks.

Again, he motioned for her to come outside, this time more urgently. He kept looking back at the house, then past the cottage to the street beyond.

“No way,” Emily mouthed as she shook her head. She saw Gormenghast sitting at attention just off to the left, his face a picture of idiotic curiosity as he watched the proceedings between his mistress and the trespasser. His head swung back and forth with each volley, like at a tennis match. He seemed to be so interested in what was going on that he clearly had no intentions of disrupting the scene by barking or attacking the intruder.

Lucas Budd stepped away from the window for a second and peered around the corner of the cottage, then reappeared. He pointed quickly at his left wrist, telling her he didn’t have much time.

“Call me,” Emily whispered, holding her pinky and her thumb up to her face.

Mr. Budd shook his head and made an X with his forearms. “I can’t,” she thought he mouthed.

Emily looked around her room and, underneath the discarded three-ring binders of the previous school year, she found the dry erase board she used for upcoming assignments. She ran her hand over the board, erasing the final exam dates from May, then wrote simply WTF? on the board.

Lucas Budd apparently wasn’t up on the latest in online abbreviations, because he looked at her with an impatient curiosity. Emily erased the WTF? and replaced it with What do you want?

A look of passion and frustration passed over the face of her boyfriend’s father, and Emily was briefly worried again. Mr. Budd angrily pointed at his eye and mouthed the word back at her: “Eye.”

Okay, eye. Go on.

Mr. Budd shook his head and pointed at her, then pretended to write in the air.

“’I write to you?’ You want me to write something to you?”

Again, Mr. Budd shook his head. He pointed to his eye and then at the board, then drew an exaggerated “I” in the air.

Oh, right, duh. You want me to write this down. Emily erased the board with her palm and wrote the letter “I” at the top.

Lucas Budd nodded, then pointed at his leg.

“Leg? Legs?” Emily mouthed.

He shook his head, then jerked his knee up into the air.

“I…I…” Emily shrugged at him.

Mr. Budd, exasperated, motioned for her to come outside again, then sighed. He held his hands about a foot apart, as though he was holding something, then he began to repeatedly to bring it down towards his lap. Seeing the horrified expression on Emily’s face, he shook his head vehemently then did it again, this time bringing his knee up higher.

“Oh, you knee’d someone.” She wrote the word kneed beside the I on her board. “Was it that cop hanging out at your house?”

Emily looked up from the dry erase board just in time to see Lucas Budd, terrified of something just over her shoulder, drop down to the ground. Emily turned around, towards the front of the cottage. Her father’s head appeared in the window by the door, looking in with concern on his lean features. Seeing her awake, he opened the door. Emily only then realized it had been unlocked the entire time.

Her father was wearing his bicycling outfit, the spandex suit tight on his compact frame. Even at 71, Erling Hammarskjöld walked with the easy efficiency of a lifelong athlete. He looked her over curiously as he entered, his pale eyes shrewd in his lined face. His clip shoes tapped against the hardwood floor of the cabin.

“What are you doing awake, Baby Belle?” Even after decades in America, his voice retained a hint of a clipped Scandinavian accent. He sounded vaguely like an exceptionally good speech synthesizer. “You should be in bed for at least five more hours.”

“I couldn’t sleep. I guess I had a nightmare,” she said. Why are you protecting him?

“I thought I heard you call out. Are you okay?” Her father held her eyes for a second, then, without moving, he glanced around her bedroom quickly: under the edge of her bed, into her open closet, through the door to her bathroom.

“I’m fine. I just…couldn’t sleep.”

“Well, it must have been quite a dream, to keep you from sleeping.” Her father smiled at her, and walked over to the window that, just a few minutes before, had held Lucas Budd. He frowned and looked out at the courtyard, even glancing down at the ground as though he couldn’t quite put his finger on something. Emily thought that, in another life, he would have been a good detective, another billionaire crime-fighter in a spandex suit. “What are you writing?”

“Oh…I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I thought I’d make a shopping list for tomorrow with Mom.”

Erling Hammarskjöld turned back from the window and shook his head sadly at her. Emily froze for a second, and wondered again why she cared if Lucas Budd were caught sneaking around her house.

“You know better than that, Emily.” Her father leaned forward, and with a long elegant finger he traced the letter K, erasing it. “All that money spent on your education.”

Emily looked down at the dry erase board, which now read I need. “Oh, ha. I guess I’m still half-asleep.”

Erling clapped his hands together once. “Well, no sense wasting the day away. You’re awake, so why don’t you take a bike ride with me?”

“Really?”

“Yes. We’ll go down to the French Market and get your mother flowers. A surprise for her.”

“That sounds like fun. But I get flowers, too.”

Erling chuckled. “Wear something light…it’s already hot today, very hot. And I’m not slowing down, just for you.”

A few minutes later, Emily was wearing lycra shorts and a light tank-top, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. Alexander would have pretended like he’d never met her before if they passed on the street, but her father was only partially kidding about keeping up a fast pace.

Just before she left, she picked up her dry erase board and looked at it again. She frowned as she read the two short words over and over.

I need.

 

I need.

 

I need.

What did Lucas Budd need from her?

Uncategorized

Twenty-Three

Jerome Johnson Has Harsh Words For Critics Of Lucas Budd
City Councilman Stresses Caution, Forgiveness In Baton Rouge Speech

During a special ceremony Saturday night at Baton Rouge’s Lakebridge Baptist Church, sixth district Councilman Jerome Johnson spoke out against what he saw as a “rush to judgment” against his friend and colleague Lucas Budd. Speaking before a record crowd of 3,500 at the church’s arena-like sanctuary, Johnson railed against those who would “condemn [Budd] before his trial” and “punish [him] before his verdict has been read.” Johnson, however, told the congregation that it’s their “duty, as citizens and as Christians, to withhold judgment until the man has stood before a court of law and a jury of his peers to defend himself.”

Last month, Councilman Budd was arrested on numerous drug and other charges. Now awaiting the first of many trials set to begin in September, Budd has made no public appearances and no statements of any kind. The NOPD has posted a round-the-clock guard at Budd’s large Garden District home due to the national attention the arrest has attracted.

Budd has yet to resign his City Council seat, though he’s attended no meetings in the last four weeks. A city ethics panel and Mayor Cope’s anti-corruption task force have recommended that the seat be revoked, a move that Johnson has argued extensively against, both at City Council meetings and public appearances.

“In this country, we do not interpret silence as guilt,” he said in his speech on Saturday.

The focus of the speech, however, was not Lucas Budd but Johnson’s great-aunt Wilhemina Johnson, to whom Lakebridge Baptist’s new Johnson Youth Center was dedicated. (See “Gala Event Opens State-Of-The-Art Youth Complex At Baton Rouge Church,” A7.) He spoke of the many lessons he had learned at her knee, and of the many difficulties Ms. Johnson had faced in her long life. Her beloved brother E.A. Johnson served a ten year prison sentence for various corruption charges committed during his tenure as Louisiana’s State Insurance Commissioner in the mid-1980s.

Johnson closed the speech with a story about what he said was Wilhemina’s greatest lesson: the power of forgiveness. He recounted the painful reunion and reconciliation his great-aunt had with her brother after his release, the story clearly resonating with many in the congregation in similar situations.

“Forgiveness is standing by someone you love after they’ve done something you hate. Forgiveness is allowing them to be punished for the things they deserve to be punished for. And forgiveness is taking their hand and leading them on that uneasy journey back into your heart.”

New Orleans Times-Picayune
Sunday June 22

Reprinted by permission.

Part One: June

Twenty-Four

At ten o’clock Sunday morning, Andre had breakfast with his Aunt Marissa. She had made oatmeal and added pecans and cinnamon just before serving. Andre told her it was “pretty good,” which was high praise, coming from him. He had two bowls, and sneaked a few more spoonfuls when his aunt had gone back to the guest bedroom.

At eleven o’clock Sunday morning, they were still at the breakfast table, looking at the Sunday New York Times and the Times-Picayune. Aunt Marissa would read him a headline and Andre would roll his eyes and make a sarcastic comment. Eventually his father could be heard moving around in his bedroom, so Andre made him a bowl of oatmeal and left it in front of his door.

At twelve o’clock Sunday afternoon, they had moved into the family room. Andre had finished everything he wanted to see in the paper, and he’d fetched his laptop from downstairs. Aunt Marissa was audibly making a shopping list of all the cleaning supplies she needed to get. Two weeks of non-stop cleaning and Andre still hadn’t done a decent enough job. His father hadn’t emerged yet, though he apparently had grabbed the oatmeal at one point, leaving the tray in front of the door. Andre didn’t blame him…if he could, he’d be hiding in his room as well.

At one o’clock Sunday afternoon, Aunt Marissa went off to take her shower and get ready for the shopping trip. Andre stayed on the couch. He was looking at the blogs of some friends, ones who went to other schools, when he got a new email. The sender was named “Robert,“ but that was just coincidence; it was really just spam, promising “hot teen action.” Andre stared at it for a while, the hints of a This Toilet City entry forming in his mind. Something about how adults wanted to be with imaginary teens but teens only wanted to be with adults. No, that wasn’t quite it, it was more about the fantasy of teenage girls versus the reality. That wasn’t exactly it, either. Andre deleted the message.

At two o’clock Sunday afternoon, heavy snores could be heard coming from his father’s room, and Aunt Marissa showed up in the family room with a terrycloth turban around her head. She carried her tennis shoes in one hand. “I swear, it’s like you’re hypnotized.”

“What do you mean?”

“I leave the room an hour ago, and I come back…you’re in the same place. Same position. Maybe sunk down a bit more, that’s all.”

“I’m just looking at a website.”

“I know. That’s what I’m saying.” Aunt Marissa dried her hair. “Are you coming?”

“Coming where?”

“I didn’t just spend an hour making a shopping list? To the Schwegmann’s or Sav-A-Center or whatever they’re calling it these days.”

“On a Sunday afternoon? It’ll be like 9/11 in there.”

Aunt Marissa sighed and glared at Andre until he eventually closed his laptop. It occurred to him that maybe her question was rhetorical and he didn’t really have a say in the matter, but just when he was about to get up and change clothes, Marissa turned towards his father’s bedroom. “Let’s see if I can get your father up.”

At three o’clock Sunday afternoon, after what seemed like an hour of Andre’s father begging and moaning and at one point sobbing, Aunt Marissa emerged from his room with a scowl and came back into the family room. “That man, I swear to Christ.”

“He’s sick.” Andre closed his laptop again.

“Yeah, what’s your excuse? Have you even moved since breakfast?” She pulled the towel off her head again and ran her hands through her curly black hair. It seemed damp still. “What’s your shoe size?”

“My shoe size?”

“Yeah, is it a hard question? What size shoe do you wear?”

“Eleven. Why?”

But his aunt was already in her guest room. She came out with her purse and the shopping list. “I’ll be back by five, I hope.”

“Do you want me to do anything while you’re gone?”

“Yeah, see if you can sit on your ass the entire time without getting up. That would be a big help.”

With that, she was out the door. Andre heard the Volvo start up—he hoped he’d turned down the radio the last time he drove it—and then his aunt was gone. He sat on the sofa and listened to the house. He could hear his father shuffling around in his room. The door opened a crack. “Marissa…I got, I got my pants on. I’ll be ready in a minute.”

“Aunt Marissa’s gone, Dad. Go back to bed.”

His dad didn’t answer, just shut the door softly. Soon no more noise could be heard coming from the hallway. Andre sat on the couch, wondering what he should do while his aunt was away. His computer beeped softly, the sound of a new email. He opened his laptop to see who it was.

Part One: June

Twenty-Five

“Oh my god, nice fedora.”

It was four o’clock before Emily could finally visit Michael to talk about Lucas Budd showing up at her house. After the bike ride with her father, there had been the monthly tradition of making brunch with her family for the Mercer Mansion’s small staff. After that, her grandmother took Emily and Belinda for a “Sunday drive” that consisted of staking out more properties for her new real estate hobby.

Because of this, Emily had only been able to talk to Michael by text message and in 45-second phone calls. However, when she was finally free and Mr. Karlinoff was at Underhill doing the end-of-the-week accounting, she realized there wasn’t really that much left to say: Lucas Budd had tapped on her window, and it was scary. So instead Michael sat in a chair and watched as she performed an act of intimacy unthinkable even a week before: she started digging through his closet.

“Leave that alone.” Michael was flipping through the creased and folded New Yorker that had been sticking out of Emily’s purse. His legs were crossed loosely at the knee, and when he spoke he casually dropped the magazine forward with his wrist for a moment. He had a way of looking at her as though he were peering over reading glasses. “Please.”

But Emily ignored him and stood up on tiptoes to get the hat from the top shelf. Her feet came up out of her mules, and in the corner of her eye she saw the magazine droop down briefly before coming back up. Was Michael looking at her legs?

She got the hat down from the shelf. “Do you have a black duster and a Leatherman to go with it? Oh boy, I bet the other guys in the marching band are so jealous. No, wait: drama club.”

“It was a gift,” Michael said curtly. “From a friend of my dad’s.”

Fedoras, and all hats really, were a sore subject with the male population of Beaumonde. On one hand, they were a symbol of the sort of elegance and grace that they aspired to. Indeed, many of the boys felt their outfits were incomplete, in the most Proper sense, without an appropriate hat to top it off. However, the embrace of the fedora by a certain demographic over the course of the last twenty years had rendered the hat all but unwearable, at least without the expectation that the wearer carried a butterfly knife and would start quoting Douglas Adams without provocation.

So, in a rite of passage, almost every boy in school bought a fedora, certain that they could break the curse and restore the hat to its rightful place in the sartorial world. And, after being mocked mercilessly the few times they attempted to wear it in public, they eventually placed the fedoras on the top shelf of their closets, their hearts full of regret and defeat.

Emily looked inside the hat. She recognized the label from a few of her grandmother’s Easter hats; it was from the last milliner left in New Orleans. Stitched on a small tag tucked inside the band was M. Karlinoff. Inevitably, powerless to stop herself, she placed the hat on her head, then turned to smile at him. “Your head is big.”

Michael looked up from the magazine and chuckled. Emily was Mod that afternoon, with small white shorts covered by a loose tunic top. Her hair was pulled back in a polka-dotted scarf, and the addition of the fedora seemed extra ridiculous because of it, even though he couldn’t imagine what she’d be wearing to make the hat look appropriate.

“So is yours…on Lillian, the hat covers her ears.”

Emily frowned at him and took the hat off. “My head isn’t big,” she mumbled as she put the hat back in the closet. She went back to looking through his clothes, thumbing slowly past his suits, then his blazers, followed by his trousers and his shirts.

And what sort of clothes did she find? When buying clothes, The Gang’s most important concerns were fit and style…if it looked good on them and matched their own personal style, it didn’t matter if it came from Goodwill, it was a keeper. Of course, there were a million rules for determining if something fit right, which Alexander had drilled into their heads through repetition and mockery. And there were things that could be inexpensively tailored, like cuffs and hems. (And things that couldn’t, like the way jackets fit in the shoulder.)

Certainly, there were purchases that rewarded spending extra money—it was better to buy a pair of expensive shoes once than a cheap pair over and over, and bespoke clothing was almost always worth the expense—but they’d never spend money on a logo. This was almost a cardinal sin when it came to dressing Proper.

To be sure, The Gang and the rest of Beaumonde were a group of rich kids who had more money to spend on clothes than most of us, but money wasn’t the only reason they looked so good. Mostly, it was because they thought about it. They spent time thinking about how they looked and they focused a lot of their lives on their appearance. They had narrowed down their style and the look they were going for, and they had learned how to identify well-made clothes and a proper fit.

No one should think that they’ll never be as exquisite and as well-dressed as The Gang because they’re not wealthy students attending an elite private school. That’s simply not true: learning the tenets of Proper and finding out what looked good is much more important than being rich. Giving something your passion and energy is always better than just giving it your money. Well, it’s just as good, anyway.

Emily had reached Michael’s dress shirts, and one caught her eye. It was a vivid light blue with French cuffs and mother-of-pearl buttons. “This is nice…have I seen you in this?”

Michael looked up. “Ugh, that’s a disaster. Put it back.”

“Why? What’s wrong with it?”

He leaned forward and took the hanger from her. Turning the shirt over, he pointed at the back near the shoulders. “First of all, the grain of the fabric doesn’t match up at all. But mostly…” Michael turned the shirt over and buttoned it up to the top. “Here, pull a little on the bottom, like it’s tucked into a pair of pants. See?”

“What?”

With his free hand, Michael pointed at the collar, which was now slightly warped and off-center from the Emily’s tugging. “The collar wasn’t proportioned right before it was attached, and it wasn’t centered on the body of the shirt.” He shrugged, and handed the shirt back to her. “Collars are hard, and take forever to learn. This was one of my first efforts.”

Emily looked over the shirt, front and back. “You made this shirt?”

“Yeah. I make most of my shirts.” He tried to say it so it didn’t come out shitty and matter-of-fact, like: Duh! He wasn’t sure if he was successful or not.

“But…but it looks like a real shirt!”

Michael laughed. “Well, not to Sam or my dad it doesn’t, but thank you. That’s sorta the point.”

Emily was pulling out dress shirts one by one and looking them over with a new eye. “Did you make this one? What about this one?”

“Yes to the first one, and I made the cuffs too big. The second one is from the store, I think it was a floor sample. If it has a tag in the back, I didn’t make it.”

“Do you make your own pants? Do you make your suits?”

“I make a lot of my pants, but Sam or one of the trouser guys at the store usually has to give me a hand. I haven’t made a suit yet, because the material is too expensive to let me screw up. Even the nicest shirt costs my dad like six bucks, but if I mess up a jacket it could be hundreds.”

Emily stepped back and looked at the entire closet, from the clothes to the neckties and the pocket squares. She turned towards him and smiled, wide-eyed. “Oh my god, Michael…you make your own clothes!”

Michael felt embarrassed. “Yeah.”

She sat on the end of his bed and squeezed his hand. “That’s so awesome, you’re just like Molly Ringwald! Wait a minute…does that make me your Duckie?”

“Duckie?”

“Forget it.” Emily looked over her shoulder at Michael’s wardrobe, then turned back to him with a small smile. “You know, this is something I’ve been thinking about since our talk on Thursday night, but I think it’s just now really hit me. You’re not really like Alexander at all.”

“No?”

“Not really. I always thought the two of you had the same kind of fit, because you both always look great in your clothes, but that’s not true. Alexander has the perfect body for his clothes. It’s not that he’s in some amazing shape or anything—I don’t think he even knows how to sweat—but I guess he must be the exact same size as the forms they use to make the clothes, you know? He’s mannequin-shaped.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed. He’s a perfect Medium.”

“But you’re not like that: you’ve made your clothes to fit you exactly. I guess what I’m saying is that Alexander looks good in his clothes, but you make your clothes look good on you.” Emily leaned over and squeezed his hand again. “And that is, like, so cool.”

“Thank you.”

“It’s too bad the way…you know, the way everything turned out. Because everyone else I know is trying so hard to stand apart and be, I don’t know, unique and interesting, but what you are is already so awesome but now you can’t tell anyone.” Emily shook her head quickly and waved her hand between them. “But whatever. What should I do about Mr. Budd?”

Michael, who had been looking at the floor, met her eye. “I don’t know what we should do. How did he seem? Normal? Drug-crazed?”

“Neither, really.” Emily slipped off her shoes and crossed her legs on the bed. Michael, probably without even noticing what he was doing, uncrossed his legs and, using one of his feet, slid her shoes together so they were side-by-side. “You know what Robert was saying that night, about how Mr. Budd is so distant with us?”

“Yeah, totally. He’ll ask me about school or whatever, but it’s like someone’s fed him the question. Like it’s a job interview instead of a conversation.”

“Exactly. But then we’re always hearing that he delivered some incredible speech at city council or confronted the mayor on live TV or brokered some sort of truce among a bunch of different factions at the last minute. Well…I feel like, underneath the hair and the beard and the clothes, I was finally meeting that guy. The other Lucas Budd. Not necessarily the real one, but a different one than you and I are used to.”

Michael leaned forward in his chair. “Well, I guess we have a couple of options. We can just ignore it, and see what happens. Maybe he’ll come back tonight-”

“Ugh.”

“-or maybe he’ll visit me or someone else in The Gang. Or maybe he’ll just give up. It didn’t sound like this morning was a huge success for him.” He rubbed his cheek. “The other option is to tell your parents what happened.”

“I should have done that this morning, as soon as my dad walked in. I don’t know why I didn’t.” Emily sighed. “But I didn’t, and I feel like it’s too late to do it now. I know it’s not, not really, but that’s how I feel.”

“So,” Michael said, “if those two are out…there’s really only one thing we can do.”

“Yeah.” Emily frowned at him, then said the words: “Go see what he needed.”

“Right. I’m with you no matter what you choose. I’ll even go over there by myself if you ask me to. Or I’ll go talk to your dad about what happened. Or I’ll, I don’t know, sleep curled up in front of your door tonight in case he comes back. Just say the word.”

Emily laughed but didn’t say anything. Outside, there was a growling coming ever closer, and finally a small plane flew over, dangerously low, spilling smoke out of both wings. It was a pesticide plane, spraying for mosquitoes. It was that time of year.

Part One: June

Twenty-Six

The doorknob turned and then the door opened clumsily. Aunt Marissa came in, carrying two bags in each hand, which she set down in the foyer. She looked around, still wearing her sunglasses, and found Andre still on the couch, his laptop open.

“I thought so,” she said.

Andre looked up. “That was quick.” He glanced at the clock on his desktop, though, and saw that she’d been gone over two hours. Almost three, actually.

Aunt Marissa was already headed back out to the car, though. Andre closed his laptop and set it on the coffee table. He moved forward to the edge of the couch, but didn’t get up. He wasn’t sure what he should do. When his aunt came back through the open door, carrying four more bags, he asked her if she needed a hand.

“God forbid,” Aunt Marissa answered, already turning back to the car.

As Andre walked past the bags in the foyer, he looked down at where she’d gone. There were bags from Rouse’s, the local grocery store, and a few other places. What the hell was Tracks?

Soon they were in kitchen, and Andre was trying to remember back to when the family bought groceries and what went were on the shelves. This was the most food there’d been in the house in years.

Aunt Marissa was making the two of them turkey sandwiches, with mustard and some sort of gross-looking fake mayonnaise. “Do you still hate onions?” she asked softly, with an almost sad tone in her voice. After she got home, she had fought with her brother because she hadn’t bought the kind of whiskey he liked, or enough of it.

“No, I like onions. When did I hate onions?”

“When you were little. You used to pick them off them off your pizza.”

Andre closed the pantry. “Well, yeah. Onions on pizza are gross.”

Aunt Marissa laughed, though Andre didn’t see what was so funny, and she looked over her shoulder at him. “One or two?”

He looked down at the small wheat bread sandwich on the paper plate, surrounded by a handful of carrot sticks. “Will I get in trouble if I ask for two?”

“I’ll make you two.” She got out two more pieces of bread. “You’ll need the energy.”

“For what?”

“You’ll see.”

“Great…”

They sat down to eat their sandwiches at the small table in the kitchen. They had barely begun eating when they heard a stumbling in his father’s room, followed by the door opening quickly. Slowly, a rolling step at a time, Andre’s dad swayed down the hallway and stood at the entrance to the kitchen. He was slightly out of breath from the effort, and his right hand tugged shyly on his left’s fingers. He was wearing a pair of dress pants—probably the same ones he’d worn to Temple a few nights before—and a t-shirt. His glasses were slightly askew. Here was Reuben Meyer, the final product of a dynasty that stretched across generations and continents.

Reuben’s grandparents had felt the wind shifting in Europe between the World Wars and had moved to America while their relatives and friends laughed at their paranoia. His grandfather had been a doctor but found work as an orderly, eventually learning enough English to own a dry cleaner and a deli and put his son Avram through Tulane.

Avram turned his father’s businesses into a successful and beloved chain of convenience stores throughout the New Orleans area. The Gang’s parents would reminisce to Andre about the funny homemade commercials that Avram Meyer ran. In one he appeared as both Santa Claus and a rabbi, uniting the children of New Orleans with their mutual love of holiday candy. In another, he introduced the city to the bagel, a “chewy doughnut that isn’t sweet.”

Avram and his wife Miriam had five children, a large family of happy, healthy, all-American Jews. They went on elaborate picnics, they played Ping-Pong and bumper pool in the rec room, they drove the Airstream to the Grand Canyon. The kids played football, and went to dances, and worked afterschool jobs at their father’s stores.

There was Andrew, the eldest, with his dashing good looks and easy athleticism. There was stylish and independent Miriam, his well-loved younger sister, whom everyone called Junior. There was Stevie, who was just as handsome as Andrew but with a wicked sense of humor. There was Marissa, their bohemian baby sister, who had studied ballet and painting and played the cello.

And in the middle, the third of Avram’s five children, was Reuben. He had always stood out, had been a cranky baby who grew into a sullen child. He was heavyset, with thick glasses and unmanageable hair. He could always be found reading a book, but not the classics that Junior loved to discuss or the counter-culture novels that Miriam pressed on him. He read science fiction and fantasy, books about other worlds and distant times. He never joined the family’s spirited dinner-time discussions, instead mumbling dark sarcastic jokes under his breath.

But all of this would have been written off as a quirk, possibly passed down from their bookish grandfather, were it not for the fact that Reuben, from a young age, preferred to be alone. The close-knit Meyers—always in the process of beginning or ending another rollicking family adventure—couldn’t understand or forgive this. Eventually, they stopped trying to engage him, and left him alone to the things he loved the most, the paperbacks and the gory B-movies and the weird British comedies PBS showed in the middle of the night.

When Reuben was 28, he had been in college for ten years, first at Tulane, then at Loyola, and finally at the University Of New Orleans. He had unfinished degrees in History and Religion and Literature and was working on a non-credit dissertation titled Between Law And Chaos: Michael Moorcock’s “Eternal Champion” Construct As A Campbellian Monomyth.

Finally, Avram was cut off his tuition. Enough was enough…Stevie had only been in school eight years, and he was a surgeon now, for Christ’s sake. Reuben was asked what he was interested in, and he of course said books. “There’s no money in bookstores,” Avram had told him. “What else?”

Reuben had thought for a few long seconds, and finally offered that he liked movies, too. Avram Meyer liked this idea a bit better, and built Reuben a multiplex stadium in the suburbs. He also hired a CEO whose job was to run the business and keep Reuben away from it as much as possible while still making him feel in charge. The CEO always consulted Reuben’s expert opinion on trivial matters and even begrudgingly allowed him to curate a series of midnight movies. Both of them lived up to their roles admirably: Reuben was left alone in his office to read and mess around on the computer and occasionally sign something, while the CEO was free to fearlessly expand the business and embezzle only the bare minimum of what he thought he was due.

At 35, Reuben’s business was successful to the point of monopoly…he owned every multiplex in the city and even had to subsidize smaller rivals to avoid anti-trust suits. He had somehow even stumbled across evidence of his CEO’s criminal bookkeeping—Reuben had been wasting a boring afternoon exploring the company’s computer network when he discovered a secret Excel spreadsheet—and replaced him with a team of checked and balanced underlings, watched over by a third-party accounting firm.

To the family’s utter surprise, Reuben had even found a woman to marry him. She was a bit odd, to be sure, and pursued the same obscure pastimes that occupied Reuben, but she was in love with him and so good with baby Andre. Though still distant and given to dark and solitary moods, Reuben had delivered the only two things truly expected of a son, success and a grandchild, and he was finally embraced by the Meyers with respect and esteem if not actually love. When Avram passed away and Miriam moved to Phoenix to be closer to Marissa, the family house was empty until the other four children, spread out across the country, agreed that Reuben, his wife, and toddler should move in.

Andre, regarding the man swaying slightly in the doorway with a sheepish look on his unshaven face, found the whole thing ridiculous. If he had been born in any other family, Reuben Meyer would have been selling used videocassettes at a flea market stall and sleeping in a minivan, yet somehow in this perfect world his father’s profound lack of ambition had rendered him a captain of industry living in a Garden District mansion, with a wife and a kid and the grudging respect of his siblings. And then, of course, he’d found a way to fuck up even that.

Andre’s father slowly made his way to the small table and sat down heavily. He looked at both of them with a sad and apologetic look. A paperback book was stuffed inside of his t-shirt’s small pocket, which was stretched and sagging from the effort.

“Hey, dad,” Andre said. He’d seen that look in his father’s eye before, and he didn’t know which way it was gonna go.

“Are you hungry, Reuben?” Marissa asked without looking up from the grocery receipt she’d been studying.

Andre’s father rubbed his swollen belly thoughtfully, as though thinking very carefully about the question. “What are we having?”

Marissa sighed. She was clearly still a little angry at him. “Well, I had one of the chefs from Delmonico’s over here, and he was gonna make Kobe strip steak with whipped truffle potatoes, but you slept all day instead, so I guess it’s turkey sandwiches.”

Reuben Meyer actually laughed at this, one coughing bark. “Delightful.” Andre realized that in his own pitiful way, he was trying to make amends with her for earlier.

Marissa got up to make his sandwiches and Andre, who was only about halfway through his first one, slid his plate over to his father. “Here. I’ll have one of yours.”

Reuben Meyer wasn’t paying attention, though, as he was trying to pull the book out of his shirt. He finally got it out, exposing a wide swath of his high, round, surprisingly hard gut. “Did you read this one?”

Once every couple of weeks, Andre went to a used bookstore and filled up a milk crate with old science fiction novels. He tried not to repeat books, but as far as he could tell his dad never noticed, reading whatever was brought to him indiscriminately as long as it had a spaceship on the cover. Andre couldn’t imagine he was able to read anything with the state he was in, but during his father’s more lucid moments they had conversations about the books he’d read and which ones he’d liked.

Andre picked the book up, setting his sandwich down on his napkin, and tried to curve it back the other way. The Cradle Of Stars, by Karl Essex. The front of the book featured a man’s face staring out from a page of glass that has just shattered into large splinters against a backdrop of stars. “One man will travel to the edge of time and space – and beyond the edge of sanity!” the cover promised.

“No, I didn’t read this one,” Andre said slowly. He usually read the first chapter or so of most of the books he brought his father, but he almost never finished any of them. He hadn’t read this one, though, because he’d been busy for two weeks getting the house ready for Aunt Marissa’s visit.

“It’s quite intriguing.” His father nodded his head solemnly, then opened Andre’s extra sandwich and began pulling the mustard-covered onions off. “It has a beginning I’ll think you’ll like.”

“I’ll check it out.” Andre could handle his dad when he was out of it, but whenever he was up and trying to have conversations it always worried him. It usually ended badly.

“Read it.”

“What?”

“Read the beginning,” his father said, looking nervous with a mouth full of sandwich. He repeated himself: “It’s quite intriguing. It has a beginning I’ll think you’ll like.”

“I’ll read it later.” But Andre saw the wild panic building up behind his father’s greasy eyeglasses, so he opened up the book and glanced at the first page. Scrawled on top of the prose in magic marker were three shaky words:

need

more

pills

Andre was actually sort of impressed…the conception, execution, and deployment of a plan like this seemed beyond his father’s current abilities. He was also vaguely worried that his father was apparently in possession of a magic marker.

“Interesting,” Andre said, closing the book. “I’ll check this out tonight, after Aunt Marissa goes to bed.”

His father stopped chewing, and looked up at him without swallowing. “Did you start at the beginning? The first page?”

“Yes, and like I said: I’ll read the rest tonight, after Aunt Marissa goes to bed.”

“Oh.” Reuben Meyer swallowed. “I was hoping you’d get to it earlier.”

“No time, Dad. Sorry.”

Aunt Marissa, spreading mustard on a piece of bread, glanced over at Andre with a suspicious look. She didn’t say anything, but Andre couldn’t tell if this was because she wasn’t sure what was going on or out of fear of disrupting the tenuous Understanding they had about things like this.

His father didn’t speak again throughout the meal. He sat hunched over his plate, as though saying grace, and ate his sandwiches. Aunt Marissa didn’t try to make him talk, in fact all but ignored him, and instead asked Andre if he’d gotten the physical she’d told him to get in March. When he was done with the meal, Reuben Meyer stood up slowly, bracing himself on another chair, and went back to his room without saying a word.

Andre and Aunt Marissa lingered over the carrot sticks. “What was that all about?” Aunt Marissa asked.

“Beats me.” From down the hall, a loud crash could be heard from his father’s room. They listened for a second, but there was no other sound. “Dad?” he called out.

Silence for a while, but then the door opened a crack. “Yeah?” As though nothing had just happened.

Andre ignored him and Aunt Marissa chuckled softly to herself. “Let’s go in the living room…I have a present for you.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Don’t worry, you’re gonna hate it.”

A few minutes later Andre had a glass of some disgusting sugar-free fruit punch his aunt had made and he was sitting on the couch. Aunt Marissa was cleaning up from dinner—throwing away paper plates, basically—and Andre was tempted to open his laptop just long enough to check his email, but he had a pretty good idea this wasn’t the best plan, all things considered.

His aunt came in carrying a couple of shopping bags, one of which held a large box. “Here,” she said, putting them on the couch beside him. She didn’t sit down.

“What is this stuff?” He opened the bag without the box, and inside were a couple of gray t-shirts—no, wait, muscle shirts—and two pairs of navy shorts, along with a pack of new cotton socks. “Um.”

“I didn’t know if you were a large or an XL, so I got both. I figured if you’re a large, we can return the others.”

“Wait…what?” In the box was a pair of ugly athletic shoes, size eleven. His heart began beating wildly. “I’m not…I don’t…”

Aunt Marissa clapped her hands. “Come on, go get changed, then meet me on the porch. I’ll show you how to stretch.”

“What? I’m not wearing…no. No!”

“We’re just going for a walk, Andre…twenty minutes, I swear.”

Andre was breathing heavily through his mouth now. He had to get out of the house. “It’s like a hundred degrees outside.”

“Please. It’s barely ninety. Besides, I run in Phoenix all the time, and I’m older than you. Come on, go get your clothes on.”

“You don’t…listen, you don’t understand. I can’t wear these clothes. People might see me.”

Aunt Marissa smirked. “You’d rather people see you like this?”

He screwed his eyes shut. “You can’t do this.” There was a tremendous weight on his chest. He went to grab his laptop so he could go to his room, but in his hurry he forgot it was plugged in. It pulled from his hands and dropped to the coffee table and then to the floor. “God damn it!”

“Listen to yourself.” Aunt Marissa, still standing over him, folded her arms. “Throwing a fit because you don’t want to take a twenty minute walk.”

He closed his eyes again and made a fist against his leg. “It’s not just that. You can’t just…you can’t come in here and start making me do things I don’t want to do. This is my house.

Aunt Marissa didn’t answer, just frowned down at him. She didn’t have to answer: unless he wanted to move to Phoenix, she could make him do things, and this was more her house than it was his. Andre glared at the carpet and didn’t speak either. This wasn’t fair.

“It’s not enough,” she said coldly, “that I have to treat your father like a baby, now I have to coddle you, too? Tell you what, I’ll fly back tomorrow, leave you two alone. You deserve each other.”

“You don’t have to leave,” Andre felt obligated to mumbled.

“You think I come here just to mess up your precious life? You think I’m not concerned about you and your father? Who else comes to check on you…Andrew? Uncle Stevie?”

Andre grabbed the bags and his laptop, pulling the plug out of the back. “Fine, fine, I’ll get changed. We’ll go on a stupid walk.”

“You know what, just forget it. Go get on your computer. Stay on it all summer for all I care. Turn into your father…you’re already halfway there.”

By this point, Andre was already in his room, and that last line made him slam his door as hard as he could. It bounced open, and he slammed it again. He picked up his car keys and his cell phone, then put them back down. There was nowhere to go, definitely no one to call. Instead, he opened his laptop and moved the cursor around on the screen. It seemed okay.

It took him twenty minutes to get all the stickers and tags off the workout clothes, then get the shoes laced up. By the time he was done, he felt utterly ridiculous, but he had cooled down quite a bit. He shouldn’t have yelled at her, shouldn’t have slammed the door. There was a lot at stake here.

Andre hadn’t heard any noise upstairs the whole time, and he opened his bedroom door cautiously and listened. Still nothing. He crept out and went up the steps.

Aunt Marissa was in the family room, looking out the window at the bright evening light, still wearing the same clothes. She didn’t look at him even though he stood only a few feet away from her. She’d unplugged his laptop cord and coiled it up on the coffee table.

“I’m sorry,” he said, but she didn’t answer him.

“Is your computer okay?” She asked him at last, softly, still facing the window.

“I think so. They’re pretty tough these days.” He shifted his weight. “Um…how do I look?”

His aunt glanced over and looked his workout gear over from head to toe. She quickly looked back out the window, but only to try vainly at hiding a sly smile.

“What?” Andre asked, laughing a little. “Seriously, how do I look?”

Finally, his aunt laughed out loud and turned back to him, and Andre joined her. “It’s a new look for you, I’ll give you that. What size are you?”

“Extra-large.”

“That’s okay, hang on to the others…you’ll be a large soon enough.”

“If you say so. The shoes fit great, by the way.”

“Good. Where did all that hair on your legs come from?”

“I’m seventeen, Aunt Marissa. It’s called puberty.”

Something had fallen out of the bags in his panic, a plastic and rubber sports watch. Aunt Marissa handed it over to him. “Here, you can be the time keeper.”

He took the hideous watch. “Okay.”

“Let me get changed, but the idea is we’ll be gone for twenty minutes. We’ll walk one block, then jog—slowly jog—the next one. Walk one, jog one. At ten minutes we’ll turn around. Okay?”

Andre shrugged. “I guess.”

There was a large mirror over the couch, and he looked at himself as his aunt went off to her room. The Gang had only been disbanded for a month, and look at what he’d been reduced to: his pale arms, his muscle shirt, his hairy legs.

“Jogging,” he whispered to himself in disgust. He prayed that no one saw him.

Part One: June

Twenty-Seven

Emily and Michael had waited until nightfall to visit Mr. Budd—it made sense on some level they couldn’t articulate—and were surprised by how different the twins’ Garden District mansion was without actually being changed. All of the exterior lights were off, aside from a spotlight above the garage, and the landscaping was starting to go a little wild. The house appeared totally dark inside, though there was the hint of a dark amber glow behind the family room’s heavy red curtains.

They had forgotten about the guards. There were two of them, both clearly off-duty cops, standing illuminated and starkly shadowed in the overhead glare of the garage spotlight. One was blonde, tall and thick, and laughed loudly at something just as they pulled up. Just one laugh, like: Ha! The other policeman had darker hair and a vaguely military stiffness about him. They were leaning over the hood of a Crown Victoria, flipping through a magazine together, and neither of them looked up as Emily and Michael pulled up softly in front of the house.

“Keep driving,” Michael whispered, and Emily moved on, turning the corner and stopping under a large oak tree. Across the street, a middle-aged man sat on a large porch smoking a cigarette and talking on a cell phone.

“I’d forgotten about the guards.”

“Yeah, me too.” Michael looked past her, through the rear window of the Mini, even though they couldn’t see the house from where they were parked.

“What should we do?”

Michael breathed in, held it, and exhaled. “I guess we go back? I mean, it’s not like we’re strangers…if there’s any hassle, Mr. Budd can tell them he knows us, right?”

“I guess so. Okay, yeah.” She pulled away from the curb again and circled the block. They passed by Andre’s house, and though both of them looked at the bright windows as they drove by, neither of them said anything. At the stop sign just before the last turn, Emily paused without pulling out. She looked over at Michael.

“It’ll be fine,” he said softly, in the dark. “I’ll be right beside you. Just follow my lead.”

“Okay,” she said, then turned the corner.

When they drove into the driveway, the two guards looked up sharply and straightened up. Emily stopped far enough back that they were both out on the driveway before the dark-haired cop could say “Stay in the car,” forcefully. He glared at them with the sort of thousand-yard squint Emily associated with men who weren’t raised near a city.

Emily held on to her purse and joined Michael, who was still walking towards the house. “We’re just here to see-“

“No visitors,” the cop said.

The blonde guard had joined him by this point. “Family only.”

“Oh, well…” Emily began, but Michael looked back over his shoulder at her, then turned back to the cops. In the harsh yellow light, she saw a subtle instantaneous change come over his body just in the space of him turning back to the guards. His posture relaxed, growing more casual. His mouth opened slightly and his eyelids lowered. He looked over at the policemen with hooded eyes and a sly, almost flirtatious, smile.

“Yeah, no shit. We’re the kids.”

Michael looked back at Emily again and chuckled silently at her, as though saying Can you believe these guys? He wasn’t impersonating Alexander, he was impersonating what a policeman would assume a rich Uptown kid would be like. He looked cocky, he looked decadent, he looked slightly dangerous. (He looked incredibly hot.)

Emily attempted to imagine how his female counterpart would appear. She raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips, as though disgusted by the men. She was trying to look snobby and reserved, the sort of girl who would have never dated them in high school, but she suspected she just looked like she had to go to the bathroom.

“You’re the twins?” the blonde asked. “You don’t look like twins.”

“Yeah, well, luckily for both of us we’re not identical.”

The blonde guard laughed at this, and the squinter asked them their names after an annoyed look at his partner.

Michael hadn’t stopped walking, and Emily forced herself to stay with him. He turned back to talk, walking backwards now, and she kept going.

“Alexander L. Budd. I don’t exactly broadcast the middle name these days.”

“What’s your middle name?” The blonde asked, and the brunette looked annoyed.

“Lucas…keep up with me, fellas.” Said with a devilish smile, as though they were in on it all along, and the blonde cop chuckled a little. “You want my birthdate, my soshe? Rank and serial number?”

“How about some ID?” Squinty asked.

Michael turned back to Emily, who had found the door on the side of the garage locked. She pulled her keyring out of her purse, and tried to calm herself down enough to find the right key. She unlocked the door and stepped into the garage.

“That ID enough for you?” Michael asked, following her through the door. “Peace.”

In the stale dark of the garage they stopped, listening to the two guards talking outside. The doors, both the garage doors and the “human door,” were too thick to make much of what they were saying out.

“Well, that was alarming,” Michael whispered, breathing heavily.

“You didn’t seem that upset. Why didn’t you tell me that was the plan before we got out of the car?”

“What plan? He said family only, and we’re both seventeen. It seemed natural.”

Emily exhaled slowly, the breath coming out jagged and short. “That was pretty amazing,” she whispered.

“I was scared to death.”

They didn’t say anything for a moment, both of them trying to calm down. Eventually, they heard the muffled sounds of the two guards going back to their magazine, their voices close but indistinct.

Their eyes had adjusted to the dark enough that they both seemed to identify the single car in the garage at the same time. It was the twins’ car, the red MG convertible, covered sloppily with a tarp. The back tire was flat, and Emily suddenly remembered Michael in the parking lot of the first Prom after-party, bending down and pushing his thumb into the rubber, telling Lillian it seemed low.

“Why do you have a key?” Michael asked in a whisper.

“Why do I…? Uh, so I can sneak into the house in the middle of the night?”

“Oh. Let’s find Mr. Budd.”

“Don’t you have a key?” she teased.

“Come on…”

They walked into the dark house, turning on a light in the side entryway. The rest of the house seemed dark and silent.

“Mr. Budd?” Michael called. “It’s Michael and Emily. Are you here?”

“Hey, Mr. Budd? It’s Emily. I’m here with Michael. We’re coming upstairs.”

“Don’t shoot us,” Michael added.

“Yeah and, uh, please have some clothes on.”

They went up the dark stairwell, which had a few stray pieces of laundry abandoned on the steps, and turned on the light at the top. Now that they were upstairs, there was clearly a light on down the hallway, in the family room. There was also the sound of movement, and a dull hum, coming from the room.

“Mr. Budd?” Michael called, but got no answer.

Emily bit her lip, looking back over her shoulder at the light, then back to Michael. He shrugged and stepped in front of her. As he walked down the long hallway, he reached back a hand that Emily, following him, shyly took. He squeezed her hand once and then they both let go.

Just before they were in the doorway, a thin breeze of cold air hit them, followed by a dull thick warmth. The explanation was soon clear: the air-conditioner, a small wall unit meant to enhance the central air, was on full blast. Across the room, there was a huge fire built up in the fireplace.

There were boxes of paper everywhere, some stacked in the corner, some piled on the sofas and chairs. Some metal file cabinets, one clearly empty, had been dragged into the room from somewhere else in the house…there were tracks cut into the hardwood floor where it had been pushed. The light they’d seen was a large floor lamp that was peering over the shoulder of a leather chair. And in the chair, with a blanket on his legs, was City Councilman Lucas Budd. He was turning through the pages of a folder opened on his lap, and he didn’t look up when they entered.

Emily and Michael glanced at each other. “Mr. Budd?” Emily said in a soft voice. “I’m here.”

Mr. Budd looked up slowly and smiled at both of them, then returned to his folder. Finally, in a rich voice far different from the mumbled hellos they were used to, he spoke:

“When my daughter was a little girl, she asked me why we named her Lillian. I told her that as we were leaving the hospital, a nurse walked by with a bouquet of flowers and a beautiful lily fell into her bassinet. And so we named her Lillian.”

He looked up at them, waiting for a response.

“That’s interesting,” Emily said. “I never knew-”

“And then my other daughter asked me why we named her Daisy,” he said tenderly. Michael and Emily gave each other sidelong glances as he talked. Lucas Budd didn’t have another daughter, of course. “Hey, stay with me. So I told Daisy that as we were leaving the hospital with her, a nurse came by and a daisy fell from a bouquet into her bassinet. So we named her Daisy.”

Neither Michael nor Emily said a word. Mr. Budd rubbed the back of his neck and stared at them for a long time, at least forty-five seconds. When they didn’t say anything that he could interrupt, he cleared his throat.

“So then my third daughter looked up at me, and she said…” Mr. Budd’s face, which so far had been gentle and considerate, suddenly contorted into a grimace. His eyes crossed wildly, and his fingers curled into claws. Emily took a step closer to Michael. “‘Bluuurgggh! Grrik yert rhy thand raktr?’ she asked me. And I looked down at her and I said, ‘Ah, shut the fuck up, Cinderblock.’”

The only sound in the house was the crackling of the wood fire and, in the background, the air-conditioner running on ‘high.’

Mr. Budd ran a hand up the side of his face. The teenagers could hear his long beard stubble scratch against his palm. “That was a joke. You’re allowed to laugh.”

Emily glanced over at Michael and nervously chuckled.

Mr. Budd finished flipping through the papers in his lap. He took one page out of the stack and set it in a nearly empty box beside his chair. The rest of the papers he flung into the fire. “When you’re in a nervous social situation, Michael, it never hurts to start off with a joke.”

“Yes, sir.”

“See? No reason to be scared of Mr. Budd. I could become your wise old mentor. Like some sort of Obi-wan Kenobi and Willy Wonka and, I don’t know, E.T., I guess, all rolled into one. Stick with me and maybe, just maybe, at the end of all this you’ll learn a few valuable life lessons about becoming an adult.” He bent over to pick up another file folder. “Don’t get your hopes up, though.”

“At the end of all what, Mr. Budd?”

“I’m sorry, Emily?”

“You said, ‘at the end of all this’ and I was-”

He snapped his fingers and pointed at her. “Excellent observation, Ms. Hammarskjöld-Bellecastle. And the end of all what, indeed! A very astute question, and one that will take me a while to answer. By all means, have a seat. Move some of those boxes if you need to, but be careful…they’re heavy. Hey, are you guys hungry? I could order a pizza. Me, I like mushrooms on a pizza. That doesn’t gross you out, does it?”

“We just ate,” Michael said.

“Well, I’m starving. Let’s go into the kitchen and see what’s left.”

Mr. Budd stood up and pulled the blanket up over his shoulders. As he started to stride towards the kitchen, Emily nudged Michael and pointed at something trailing behind Mr. Budd: it was a long white electrical cord. Mr Budd was wearing an unplugged electric blanket.

Just before leaving the study, the man mumbled something that sounded like “Gandalf.”

“What, Mr. Budd?”

“Gandalf, is that his name? The wizard in those hobbit movies? I should have said ‘Gandalf’ instead of ‘E.T.’ earlier.” He turned around and spread his arms—and his blanket-cape—wide. “I mean, do kids even know who E.T. is anymore?”

Uncategorized

Twenty-Eight

Half an hour later, Michael and Emily sat, their feet touching, at the small dining room table with Mr. Budd. In front of each of them was an untouched glass of lukewarm tap water. In front of Mr. Budd, though, was an empty cereal bowl surrounded by polka dots of chicken broth.

The two had watched as Mr. Budd took a pot out of a pile of dirty dishes and filled it with water. After he put this on the stovetop, he rooted around in a cabinet and found two packages of ramen noodles. He put one packet on the kitchen counter and pounded it with his fist, then opened it up and poured the broken noodles into the pot.

The other package he opened tenderly, sprinkling the square of dry noodles with the powdered broth, then ate raw like a large hors d’oeuvre.

By the time he was done eating, the pot on the stove was boiling. He poured it all into a cereal bowl and ‘ow! ow! ow!’ed over to the breakfast nook, where he messily devoured the second half of his meal.

Now he was done, absent-mindedly reaching under his shirt to rub his round belly. Though it looked like Mr. Budd had lost a lot of weight in the weeks since the scandal broke, his belly was bigger and almost swollen.

“Sorry if I freaked y’all out back there. I get loopy when I don’t eat for a while. What do you call it? Hypoglycemic? I don’t know.”

“How long had it been since you ate?”

“Well, my so-called lawyer drops off food for me once a week, and that’s on Tuesday, and today is…huh.”

There was a bar directly behind his chair with a few bottles on it. As Mr. Budd talked, he reached back behind him and felt around with his twisted hand. He finally found a Southern Comfort bottle and gingerly lifted it over to the table.

“Your parents wouldn’t mind if I had a drink in front of you, would they?”

Emily laughed a bit louder than she meant to. “If our parents knew we were here, I don’t think you drinking in front of us would be their biggest concern.”

Mr. Budd winked over at Michael. “You got a live one here, big guy. You better watch out.”

“Us? We’re just friends.”

“Yeah, I know. Who said anything different?” He gulped down the rest of his water and refilled half the glass with whiskey. “But you’d be blind not to see what my son sees in her. Smart, quick, as pretty as her mama…she’d eat a boy like you alive and you’d love every second of it.”

Emily sat up straighter in her chair. “Okay, Mr. Budd—and don’t take this the wrong way—but you’re getting kinda weird again.”

Mr. Budd stroked the hair on his chin, which was no longer stubble, not yet a beard. “Indeed I have. Luckily for us, I’ve got just the remedy for that.”

He leaned forward in his chair and very slowly extended his hand across the table towards Emily. She leaned back and towards Michael at exactly the same rate. Gently grabbing her glass, Mr. Budd straightened up and splashed some of the water into his whiskey.

He reached back over and put her glass down, then began to take a sip of his drink. But just as he brought the whiskey up to his mouth, he seemed to notice something and set the glass back on the table. He grabbed Michael’s glass and topped off Emily’s water, so that the two water levels were equal again.

He took a deep drink, actually smacking his lips afterwards, then leaned forward and put his elbows on the table. “Well, the kids took most of the board games with them, but Alexander left Sorry! and The Game Of Life up in his room. Knowing my son, that was probably some sort of cruel joke at my expense. We also have Yahtzee and a deck of cards in the living room and probably Candy Land packed away somewhere.”

Michael cleared his throat. “Yeah…the thing is, I don’t think we really came over to play board games with you.”

Mr. Budd sighed. “Michael, I know that. I’m not crazy, all appearances contrary-wise. And I do have something to say to both of you. But I’ve been stuck in this house, alone, for three weeks. Everyone I know has abandoned me. The only people I get to talk to are my lawyers and, occasionally, one of those goons who allegedly are out there to protect me from people getting in. But considering what a great job they’re doing-” he extended his palms towards both of them “-then you might surmise that they are, in fact, here to keep me from getting out.”

“I just meant…”

“Shh-shh-shh. Now…I miss my wife. I miss my friends, even the ones who are responsible for this mess. But most of all, I miss my kids, who just happen to be a boy and a girl almost exactly your ages. I understand that I’m asking you to make a great personal sacrifice, but could you possibly see it in your heart to play a few board games with a lonely old man?”

Michael glanced nervously over at Emily, then back at Mr. Budd, who had never stopped staring at him. “I…I’ll go upstairs and get them.”

“I’ll come with you,” Emily offered, standing up quickly.

“Why don’t you stay down here with me? We’ll catch up on old times.”

Emily looked over at Michael, who said, “I think that, sir, maybe she should…”

“Don’t the two of you read the paper? Or watch the news? I supposedly…I allegedly…only like young boys, remember? Now, run upstairs and I’ll sit right here with my hands on my knees. The games are in the top of Alexander’s closet. When you come back downstairs, I’ll still be here and my hands will still be on my knees. Scout’s honor.”

“Okay, um…” Michael stared at Emily, who shrugged at him. “I’ll be back…thirty seconds, I promise,” he said.

He left the kitchen and they heard him going up the staircase at the front of the house, two at a time. Emily brought her eyes from the ceiling down to her boyfriend’s dad.

He smiled at her, then rolled his eyes. Emily, for her part, did her best impression of her father when he was talking to a business associate: with no emotion on her face, she turned her head to the side, blinking occasionally like an curious alien.

“You know, Emily, when I heard that door open downstairs I wasn’t sure if it would be you or your parents coming in.”

“They’re waiting in the car.”

Mr. Budd laughed out loud and made a show of placing his hands squarely on his knees. “Emily, I need—eyeball, knee…get it?—I need your help. But look, it wasn’t my intention to scare you last night, I swear.”

“Well…I’ll just have to take your word on that.”

“Now, don’t be like that.”

Emily didn’t respond. In addition to her father’s stubbornness, she also had a little experience dealing with a Budd…if you don’t give them anything to work with, eventually they’ll settle down. “We’ll talk when Michael comes back. He and I are in this together.”

Mr. Budd shrugged extravagantly. “Hey, whaddya say we relax the two-hands-two-knees policy long enough for me to take a drink?”

Emily slid down in her chair a little and sighed. “You did promise on your Scout’s honor, Mr. Budd.”

“Point taken. You can call me Lucas.”

“I think I’ll pass.”

Mr. Budd was staring sadly at his glass of whiskey. “Hmm, I should have gotten a straw before Michael left. Hey, you wanna hear a funny story? Completely true, I swear to God…”

• • •

Alexander’s room was mostly unchanged. The bed wasn’t made, and his desk was missing its laptop, but it mostly seemed like Alexander had just stepped out a few minutes ago, instead of it being almost four weeks now. However (and Michael was prepared to admit that he was perhaps imagining this) there seemed to be an essential something missing from the room, even though at a glance there wasn’t much gone. He was reminded of a doctor, one of his father’s customers, who had told Michael during a fitting that you can always tell the difference between a person who was sleeping and a person who was dead, no matter how peaceful they looked. Something inside of them had gone away.

One of the heavy red curtains was twisted and pulled back on itself. Michael tugged it free and straightened it up, then turned towards Alexander’s closet. There was a small brass plate over the door knob with a simple inscription: The best is good enough. Michael had gotten it that made for him last Christmas.

At school there were always jokes about the size of Alexander’s closet, how it must be the size of a department store, a warehouse, a hangar. In reality, though, it was just a normal-sized closet, maybe four feet long. There was a large dresser in the room, and a few occasional items were kept in a flat Rubbermaid container under the bed, but the fact was that Alexander didn’t have the hundreds or thousands of garments that the rest of Beaumonde imagined he must have.

He was ruthless about thinning out his wardrobe. If he had gone more than three months without wearing it, he got rid of it. Another reason his closet wasn’t stuffed and overflowing was that he never bought flashy items that would go out of style: his wardrobe consisted mostly of timeless clothes, impeccably made and perfectly fitted, that he could combine endlessly depending on his mood.

About half the closet was missing. Alexander had taken all of his lightweight suits and most of his cotton dress shirts. The tie rack mounted to the inside of the door was all but empty. The heavier wool suits had been left behind, as well as the thicker shirts. On the floor of the closet were most of his shoes, though Michael saw a few gaps where four or five pairs had been.

Lying among the shoes was a blue and white repp tie that had apparently been dropped during packing. Michael picked it up, intending to hang it up on the tie rack, but instead he folded it loosely and pushed it in his back pocket.

He grabbed Sorry! and Life, then shut the closet door with his foot. He looked around the room one more time and walked out into the hallway. Pausing at the top of the staircase, he glanced over at Lillian’s dark bedroom, then back down the stairs. He could hear Mr. Budd telling a story, though he couldn’t quite make out the words. Eventually, Emily chuckled, and it sounded authentic, and Mr. Budd laughed as well. “I swear to God,” could be heard.

Michael, with one last look back at the stairs, pushed the door to Lillian’s bedroom open and looked around the dark room. He knocked softly on the door-frame. “May I come in?” he whispered.

The light from the hallway was enough to see that, if Alexander’s room was mostly unchanged, Lillian’s room was literally unchanged. He expected her to walk in behind him, ask him why he was standing there in the dark. There was always a line of perfume bottles on her mirrored vanity; now the line was gap-toothed and missing three scents. Other than that he couldn’t see a change to her room.

Her laptop, too, was gone, but Lillian almost never had her laptop out in the first place. She preferred to keep it in her bag, only using it in bed and propped on a lap desk. Like Edith Wharton, she had told him once, who would write her books in bed, flinging the pages to the floor to be collected by the maid.

By the window was an antique sewing machine in walnut, the kind that folded down, out of sight, into a flat-topped cabinet. The twins had discovered it at a shop on Magazine street, and convinced Litta’Bit to haul it over to their house in Snoopy’s Head. The machine itself had broken half a century ago, and Michael spent a Saturday afternoon taking it out of the cabinet for her. (Lillian handed him tools like a surgeon’s assistant an instant before he realized he needed them; Alexander watched him in uncharacteristic silence, mystified by the process.) Left behind after the procedure was a small writing desk, with four very small drawers perfect for pens and pencils, to which Lillian added a small brass library lamp from the 20s and an Art Deco desk pen that had been her great-uncle’s.

Lillian always kept a small stack of her delicately monogrammed stationery on the desk, weighed down with a small glass jar of ink for the desk pen. However, both the ink and the pen were mostly decoration…the pen worked, but it didn’t have the fine line that Lillian preferred. Instead, she used a slim fountain pen, completely chromed and streamlined, that Michael had given her for her seventeenth birthday. A single sheet of paper had been removed from the stack, as though Lillian were about to compose a letter, and Michael was surprised to see the silver pen, uncapped, laying diagonal across the page.

He set the games down on the wooden chair by the desk and turned on the desk lamp. There was writing across the top of the page, in Lillian’s thin flowing script:

Dearest Michael~

it read, and then nothing more. Michael brushed the pen to the side and took up the paper, looking at the otherwise blank page as though the words she meant to write would appear. He even looked on the back of the page, but it too was blank.

He stared at the words in the yellow light of the lamp for a long time, until a new round of Mr. Budd’s muted laughter shook him from the spell. He touched the top of the page to the bottom, about to crease it through the middle, when he reconsidered and set it back on the desk where he’d found it. Michael capped the silver pen and placed it, not on top of the page as before, but to the side, parallel with the paper’s edge.

He turned off the lamp and went back down the stairs without looking back.

Uncategorized

Twenty-Nine

Downstairs, Michael found Mr. Budd still sitting with his hands on his knees, as promised, and telling Emily a story about…something. Emily’s body language was relaxed, and she was watching him with a slight smile.

“So I looked at Jerome and I looked at Tabitha, and I said, ‘Well, if the two of you are having the steak, then I guess…”

“…I’ll have the lobster.” Emily said the same time he did, and they both chuckled. “Come on, that one’s older than you.”

Mr. Budd, still laughing, looked up and saw Michael watching them from the stairs. “Oh, thank god,” he said with a laugh, moving his hand from his knees to the glass of whiskey on the table. “How long does it take to grab a couple of games? I was about to get DTs down here.” He took a decent-sized drink of the whiskey and set it back down on the table. “Seriously, you two were about to watch me wrestle snakes.”

Emily looked up at Michael as he joined them and gave him a wink. “Mr. Budd was just trying to pass off vaudeville routines as his own.”

“She’s a tough cookie, Michael. Those kill at city council meetings.”

Emily had apparently fetched the cards and Yahtzee from the living room while he was gone. Michael put the two games down beside them, and Mr. Budd surveyed their options. “Well, what should it be, then?”

Emily shrugged. “Yahtzee’s fine.”

Michael pulled the lid of the box off and got out the score sheet. “There’s like a hundred dice in here.”

“Nobody likes an exaggerator, Michael. (Yes, young lady, I know: pot, kettle.) There are only twenty dice in there. My wife is the Yahtzee fan in the house, and the rest of us play every few weeks to amuse her.”

Emily and Michael caught each other’s eye. It was hard to imagine The Darling Budds participating in Family Game Night, but it apparently happened.

“At some point, Lillian mentioned that the game was basically solitaire for four players, and there was nothing aside from a shortage of dice to stop us from playing at the same time and then comparing final scores. My wife loved the idea—never mind that all four of us silently rolling dice somewhat defeated the idea of playing a game together—because it allowed her to get more games of Yahtzee in before we got bored and turned our attentions to gin rummy or, more likely, liar’s dice.”

“What’s liar’s dice?”

Mr. Budd looked at both of them incredulously. “Really? You don’t know liar’s dice?”

Emily and Michael shook their heads.

“Hold the phone…forget Yahtzee!” Mr. Budd suddenly left the table, headed for the kitchen. The two were alone for a moment.

“You were okay, down here alone?” Michael whispered.

Emily nodded. “I was fine. He’s just lonely…imagine Alexander locked up for a month and you’ll understand.”

“Ouch.”

“Yeah.”

Lucas Budd came back with three Mardi Gras cups, which are cheap plastic tumblers thrown from floats to commemorate different parades. Every pantry in the New Orleans area holds at least a dozen. “Okay, look, this game has exactly three rules…”

It was a simple bluffing game that involved declaring how many of the dice under all of the players’ cups showed a particular number. Other players could challenge this…if the original statement was a lie, the liar lost one of his dice. If it was true, the challenger did.

They learned the game in about forty-five seconds, then listened as Mr. Budd rhapsodized about the epic games of liar’s dice that had been played at his fraternity twenty-five years before. Eventually they began playing.

Lucas Budd had no sympathy for the rookies, and slaughtered them five quick games in a row. Emily eventually caught on enough to give him a serious challenge, and began winning every other game. Michael, all things considered, was curiously bad at the game. His bluffs were almost always called, and he was out of every game before either of the others.

Even though it was a simple, repetitive game, they played for an hour or so. Lucas, as he now insisted they call him, was enjoying himself immensely, and his odd behavior at the beginning of their visit was all but forgotten now. Emily and Michael—who had been almost as isolated as him—were having a good time, too. They were hanging out with a Budd again.

The Gang’s parents treated their kids’ friends well and rarely condescended to them. But they were still parents, and even David’s dad could be the adult in the room when necessary. Lucas, though, as he played the dice game, was something else entirely: he treated them not just as teenagers his kids knew, but as friends. He taunted them, he mocked their defeats, and he got genuinely (though good-naturedly) upset when they beat him. It was as though they had met a new student at Beaumonde disguised as a strung-out middle-aged dad. (Emily idly wondered if his previous standoffish behavior, back before the scandal, was really an attempt to not give into this side of his personality.)

Eventually, they played so many games that the black dots of the dice began to swim in front of their eyes, and the cups were pushed away. Lucas’ whiskey had been forgotten during the game, but he now took a sip from the glass and sighed happily.

“So, let me see, I think I came out on top by four games.”

“Come on, you weren’t keeping track…”

“Oh, were you? Then how do you know I wasn’t?” He peered over the table at the slim watch Emily wore. “I guess we better get down to business…you guys have to be out of here by eleven. I got a junior high kid coming over later and we’re gonna party.” He cleared his throat, then took another drink. “That was a joke.”

“What sort of business?” Michael asked, putting the dice back in the box.

“Well, obviously it involves the predicament you’ve found me in. I don’t mind telling you it’s a little delicate, though. Here, let’s go back into the other room.”

In the family room, the fire had burned down to bright coals, and the air conditioner unit—running on top of the already strong central air—had made the room chilly. Lucas reached up over his head and turned it off, exposing his hard swollen belly as his t-shirt rode up. “We should have brought chairs in…just pull those two boxes over. They’re full of papers, they’ll hold you.”

He took a seat in the leather chair they’d found him in, a few hours before, then pulled the electric blanket back across his legs. Emily and Michael sat on two overstuffed file boxes at his feet, the dull red glow of the fire across their faces.

Lucas looked at his hands, then on each side of his chair. He’d remembered the blanket, but not his drink. “Damn,” he whispered softly. And then he took a deep breath, yawned, and began to talk.

• • •

Before we get into this, I want you to remember that we’re talking politics…and not just politics, but Louisiana politics. And not just Louisiana politics, but New Orleans politics. Understand? Amateurs mess around with lobbyists and bribes and whatnot, but down here we’ve moved far beyond that. We’ve refined corruption into an art.

What I’m trying to say is, the first lesson is to not take it personal. I…well, I need to tell you something about the father of one of your friends. But we can’t hold the child responsible for the sins of the parent. You don’t hold Andre responsible for what Reuben did, do you?

Of course not.

So if I tell you something about…about Robert’s dad, you’re not going to take it out on Robert, are you?

No. No way.

Good.

Where to begin? I’ve known Jerome Johnson since before we were your age. We went to St. Odo’s together, then Beaumonde, then Tulane and Tulane Law. I know him better than I know anyone. And now we’re both on city council together.

I’m good at what I do. I have an aptitude for it, and I like doing it. But believe me when I tell you that Jerome is operating on a whole different level. Have either of you ever played pool?

I’ve played before. My cousins have a table.

You win by knocking the balls into the pockets, right? And that’s what most people try to do. But every now and then you’ll play with someone who isn’t just concerned with the shot he’s trying to make…he’s also trying to get the cue ball into position for the next shot. Look, this is a terrible analogy, but you understand what I’m saying, right? I just knock balls into the pocket, but Jerome is always lining up the next shot, and maybe even the one after that. You understand?

Yeah.

Between the two of us, we control enough of the city to take the mayor’s office next year. Jerome had the black vote, not to mention the entire Johnson Machine behind him. I had the rich white Uptowners in my pocket, and when it came to sheer numbers, we knew Huynh would get the Vietnamese at the polls in a big way. Hell, maybe more than once. Together, we could have taken over the city in a cakewalk. There’s just one problem with that, of course.

What?

Well…you don’t run for mayor together. Sure, everyone would have known that Lucas Budd For Mayor, or vice versa, would have meant Budd and Johnson…but at the end of the day, one man’s name would be on the ticket, and one man would get the big desk, and one man would be ordering new business cards. Jerome wanted to be that man.

So…he did what he had to do to get me out of the picture.

You’re telling us this was a set-up?

Of course it was a set-up. Jerome knew I had enough support that he had to make it as bad as possible. So: gay sex, underage gay sex, drugs, you name it. He couldn’t just throw a hooker at me and get some pictures. He had to make it indefensible, so no one could stand up for me. Have you ever heard the term ‘scorched earth?’

Yeah.

That’s exactly what he did. Burned my career to the ground and salted the soil. Nobody would dare stand up for me now. On the news they call me “controversial,” but that’s wrong…”controversial” implies that they are two sides, that people are arguing about it.

But, hey, don’t take it personal. Hell, I feel honored to be his target. It’s nice to know that he respected me enough to throw everything he had at me.

What can you do about it?

Nothing is what I can do about it, at least as far as he’s concerned. He’s already lining up his next shot. You know, I lied just now when I said that no one would stand up for me…he’s been standing up for me, and looking like the bigger man for it. Genius. Did you guys see that article in the paper about the speech he gave last night?

I was gonna ask you about that.

Did you see how the speech ended? He started out defending me, but by the end what was he really talking about? Forgiveness. Forgiveness. You see? If I’m quiet, if I don’t fight back, everything goes away and he makes a big deal out of forgiving me.

So if I’m good, if I sit here alone in this guarded house with my phone bugged and my internet mysteriously out, then one day the charges won’t stick, maybe the evidence wasn’t collected right, and I’m allowed a disgraced retirement. Or a trip to rehab followed by a tearful reunion for the cameras. Forgiveness. And maybe, if I’m very very lucky, he’ll even put me in charge of the meter maids.

That’s what he wants, anyway. For me to be quiet.

What do you want?

An excellent question. What do I want?

Well, Jerome’s support is hardly unanimous…there are plenty of people in this state who want to keep him out of City Hall. Some of them don’t want to see the Johnson Machine back in power, and maybe some of the hillbillies up in Baton Rouge just don’t want to see another black mayor. A lot of them were counting on me to get the upper hand. Well, you see how that went.

But that resistance to Jerome is still there…if I fight back I’ll have a lot of allies ready to join me. He wants me to give up, to stay silent. But maybe I’m not quite ready to slink away yet. Maybe I feel like getting a little ornery.

What could you do?

Well, like I said, no one can defend me in public, so the only way I can fight back is to prove he set me up, and that he did it just to consolidate his power. My lawyer says there are already people out there getting evidence.

But we gotta be quiet about it right now, and we have to protect ourselves. Believe me, when Jerome finds out he’s fighting for his life, it’ll be like a nuclear bomb going off at City Hall. Nobody will be safe. And it’s naïve to think he’s already hurt me as much as he can. I still have a wife. And I still have kids.

Ah, shit, look at the time. I didn’t want to just spill it all out like this, but we’re cutting it close. Look, there are…places that my allies can’t get. People they can’t be seen talking to. I don’t want to sound paranoid, but Jerome has a lot of people reporting back to him. You guys just met a couple of the more obvious ones.

I’m gonna lay it on the line: a few of your friends’ parents have information we need. Not information about the set-up, but information that can protect us from Jerome when push comes to shove.

And, well…I need you guys to get it for me.

I see how you’re looking at each other. I’d be skeptical, too. But it makes sense…there’s a chance that anyone close to me is being watched, and that includes your friends’ folks. But nobody would suspect the two of you. And it’s nothing dangerous…you’ll just be picking up an envelope here, a disk there. They’ll either know you’re coming or won’t be too surprised.

Which parents?

We don’t have time. Listen, I know you guys wouldn’t do it just for me, I’m not that gullible. But the sooner this mess is over, the sooner the twins can come home.

Geez, you guys gotta get out of here. I wish we had the luxury of going over this in detail, I really do. But Ron The Baptist shows up most nights around eleven, and I need you to be long gone by then.

Who’s Ron The Baptist?

He’s the guy in charge of the guards out there, I’ll explain later. Look, guys, we’re out of time. I’ve been honest with you, I laid everything out in the open. I can fill you in on all the details the next time we meet, but for now I gotta know:

Are you in? Or are you out?

Part One: June

Thirty

Ten minutes later, Emily and Michael were in the darkened foyer of the Budds’ house. The walls, red with a golden trim, were now muted, lit only by the light of a distant streetlight. Emily moved a fern to the side and peeked through the thin curtains beside the door.

“What are they doing?” Michael asked, his voice low, sitting on the stairs behind her. Mr. Budd had insisted that they leave quickly, and Michael didn’t want him to know they were still there.

“Watching a movie on a laptop. They keep rewinding an explosion over and over and rewatching it in slow motion.”

“Really?”

“No. But that would be hilarious. What time is it?”

“Probably ten ‘til.”

There was a large ornate vase by her feet, that now held only a single black umbrella. “I didn’t know you had cousins.”

“What?”

“You told Mr. Budd that your cousins had a pool table.”

“Oh, they’re not really my cousins. There are about ten Macedonian families in New Orleans, and we all know each other. So I just call them my cousins…you know, like you and all your uncles.”

“Oh.” Emily turned around. Michael sat with his feet apart, his hands clasped between his knees, looking at the a single square of light on the hardwood floor. “Michael…we just got played, didn’t we?”

He brought his eyes up to hers slowly, and she looked away, frowning. “I don’t know. Probably. You notice how he had us sit on those boxes, so we’d be lower than him? And he kept asking us simple questions, like ‘You understand?’ so we’d get in a rhythm of agreeing with him. That’s called a ‘yes ladder’…getting us to say ‘yes, yes, yes.’”

Emily half-smiled. “It’s a little freaky you know about stuff like this.”

“I read a book about being a better salesman once, I don’t know why. Oh, and at the end, all of a sudden he’s out of time and he has to ‘be straight with us’ and make his offer and we had to let him know if we were going to help right then. You know?” He shrugged. “There was probably other stuff I didn’t catch.”

She widened her eyes. “Oh my god, we totally did get played! Let’s go back up there and tell him we changed our minds. There’s no way I’m going to help him now.”

“Well, just because he was, uh, guiding the conversation doesn’t mean that he was lying or manipulating us. I mean, he’s been in politics for twenty years, talking like that is probably second nature at this point. He may not have even realized he was doing it.”

Emily frowned at him, but Michael just shrugged.
“I think you made the right decision. If we don’t help him, there’s a chance the Budds might not come back. If we do help him…well, the Budds still might not come back. But at least we’ll have done something, right?”

“That makes sense. I mean, yeah, that was pretty much what I was thinking when I told him we’d do it.”

“Also, the first thing he asked us to do is nothing: we should go visit David anyway. Litta’Bit, too. And if he asks us to do anything we’re not comfortable with, we just say no. What’s he gonna do, tell our parents?”

“Exactly.” Emily sat down on the stairs beside Michael, then knocked his knee with her own. “You know, I wish you’d said anything while I was deciding. Or even looked over at me.”

“I didn’t want to sway you.”

“I know, I wanted you to sway me. I didn’t know what you were thinking and I just felt really alone.”

Michael looked over at her. “I said before we got out of the car that I’d be with you no matter what. I wanted you to make up your mind, and then I’d support your decision. I told you: we’re in this together.”

Emily laughed. “I don’t know if this is an ESL thing or what, but we’re in this together doesn’t mean what you think it means. I don’t need a bodyguard, Michael, or someone who will just back me up no matter what. Okay?”

He nodded. “Okay.”

“You got me?”

“I got you.”

“You understand?”

“Stop it.”

“It’s fun! You know?”

“I should have never said anything.” He pointed his chin towards the window. “What are the guards doing? If that guy is coming here at eleven, we need to get going.”

Emily got up and looked through the blinds again. The two were still engrossed in watching a movie. “They’re making out. Maybe they won’t notice if we tip-toe out. Hey, you know what? We should totally do that breath thing before we leave.”

But almost as soon as Emily had turned her back, Michael had moved to the door. He was already untucking his shirt just a bit, relaxing his posture. “Let’s roll, yo.”

“Michael, wait. I’m not…” But he opened the door and, with a lazy stride, tumbled out on to the porch. “…ready,” Emily mumbled.

She followed him out nervously, locking the door behind her and pulling it shut. Michael, with half open eyes, threw an arm over her shoulder and steered her towards the Mini. A few loping steps later, he dropped his arm and, glancing over at the guards, nodded his head at them.

They were almost to the car when the smaller of the guards walked over to stop them. The blonde guard looked up, a little concerned, and joined his partner.

“You know, we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we didn’t search that bag. Your father is a druggie, you know.” Behind him, the blonde frowned but didn’t say anything. The guard squinted out a grin. “Allegedly, I mean.”

Michael smiled over at him. “Come on, man…be cool.”

“Be cool, huh? You’re telling me to be cool? Tell you what, why don’t I just frisk her? See if she’s hiding anything under that little dress.”

Emily had just glanced down at her purse, to find her keys, so she didn’t fully see what happened immediately afterwards. By the time she looked up, Michael had lost all of his pose and had moved between her and the cop, staring down at him with angry eyes. He held one low hand out, another barrier between him and her.

Everything was over almost as soon as it began. The blonde cop put a hand on his partner’s shoulder and pulled him back roughly. “Every single time with you,” he mumbled.

“You just come on back, bro…just come back any time you want,” the smaller cop was yelling.

Michael hadn’t moved, and the blonde turned back to him with a scowl. “Would you two get out of here? Jesus Christ.”

“You feel froggy, you just jump on over here, boy.”

“Shut up. You know how sick I am of this junkyard bullshit?”

Emily and Michael got into the Mini and backed out. The last thing they saw was the blonde sit back behind the laptop, shaking his head.

Neither of them spoke, and Emily just made turns at random before finally pulling into the parking lot of a convenience store. A police car pulled in behind her, and she froze, but it was two different policemen. They parked and went into the store.

“I’m sorry,” Michael finally said, in a low voice. “I should have ignored him…he was just barking. I guess middle school taught me nothing, huh?” He sighed. “And not two minutes after you told me you didn’t want a bodyguard.”

“No, Michael, no. It was…noble.” Emily had run through a list of inappropriate but perhaps more accurate words before settling on that tame adjective. “Thank you.”

“Well, still. We need to keep a lower profile than, uh, starting fights with off-duty cops.” Michael had left his cell phone in the console of the car when they went in to see Mr. Budd, and now there was a red light flashing on the screen. He picked it up and glanced at the screen, then called his voicemail on speakerphone.

Emily whispered over at him as the phone rang. “You know, in corny old books whenever Italians or I guess Mediterraneans get angry it always says ‘their eyes flashed.’ But it was totally true, your eyes were flashing, it was-”

Michael glanced over at her, a look of exaggerated annoyance on his face, as the message began. It was from his father, telling him that he had gone out to dinner and would be out late, and that Michael shouldn’t wait up for him.

“Oh man,” Emily giggled, as the message ended, “I hope I never get used to that. ‘Don’t vlait up.’ Oh, do you think he’s with that woman from Thursday?”

“Could be. We don’t really talk about stuff like that.”

“We have to stop him, Michael…he vants to zuck her blod!”

“Okay, okay.”

Emily backed out of the parking lot and pulled up to a red light. “So you can stay out late tonight? Oh, you have to work tomorrow, don’t you?”

“No, I’m mostly done with that, aside from filling in for people here and there. My dad wants me to ‘enjoy the summer.’”

They were driving now under the heavy oak trees of Uptown, getting closer to Michael’s house. Emily stole a glance at him. “You mean, he wanted you to…have an adventure?”

“Well, I don’t know. Something like that, I guess.” Michael looked over at her and laughed a little. “I don’t think this is what he had in mind, though.”

They had pulled up in front of Michael’s dark stone house. “So, you can hang out for a while?”

“Tonight? Sure, I guess. Do you want to see what the rest of the Gang is doing? We could have a midnight reunion.”

“Actually, um…” Emily tucked some hair behind her ear and laughed once or twice. “Do you, I don’t know…do you want to go up to your room and fool around?”

“Absolutely.” Michael laughed and looked over at her, smiling broadly. (Something about his smile, though, gave her courage; he seemed too eager to look like he was laughing it off, just in case.) He was quiet for a few beats, his smile settling into a shy grin. “Wait…seriously?”

Emily bit her lip, then nodded her head softly. “If you are.”

Michael glanced past her, into the street, then looked back at her face. “Yeah, okay,” he whispered.

Emily smiled and looked down at his hand. She reached over to take it, and he met her halfway. His hand was warm and large, surprisingly rough at the fingertips. Her hand seemed to fit in his palm by design, and he held it as though it was something that had just been born. “I guess we should go inside, then,” she said softly.

But neither of them moved, there in the moonless summer night. Not for a long time.

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Thirty-One

Robert Johnson yawned extravagantly, then placed one of his guitar cases on the made-but-rumpled bed. Then he reached into his desk drawer and brought out three notebooks. Two were exceedingly plain, with extra-thick beige covers, and were originally intended to be used for laboratory notes. The third was black, and was lined for music composition. In fact, it was only black because he’d hidden the ugly cover—filigreed with various notes and the words Music Tablet in a brush font from the 50s—with black electrical tape.

This last notebook was always a vague source of guilt for Robert, as he’d found that blues guitar didn’t entail as much music composition as he’d originally thought. In fact, he didn’t think any of his mentors, men in their 70s who’d never had a job that didn’t involve a guitar, could even read music. Robert had barely used ten pages in the four years he’d owned the notebook, but he still carried it with him whenever he set out to practice. It had become a totem.

Robert had spent almost all of the Saturday night before with his girlfriend, while his sister waged her slumber party throughout the downstairs rooms of his house. At five a.m., as the first hint of the whispered rumor of daylight appeared in the bayou sky above Westwood Village, Robert forced himself to leave Litta’Bit’s sleeping pantied body and get dressed slowly to leave. He didn’t wake her as he left, only placed his hand heavily on her remarkably warm back and felt her slow breath fill the small hollow of her chest.

He had to at least make an appearance at his uncle’s, so he snuck out, more out of politeness than necessity, with his hard-soled shoes in his hand. Jason Huynh was still fighting his way through a video game in the still-dark living room, and his eyes, glazed by twelve hours of polygons and pixels, fixed on Robert’s with an uncomprehending stare before moving slowly back to the plasma screen above the mantel of the false fireplace.

After the long drive back into the city, Robert parked his mother’s BMW on the now-bright street in front of his Uncle Tony’s downtown condominium. Fifty years before, the building had been a large brick warehouse, holding cargo from the Wallace Martin & Sons Shipping Concern. Now, it was just known as the Wallace Martin, and the sales team made a point to tell potential tenants how the building was situated in the middle of the “thriving downtown arts district,” but in fact no real artists could possibly afford the luxury condos in the renovated warehouse.

Robert slipped quietly into the condo, but found all of the lights on, and his uncle’s bedroom empty. He hadn’t had to leave Litta’Bit’s side after all…his uncle hadn’t come home for the night. There was a note on the kitchen counter, telling him to eat whatever he wanted. Robert found a mostly-empty refrigerator, so he ate only three slices of Swiss cheese and drank a glass of water. He went into the guest bedroom and messed up the sheets, then remade the bed. With a couple of hours to kill, he dozed in front of Meet The Press, showered, wrote a thank you note, and met his mother and sister at Mass.

After church, both Robert and Miranda were exhausted and cranky, but Tabitha Johnson insisted they eat brunch with her in the Quarter, then visit their grandparents in Gentilly for the afternoon. They finally got home late in the afternoon, and they both snuck away to their rooms and fell asleep on top of their covers.

And now it was 8:30, and Robert found the house quiet and dark, with the only evidence that he wasn’t home alone a sandwich on a tray by his nightstand and a light under his mother’s office door. He looked outside, and though he knew the sun had only just set, the night he saw seemed beyond any sort of time. No cars moved on the street, the houses of his neighbors were dark, and everything he knew seemed suspended in the damp air of the summer dark. It was a good time to try to write a blues song.

Under his bed, Robert had a shoebox that held a collection of candles, in various small jars and votives. He pulled this carefully out, the glass inside clinking nervously, and added it to the growing pile beside his guitar.

A quick glance in the mirror: the pants would do, his shoes were fine. Robert untucked his sleep-tousled shirt. He rolled up the sleeves and unbuttoned it to reveal the white t-shirt underneath. Over to the top of his closet for one last touch, a brown fedora given to him by David’s father after he saw him perform at a Beaumonde Academy talent show. Harry Sebastian was famous for his hats, wearing a different one in each of his ubiquitous TV ads, and he felt that Robert needed a fedora to be a real bluesman.

Downstairs with full arms, then through the French doors and into the landscaped backyard. The city was silent, not even traffic could be heard in the heavy night. Waking up after dark had thrown off his internal clock, and he felt like the last man alive, like he was living in amber.

He chose the patio table farthest from his mother’s office window, and pulled out the sturdy wood chair. The seven tealights were lit with the silver Zippo, plain and Proper, that every male member of the Gang carried. He opened the two beige notebooks to their appropriate places, but the black notebook stayed closed.

Robert sat down in the chair, adjusted it, then opened his guitar case and carefully lifted up the acoustic Martin 000-15 he’d bought used on eBay with his birthday money a few months before. He tuned the guitar, strummed a chord, and cleared his throat. He pushed his fedora back on his head. Time to write a blues song.

The backyard was quiet and still. Robert eventually strummed a chord again, then re-tuned his guitar. Okay.

Robert had been taking lessons in blues guitar since he was 12, five years now. His Uncle Tony felt it was an injustice for a young man to be named Robert Johnson and not know how to play the blues, so he’d given him a child-sized acoustic guitar and used his political connections to strong-arm the more famous living Delta bluesmen into teaching his nephew how to play it.

Perhaps in a heartwarming movie the old men would have eventually warmed up to the young man, who would display a true talent for the music in spite of his privileged upbringing, and both the veteran and the rookie musicians would have learned valuable lessons from each other. In real life, though, the men had never been particularly close to Robert and seemed to see him only as an obligation, or a paycheck, or further proof that the rich folk would always be imposing on the poor folk. Uncle Tony’s less-than-subtle methods hadn’t helped matters: one of Robert’s tutors, for example, had discovered that his club’s trouble renewing their liquor license had gone away the second he agreed to take on Robert as a student.

Robert’s most recent mentor was Little Barry Black, a man reaching into his 70s, who was famous for his weekly Thursday night shows at a small bar on the fringes of Uptown. Whenever celebrities came to town, there was a fair chance they’d end up at one of Black’s all-night shows, and if they were musicians they’d always be pulled up onto the stage. Barry Black was also known as a tireless supporter of young talent, and a lot of professional musicians in New Orleans will tell you that their big break came when, at a young age, they were asked to sit in with Little Barry Black during a Thursday night set.

Robert had never been invited to one of Black’s shows, much less brought onstage.

Little Barry Black was never particularly encouraging of Robert, and he seemed distracted during most of their lessons, and he never asked him a single question about his life, but he wasn’t mean or dismissive like some of the other old men. He frequently told Robert, in a curiously dispassionate voice, that he was impressed by how hard he worked. But best of all, unlike every other tutor Robert had ever had, he didn’t try to tell Robert that he needed to truly feel the blues deep down in his bones, or whatever. In fact, he seemed hateful and dismissive of the very notion: “All this hogwash about how you have to live the blues before you can play the blues. Shit. Hard work beats inspiration seven days a week.”

At some point Barry Black decided that Robert was about as good at playing guitar as he could be at seventeen years old. Like a lot of teenagers whose dedication to grueling practice outstripped their experience or even their talent, Robert was already a skilled mimic, able to copy any song or style played for him just a couple of times. The only thing he needed to refine his technique was time, all those decades of playing that still awaited him. Black had reassured him that eventually his own style would emerge…it would just take elbow grease, which Robert seemed to have in pretty good supply.

So instead, he decided to focus on Robert’s non-existent songwriting. Barry Black had been surprised to hear that Robert’s other teachers had never asked him to write a song. “I think the feeling was that a rich boy like me didn’t have anything to be blue about,” Robert told him, paraphrasing a bit but expressing the essential point.

“Shit, like the blues is a club and we decide who gets in and who don’t. Boy, you’re seventeen…that’s the bluest age of them all. You a big old man, but your parents still treat you like a kid. You got brothers and sisters running around, driving you plum crazy. And, hell, it feels like your pecker’s about to bust right through your pants. You got a girlfriend, don’t you?”

“Yeah.”

“She lay down with you as much as you want her to?”

“Well, in any relationship there’s a give and take…”

That’s what I’m talkin’ about. You know why they call them blue balls? ‘Cause your balls got the blues.” He coughed out a laugh, then another one. “The hell a rich boy can’t have the blues. Did they not see that you black? I don’t care how rich you are, you probably got about five hundred songs in you today, just about that right there.”

So Little Barry Black gave Robert a homework assignment: actually write a blues song. He was told to just use a standard 12-bar blues so that he wouldn’t obsess about the sound. Robert was to dig down and write about something that mattered to him, then come back in a couple of weeks and play it for him.

That was a week and a half ago. Since then, Robert had tried to write his song a few times, but he hadn’t been terribly successful. The whole process was incredibly stressful, and Robert was pretty sure that wasn’t the point.

After his last failed attempt at writing a song, Robert had opened one of his notebooks and, at the top of a page, made a list of potential topics for the blues, including:

• Women, trouble with
• Money
• “Drink”
• Women, lack of
• Jesus / The devil
• The blues itself

Then he filled out the page with a list of famous first lines, as a way of getting himself started.

I was born by the river
in a little old shack

My papa was a rolling stone
he never gathered no moss.

And so on. Robert spent two days in the pantry with his iPod and the second notebook, listening to songs and compiling an extensive list of the rhymes he heard. He had an idea that blues musicians had standard rhyming templates they could fall back on while composing. Robert realized this academic approach seemed a bit ridiculous, so with a rueful smile he named this list Blues-like Word Rhythms.

And don’t be mistaken: Robert was fully aware of how silly he was being, out in the backyard with his notebooks and his fedora and his candles. But as a Gangmember, he also knew how inspiring it could be just to look the part, how a simple change of wardrobe could change one’s perspective. “Fake it until you make it,” Andre had said a few days before, when in a moment of extreme personal weakness Robert had called to tell him about the challenge he was having.

Robert, lit by candles in the Sunday darkness, began playing a standard blues riff, letting the music get settled in his hands. He glanced over at the list of rhymes, but nothing came.

“Well, I woke up this morning-“ he began, in a faltering voice, then stopped. (He’d never been given singing lessons either.) He waited, still playing, for the riff come back around. He decided to warm up by singing the beginning of the only blues song he’d ever written. It was a class project for tenth grade English, and Andre had helped him with the words:

Ophelia likes good looks,
And Portia likes brains.

But old Lady Mack-Beth

Is only concerned with stains.

Okay, that was good, he felt himself loosening up. He looked over at the list of rhymes again, and waited for the riff to restart.

Now I got an Asian mama-

No, wait, hold the phone. He stopped the riff then started it again.

Now my baby is Asian,
And my best friend’s a Jew

Okay, good, keep it together. Let’s see: Jew, blue, new, screw…

Now my baby is Asian,
And my best friend’s a Jew

But what’s that got to do, mama,

When it comes to me and you?

This was a start, definitely. He continued playing the riff over and over, mumbling this stanza a few more times, then adding a chorus from Blind Willie McTell:

I got the bluuuuues, so bad
And it’s the worst ol’ feeling that a good man ever had.

He was just about to try another four lines when a car pulled softly into the driveway, the headlights bright against the stone wall to Robert’s left. He continued playing his song, and the car didn’t kill its engine for almost a full minute. He couldn’t see the SUV from where he was sitting, but Robert could picture his father inside of it, collecting his briefcase and making a few final phone calls, maybe wadding up the fast food bag from his Baton Rouge trip.

Eventually the car was turned off, and the driver’s side door opened, then closed. Robert played a quick solo, then rejoined the riff. The side gate opened slowly, and the dark shape of his father was outlined against the light from the street. The workers were off on Sundays, and no one had turned on the outside lights. On this moonless night, the secluded backyard was dark, with Robert’s candles the only oasis of light.

Jerome Johnson, closing the gate softly, reached into his jacket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. One last smoke before he went inside to bed. Glancing at his sheet, Robert saw town / running around, so he thought for a second, cleared his throat, and began to sing.

My papa’s a roller
He runs half the town
But he comes a’ runnin
When Mama comes around…

I got the bluuuuues, so bad…
It’s the worst ol’ feeling a good man ever had.

Jerome Johnson chuckled softly as he stepped away from the garden gate, approaching his son slowly. An unlit cigarette dangled precariously from his lips. Smoking was his only vice, barely tolerated by his wife, and Robert always secretly believed that he only smoked so that one day, when he quit, people would say in astonishment: “He smoked for twenty years, and gave it up just like that.”

The shadows from the candles obscured Jerome Johnson’s face as he reached out for Robert’s Zippo. A spark and a flame, and his father’s face was illuminated briefly: far from handsome, but sturdy, well-lined, with downturned eyes that somehow seemed both stern and sad at once. The Zippo was snapped shut and Robert looked away, towards his notebooks (tear/hair) and tried to come up with a line. His father watched him in silence, taking one and then two drags of the cigarette.

They say he’s a scion
They say he’s an heir

But he ain’t worth nothin’

When Mama’s on a tear!

I got the bluuuuuUUUUUES, so bad
And that’s the worst ol’ feeling a good boy ever had.

Jerome Johnson laughed again, the coal of the cigarette tracing red hops in the air. He reached out gently and adjusted his son’s fedora, pushing it farther back on his head. There was another chair by the patio table, and he pulled it off to the side and leaned back, his legs spread, and watched his son play the guitar for a while as he smoked.

Maybe others would have sat at the table with Robert, or placed the chair directly in front of him, but Robert knew his father didn’t want a performance; he wanted to watch his son perform. A minor difference, perhaps, but one that defined Robert’s father for him. Robert had a lifetime of memories—of dinners, of cocktail parties, of charity fund-raisers—that featured his father, off in a corner or by a window, watching everyone else and occasionally approached by guests for a discrete conversation away from the crowd. From a young age, Robert knew that the most important person in a room wasn’t the one everyone listened to, but the one that everyone talked to.

Papa thinks he’s a stone
What don’t collect moss,

But let Mama catch him,
She’ll show him who’s the boss!

I got the bluuu-uuu-uues, so bad
I said it’s the worst feeling that this man ever had.

Jerome Johnson chuckled softly as he exhaled a lungful of smoke. The massive shadow of the house covered the top of his body, so that all Robert could see when he glanced over was his father’s cheap suit, bought off the rack at a large warehouse in the suburbs, then altered for his tall thin frame. His father wasn’t blind to style—he always complimented the expert tailoring of Robert’s bespoke suits—and it took Robert a long time to realize that his father’s wardrobe was as carefully cultivated as his own: his hundred-dollar suits sent the powerful unspoken message that he was as honest, hard-working, and unpretentious as his constituency.

Robert continued to play, trying to come up with one final stanza. His father’s cell phone chirped softly in his pocket, but he just squeezed his pant leg, silencing it.

Now my mama is chocolate,
My girlfriend Vietnamese.

But when those girls come knockin’

Me and Papa fall to our knees.

I got the bluuuuues, but I’m glad
that I’m not half as bad off…as my poor ol’ dad!

Robert did a lazy run through the chords of the riff, then went into a lengthy but casual solo. As his father bemusedly clapped a few times for him, Robert couldn’t help but think: holy shit, I just wrote a song. Okay, it was totally rough and didn’t really make a lot of sense and the subject of having a rich and powerful father probably didn’t have the universal appeal one looked for in a classic blues song, but still: that song didn’t exist five minutes ago, and now it was out in the universe.

Jerome Johnson’s cell phone chirped again, and again he silenced it, but now he stood up and walked the chair back over to the table. Robert was finishing his relaxed solo and easing back into the riff, and his father placed a large hand on his son’s shoulder and squeezed firmly.

“You sound good, son…you sound real good.”

He patted his shoulder once more, then took the half-smoked cigarette from his mouth and placed it carefully in Robert’s. He stood back and looked at the effect, nodded deeply, and went into the house.

Alone now in the dark, Robert tried to play through his song again and discovered he’d already forgotten half of it. The cigarette smoke distracted him, and made him want to cough, but he ignored it. In fact, as he played, he sucked in a mouthful, held it between his cheeks, then let it trickle out slowly. He let his father’s cigarette dangle low and sad in the corner of his mouth, curling smoke up towards the brim of his fedora.

Robert had to admit it really finished his look.

Part One: June

Thirty-Two

Michael’s room was dark, with only a square of yellow light pinned sideways against the far wall. Emily’s crumpled New Yorker remained alone on the mostly-made bed, waiting in the silence of the empty house.

A jangling came up the stairs, followed by a nervous giggle and a shush, and then the bedroom window  carefully slid up. Michael stepped into the room cautiously, and looked around as though never having been there before. Emily gave him his hand as she stepped over the sash and joined him in his darkened room. Neither of them spoke.

The two of them waited there at the foot of his bed, in the pale gauze of the neighbor’s strong porchlight, but they didn’t know what they were waiting for. Michael still cradled the fingers of Emily’s right hand. The room held its breath: they could step into each others’ arms now and embrace, there in the dark and without another word. It would be nothing—a  journey through six inches of empty air—to change everything forever, to meet the other with kisses and touches and more.

But neither of them moved, though both of them wanted to. The moment grew impatient and then slipped away and was gone.

Michael finally turned towards his desk, and Emily looked around the room, finding the beside light on his nightstand. Bending at the waist, she switched it on, then turned back to him in the buttery light of the small lamp.

“I don’t like bright lights,” she mumbled, not meeting his eyes. She smoothed out the front of her top. Emily was still wearing the clothes she had worn that hot afternoon, a thin and loose tunic top over small white shorts, and now, close to midnight, she felt under-dressed and bashful.

“The lamp is fine,” he said, and then neither spoke again. Both of them looked around the room, and occasionally caught each others’ eye.

“It’ll be fun,” Emily finally said, in a quiet voice. “It’ll be an adventure.”

“It makes sense.” Michael nodded at her. “If we’re gonna hang out this summer, we need to…do this. You know, at least once, to get it out of our system.”

Emily frowned, but said: “Exactly. Oh, and Michael? Don’t get some idea that this is about what happened with the cop and you protecting me. ‘Cause that’s too gross to even think about: all throwing myself at the alpha male who, like, backed down a competitor. Okay?”

“Okay. I promise,” he chuckled, then struggled to find something to say. “So…yeah.”

“Here, sit on the bed with me.” Emily was quiet again. She took his hand and they perched on the foot of his bed together. “I’ll tell you a story.”

“Alright,” Michael whispered. “What about?”

“Um, about the first time I ever saw you. Ever really saw you, I mean.” She smiled at him. “It was about two years ago. Do you remember how, after you joined The Gang and Josephine had told me all about you and your real story…do you remember how I avoided you?”

“Of course.”

“Well, I was totally devoted to just being as mean as I possibly could be. Ignore you when you talked, walk away if we were alone together. Well, you remember. But then…in the spring I was in Dr. Gaughan’s class after school had let out. The room was empty, it was just me, and I was looking out the window, watching everyone leave school. A rainstorm had blown in from nowhere, and people were freaking out. The underclassmen were running for their parents’ SUVs, the upperclassmen were running for their own cars, and every single one of them had their books, their school books, up over their heads. Like this, you know, to protect their hair or their clothes from the rain.”

Emily held her hands up over her head, as though she were holding a textbook. The bottom of her thin shirt raised up just enough to show an inch of her belly, but both of them pretended to ignore it.

“And then I saw you just walking away from the crowd, down to your bus stop. Everyone else was running, trying to get to a car, but you were going the other way, just walking through the rain. With the collar of your jacket popped up, I think. And you didn’t have a book on your head…you were cradling something in your jacket, being careful to keep it wrapped up. You passed right by the window, and when you adjusted your jacket and I saw what you were protecting: your books. You were the best dressed kid in school, you had this wardrobe that just blew everyone away, but you didn’t care about that…you were just trying to keep your books dry.”

Emily looked down at the dark wood floors of Michael’s room. She bit her lip and let it slide out from between her teeth.

“That was like…yeah, that was like the first time I ever saw who you really were. And that’s when I knew that I had to find a way to be kinder to you.”

Michael didn’t speak for a minute, then shook his head slowly. “I don’t remember that at all.”

“I know you don’t,” Emily whispered, then smiled up at him through downcast eyes. She blinked twice, very slowly.

Michael raised his hands and placed them gently on her shoulders, pausing just a second as his fingertips first brushed the thin fabric of her top. When he spoke, it was in a low but almost faltering voice. “Emily, tell me this isn’t about the twins.”

“It’s not about the twins. It’s not. It’s about Michael and Emily.”

“Okay, then. Okay.” Then, in an even softer voice: “I always knew it would be you.”

“That’s what you said Thursday night,” she whispered.

“It was true.” Michael moved his arms down to touch her bare arms and then her soft waist. “It still is.”

They traversed the last impossible inches between them and then they were in each others’ arms. He could smell her shampoo, and she breathed in the last traces of yesterday’s aftershave. Emily clung to him with hands both firm and tender, leaning across to hold him in her arms and to be held by him in turn.

They moved up onto the bed without truly letting go of each other. Emily brought her face up into the warm expanse of his throat, and gently touched a button on his cotton shirt. The world was brand new, and when Michael reached back to turn off the lamp he invented the night and the darkness. He turned to Emily so she could find the notch of his shoulder and settle into it.

Nothing happened that night. No clothes were removed, aside from four separate shoes dropped heavily to the floor one at a time. They lay side-by-side for hours, quietly touching or whispering in the dark, sometimes so low the other couldn’t even hear the words but loving anyway the sound of the whisper. When Emily finally, reluctantly, prepared to go back down the fire escape, they parted with the only kiss of the night, soft and warm on the others’ cheek, as they pressed their bodies close one last time.

But something had changed, there in the dark. When Michael first turned the bedside light off, he turned back to Emily and she found him, pulling herself beside him and into the space where her body fit against his. For a moment they were still Michael and Emily, two friends who had found themselves sharing a bed. Then, like exhaling, they relaxed into each other. Each body found a way to accept the other, and it was then, that moment alone as they sunk softly together, that they became something else.

“This is nice,” Michael whispered. It was an ending, and it was a beginning. They were together now.

Emily’s hand moved across his chest and found the slit between two buttons of his shirt. She slid her middle and ring fingers through the opening and rested her fingertips against his warm chest.

“That’s nice, too,” he whispered again. They could both feel the steady beating of his heart.

Uncategorized

Thirty-Three

Detective Ronald Maglione pulled his unmarked Crown Victoria into Lucas Budd’s wide paved driveway. At the end of his headlights sat Officer Lawler and Officer Guidry, looking at a laptop that still had the factory stickers on the lid. Probably watching another movie for time and a half pay. The two men looked up at him as he pulled in, then went back to what they were watching.

It was 11:30 Sunday night. Maglione had stayed late at the station because Sunday night was one of the few times he could be left alone to finish his reports. Because he was a hefty guy with bright round face and a loud voice, everyone always assumed he was more gregarious than he really was. If he sat down behind his desk, within seconds someone was sure to be sitting on the edge of it, telling him some bullshit story.

Maglione ran a hand down his face and, suddenly remembering an appointment, pulled out the cheap electronic organizer he’d gotten at K-Mart a decade back. He picked at the tiny calculator keys and angled the dull green screen towards his overhead light: no, thank God, he had to be in court next Monday. He might actually get a full five hours of sleep tonight.

He finally opened the car door, leaving the car running. Maglione hoped to only be at Budd’s for a few minutes. He pushed himself up out of the car, tapped his pocket for the spare key he always carried, then locked the door behind him. Only when the car door shut did Lawler and Guidry even look up again.

“Hey, boys. You keeping yourselves cool out here?” Even at midnight New Orleans still ached with the day’s diminished heat. Maglione glanced over at the Budd house. The place looked dark, though he thought maybe he saw a faint glow up on the third floor. It sounded like the auxiliary air conditioner might be running up there, too.

“Yeah, we’re doin’ alright,” Lawler said, with a grin that was meant to seem upbeat but instead broke like a threat across his large solid face.

Ken Lawler was quick, friendly, and would be a genuinely good cop if he ever actually put his mind to it. Unfortunately, he was born in the body of a backcountry bruiser: he was six-foot-three and solid, with thin golden blonde hair that he parted in the middle, giving himself a perpetual look of menacing naïveté. Justin Guidry, on the other hand…

“Naw, boss, you got us sweating for good! We meltin’ out here, boy.” Guidry closed his eyes and wheezed out a snicker or two.

Guidry looked like a perfect policeman, every captain’s wet dream. With his upright posture, wiry frame, and tight crew cut, he seemed like an efficient and hardworking officer. He even had the facial expression down; with his tight lips and half-closed eyelids, he gave off a military air of practiced control.

And then he would open his mouth and ruin the illusion. Guidry was from some one-store swamp town, where every disagreement was solved with a quick scrap in the dirt. What was at first taken for a look of silent competence was in fact a sizing up, Guidry’s nervous system determining if he could whup you, or if you could whup him, and in either case how bad the whuppin’ was likely to be.

Because of the way he looked, Guidry was frequently awarded with special details, at least until the captain in charge quickly discovered that instead of the super-cop they thought they’d picked up they’d gotten an abrasive raspy-voiced fuck-up, an alpha Cajun who tried to settle everything with chest bumps and sucker punches.

Maglione had never really thought about it, but seeing the two of them side-by-side in the dark, it occurred to him that maybe Lawler and Guidry had been born in each other’s bodies by mistake. With Guidry’s body, Lawler could have become the respected cop he should have been, and not shuffled off to guard duty assignments like this. And with Lawler’s thick frame, Guidry could have conquered his bayou town and acquired a harem of baby mommas. But instead, he became a big city cop who drove his superiors so crazy they begged Maglione to give him this secluded overnight shift where he couldn’t cause too much trouble.

Maglione shook his head. “Well, you two only gotta sweat a couple more hours. Martin and…Umbro, I think, will be here at two. It was quiet tonight?”

“More or less,” Lawler said. “That backdoor was unlocked when I got here at six, so I called Greco and she said it had been locked when she checked it last night at two. So who knows what’s going on there.” Lawler hoisted his large shoulders up and then slowly lowered them, in a fascinating attempt at a shrug. “Oh, and the kids came by.”

Maglione was making a note about the door on one of the blank index cards he always kept in his pocket. “Kids?” he asked, distracted. “What kids?”

“The Budd kids. The twins.”

“Yeah,” Guidry smirked, “that real cocky asshole and his sister. Wish he’d come back, too, I tell you what…”

Maglione waved a hand at him sharply. “Wait. You meant to say that Budd’s…Lucas Budd—his kids were here tonight? Did you let them in?”

“Yeah, of course. You said family only, right? They just walked right in, so it seemed dumb to-”

“Okay, okay, let’s hold on a minute.” Maglione pinched the bridge of his nose. So much for getting sleep tonight. “Back it up. Describe the kids for me.”

Lawler furrowed his considerable brow. “White male, approximately 17 or 18, dark hair and a dark complexion. White female…”

“Reddish brown hair,” Guidry cut in. “Freckles. About yay tall. A nice rack.”

“She’s jailbait, you pervert.”

“Oh, like you didn’t notice…”

“Both of you shut up. Stay right here.” Maglione walked back to his car, a different curse accompanying every step. In his backseat was a cabinet’s worth of folders, envelopes, and file boxes.

Three minutes of digging, with his pen light in his mouth, and he found what he’d been looking for: a small beige pamphlet, maybe twenty pages long, with a large crest on the cover. It was last year’s Beaumonde Academy facebook, with grainy black and white photos of all five hundred students. He quickly flipped through it—there were a lot more neckties than he was expecting—and eventually found the Budd children. They were both blondes. Damn it.

“Here,” he said, walking back over to the bright light over the garage. “Find the kids you saw tonight. See if they’re in there.”

The two cops bent over the little book and looked at the photos, squabbling about when to turn the pages. It was laid out youngest to oldest, and the two slowly went past every freshman, then every sophomore, without a word.

“Look closely,” Maglione urged them. “These pictures are a year old, and teenagers change their hair every few minutes.”

He was starting to think they might not be Beaumonde students when, only a few pictures into the juniors, Lawler and Guidry pointed at a photo and said “That’s her” at the same time.

Maglione wrote the girl’s name down on a new index card and frowned at it. Her name looked familiar…something in the news about a custody battle, maybe? No, not that, but close.

The two found the boy’s picture one page over. Maglione wrote the name down, but this one didn’t mean anything to him. He cursed again anyway. He had a long night ahead of him, and it started with a phone call he really dreaded making.

Ronald Maglione stared at the index card in his hand and sighed. He didn’t know who they were or what they were doing here tonight, but life was about to get very interesting for Emily Bellecastle and Michael Karlinoff.

 

End Of Part One

Uncategorized

Thirty-Four

Few Changes Expected In City Councilman Budd Situation
Embattled Politician Remains Out Of Public Sight
First Trial Begins In October

When City Councilman Lucas Budd was arrested for drug charges in May, the story sent shockwaves through the city and was even briefly featured in the national press. The hard-working former Assistant District Attorney could occasionally be a firebrand, but Lucas Budd was well-liked by journalists, other politicians and, more importantly, most voters. Many considered him “one of the good ones” and he was widely seen as a potential front-runner in the upcoming mayoral elections.

Then came the May 28 arrest, when NOPD officers pulled over a wildly swerving car on the outskirts of the French Quarter and discovered inside a young shirtless male who quickly fled the scene, as well as large quantities of various illegal drugs and an allegedly deranged Lucas Budd, who had to be physically restrained during the arrest.

Even in a city long familiar with political corruption, Budd’s arrest was shocking. For more than a week, local television news shows featured almost constant coverage of the Lucas Budd situation. The story, however, yielded few additional developments. Within hours of his arrest, Budd had been released into the custody of his attorney and retreated to his large Garden District home.

Since then, little has changed. Budd has released no statements of any kind and remains cloistered in his home. He has yet to appear at any City Council meetings since his arrest but has not resigned his seat. His attorney, Marvin Dapp, appeared in absentia at Budd’s preliminary hearings and entered a plea of not guilty to all charges. Visitors to the Budd household are turned away by two city policemen and told that Mr. Budd is receiving no guests.

With no fresh developments in the story, the city and the media have moved on. Attention has since turned to the growing scandal at the Sewage & Water Board, as well as recent allegations of misuse in Mayor Cope’s discretionary spending budget.

But though Lucas Budd’s arrest may be gone from the front pages, it’s far from forgotten in New Orleans’ political circles. When Budd finally emerges from his seclusion, he’ll discover a political reality far removed from the one he left. With almost no supporters, and a move by the Louisiana State Bar Association to disbar him, Budd’s career would appear to be in shambles.

A recent Times-Picayune poll found that 77 percent of respondents thought that Budd should resign his City Council seat and let the city move on. When asked if they would still consider Mr. Budd for mayor, almost none said they would, and it was reported that many initially thought the pollster was joking.

Budd’s fellow politicians have been particularly eager to distance themselves from Budd. A recent campaign ad for one of the increasingly-heated State Senate elections featured a photograph of the candidate’s opponent with Lucas Budd at a charity poker tournament. Both of the men are smiling, cigars in their mouths, with large stacks of play money and poker chips spread out before them. The controversial ad–denounced by many as “mudslinging”–was recently pulled from the air.

The only vocal supporter of City Councilman Budd has been, ironically, the man who was assumed to be his toughest rival in the mayoral race: City Councilman Jerome Johnson. A childhood friend of Lucas Budd, Johnson has defended him publicly many times since the May arrest.

Johnson was recently successful in getting the City Council to halt proceedings to remove Budd from his seat. “This man has plead innocent at his hearing and is yet to be found guilty in any court. When the day comes that he is found guilty, we’ll do what we have to do. But until then, we cannot punish an innocent man. It’s not the way we do things in New Orleans, and it’s not the way we do things in America.” Earlier attempts to censure Budd have similarly failed.

Johnson’s actions may have put him at odds with other members of the City Council, but many voters view his defense of an old friend in a far better light. “Now, I may think Lucas Budd is guilty as [expletive],” Jake Thomas recently wrote in his widely-read political blog Mid-City Musings, “and for all I know, Jerome Johnson does, too. But darn it if sticking up for his friend in the face of overwhelming odds isn’t more than a little heartwarming to this jaded old cynic. We should all have friends so loyal.”

When reached for comment, Councilman Johnson replied: “I certainly appreciate Mr. Thomas’ remarks, and I’ve enjoyed his Internet website many times in the past, but as I’ve said before I like to think I’d be pursuing this matter just as diligently if Lucas were my most hated rival. This issue goes beyond friendship: we simply can’t make a move against him until he’s been found guilty by a jury of his peers. I don’t want to sound too overblown here, but I’m not just defending a friend, I’m trying to defend the democratic process.”

Most recently, Johnson was successful in getting the first of Budd’s many trials moved from September to late October, after the sure-to-be-tumultuous mayoral election. Johnson says: “September will be the height of the election season, and trust me, the people of New Orleans are gonna be sick to death of politics. And in the middle of all that, you’re going to ask a politician to stand trial on corruption charges? How could he possibly get a fair trial in that environment?”

It’s entirely possible Budd may stay secluded in his home until the day of his first trial. If so, one thing is certain: he will emerge into a vastly different world than the one he left. However, WWL senior political consultant René Parquette writes in an email that we shouldn’t count Budd out just yet:

“The situation certainly looks very grim for Mr. Budd, but this is New Orleans, and as we all know anything could happen over the long hot summer. By October, it will have been a full six months since his arrest, and a lot will have happened in the city. We’ll certainly have had other politicians ousted on corruption charges in that time. We’ll also have a new mayor, and the smart money says that it’ll be his old friend Jerome Johnson.”

Parquette continues: “I don’t think anyone seriously believes he’ll find a way to get out of this, but let’s face it: Lucas Budd has surprised us in the past.”

New Orleans Times-Picayune
Sunday, July 2
Reprinted by permission.

July

Thirty-Five

Two weeks passed, and Michael and Emily moved, with touches and kisses, out of their guiltless friendship and into the summertime compromise they had created. Now that they’d spent that first night together, it became easier every time they arrived in each other’s arms, and soon they were in the giddy early days of what neither of them called love.

Michael’s father was serious about him taking the summer off, and Emily’s days were endless, so most evenings Michael would arrive home from Emily’s cottage just before night became morning, only to be woken up only a few hours later, after his father left for work, by Emily scampering up his fire escape and into his room. She’d often wear sunglasses to protect her blissfully sleep-deprived eyes from seeing the brightness of the daytime world, and vice versa. Michael, who had awoken at the sound of her feet on the metal stairs, would pretend to be asleep until she slipped off her shoes and into bed beside him. She’d tickle and play-bite until he could feign sleep no longer and opened his eyes to her laughter, her embrace, her Emilyness there in his bed and his arms.

They prepared a picnic for the Fourth of July: Michael got a few yards of kelly green gingham out of Underhill Men’s Clothing Haberdashery fabric warehouse and, working at his sewing machine, fashioned a blanket large enough for the two of them. He also borrowed a large wicker basket from his father, who carried wine and cheese in it when he took women on picnics of his own. Nikolaos Karlinoff had given him the basket with a broad wink that Michael pointedly ignored.

Emily prepared the food. Well, actually, she sat on a stool in one of the downstairs kitchens and paid careful attention as Cindy, the family chef, prepared the sandwiches. Emily had started out making the meal on her own, but Cindy had hovered over her so nervously and made so many concerned suggestions that the two of them slowly swapped places as Cindy commandeered more and more of the preparation.

As Cindy worked, she delivered a monologue on all of the intricate details of this deceptively simple meal. Emily was expected to memorize this spiel for Michael so he could fully appreciate everything that had gone into the lunch, then Emily would report back to Cindy on his delighted reactions. Like painters, poets, and YA novelists, Chef Cynthia Autry’s needs were simple: unconditional, boundless, and unqualified praise, love, and approval. Forever.

Now the picnic was half over. They had already enthusiastically eaten the pan-bagnats, a kind of pressed tuna sandwich from somewhere in France…no matter how hard she tried, Emily had of course forgotten most of the details of Cindy’s lecture. They had also picked at what Michael had called the “avant-garde” potato salad, though they ate quite a bit more of it after had Emily produced the small bottle of Tabasco she always carried in her purse.

Emily stretched out with her head in Michael’s lap, enjoying the bright warm sunshine. A sandal dangled lazily from her big toe as a gentle, unending breeze caressed both of them. They slowly ate from a little bowl of fresh raspberries, of course feeding them to other occasionally then feeling slightly embarrassed at the cliché. The raspberries were meant to be sprinkled on the homemade mango sorbet that still waited in the basket, but it looked increasingly unlikely they would survive that long. A line of ants, straight from a cartoon, marched across the blanket and into the picnic basket.

Michael brushed the bangs from Emily’s face and kissed his fingertips, then touched her forehead. “I can see your secret face,” he whispered.

Emily sighed happily and eventually answered. “What do you mean?” Without realizing it, she had apparently been nodding off.

“When we’ve been really close, like in bed? After a while I start to see a different face, one I don’t see when we’re out in the world. I guess it’s because we’re so close together that your eyes seem bigger than usual, but whatever, I don’t want to make it too scientific. I just know that it’s one of the things I really like about all this, getting to see your secret face.”

Emily smiled up at him, and closed her eyes. She snuggled her face up against his belly. “If I said that you make me deliriously happy, would you call me a total cheeseball?”

“You know I would.”

She bit softly at him through his light cotton shirt, and he grabbed her gently by the shoulders to hold her back. “You’re always biting me.”

“It just so happens you’re incredibly biteable.” She leaned forward, loudly chomping at him, but he laughingly held her off.

Gormenghast, the family’s troubled guard dog, perked up his ears at the sight of his mistress being wrestled with. He stood up, turned two circles, then sat back down.

“Gormy, seriously.” Emily said. “Some guard dog.”

At the sound of his name the Doberman trotted over happily, his nails clicking against the hardwood floor, in search of leftovers. Emily began tossing herself back and forth, as though Michael were roughing her up.

“Gormy, help me…this dusky immigrant is having his way with me! His Mediterranean passions have been inflamed and he’s quite beyond reason! Only you can save me!” In response, the dog leaned over and gave a cautious sniff to the plastic ants lined up across the green blanket.

“Pitiful.”

The beginning of July was much too hot to even consider having a picnic outside, so Michael and Emily had set up their picnic in one of the larger rooms on the third floor of Emily’s home. When the Mercer Mansion had been a teacher’s college, this had been the gymnasium, where old-timey exercises were performed by old-timey women in long heavy skirts. These days it mostly sat empty, though Emily’s father would run laps around the perimeter whenever it was raining too hard to ride his bicycle along the levee.

The front of the room was completely dominated by three cathedral-like windows, and Michael and Emily had placed their blanket, with her mother’s Pilate mats underneath, in the center of the afternoon sun. The room was too large and under-used to keep air-conditioned, so Franz, the gardener, had brought two very large box fans from the workshop and placed them about ten feet away. Amused by the scene Emily and Michael had created in the gym, he’d gathered potted ferns and flowers from around the grounds and surrounded the blanket with them.

Michael picked up one of the plastic ants and inspected it. “Why do you have these, anyway?”

“Oh, a few years ago, when I was still in New York, my parents held a haunted house here for all the kids of my dad’s employees. He was Dr. Frankenstein, my mom was…Mrs. Frankenstein? The one with the cool hair. So anyway, one of the rooms on the second floor is full of Halloween stuff. Like plastic bugs, for example.”

“Ah.” Michael looked around and found his leather satchel. “Hey, speaking of your dad, when I went in to my dad’s shop for this fabric-”

“Ew, was that creepy guy there?”

“What? No.” A couple weeks before, a large red-headed man had come into Underhill asking for Michael. Sam, his father’s right-hand man, was a naturally suspicious and dismissive man; he took one look at the man’s blazer and claimed he’d never heard of Michael Karlinoff, but Nikolaos Karlinoff was out of the office for the day.

Around the same time, Emily’s mother said that a man called the house phone and asked to speak to Emily “Belly-castle.” For a few days, Emily and Michael had fed each other’s paranoia about these events and their meeting with Lucas Budd, but the man—if he’d even been the same person in both cases—didn’t make another appearance, and they soon forgot about him.

Neither of them had heard from Lucas Budd since their meeting, but he’d told them to wait three weeks before attempting their first mission, and they still had another week to go.

Michael pulled a magazine from his leather bag, the newest issue of Forbes. On the cover was a line of middle-aged female CEOs in business suits, smiling at the camera and holding brushes that dripped red paint. The headline of the magazine read The Richest Men In America, but Men had been crossed out with red paint and sloppily replaced with People.

“Oh yeah…I forgot that this came out in July.” Emily flipped through the pages. “My mom always has to go buy it at Walgreen’s every year and then hide it ‘cause Dad…well, he’s Scandinavian, you know?”

“I can’t remember what page it is, but he’s tied for number 39.”

“Uh-oh. He was at 37 for a few years in a row. Time to start tightening our belts around here.” Emily looked up at Michael and smiled warmly at him, for no other reason than he was there, then returned to the magazine. “Oh, here it is. Where was this picture taken?”

“It’s his downtown office, they just flipped the negative for some reason, and it’s a weird angle.”

“Oh yeah. Don’t tell him I told you this, but back when his investment firm had a softball team a few years ago, they made him a jersey with the number 37 on the back.”

“That’s cool.”

Emily was reading the short article that accompanied the picture. “Oh man, these stories always want to make it sound like a Rags To Riches story…it drives him so crazy. I mean, his father owned a natural gas company and a bunch of coal mines, or something. It’s more of a Riches To Insane Riches story.”

Michael reached over and fiddled with one of the ferns beside their picnic. “I guess I had no idea just how much money his firm made. I, uh, did the math while I was waiting for the streetcar…I wanted to see what your dad’s hourly wage was. I was bored, I don’t know. And the number was so big it just made no sense, so I figured it out to the minute, then the second. Did you know that if your dad was walking down the street and saw a $100 bill on the ground it would actually cost him money to stop and pick it up?”

“Trust me, he’d pick it up. Have you seen his car?”

Michael shrugged. “It’s just weird, I guess…I mean, I always knew you guys had a bunch of money, of course, but then to see a magazine calling him one of the richest men in world…?”

“Country, in the country. There’s a big difference. You just pissed off a lot of dudes from Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong.” She looked over at him, her head tilted to the side. “Did this really freak you out?”

“What? No…not really. It was just sort of a shock, you know?” He smiled at her, then picked up her hand and kissed each of her knuckles, one by one. “It didn’t weird me out or anything.”

“Good.” She closed her eyes with a grin as he pecked each of her fingernails. “You still have to buy me beignets tonight. You know that, right?”

“Sounds good to me.” Later that evening, after Emily went to her grandparents’ and Michael went to the Underhill employee cookout, they were going to ride their bikes downtown to see the fireworks.

Emily picked up the magazine and finished reading the article with a sigh. “They always have to mention that lawsuit, like it has anything to do with anything.”

“Yeah, I saw that. You know, everyone always talks about it, but I don’t guess I even know what it’s all about.”

“It’s really boring, are you sure you want to hear it?”

Michael checked his watch. “I don’t know…I only have about three hours.”

“You jerk.” Emily poked him in the chest. “So…when my dad was younger, he was married to another lady and they had three kids. They’re all in their thirties now. And…well, I hate to make it sound simplistic, but even though they’ll all be super-rich for the next twenty generations, they’re afraid that my mom is gonna somehow steal their inheritance. When my parents adopted me fifteen years ago, they filed a lawsuit to guarantee that a certain retarded percentage of his estate went to them no matter how much he wants to leave to me.”

“Oh. Does it have something to do with you turning eighteen soon?”

“To them that probably has something to do with it, yeah. But their big beef is the fact that I’m adopted. Now he has another heir, and one that isn’t even a blood relation.”

“Why does that matter?”

“Well…the glib answer is that we’re not that far from the Middle Ages, and that bloodlines still count. Also, I guess they see my adoption as my mom stealing my dad away from them without fulfilling the one job requirement expected of a Much Younger Wife: actually sleeping with him. Which is really a stupid idea because my parents have sex all the time.”

“Really?” Michael cocked an eyebrow. “How do you know that?”

Emily held up her hands and closed her eyes. “I know, okay? I know. Please don’t make me relive the specific traumas of sharing a house with two parents passionately in love.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s okay.” She shook her head, then did an exaggerated shudder. “Anyway, the fact that I have my mom’s last name isn’t just some feminist thing: technically, I’m not even my dad’s adopted daughter. I’m not sure how this is gonna stand up in court one day, but on paper, anyway, my mom adopted me fifteen years ago by herself while she just happened to be married to my dad.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah. And there are like fifty other things that I won’t even get into, like how I’ve never spent a dime of my dad’s money on anything. All my school clothes, the tuition at Beaumonde, even my allowance: all of it comes from my mom’s trust fund and my grandpa. And all of this so she can be above suspicion to my step-brothers and step-sister, which of course only makes them even more suspicious of her motives.”

“Of course.”

“And the really stupid thing about all of this…hey, am I boring you?”

Michael looked up. “What? No way. The only inheritance drama in my family was who had to take my Aunt Nevena’s dogs when she died.”

“Well, let me just add quickly that the really stupid thing about all this is that my mom is a Bellecastle, you know? Okay, sure, compared to my dad’s money that basically makes her lower-middle-class, but still: she and I could pretty much live off my grandfather until the year 3000 before we’d have to start clipping coupons.”

Outside, a few early fireworks were being let off in the street. “Your dad doesn’t seem like someone who would put up with all this.”

“He doesn’t. It’s, like, the only thing my mom and dad fight about. He wants to adopt me and change my name to Hammarskjöld and everything else, but my mom thinks that if she’s fanatical about staying above suspicion, then one day they’ll start to trust her. The other family is so eager to believe the most fucked-up conspiracies about my mom’s motives, but they’ll never buy the simple explanation: she just loves him.” Emily shrugged. “All I know is it sucks that, with all this talk about inheritance, I have to think about my dad dying all the time.”

Neither of them spoke for a moment. Emily tilted her head up and Michael kissed her waiting lips once, soft and lingering, before she put her arms around his neck and their mouths became eager. His legs were open and she was curled between them, pulling him down into her embrace by his neck and his shoulders, sometimes his hair. His arms supported her, and one palm rested heavily on her tummy. He could feel the flesh just beneath her thin shirt rise and fall slightly as she sighed happily in his arms.

Over the last few weeks, they had surprised each other with their ability to go from civility to passion within seconds. Every lull in conversation held the potential to be transformed instead into a clinch, a devouring.

Within a few minutes, among the ferns and flowers of their indoor picnic, their hands and clothes had begun to cross the line of plausible deniability; if anyone had come in they wouldn’t be able to separate in time, to adjust their garments into an approximation of innocence. Slowly they moved apart, fixing their hems and collars with shy giggles and expectant gazes. The rest would have to wait until after the fireworks.

“Can I tell you a secret?” Emily whispered.

“No.” Michael shook his head. “Not just one. I want all of them.”

Her eyes softened for a second, and she smiled at him before continuing. “I think I know what that lawsuit is really about.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. But…I don’t know. Okay: I was already one year old when my parents got married, right? And my dad had been divorced for ten, fifteen years by that point. I think maybe…I think I might be his kid, from some relationship he had before he met my mom.”

“You really think so?”

“Yeah. It just makes a lot of sense. I don’t have any proof or anything, which means I might as well be fantasizing about my dad being Darth Vader or killed by Voldemort or whatever. But if I’m his legitimate daughter, it explains why the lawsuit is such a big deal, you know?” Emily shook her head. “I’m probably just daydreaming, though. Hey, can I keep this magazine to show my mom?”

Michael shrugged. “Sure. I brought it so you could have it. Besides, I don’t think they’re going to miss it…there are always a ton of magazines in the men’s bathroom at Underhill.”

“Ew, Michael!” She flung the magazine away from herself. “You brought me a magazine you found in the bathroom?”

“So?”

“You totally gave me cooties!” She jumped on him and they play-wrestled for a few minutes, Michael trying to keep her from biting him again, until Emily was straddling Michael’s lap, holding his wrists softly as she purred in his ear, “There’s only one cure for cooties, you know…”

Michael raised his eyebrows. “Kisses?”

“What? No, not kisses, you boy. I was thinking sorbet…get the spoons.”

July

Thirty-Six

When Emily came downstairs after her picnic with Michael, she found her mother in the breakfast nook with a small tray of cucumber sandwiches, a deck of cards, and two small metal gadgets that looked a bit like stubby stopwatches. Belinda Bellecastle seemed to be waiting on her, and brightened up when Emily passed by.

“There you are.”

“Hey.” Why did her diction and posture always desert her the second she saw her mother?

Belinda nodded at the finger sandwiches. “I made us a snack before we go over to Grandma and Grandpa’s.”

“I just had a picnic. And we’re going to Grandma and Grandpa’s to eat dinner.” Sitting down at the small table, Emily took one of the shiny devices. She cut the deck of cards: a seven of diamonds.

“Somehow I don’t think that’s gonna stop you.”

Emily took a bite of a sandwich triangle. “You mustn’t say things like that to a 17-year-old girl. You could give me an eating disorder.”

“This is America, Emily. Everyone has an eating disorder.”

Belinda Bellecastle cut the cards as well and turned up a three of clubs. The low card meant she would be the dealer for the first round. She gave Emily and herself six cards, then turned up a starter card, which was the ten of diamonds.

“Michael brought us the new Forbes…Dad slipped to number 39.”

“I knew those dotcom people were no good.” Belinda frowned for a second, then laid two of her cards off to the side. “My god, has it really been a year already? I feel like the last list came out yesterday.”

Emily put two of her cards aside as well, then laid down a face-up four in front of her. “Four.”

Belinda put down a three. “Seven.” “Five is…uh, twelve for three.” Emily picked up her metal counter and clicked the button on top three times, giving herself three points. She’d discovered the counters in one of the many second-floor storage rooms a few years ago, and walked around clicking them aimlessly for a week, trying to think of something fun to do with them. Finally she realized that her family could use them to keep score in Cribbage instead of the more traditional wooden pegboard.

“Clever girl,” her mother said, then put down a jack. “Twenty-two. So how was your picnic?”

“It was okay.” Emily shrugged and didn’t look up from her hand.

“Very enlightening.”

Emily groaned. “I don’t know, it was fine. What else can I say?” She placed a five down on the table. “Twenty-seven.”

“Go. It’s a shame that none of your other friends could make it.” She smiled innocently over at her daughter. “Too bad it was just you and Michael.”

Emily ignored her and played her last card, a four. “Thirty-one for two and one more for the go.” Click click click.

“Of course, we’ve seen quite a bit of Michael these last couple of weeks, haven’t we…?”

Emily rolled her eyes violently. “We’re just hanging out, geez. He and I are both in the same boat now that the twins are gone. Go.”

Belinda gave herself a point for the go, then played a nine and ten and gave herself another point. She fixed her daughter with a stern look. “Emily. I am extremely disappointed in you. No daughter of Bonnie Belle has any business being this bad at lying to her mother. We’re going to have to ask those gypsies for our money back.”

“We’re just friends, Mom, I swear. Okay? Could you get off my back about this?” This wasn’t the first time her mother had made leading comments about Michael, and it wasn’t the first time she’d overreacted and immediately regretted it.

“It’s okay, you don’t have to say anything. I’ve seen the two of you together.”

Emily looked up sharply, only to find her mother smiling slyly.

“I meant your body language, dear.” Then, nodding at Emily’s hand: “What do we have?”

With a quick sigh, Emily spread her cards out in front of her. “Three four five for three, three four five for six, fifteen for eight and fifteen for ten. Oh, and a pair for twelve.” She clicked her counter twelve times.

“And I have…let’s see, nine ten jack, another nine ten jack, and a pair…and one for his nob. What is that? Nine?”

After scoring the crib—a perfect nineteen—it was Emily’s turn to deal. They played the next hand without talking about much…Belinda Bellecastle hated to lose, and she was behind by seven points. She had a better second hand, though, and the score was tied by the time she had to deal again. But instead of handing out the cards, she set the deck down and narrowed her eyes at her daughter. Emily dreaded what was coming, and prepared herself.

“Now. Two weeks ago I told you to go have an adventure this summer, and I gave you a deadline of two…Emily, what are you doing?”

Emily exhaled slowly, relaxing all of the muscles she had been tensing as she held her breath. “Stress relief,” she mumbled.

“Well, it’s been two weeks. I don’t have to know what you’re up to…in fact, I forbid you to tell me. The best adventures are the ones that would horrify your parents. Or your children. But I have to know, because your time is up: have you started an adventure?”

Emily was trapped and she knew it. If she admitted that something was going on, her mom would never let it go. But if she denied everything she’d have to succumb to her mother’s plans for the rest of the summer.

“I…might have started…a little something. Yeah.”

Her mother raised her eyebrows. “I thought so. You wicked child.”

“It’s just a summer thing, it’s not…you know.”

“Those are the best kinds of adventures!”

Emily slumped down in her seat, surprised to find that she was smiling just a tiny little bit. “Okay, that’s all I’m going to say. Period.”

Belinda ignored her. “I have to say, whatever your adventure is, it must be a good one. Even your dad was saying that you’ve been smiling and laughing and generally acting goofy the last couple weeks.”

“Really?” Emily prayed that she wasn’t blushing.

“Oh, totally. I don’t blame you though, he’s hot. I’d have an adventure with him any day.”

Emily groaned. “Ugh, deal the cards.”

Instead, her mother slowly shuffled the deck one more time. “Well, just be careful. Getting knocked up is a terrible way to end a summer adventure.”

“Mom…! We’re not sleeping together.” Yet. “I didn’t even say that’s what it was, okay? Can we just drop it already and play the game?”

“Does he love you , Miss Bellecastle?” she asked, but Emily ignored her. “Did you hear what I said, Miss Bellecastle? Does he absolutely adore you?”

Emily fought down a shy grin and pointed at the deck of cards. “Shut up and deal.”

July

Thirty-Seven

The Fourth of July weekend was over, and now that it was the middle of the week the crowds at the airport had thinned out. Aunt Marissa was able to get checked in faster than they expected, and since her flight didn’t leave for another hour and a half, they walked together through the the different little overpriced airport shops.

“I hate I didn’t get the kids anything,” she said, setting a plush crawfish back into its menagerie. “But seriously, they have enough toys for ten childhoods. Dr. Ray spoils them so bad.” It may have said Dr. Delray Garris on his business cards and bus stop ads, but everyone just called him Dr. Ray, including his wife, his mother, and himself.

Over on the magazine racks was an issue of Redbook with Laura Brennan-Spade on the cover. “We’re Made To Feel Broken”: A Revealing Interview About The Heartbreak Of Infertility. Setting a clear look of disdain on his face, Andre picked up the magazine and flipped through the pages, hoping to find the “exclusive preview of her new best-seller.” There might be some pictures from her modeling days.

“You know what would be so nice?” his aunt said. “If you would listen to me when I talked to you for the last ten minutes of my visit.” Apparently she’d said something that he’d missed.

“Sorry.” He put the magazine back on the shelf. “Do you wanna get some food?”

“What were you just looking at? Do you need tips for dealing with menopause?”

“It was nothing, I was just flipping through it. Christ.”

Marissa touched Laura Brennan-Spade’s face on the cover. “Her books are so good. Have you read them? Dr. Ray has them in his waiting room and every time I go over there I end up just sitting there and reading like fifty pages.”

“Uh, yeah: no, I haven’t read any of her books. I’ll add them to the list.”

They moved back out into the airport. A flight from Charlotte had just landed, and exhausted passengers streamed up out of the concourse. On the bench in front of Andre a young couple sat, both of them heavily asleep. The man had a straw cowboy hat pulled down over his eyes, and moved his lips slowly as if in prayer. His girlfriend or wife clung to his arm, her mouth slightly open, and twitched occasionally as though she dreamed of chasing or being chased.

Andre and his aunt drifted over to another little shop, this one selling ceramic figurines depicting jazz musicians playing on the street in some mythical French Quarter. The salesperson was off in another corner, and both Andre and his aunt muttered an “oy” under their breath at the same time.

Their two weeks together had been pretty rough, but nothing compared to the slow-motion agony of this final hour. By now, Andre had a pretty good feeling that he had passed the unspoken test that was the real purpose behind her visit, and it was excruciating to know that he was so close to getting rid of her, to being free for the first time in what felt like forever. In a way, though, he almost relished the unbearable wait…he savored it, drank it in, tried to memorize it, so that when she was finally through the metal detectors and gone he’d feel that much lighter.

Andre examined a little statue of an alligator playing a saxophone in the bayou moonlight, and Aunt Marissa reached out and pinched his belly.

“I swear to God, Andre, I can’t believe how much slimmer you look after only two weeks,” she said. (This wasn’t actually true—she couldn’t detect any change in his gut at all—but despite all appearances to the contrary, Marissa Meyer believed in positive reinforcement.) “And you seem so much healthier. You’ve got your color back and those dark circles under your eyes are gone.”

This last bit was true, and Andre had noticed it himself, but he still didn’t want her talking about it. He smirked and turned away.

She’d been feeding him health food and processed low-calorie low-fat substitutes. And the portions! So small he always left the table hungry. Also, she’d made them go jogging every day over the last two weeks, to Andre’s never-ending shame and disgust.

That first week, they’d walked one block and jogged the next. The first few days had been miserable, and Andre would collapse, sore from his shoulders down to his calves, into a deadly sleep each night.

The second week, though, he’d discovered that for the first five minutes or so he could actually jog for two blocks before needing to walk. And afterward he wasn’t nearly as wiped out as he’d been just a week before. He’d still felt awful, of course, sweaty and panting, with his glasses stuck slickly to his face, but he’d also felt good in a way he’d never exactly experienced before. Nor ever would again, thank God: jogging had been a fun little experiment, something to break up the monotony of his aunt’s visit, but now he was only fifteen minutes from never having to put on a pair of running shoes again.

“You’re going to stick with it, right? In just a couple of months you’ll look and feel so much better.”

“Of course.”

“You promise?”

“Yeah, I promise.”

The night before, Marissa had prepared a one last homemade meal for Andre and his dad, grilled salmon and steamed vegetables. After being roused by both Andre and his sister, Reuben Meyer had finally lurched out of his bedroom and sat, slumped over, at the table. His skin looked ashy, and he seemed a bit more out of it than usual. He stared down the food on his plate for a long time, flinching at the sight of it, before finally looking up at his son with a desperate look.

A few days before, Reuben had finished the last of the liquor Andre had secretly stockpiled for Aunt Marissa’s two-week visit. There were still enough pills to get him through the rest of Marissa’s stay, thanks to Andre’s careful budgeting, but Reuben had been dry for almost four days by the time he joined them for this final dinner. He ate nearly nothing, simply chopping up the salmon with his fork and stirring it around on his plate to make it looked like he’d been taking bites. Occasionally he’d put a little fish in his mouth and chew it cautiously before swallowing with a look of great effort.

Finally he looked up, and with a small voice asked his sister if he could be excused. Andre thought it served him right for not being able to control himself, but he was also worried that this last meal had bought both of them a one-way ticket to Phoenix. His aunt didn’t say anything, though, only nodded her head and watched Reuben trudge his weight back down the hall to his bedroom. Andre cleared his throat and told her he was glad her flight was late the next day so they could get one more jog in, but she’d only smiled at him and continued eating.

“Oh, shoot…I forgot about your new insurance papers.” Aunt Marissa said, digging into her briefcase-style purse. The two of them had gotten into the security line together. There was still plenty of time to spare, but they’d already been in all the airport shops and they could think of nothing else to do.

“That’s okay, you can fax them to us.” Andre counted the people in line. Twenty-two more inspections and he would be on his own again.

“No, wait…I have them, never mind.” She pulled two folders out and flipped through them. “I had Dr. Ray forge your signatures. He did a pretty good job, too. The hands of a master surgeon and all that.”

Andre began to grow nervous. If Aunt Marissa was going to drop a bomb on him, tell him she was looking into bringing him and his father to Arizona, it would be now, just as she was preparing to leave. Andre felt like he’d done a pretty good job of getting the house in order and making it seem like everything was running smoothly, and going jogging with her had helped a lot, too. But still, it was a totally fucked situation and he knew his aunt could go either way.

His dad had been better that morning, awake and aware as his sister was packing to go away. This was thanks to David Sebastian: the night before, long after Aunt Marissa had gone to bed, David sneaked over to the house with an emergency bottle of gin from his mother’s bar. Andre had given it to his father just before he’d left for their final jog, and by the time they got back, his dad was noticeably better, and even wanted to go along to the airport. He fell fitfully asleep in the living room before they could leave, though, and his sister said goodbye to him only by touching the hair on his head for a moment.

Now that there were only a few people between them and the security check, Aunt Marissa was listing the things she’d forgotten to tell him, or had told him only ten times already. “Only jog five days a week…take the weekend off. I know we did fourteen days straight, but that was because we didn’t have a lot of time together. Every week, add an extra block or two where you run instead of walk, and you’ll be jogging for half an hour straight in no time.”

“I will. I have the little notebook you gave me to keep track.”

“That’s right. And don’t eat a lot of crap. Slow down, chew your food. You eat like someone has a gun to your head. Put your fork down between bites, okay?”

Andre nodded at her, smiling and even squeezing her shoulder. Suddenly his nervousness had made him gregarious. “Okay. I promise.”

There were only a few people left in line, and Aunt Marissa looked back over her shoulder and then at Andre. “Well…okay. I guess this is it, then.”

“Yeah.”

She shifted her bags up onto her shoulders. “Let’s see if I can get my arms around that chunk of yours.”

He laughed for her, feeling suddenly magnanimous in his relief, and took her in his arms. “Thank you for everything,” he said, patting her back. “I really appreciate it.”

His aunt didn’t say anything, and held the hug for longer than he expected. A few people slipped past them and through the metal detector. Andre was surprised to feel her shudder once, then hold him even tighter. And when she pulled away, her eyes were red and wet and she searched his face with love and sympathy and worse.

“Andre, I…I just worry so much about you.”

Andre held her out at arm’s length, his hands on her small shoulders, and smiled broadly. “What? No…I’m fine. Really, I am.”

“Okay.” She passed a hand quickly under her eyes. “All I want is for you to feel better…you know that, right?”

“I know. And I do feel better. I feel great.”

Andre watched his aunt move through the security check, her shoes in her hand, then off down the concourse, and he really did begin to feel as great as he claimed. Aunt Marissa turned back once and raised a hand at him, then went around a corner and was gone. A little ping of guilt echoed in his heart when he saw her final sad and worried goodbye, but he ignored it. He was free. He had passed. Yes, Andre felt great.

In fact, he felt so good that he left the airport, drove to the closest sandwich shop, and a ordered a large roast beef po’ boy. With extra mayo and extra gravy that he could dip his fries in.

• • •

A couple hours later, just as the sun was setting, Andre keyed into his house and discovered his father still in the chair he’d fallen asleep in, but awake now and apparently waiting for him.

“Where have you been?” his dad asked, narrowing his eyes at Andre. “You should have been home hours ago.”

Andre shut the door and went up the four steps into the living room. “Like you even know what time it is. Quick, what’s today’s date?”

Reuben Meyer made a strangled sound in his throat and, reached out for Andre, kicking his feet out when he did it like a petulant prince. A small turquoise vase fell off the nearest side table, hitting the carpet and refusing to break. “Don’t you…don’t you dare…you’re already in it, sir, so I wouldn’t make it worse. What did you do with my bottles?”

“I didn’t do anything with them. You drank them all, remember?” Andre was a bit…worried was too strong of a word. Concerned. His father had his surly moments, but he was never violent. Even now, though, his anger seemed rehearsed, like he was reciting lines from a movie about an alcoholic dad. A lifetime of reading shitty novels had given Reuben Meyer shitty dialogue for every occasion. “Of course you don’t remember.”

His father didn’t say anything, just fixed Andre with a sick look and breathed through his mouth. “I want you to go down to K&B and get me a bottle.”

“For fuck’s sake, Dad, I’m seventeen. I can’t just walk into a store and buy you liquor. Do I even have to ask if there’s any of that gin left over?”

Reuben Meyer eyed him suspiciously behind his thick glasses. “What gin?”

“Never mind.” Jesus Christ, arguing with his alcoholic father. It all felt so cliché, so movie-of-the-week…so low-class. “The delivery guy comes tomorrow, you can hold out that long.”

The food distribution company that supplied his father’s theaters dropped off a shipment of liquor every week, supposedly for all the society functions the Meyers were always throwing.

Andre started to go down to his room—one of his jackets was on the stairs for some reason—when he had a change of heart and opened the paper bag he’d carried in with him. After sitting on the levee with his roast beef po’ boy (Andre had been disgusted to find that he could only eat about a fourth of it) he drove over to where an older friend, another New Orleans blogger, worked. He gave the guy twenty bucks to run into A&P for a bottle of anything. The friend had been happy to do it, said it reminded him of being a high schooler himself, but the whole thing made Andre hatefully depressed: the condescension, the idea that it was for Andre himself, the fact that he couldn’t explain the real reason he needed it.

Andre had wanted to hold off as long as possible on giving the vodka to his dad, maybe even keeping it in reserve in case this ever happened again, but his father’s demeanor made him think he shouldn’t wait. Hopefully it would put him to sleep until the morning, when the delivery came.

His father reached up for the vodka, his feet coming up off the floor again. Andre pretended to give it to him, then yanked it back. His father made a pleading little whimper and reached out harder. Andre offered it again, and again pulled it away. Finally, on the third try, he tossed the bottle into his father’s outstretched hands.

Reuben Meyer tore at the screw-top’s plastic liner with his teeth, then cracked the cap of the bottle. He looked around for a glass and, not finding one, picked up the small vase he’d just knocked to the floor.

Andre chuckled in spite of himself and took the vase away from his father. “Just drink it out of the bottle, dad. Geez.”

After the first swallow his father relaxed back into the chair, gasping, then took another long drag. “Gin? Vodka? You know I drink whiskey.

“Well, dad, it’s not like I had a whole lot of choice in the matter.” His friend had bought some kind of special vodka that he wanted Andre to try, as though he were Andre’s wise older brother, inducting him into the secret rites of adult drinking. Andre had acted kind and receptive during the lesson, the whole time wishing with a passionate sincerity that the guy would burst into flames.

His father took a third drink, sighed, and pointed his finger at him. “I don’t want you hiding my bottles from me anymore, you got that? I had to tear the house apart to find this one.”

The jacket on the stairs. “You had to…” Andre quickly went down a hallway, and it was true: his father had ransacked the entire house looking for the bottles that he himself had already finished. All the cleaning that Andre had done, all the work that Aunt Marissa had put into the house, was scattered in the doorways and piled in corners by his father’s search.

“Fuuuck.”

He drifted down another hallway, breathing slow and ragged. Everything that had been in one guest bedroom, even part of the mattress, had been thrown through the doorway. Downstairs, a cabinet in the family room was overturned.

Andre found his room in shambles, his desktop computer on its side but still working. The drawers of his nightstand hand been pulled out hurriedly; Andre looked in a panic through the bottom drawer, but the framed picture of him and his mom hadn’t been hurt.

“You idiot…you asshole!” His fists went up to his eyes and the world went dark red for a few seconds. Andre stormed up the stairs, two at a time, and headed towards his father. Reuben Meyer, mid-drink, saw his son’s face and shrank back in fear, but didn’t entirely take the bottle from his mouth.

Andre didn’t smack the bottle away, breaking it against the wall, and he didn’t smash it across his father’s head, and he didn’t make his father watch as he slowly poured the vodka all over the carpet. He stopped himself before he did any of that. Instead, he grabbed the end of the bottle and lifted it higher, so that the vodka spilled over his father’s gasping face and down his throat and shirt. “Do you know what I’ve been doing? I just saved your ass from rehab, you stupid fuck.”

His father sputtered wetly, holding the half-empty vodka bottle against his chest, but Andre turned to stalk back downstairs. Something soft hit him on the back of the heel. It was the small vase, and his father had his glasses off now and was staring at him with wild eyes.

“You treat me with respect, mister.” He tried and failed to pull himself up out of the chair. “You hear me? I’m your father.”

Andre knocked him softly back in the chair, barely pushing him at all, then went down the stairs without a word.

His father yelled after him. “There are gonna be some changes in this house, yes sir there are. Some big changes.”

Alone now in the wreckage of his room, Andre put the drawers back into his nightstand. The top drawer got stuck going in and he banged forcefully against it, again and again before tearing it back out with a choked sob.

He sat on his bed and sighed wetly once, twice, and a third time. His glasses came off for a second and he wiped hot tears away from his eyes. It would take him weeks to fix the house, and Emily had called the other day, to ask if she could bring Michael over for a movie this weekend. The house would still look like a robbery scene. He’d worked so hard, too. It wasn’t fair.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Andre sniffled twice. He kicked off his shoes slowly, then walked out of his jeans, pulled off his shirt, and entered his bathroom wearing only his underwear. The bathroom was also destroyed, the medicine cabinet pulled from the wall, but his jogging shorts and muscle shirt were still in the hamper. His running shoes had been knocked behind the toilet, but he fished them out and laced them up. He slipped out the side door of the house, and through the gate, and ran away one step at a time.

July

Thirty-Eight

Josephine Brooks was bored.

Again.

Still.

Actually, she wasn’t just bored, she was (as she was tempted to write in her journal every day) bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored bored.

Her days were too long. She woke up before sunrise to jog, then spent the rest of the day in the empty house, reading or writing in her journal but mostly just sitting around, wasting the summer. Her mother was busy preparing Beaumonde for the upcoming school year, but even if she’d been at home more it wouldn’t have necessarily been much better. Who wants to spend the summer hanging out with their mom?

And then, to make things even worse, a few days before her sister Catherine had called from Los Angeles to deliver her “big news.” She had been hired to work as a PA on a movie that was filming in New Orleans, and in August she’d be home for “a few weeks, maybe even a month or two.” Oh, fantastic.

At least the disgust and annoyance she’d feel when her sister arrived would be a break from the boredom. The night before, Josephine had picked up her cell phone and stared at it, thinking of calling someone in The Gang and asking if they wanted to…what, exactly? Josephine didn’t know, she just wanted to do something. She considered calling David, but now that his trip to Chicago was only two weeks away he was radioactive.

Then, in the middle of the night–just before she had to get up for her run–David had actually called her. He had to deliver something to Andre (he wouldn’t say what) and he wanted her to ride with him.

“At two in the morning?” she asked in a whisper.

“Oh hell yeah.”

Josephine always slept in her running clothes, so all she had to do was put on her Sauconys, untied, and sneak down the street to his driveway.

Andre lived only about ten blocks over, and the errand hadn’t taken long at all. On the way, David played a dance song he was in love with over and over again and talked about his upcoming trip, which he had apparently planned in great detail. Josephine waited in the car while he ducked into Andre’s garage with his package. He hadn’t asked her to come in with him, which has fine by her. She paused his iPod so she wouldn’t have to hear that song for the fourth time, and instead she listened to Mrs. Sebastian’s Prius humming softly in the dark.

Just a few minutes later, David got back in, restarting both his new favorite song and his discussion of the trip, and drove them home. Josephine wanted to ask him to take her somewhere, anywhere, but she couldn’t think of how to say it and so she hadn’t said a word. He’d pulled up in front of her house and pretended to make out with her until she pushed him off, squealing, and jumped out of the car.

And that was it, the only big adventure of her summer: going for a twenty-minute car ride with David at two in the morning. Exciting stuff.

She couldn’t get back to sleep after that, so she just stayed up until it was time to go jogging. The run had been pitiful, of course, and all day she had been exhausted and even more out-of-sorts than she usually was. And then, to top it off, her mother had gone out to dinner with Roger and another couple, and Josephine had fallen asleep heavily on the couch, only waking up when her mother came in at eleven. So now her sleep was thrown off for another night, and the next day’s jog would be ruined as well.

After saying good night to her mom, Josephine put on her running clothes and went out on the back deck to do her nightly stretches. She left the lights off because her mom’s window–just now going dark–faced the back of the house, and because the bugs might not bite as badly. There was an almost-full moon struggling to stay above the neighboring houses.

Josephine eased herself down to the wooden deck and crossed her legs, then bent over at the waist as far as she could, putting a hand under her knees to pull herself as far down as possible. The muscles of her lower back pulled taut. She counted to thirty, relaxed the stretch, then leaned forward again.

Because she had to get up so early for her run, she was usually asleep by nine, so to be awake and outside stretching at eleven pm made her feel miserable. She must have gotten the “early to bed” gene from her mother, who just that evening had come in complaining about being kept up that late. On the other hand, Josephine’s father was well-known for staying up deep into the night when he was working on a project. Her sister Catherine was the same way.

Josephine straightened up and opened her legs out, forming a wide V. Her next stretch involved leaning forward as far as she could, stretching her fingers out in front of her. She always did her stretches in the same place on the deck, and when she did this stretch there was a certain knot of wood she aimed for every morning and evening. With the lights off, she could only barely see the dark spot a few feet in front of her. If she looked to the side she could just make it out, but it disappeared when she looked right at it.

But she never leaned forward, never reached out towards the elusive knot with outstretched fingers. Instead, she stifled a yawn and shook her head, then stared out across her backyard, just sitting there in the purple dark. At first she considered the summer jobs she was still planning to apply for, but eventually she became lost in thought, or rather, lost in no-thought, and the stretches and jobs were forgotten. Later, she would suspect that she may have drifted off, fallen asleep with her eyes open. She didn’t know how long she sat there, watching the moon rise and the trees refuse to budge in the sodden air, but she finally stirred when the dogs of the neighborhood began barking, many of them muffled by patio doors and all of them ignored, and when the man lifted himself clumsily over Josephine’s back fence.

She swallowed hard, too shocked to do much else, and carefully scooted her butt backwards on the wood deck, towards the shadow of the house. The bearded man, wearing sweatpants and a shirt that was too large for him except over the gut, seemed to be coming right towards her, until he stopped about fifteen feet from the deck and looked around the yard, then squatted down in the shadowy grass.

Josephine made a low sound in her throat that she couldn’t control, but the man seemed to be too far away to hear it. He was wearing mittens, and he took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes with the back of his wrist, then cleaned off a lens with one of the gloves. No, wait…they weren’t mittens, they were dress socks. It was hard to make out, but there seemed to be maybe another sock rolled up inside, too, over each of his palms.

The man put his glasses back on and didn’t move, except to tilt his head to the side. The dogs, one by one, gave up their barking.

Josephine slowly moved her palms down to her side and flexed her forearms. When this man stood up, if he took a step towards her she could be up and through the back door in seconds. There was a phone by the door, and knives in the kitchen. With a torturously cautious movement, she bent one knee to make it easier to jump up and back.

The man in the yard didn’t seem to notice. He was still squatting in the yard, but he was intently studying the fence that separated the headmaster’s residence from Beaumonde Academy. He seemed to be looking for something.

Neither of them moved for many minutes. The sound of her heart beat in her ears.

Suddenly, the man looked up and over her, the full moon reflecting fully in both lens of his glasses, so it looked like his eyes were pools of mercury. Josephine caught her breath. He tilted his head to the side, listening as a car drove past the front of the house, then he turned back to the fence. He hadn’t seen her.

He hadn’t seen her, but she had seen him. Josephine recognized him now as Lucas Budd, the twins’ father, now bearded and skinny (yet also somehow paunchy) but undeniably him.

Mr. Budd leaned forward and tore up a few blades of grass with his woolen padded fingers, then sprinkled them out on the ground. Josephine wondered if he even knew whose backyard he was in. And she wondered if she should speak to him–the idea made her want to pee–or if she should continue hiding in the dark.

Before she could decide, though, Mr. Budd pushed himself up, shaking one leg and then the other, and walked quickly around the side of her house, hunched over at the waist in a concession to the concept of sneaking. Josephine listened closely, and she heard him trying to open the gate that connected Josephine’s yard with the grounds of Beaumonde Academy. It would have been hidden in deep shadows from the house, and it had taken him a few minutes of squatting in the grass to find it.

Mr. Budd continued trying to get the gate open, but there was a small latch that had to be moved. It was hard to find in the daylight, much less the middle of the night. A few of the closer dogs began rumbling and pacing at the noise. Finally, he got the gate open.

Josephine always made a point, during the school year, of going out her front door and entering school through the main entrance. But her mother went through the gate several times a day, and Josephine knew that it squeaked loudly. Mr. Budd evidently discovered this on his own, because soon the hinges to cried out loud enough that all of the dogs in the neighborhood began barking again. A calico cat that Josephine hadn’t seen scrambled off her back fence and disappeared under one of the neighbor’s garden benches.

The gate squealed again, this time a few octaves higher but much shorter, and there was the sound of the latch closing. Josephine glanced up at her mother’s window, but no light came on, no curtain parted.

Mr. Budd came back into view, hugging the shadows of Beaumonde’s auditorium, as he snuck through the grounds of her school. Something caught a streetlight and flashed silver; Josephine realized that he was wearing a backpack, and the light had hit a piece of reflective tape. (She caught herself wondering where in the world he’d found a backpack…there was no way the twins would have knowingly allowed it in their home.)

At the back of the school was a large garage, where trucks could make deliveries without blocking the street. Leading up to the garage was a long paved entranceway, a bit more extensive than a driveway but not exactly an alley, which emptied out onto a side street. Mr. Budd seemed to be headed for this.

There was a low fence, hip-level to a ninth-grader, separating the school grounds from the drive. And the end of the school day, many students would make sure that Dr. Hayes wasn’t around, then carefully lace their fingers between the pointed ends of the fence and vault cleanly over to the pavement on the other side. It saved them the hassle of going all the way through the school again, and it was an easy jump.

Well, easy for a teenager. Middle-aged men in the middle of the night seemed to have a bit harder time with it. Mr. Budd placed his sock-covered palms directly on the top of the fence, pulled himself up until he could swing his feet to the top, then jumped noisily to the other side. The dogs went bonkers.

Mr. Budd loped down the drive. He held back long enough to let a white hatchback pass on the main street before he slipped out and down the sidewalk.

Josephine realized that she was still crouched on the deck, her muscles tight and ready. She relaxed and looked up at her mother’s window again. She needed to go inside right then and tell her mom what had just happened. That would the smart thing to thing to do. That would be…

That would be totally boring. Josephine pursed her lips. She pulled herself up by the banister, paused a moment with her back almost parallel to the deck, then swung slowly through the railings and landed softly in the grass. (The maneuver had come so easily to light and muscular Josephine that she had barely realized she’d done it, though surely any spectator would have whistled approvingly at the move, if not resorted outright to profanity.)

She ran her foot back against the grass, supposedly to see how slick it was, but really so she could rid herself of the last traces of nervousness. She took off at a sprint, covering the thirty yards of her backyard in seconds.

Somehow her feet knew exactly when to jump. In the light of the next day, examining the distance and height she’d covered, then she would felt anxious and even a little sick to her tummy. But tonight her body was in charge, launching her into a silent slow roll, almost a sideways somersault, over the chest-high fence.

The jump wasn’t perfect–she had too much momentum going into the landing, and her fingertips grazed the grass as she dipped low to right herself–but it was good enough to get her over the fence and on her way.

She continued her spin until she was facing the right way, took a stuttering half-step, then took off again without a pause. She sprinted towards the fence at the end of the yard, her stride lengthening until she was flinging herself forward with every step. She reached the low fence, and with a grunt she stepped up and hurdled over it, one leg out before her and the other curled back almost behind her.

The night held its breath as she flew, then the slap of her soles landing safely on the pavement echoed damply in the hedge-lined corridor. Josephine ran a few more steps, shaking off her speed, then turned back to look at the two fences she had just silently cleared. A very unjosephinian grin bubbled up to her face, and she coughed out exactly one half-laugh, equal parts joy and nerves and adrenaline and fear.

Oh hell yeah.

She went to the end of the drive and looked out cautiously for any cars. In a city of waiters and bartenders, late-night jogging wasn’t unusual, but New Orleans did have a curfew for teenagers, and until her birthday in two weeks she had to be at least a little bit careful.

Down on the corner, Mr. Budd had stopped to go through his backpack. Josephine held back behind a large fern and saw him strip the socks off his hands, then pull out a black baseball cap that he pulled down low, almost to the top of his glasses. He turned the corner, slinging the backpack over a shoulder, and was gone.

Josephine looked back up the dark drive, over the two fences, and at her house sitting shadowed in the distance. She caught her breath, then turned away and stepped onto the sidewalk.

July

Thirty-Nine

The Sebastian family has a secret, and David’s parents have sworn him to silence. Even though David’s other attempts to keep a secret have been unsuccessful almost immediately, he’s never told anyone about the secret his parents have been hiding upstairs for years. He never allows any of his friends to go up to the third floor.

Of course Valerie’s parents know about it, but they seem uncomfortable with the very idea, and Harry believes that his father-in-law treats him differently since he’s found out. As though he’s somehow less of a man. Valerie tells him he’s just imagining things, but he can tell by the way her father shakes his hand.

(Harry’s own parents died when he was in law school, hit by a drunk driver. At least once a year, one of the local magazines will feature a profile of Harry Sebastian, Louisiana’s highest profile personal injury lawyer, and the writer will always mention the death of his parents as though this is the hidden key to understanding how Harry got where he is. Harry, of course, finds this simplistic and a little offensive, though he cheered up recently when his son remarked that this makes him seem darkly driven by a need for justice and vengeance, “just like Batman!”)

So this is the family secret, then: for the entire duration of their 23-year marriage, Valerie and Harry Sebastian have never shared a bed. The third floor contains two bedrooms and two bathrooms, one for each spouse.

The secret, like all family secrets, probably seems banal to those who don’t have a stake in actually keeping it a secret, and the Sebastians may come across as ludicrous or overwrought by trying to keep it hidden. (In fact, if many of their married friends knew about the Sebastians’ sleeping arrangement, they’d probably even be jealous of them.) But neither Valerie nor Harry relish the idea of explaining to anyone why they choose to sleep apart.

They’ve never actually had to defend their decision to others, though, thanks to their caution. But both of them are born arguers, and they’ve made a hobby of defending it to each other:

“It’s just weird that we’re expected to spend a third of our lives trying to share a small mattress with another person.”

“And you sleep so lightly, and I toss and turn.”

“Plus, you’re so cold-natured, and I can barely stand to have a sheet on me.”

“It makes perfect sense. But you know what most people would say if we told them, right?”

“Oh, of course. It wouldn’t even be what they’d say, it would be the way they’d look at us. Like we’re living a loveless marriage. No passion, no spontaneity.”

“As if having a sex life depends entirely on being forced to share the same bed every night.”

“’Hey, pal, we love sex so much we have two separate rooms for it.’”

“Exactly.”

“And that’s not counting the sun room and the bathrooms and the pool and my office and the kitchen and…”

“Okay, now you’re just being gross.”

They’ve become obsessed with proving to themselves that even though they have separate rooms their relationship is just as hot-blooded as any other. They’ve entered into a competition with an imaginary opponent, “the average couple.” Last year, Valerie read in Cosmo that their nemesis the average couple was intimate two times a week. Since then, one of them had visited the other’s room three times a week in retaliation. (They recently agreed that this had become almost like a quota; now the number of visits fluctuates between two and four times a week.)

Even after twenty-three years of marriage, Harry still got a thrill from the sound of his wife’s bedroom door opening, and her bare feet padding across the hallway, and finally her fingertips rustling softly against his door, almost inaudibly, until he got out of bed and found her standing in the soft light of his doorway with a slightly bashful grin, looking up at him with her hands clasped in front of her.

He’d visited her earlier in the week; tonight he’d found her in his bed, reading one of his case files, when he came upstairs. Later, as they dozed, Harry’s cell phone began to ring on his nightstand.

“Who’s that?” his wife mumbled. She’d turned away from him, one hand reached back and clutching his thigh.

“Beats me.” The caller-ID said Pay Phone. This wasn’t unusual; he was more of a businessman than an attorney these days, but he still had a lot of people call him from the NOPD overnight lock-up. He didn’t recognize this pay phone’s number, but this was his private cell phone, and almost no one had this number. “I better take this. Hello?”

The voice on the other end sounded like it came from somewhere beyond the land of the living. “Hello?”

“Yeah, hello?” Harry got up and found his robe.

“Can you hear me?” The line crackled a few times, then the voice suddenly became clear. “Is that better? This phone cord, I think it has a short in it. You can hear me?”

“Yeah, can you hear me?”

“Loud and clear. I just gotta hold this cord all screwy. You know how hard it is to find a working pay phone now that everyone has a cell? They don’t even fix ‘em any more.”

Harry’s wife pulled the covers up over her shoulders, then over her head. He frowned at his phone. “Uh, who is this?”

“Harry, it’s Luke.”

“Luke?”

“Come on, brother…Luke. Lucas Budd.”

Harry said the first thing that came into his head. “Oh, fuck you.”

He quickly parted the blinds and glanced out into the street. There were no suspicious cars parked out front. Not yet, anyway. He was being ridiculous and paranoid, of course, but then again…

Harry stepped out of the room hurriedly and pulled the door shut behind him. He cupped his hand around the mouthpiece. “Do you have any idea the sort of shit you could bring down on me? What are you thinking, calling me?”

“No, it’s okay…it’s a pay phone. We’re safe.”

Down the stairs, there was a glow under David’s door and softly muffled voices could be heard. How long did it take to trace a call? Harry wanted to say thirty seconds, but maybe that was just on Law & Order. He stepped into his office and closed the door. “Jesus Christ, Luke…”

“Hey, guess what I played the other week? You’ll never guess: Liar’s Dice! God, remember how we used to play that for just hours back at the Delta house?”

“Who…who were you playing with?”

The line crackled a few times, then came back. “Damn it, hold on. You still there? Listen, I didn’t call just to chit-chat. I need your help, Harry. Dearly.”

“I can’t imagine how I could possibly help you.”

“You know people. You can help us organize a…a resistance, Harry.”

“Oh, Jesus, Luke…Jesus, Jesus.” Harry sat down heavily behind his desk and put his forehead into his free hand. “You’re not fighting this?”

“I am.” Lucas Budd said this softly, then cleared his throat. “You best believe we’re fighting it. And you’re gonna help us. Come on, it’ll do you good. How long has it been since you’ve actually been in a courtroom…ten years? Fifteen?”

“Who’s this ‘we’ you keep talking about?”

“I don’t have time to get into all that. But we’re fighting back, and we need your help. The sort of help you gave Meyer.”

Harry felt irrational anger blossom up into his chest. “For fuck’s sake, Lucas…Reuben Meyer was a DUI and an vehicular manslaughter charge. The ‘help’ I gave him was making maybe two phone calls. You think this has anything to do with that?”

“Hold on.” The sound of the phone call grew muffled. “Sorry…a patrol car was passing by.”

In spite of his cooling anger, Harry had to chuckle darkly at this. “Fuck me, I can’t believe I’m having this conversation. Shit.”

“Listen, you don’t want to help me, fine. I’m not going to give you a guilt trip. But you have something of mine, and I’m gonna need it back. You still have it, right?”

Apparently Lucas Budd still knew how to hit people where it hurt. “Luke, buddy…you throw that contract in his face and Jerome is gonna take you apart. Like, biblically…to the seventh generation. Use your head, man. You think you’re toxic now? You’ll be dreaming about when you had it this good.”

Lucas Budd sighed angrily. “Do you have it or don’t you? That’s all I’m asking.”

“You know you’re just as dirty as he is in that deal, right? It might take him out—I said might—but it’s gonna blow up in your face just as bad. And that’s not to mention the innocent bystander, here. Do you really want to do this to-”

“Do you have it?” Lucas Budd roared. Or don’t you?”

“Yes, I have it. Jesus.”

“Good. Sorry. Just hold on to it. I’ll be sending a couple of…a couple of resistance fighters by to get it from you.”

Harry, behind the desk, looked up sharply. “Oh no you’re not.”

“Relax. They have the perfect alibi. You know them, but you won’t even realize who they are until they get there.”

“I’m telling you, Lucas, you’re not sending anyone over here…”

“Will you relax? You haven’t changed since college, I tell ya.” The line went dead for a few seconds. “Look, that was the robot telling me my time’s up. Just hold on to that envelope for me, you hear? I’ll take care of the rest.”

Harry didn’t speak for a moment, then said just “Okay.”

“Great. Thanks…and I mean that. And Harry? I’ll talk to you when I talk to you. Kiss Val for me.”

It sounded like he was about to hang up. “Lucas!”

“…yeah?”

“For the love of God, Luke…these guys aren’t fucking around any more. Be careful.”

He could already hear the smile in Lucas’ voice. “I wouldn’t dream of it,” he said, and then hung up.

Harry Sebastian sighed, then cursed again and went over to the window. He watched the dark street in front of his house, half-expecting the unmarked police cars to pull up at any moment. None of them did, of course, so he moved over to another window and stared down into the pool at the angular reflections of the lights sparking in slow-motion against the side.

Twenty minutes later, sure now that his overblown fears about the phone call were just that, overblown and unrealistic, Harry slipped his cell phone into the pocket of his robe and stepped out into the quiet dark of his house.

He passed David’s door and listened for a second in passing. He could hear Elizabeth Huynh saying something like “-and it just kept going on and on…” Robert Johnson, Jerome’s kid, had been there earlier, too, but apparently he’d left at some point…the only people he could hear in the room now were Elizabeth and his son.

Other parents might be suspicious to find their son behind closed doors with a girl past midnight…unfortunately, Harry knew he had nothing to worry about. David was probably braiding her hair.

(Once, he’d walked in on them found Elizabeth face-down on the bed, topless, with his son straddling her hips. David was holding a stencil to her back and he had a small paintbrush hanging from his mouth. On a saucer beside them set a bottle of henna. They’d both looked up at him with thoroughly innocent faces. “What?” David had finally asked.)

Down on the first floor, Harry Sebastian didn’t turn on any of the lights. He didn’t need to…the lights from the landscaping were bright enough to find what he was looking for. In the larger of the two guest bedrooms was an antique trunk with a wide sliding drawer on the bottom. It wasn’t exactly hidden, but with Valerie’s cashmere throw tossed over the trunk it wasn’t exactly obvious, either.

Harry Sebastian eased himself down to his knees and pulled the throw off. The drawer had a keyhole on the front, but it was fake. Actually, there was a catch on the back of the trunk, just a little sliding latch, that released the thin drawer so it could be opened.

The manila envelope was towards the center, buried under a few other things he didn’t want to leave out in the open. He angled the envelope so that it would catch the weak glow of the outside spotlights. It was blank, of course, except for two signatures, Jerome Johnson and Lucas Budd, right over the flap. No one could open and reseal the envelope without messing up the signatures. That was the theory, anyway.

After they were done signing the envelope that day six years ago, Harry glanced across his desk and suggested that maybe they shouldn’t have used their real names. They both agreed, but everyone was too lazy to go back out to the receptionist’s and get another envelope.

Harry knew exactly what he should do with the envelope. He should take it out on the patio and light the grill and just toss it in. Wash his hands of the entire mess. It would probably be the best thing he could do for Lucas, actually, as well as the people he had helping him. If they even existed.

But instead, as he always knew he would, he put the envelope carefully back into the drawer.

July

Forty

In his summary reports, Detective Ronald Maglione would often refer to “a solution suggested by a technology consultant,” which delighted his superiors and made them feel like they were getting their money’s worth. In reality, though, the “technology consultant” was usually just this kid the computer place had sent over to hook up his internet a couple years ago. They’d gotten to talking—Maglione had gone to elementary school with his uncle—and the kid gave him his number. Now the kid (“Doug”) helped him out occasionally, and one day in the future when Doug was caught peeing outside of a bar, or holding a dime bag, or just looking at a stressed-out patrolman the wrong way, Maglione would help him out in return.

After that night three weeks ago when Bellecastle and Karlinoff had visited Lucas Budd, Detective Ronald Maglione went to visit Doug at the computer store, asking him if he knew of any sort of sensor you could buy that would detect when a door had been opened. He was imagining a complicated array of light beams and tripwires, the sort of thing you had to order out of the back of a gun magazine and have sent to a P.O. box.

Instead, though, Doug dug around on the shelves and found a little battery-operated wireless doorbell, the kind that rings a separate electronic chime every time someone opened the door. “You see them a lot at small businesses on Magazine Street.” Ten bucks and it was his. That night, Lawler and Maglione played around with it and figured out that the chime would still pick up a signal from about a hundred feet away, so Maglione snuck around to the back of the house and just super-glued the little sensor to the back door.

For the past two weeks, then, instead of going home to a beer and SportsCenter, Maglione had ended his days around the corner from Budd’s house, finishing his paperwork by his dome light’s weak glow, with the doorbell chime setting on his dash. He knew his Crown Vic would have been too conspicuous, so he confiscated the souped-up white hatchback his step-sister’s kid owned. He’d gotten the kid out of jail when he’d been busted racing it in the street like a fucking loon, and now he was getting paid back.

But the days slouched past, and Budd didn’t have any visitors or try to leave. Maglione was even considering giving up his nightly watch, but tonight the doorbell had finally gone off, scaring the absolute shit out of Maglione. The chime was a lot louder than he thought it was.

Maglione slipped out of his car and peeked between the houses. He saw Lucas Budd, wearing a backpack and with socks on his hand, sneaking through his backyard and climbing awkwardly over his neighbors’ fence.

“For Christ’s sake,” Maglione whispered, then got back into his car.

It had been a little difficult to follow him at first, since Lucas Budd mostly avoided the streets and crept through the backyards of his Garden District neighbors. But Maglione knew what he was doing—he’d tracked guys a lot stealthier than Budd before—and he’d only lost track of him a few times. After a while, he saw the general direction that Budd was headed, and he was able to follow him from a safer distance.

It helped that there was a full moon, and that the July night was deserted. No cars ran through the residential streets, and it seemed like the entire neighborhood was already in bed. He only saw one other person: a young girl jogged past him, eyes straight ahead, as he sat in someone’s driveway with his lights off. She could have been a college student, but she looked younger. He wished he could show her some of the savage shit that went down in the city every single night…she might think twice about doing something as boneheaded as jogging at midnight.

Actually, as she passed him, Maglione had a wild paranoid flash that it was Emily Bellecastle, and that all this time Budd had been watching him. He fell back from pursuing Budd and passed her twice. It wasn’t her, of course. This girl was taller and skinnier than the Bellecastle girl, and her hair was long and brown instead of shorter and reddish. He was just tired and excitable, that’s all.

Maglione didn’t know why, but his boss hadn’t wanted him to follow-up on the Bellecastle and Karlinoff leads. Maglione had made an attempt to contact each of them—he wanted to give them a little talking-to, maybe scare them away or at least find out what business they had with Budd—but when he told the guy he was working for what he had tried to do, he was told in no uncertain terms to leave them alone. Maglione didn’t understand, but he didn’t pursue it. He had realized long ago that the need to understand the motives of his superiors would only hold him back in his line of work.

Maglione followed Lucas Budd all the way to St. Charles Avenue, where Budd stopped to put on a baseball cap and pull it low over his eyes, then Maglione watched him walk down to the Stop ‘n’ Start on the corner. Maglione couldn’t follow him in, of course, so he sat way back, under the shadow of a giant elm halo’d by the streetlights lost in its branches, and watched him as best he could through the distant store’s window.

Later, Budd came out and tried one of the pay phones, but he quickly hung up and moved to another one. Maglione watched Budd talk on the phone for about five minutes, and Budd eventually got a bit animated, glaring at the ground with the phone cord wrapped up carefully around his hand. After hanging up, Budd picked the handset up again and held it in his hand for at least a minute, but put it back without making a second call.

Maglione followed Lucas Budd as he headed back into the Garden District, and in the direction of his house. Budd was lazier on the way back, only cutting through a couple of yards, and Maglione was lazy, too, often just driving a few blocks behind him with the lights off. Finally, anxious to get back to the Stop ‘n’ Shop, Maglione made sure that Budd was home or at least definitely headed that way, then doubled back to the gas station.

The pumps of the Stop ‘n’ Shop were empty, but a green sedan with an Enterprise rental sticker on the bumper was in the parking lot. Maglione got out and, as he locked up the car, patted his pants and jacket for the usual check: keys, wallet, badge, gun. Pat pat pat pat.

Inside, three tourists—clearly back from a night on Bourbon Street—were making a big show of how shocked they were that the Stop ‘n’ Shop didn’t sell alcohol. They stared at each other, open-mouthed. “Dude, I thought every place in New Orleans sold liquor.”

The young Syrian behind the counter looked like the sort of guy who sold handbags out of the trunk of his car. He was wearing a pristine white tracksuit, and on the counter was a pair of chromed sunglasses with lens so lightly tinted they were certainly almost useless. He shrugged in the way that only young immigrants working an overnight shift in their family’s business can shrug. “What can I say?” His voice sounded more Jersey than Middle East.

Maglione pretended to look at an old People magazine while the clerk gave the tourists directions to the Stop ‘n’ Shop up on South Claiborne that sold liquor. The way Maglione understood it, the Stop ‘n’ Shop kingdom was divided among two sides of a large Syrian family. One half of the family was composed of good Muslims who refused to sell alcohol at their stores, and the other half were bad Muslims who didn’t care. As frustrating as it was to go out of his way for a six-pack when his day ended, Maglione had to really respect the good Muslims: just imagine how much money they were missing out on by not selling alcohol in a 24-hour gas station in New Orleans. He didn’t know much about Islam, but talk about putting your money where your mouth is.

After the tourists left, whooping, in their rented sedan, Maglione set the magazine down and looked over at the kid behind the counter. “You know, I got stabbed at that gas station once. The Stop ‘n’ Shop on Claiborne? Well, it wasn’t a Stop ‘n’ Shop then, I think it was still a Franky’s, but yeah…stabbed right in the gut. No lie.”

“Oh yeah?” The kid looked at him with an almost-perfect stare of total disinterest. He should think about going to the police academy, he’d be perfect.

“Yeah. Hey, you remember that guy with the beard who was in here a few minutes ago, maybe twenty minutes? With the cap pulled down real low on his face?”

“Yeah…?”

“Great. Did you happen to recognize him?”

The kid folded his arms and stared at him. Maglione knew that with jobs like this there were only two kinds of customers: the kind you could ignore, and that kind that would try to fuck with you. He could tell that the clerk was about to place Maglione in the latter category. “No. Why, should I have?”

“Nah, not at all. But hey, listen…you don’t happen to remember what he bought, do you?”

The kid stuck out his lower lip and nodded deeply. “Yeah, I remember. He bought nuna.”

“Nuna?”

“Yeah, none ‘a your business.”

“Hey! That’s funny. I’ll have to remember that.” Maglione’s laugh was genuine. He really would try to remember that one…he could think of a lot of scenarios where it would come in handy. Still chuckling, he reached into his jacket for his badge. “Here, let me show you what I have in my pocket.”

Soon enough, he had not only a list of what Budd bought, he had an actual photocopy of the receipt. Nothing too exciting: a carton of smokes, some Kool-aid mix, a bottle of tonic water. A chili dog. A packet of shoelaces. Oh, and some ephedra pills. That was slightly interesting.

Maglione hadn’t wanted to pull out his badge, it always ruined whatever sort of rapport he’d developed. He hated all those TV shows where the cops are interviewing some guy who’s still working away at his job, even ignoring them, like he gets questioned by homicide detectives every day. In the real world, as soon as the badge comes out, people either get really defensive and start lying for no reason that they can understand, or they become overly-cooperative and willing to turn in their own family if they thought it would help.

The clerk wasn’t that bad…working overnight at a convenience store, he was probably around cops about six hours a day, and had gotten pretty used to them. But still, Maglione hated to make the conversation official like that. The guy had a tough job, and it was stressful enough already without Maglione messing him around.

“Did he buy anything that wasn’t on this receipt?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, for example, I got this neighbor from Guatemala…good guy, real good guy. Sometimes when I’m going to the store, he has me buy him a calling card. I noticed the other day that calling cards aren’t rung up on the register, they’re written down and the money is put in a cigar box under the counter.”

“Oh. No, he didn’t get a calling card. He asked me to give him change for a dollar, though. Four quarters.”

“Of course, for the pay phones. Right.” Maglione dug into his pocket and came out with a handful of scribbled-on index cards and a few of his official business cards. “Hey, thanks for your help. I mean it. Here, keep one these cards. Give me a call if you ever need me—you know what I’m saying?—and I’ll see what I can do.”

The Syrian held the card in both hands and looked down at the business card. “Thank you. Thank you, I will. I hope you catch the guy,” he called, with a nervous laugh.

Outside, Maglione dug around in his step-nephew’s car until he found a couple of quarters, then went over to the pay phone. He paused for a second, trying to remember his own cell phone number, then dialed himself. A few seconds later, his phone was ringing in his jacket, and he hung up, pocketing the two quarters again.

Back in the car, Maglione jotted down the pay phone’s number on one of his index cards. He pulled out onto St. Charles with his cell phone up to his ear. The phone answered on the third ring.

“Is this Pat? Leslie?” All the women who worked overnight in the communications room sounded identical: like they’d stayed up all night smoking cigarettes instead of sleeping.

“It’s Leslie.”

“Hey Leslie, it’s Detective Maglione.”

“Mag-LEE-own?”

He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Leslie, it’s Ron The Baptist.”

“Oh, hey Ronnie, I didn’t recognize your voice…how you been?”

“Leslie, honey, if I felt any better they’d have to lock me up. Listen, I got a favor to ask you.”

“Let me guess: it’s the kind of favor that doesn’t come with paperwork.”

“Leslie, I promise, as soon as you get to work tomorrow night, all the paperwork will be right there on your desk, all of it back-dated and signed, and on top of it will be a heaping bag of Angelo Brocato’s cannolis.”

“Well, you really know the way to a woman’s heart, Ron, I’ll give you that. What do you need?”

Maglione tried to stay in his lane as he fished around on the passenger seat for the index card. “I need the last twenty or so calls made from this number. It’s a pay phone, you ready?”

“I’m ready.” She typed in the digits as he gave them to her, then was quiet for a second. “All right, you got them.”

“Okay, I’m ready.” Maglione got up on the interstate, headed towards his townhouse in the Metairie suburbs.

“No, I mean you got them. I just emailed the list to you.”

“Oh.”

“You gotta get with the 21st century, boy. I tell you what.” She coughed out a laugh. “You got names and billing addresses on most of them. It’s not perfect, but it’ll do.”

“Thank you, darling. I really appreciate it.”

“Thank me with the Brocato’s. I want one for each of the girls ‘cause they’ll squawk when I bring them out, and I want two for me.”

“You got it.” Keeping one eye on the road, he scribbled brocato’s on the index card on his lap. “But I’m disappointed in you…I thought the knowledge that you’re helping me keep the streets of your beloved city safe from the criminal element would be thanks enough.”

On the other end, Leslie whooped with laughter. “Maybe they should lock you up, Ronnie. You gettin’ delusional.”

July

Forty-One

Josephine had followed Mr. Budd for a few blocks, zig-zagging behind him on the side streets as he walked down St. Charles. She’d jog down Prytania, one block parallel to St. Charles, then pop up every few intersections to make sure his dark ambling figure was still headed down the broad avenue. Once she saw him, she’d descend back to Prytania again. It meant she’d have to run two or three blocks for every single one that he walked, but he was a slow walker and it worked out about right.

After a while, she realized that she’d passed, and been passed by, the same white hatchback a couple of times, and that she’d been seeing this car in front of her the entire time she’d been following Mr. Budd. She fell back and watched the car circle the block a few times ahead of her, then pull off. It was weird: it was a young man’s car, with neon lights around the license plate and flashy rims, but the driver was a real Dad, the custom steering wheel looking dainty in his large thick hands.

She didn’t know what to make of his aimless driving. At first, she’d thought maybe the guy was looking for drugs or a prostitute or something, but that didn’t make any sense in the Garden District. Then she thought about how he’d passed her twice already, and she got scared for the first time since leaping across Beaumonde’s fence. He was still ahead of her, and showed no interest in coming back, but suddenly the weight of her situation settled around her: she was not quite 17, alone after midnight on one of the busiest streets in the city, wearing flimsy little running shorts and a synthetic T-shirt. She shivered once and then ran on.

Eventually she saw Mr. Budd go into a convenience store, so she cut over a block and sprinted behind the store, then returned to St. Charles a few hundred feet away, so she could watch Mr. Budd come back out. Just before she turned the corner onto the avenue, though, she saw the bumper of the white hatchback. With a yelp she turned around and snuck away, then came back up farther down the street.

The man was idling underneath the shadow of a large elm tree, almost hidden from sight. He sat with one elbow cocked out the window, and the other stretched out across the small interior of the car. Josephine realized suddenly that he hadn’t been following her…he was following Lucas Budd, the same as she was, and he kept bumping into her.

The thought made her somehow even more nervous than before, and she kneeled down beside the large brick wall of a church and tried to get her thoughts together. Who would be following Mr. Budd? Okay, a reporter, for starters, but the guy didn’t look like one. If the stories about Mr. Budd were true, he might have a drug dealer following him, but he didn’t look like a drug dealer, either. (Like you know what a drug dealer looks like!) And didn’t some kid supposedly flee into the night when Mr. Budd was arrested? So maybe he was that kid’s dad, though that didn’t really make a whole lot of sense.

Josephine waited for a car to drive by, then she leaned around the corner and took another look at him as he was illuminated in the passing headlights. She could only see the back of his head and the sports coat that was tight across his broad shoulders and a little baggy in the arms. The man tapped out a lazy rhythm on the passenger side headrest. He had a professional, almost placid, calm about him; he seemed to be someone who was familiar with boredom, comfortable with spending a lot of time watching and waiting on the side of the road. With a start, Josephine realized what the man was.

Oh. Duh!

A few minutes later, she was still trying to decide what she should do when she heard the dual-exhaust of the hatchback start up with a puttering roar. Josephine peeked around the corner. Mr. Budd was out of the store, his backpack stuffed full now, and the policeman was just pulling onto St. Charles to follow him again.

As Mr. Budd made his way back through the deserted Garden District towards his house, he was followed by the policeman in the hatchback, and the policeman was followed by Josephine. As far as Josephine could tell, Mr. Budd didn’t realize that a white car with its headlights off was coasting behind him from a few blocks away, the pavement crackling softly under the tires. And the man in the white car didn’t see Josephine slipping from hedge to fence in the darkness behind him.

Mr. Budd began to get careless, walking sometimes off the sidewalk entirely and into open street. As he got closer to the house, he eventually gave up the idea of jumping fences. The policeman, too, seemed to be getting bored and anxious; he stopped circling the block and just hopscotched down the street behind parked cars. Only Josephine kept vigilantly to the shadows, working hard to stay out of the policeman’s rearview mirror and far enough away from Mr. Budd that he wouldn’t hear the echo of her running shoes on the pavement.

A couple blocks away from the Budd house, the policeman turned off on a side street and escaped through the dark residential neighborhood without Mr. Budd noticing. Josephine halted for a second, thinking maybe this was when a bunch of official police cars would surround Mr. Budd, putting him in handcuffs and saying the jig was up or whatever policemen said.

Nothing happened, though, and she continued following Mr. Budd as he walked on through the moist night towards his house. Then, just before he was in front of his block, he turned the corner and went deeper into the heart of the Garden District. The policeman must not have expected this.

She followed him closer now without the cop between them, but she had to be more careful, too. Luckily, it’s called the Garden District for a reason, and many of the front yards had shadow-giving trees looming heavily over the sidewalk. Mr. Budd stopped once, digging in his backpack for something, before continuing on and making one last turn.

Now, ahead of them, white against the dark blue night sky, was Mercer Mansion, Emily Bellecastle’s home. Josephine suddenly felt sick to her stomach, and she didn’t know why.

Mr. Budd slipped the socks back on his hands and was about to go over the low fence when he glanced over at the gate that led to the workman’s garage. Trying the latch and finding it unlocked, he slipped through and closed it behind himself. Josephine squatted down and snuck behind a car in another house’s driveway.

That weird guard dog trotted around the corner and did a literal double-take when he saw Mr. Budd in the backyard. The moment hung ripe between the two of them. The dog ran towards him and Josephine cringed, but all he did when he reached Mr. Budd was rub himself against the man’s legs like a housecat, almost tripping him up.

Mr. Budd went down on one knee and gave the dog long strokes down its strong back. He dug in his backpack again and brought out what looked like a hot dog, which he fed to the Doberman as he patted his flank. And he stayed there on the ground with the dog for a long time, maybe five minutes, certainly longer than he needed to if all he wanted to do was placate the animal. The dog rolled on his back and offered up his belly, which Mr. Budd scratched and rubbed with his sock-covered hands.

Josephine was still uneasy about why he was in Emily’s backyard, and finally Mr. Budd pulled himself up and gave the dog one last nuzzle between the ears. He crept over to Emily’s cottage, where a weak lamp lit up the bedroom window.

Josephine, nervous now, looked at the yard around her. There was a large ornamental goldfish pond just a few feet to her left, and it was surrounded by softball-sized rocks. She wanted to be holding one. Josephine prayed this night wouldn’t end with her throwing a rock at Alexander and Lillian’s father, but she knew she would if Mr. Budd tried to get through Emily’s door.

But Mr. Budd didn’t go to the door. He stopped at two bikes that  leaned against the side of the little cottage, chained together. He had some kind of string in his hand, long and black, and he tied it around the handlebars of Emily’s heavy cruiser. The dog watched him, silently curious, and was rewarded with more nuzzling when Mr. Budd was done.

After he’d slipped back through the gate and down the street, Josephine crept across the street and stood at the fence. It was a shoelace that dangled down from the Emily’s handlebars, but she couldn’t understand why he’d done that.

The guard dog had followed Mr. Budd down the length of the block as he walked past the Mercer, but now he came back over and stared up at her through the fence.

“Bad dog,” Josephine whispered.

She pressed the back of her hand up to the fence so the Doberman could sniff it and eventually give it an experimental lick, but Josephine didn’t really notice. She was slowly turning something over in her mind as she stared across the moonlit grounds at the two bikes, one chained to the other. Emily’s cruiser nuzzled against a yellow ten-speed with brown grip-tape there just underneath the mustard light of Emily’s bedroom window. A breeze she couldn’t feel caused the shoelace to trace a miniscule figure eight in the air.

Josephine knew who the other bike belonged to.

She looked at the two bikes for a moment more, then moved away. It didn’t take her long to catch up with Mr. Budd. She found him just as he was about to jump his next door neighbor’s fence and creep across the backyard.

Josephine stayed at the end of the block, hiding around the corner of a house and peeking out at the two guards in front of the Budd’s. It was a man and woman, both of them in their NOPD uniforms, and they were both sitting in folding chairs reading the newspaper by the light of the garage.

The jangle of the backyard fence was so loud Josephine could hear it faintly on the corner. There was no way the two guards, so much closer than her, didn’t hear it, but neither of them reacted. Eventually, though, the woman looked over at the man, who nodded deeply with a grin, never taking his eyes from the paper. The female cop turned away from him in her seat and opened her cell phone. Her face glowed blue in the dark, and she sent a quick text message before returning to the paper. The male guard nodded at her again without looking over.

Josephine waited a few minutes, but the night stayed quiet and still, so she slipped away from the corner and jogged back to her house. She took off her shoes at the door, tiptoed up to her room, and had been in her bed ever since, listening to the sound of her heart as it echoed through her limbs. Now that she was home and safe, she thought about what she’d just done and it scared her much more than it had when she’d actually been doing it.

She had seen a lot following Mr. Budd, but now she didn’t know what she should do with this new information. Or if she should do anything, actually. She didn’t even understand a lot of what she’d seen, and what could she do by herself, anyway? She needed to sleep on it, but sleep, which had been Josephine’s most consistent summer companion, had now abandoned her.

She couldn’t turn her mind off, couldn’t stop her eyes from scanning the dim lunar landscape of her bedroom ceiling. Josephine’s alarm clock was so bright that when she first got it she’d had to tape a piece of construction paper over the face so it wouldn’t keep her awake. She flipped the paper flap up: it had only been forty-five minutes since she got home from following Mr. Budd. God, it felt like she’d been there on the bed at least three times as long. She knew she wasn’t going back to sleep that night.

But then suddenly she was sleeping, and it had come over her so quickly she didn’t realize she’d drifted off until she struggled awake, whispering an idea to the dark. She knew now what she could do with what she’d seen tonight. And she knew she couldn’t do it alone.

Uncategorized

Forty-Two

Litta’Bit Huynh Has A Secret
Hunỳh Thị Những, Litta’Bit’s mother, was nineteen years old when she was taken out of the Catholic-run orphanage where she’d grown up and sent to the States. Members of the New Orleans diocese had arranged her trip, and once she arrived they gave her housing and got her a job waiting tables at a phở restaurant.

Since the end of the war fifteen years before, Vietnamese immigrants had been moving to the outskirts of New Orleans, where the geography and climate most resembled their former home. Their community had been slowly expanding over the years, and as it grew a vigorous economy grew with it.

By the time Hunỳh Thị Những had settled into New Orleans’ Westbank Vietnamese community, it had gotten so big that it wasn’t hard to imagine that one day soon someone clever would learn how to take full advantage of all the money that was slowly being brought into the the area, figure out how to redirect it into their pocket.

Harder to predict, though, was who that clever someone would eventually be: a teenage waitress sitting on the edge of her cot in the room she shared with four other girls, repeating her simplified inside-out American name and giggling at how silly it sounded. “Nhung Huynh. Nhung Huynh…Nhung Huynh.”

•••

Nhung Huynh’s short life as a waitress was the first hint of the person she would become. Despite all the barriers between her and them, she was effortlessly good with the customers. By the end of her first month she had regulars who insisted on being served only by her and when their meal was done, they left behind tips that were two or three times larger than anyone else’s.

The other waitresses assumed this was due to Nhung’s appealing figure and pretty face. That was probably part of it, but the main reason she was able to coax so much money out of her customers had nothing to do with her looks. Nhung had no family, no English, no money, but she had something that would serve her as well as any of that. It would take paragraphs to describe it in full but, in essence, it could be called “business savvy.”

Growing up in the orphanage had taught her how to see at once into the true nature of any situation, and how to use that knowledge to her advantage. And it had taught her how to negotiate, how to haggle, how to let others have her way.

But she also had an innate genius, a profound ability to understand what people wanted and what they needed. These two were rarely the same thing, of course, and she could exploit the tension between them, rubbing them together until money fell out.

She didn’t really know yet that she could do any of these things. She just knew that she was really good at becoming the perfect waitress for each of her customers: ingratiating and attentive at one table, sly and flirtatious at the next, professional and invisible at the third. She could adapt to any scenario, and once she’d adapted to it, she could control it.

All this time, there was a hungry spirit awakening inside of her and slowly stretching its muscles. At night it whispered to her, telling her that if the universe had its way she’d be at that little restaurant for the next six decades. Was she going to just let that happen?

Within two years of arriving in the United States Nhung managed to put together a partnership of local business leaders—all of them her regulars—and bought out the phở restaurant. She had no intention of letting the universe win.

Her first act as owner was to close for two months and convert the restaurant into a 50s-style diner. Her partners protested, complained, even threatened to sue, but Nhung knew this part of town didn’t need another Vietnamese restaurant, and from talking to her customers she knew that many of the locals were eager to sample American culture. However, even after living in the area for almost twenty years, they were still hesitant to cross the river into New Orleans. So her diner didn’t bring Vietnam to America, it brought America to the Vietnamese.

Here they could get a hamburger, drink a milkshake, and listen to a jukebox, all while surrounded by Americana kitsch nailed to every inch of wallspace. Sure, the burgers may have been covered in chili paste, topped with pickled daikon and carrots, and served on a bánh mì bun, but it didn’t matter. They were in America, eating a hamburger.

The diner was an immediate and astonishing success. Nhung quickly used her profits from the restaurant to force out her short-sighted partners, then bought a convenience store, a video store, and a gas station. The Nhung Huynh Era had only just begun.

•••

By the time 11-year-old Elizabeth Huynh started middle-school, it was clear that she was going to take after her mother. It wasn’t that she was necessarily a natural businesswoman—she didn’t run a friendship bracelet consortium or outsource a sales team to maximize Girl Scout Cookie revenue—but she had her mother’s ability to quickly adapt to and then conquer any new situation.

In her first few weeks of sixth grade, Elizabeth was one of the first girls in her class to understand that being popular was more important in middle school than it had been in grade school, that now it was about much more than who sat with you on the bus during field trips. Elizabeth wasn’t unpopular, but the stakes were higher now…”not unpopular” wasn’t even close to what she needed to be.

Like her mother analyzing a potential competitor long before making her move, Elizabeth watched the popular girls at her school closely throughout her first month. After a while she noticed that all of them, though they seemed different at first glance, had something in common: a kind of contrived bulletproof childishness. Apparently the secret to being popular among her fellow students was to act adorable, self-absorbed, and more than a little dumb. Elizabeth had gone to elementary school with many of these girls, and they seemed less mature now than they did in third grade.

At the same time, though, they somehow also seemed more mature than the other girls. They dressed like teenagers headed out to a club, not little kids on the playground. They hung out with boys. Some of them smoked, a few had even gotten drunk before.

Elizabeth absorbed everything about them: what kind of clothes and jewelry they wore, how they fixed their hair and did their makeup and painted their nails. She drew closer to them every day, stepping from friend to friend until she was right on the outside of their circle. And when she was finally close enough, she recreated herself as the purest example of their species and became the alpha-female of the sixth grade.

•••

Before she took over their circle, Elizabeth had assumed that these girls had carefully cultivated their image, that they’d created a force field of giggles and eye rolls and hair twirls to keep their truer selves safely hidden away. It wasn’t long, though, before Elizabeth discovered that most of these girls that she’d imagined were just pretending to be superficial and frivolous and flighty? Yeah, they weren’t actually pretending so much after all.

Movies about teenagers had taught her that popular girls were all cold-blooded manipulators scheming and backstabbing in the hallways and stairwells of their school. But after Elizabeth had stormed their palace and claimed their throne did she discover that there was no palace and there was no throne. There was only a handful of silly girls who were a little bit prettier and a little bit richer than everyone else, who had learned a little bit faster how to transition into teenagers. That was all.

It was hard for her to cel­e­brate a vic­tory against oppo­nents who didn’t know they’d lost and in fact had never real­ized they’d been her opponents in the first place. Elizabeth thought she’d wanted a vic­tory, but now she real­ized what she really wanted was a wor­thy adversary.

She wanted to meet some­one who could truly com­pre­hend what she’d done, who knew how hard it was to rise to the top and what it took to stay there, and who could applaud her accom­plish­ments as only another con­nois­seur could. It took more than a year, but in the mid­dle of sev­enth grade, at her mother’s Christmas party, she finally met the sort of per­son she was look­ing for. Two of them, in fact. Twins.

 

•••

By this point her mother either owned, had a stake in, or controlled most of the businesses in the area. Elizabeth’s seventh-grade classmates were dropped off at school in cars bought from her mother’s used car lot, wearing school uniforms from one of her mother’s stores, and carrying lunches that were leftovers from take-out restaurants she owned. Nhung Huynh’s business interests were beginning to grow  beyond the Vietnamese community, and adventurous members of the New Orleans elite had begun reaching out to her, curious to meet the woman who’d bought up so much of the Westbank in just under fifteen years.

All this time, there was a hungry spirit awakening inside of herThat’s how her mother ended up throwing a Christmas party that year, and why it was attended not only by Nhung’s usual political and business associates, but also by a few visiting dignitaries from across the river. One of these was Lucas Budd, who attended with his wife Anita and their children.

Early in the party, Elizabeth had been introduced to their tall, quiet daughter Lillian, who was so beautiful Elizabeth could see an afterimage on her eyelids when she closed her eyes.

Later that evening she finally met Lillian’s brother Alexander. He lacked both his sister’s looks and her modesty, but when he turned to look at her the party faded away behind him. As they talked, Elizabeth could hear a sound growing louder and louder. It was the sound of her future shifting and groaning as it rearranged itself around Alexander, like stagehands quickly changing out a set in the dark just before the curtain rose. She was making out with him within minutes.

•••

Elizabeth subsequently spent the rest of Christmas break in her room, grounded indefinitely after getting caught kissing Alexander away from the party. Her punishment was supposed to last “until graduation”, but just before New Year’s her mother surprised her by taking her out for a late lunch.

Nhung Huynh had always been a good mother to Elizabeth and Jason, and she worked hard to give them the kind of childhood she’d dreamed of in the orphanage, but she had never been particularly open with her children. It wasn’t that she was secretive, it was that she considered it part of a mother’s job to protect her kids from things they didn’t need to know about or worry about. And it just so happened that quite a wide range of topics fell under that description.

(For example, it wasn’t until second grade that little Elizabeth realized it was sorta weird that her and Jason didn’t have a father like the other kids she knew. After a few weeks of thinking about this, it occurred to her that her uncle, who spent the night in their mom’s bedroom a couple times a week, might not actually be her uncle. Even at seven years old, Elizabeth knew better than to ask her mother about this, and anyway Uncle had stopped visiting by the time she was in third grade.)

During their lunch, though, Nhung surprised Elizabeth by talking a little bit about her life and even her worries. Apparently Elizabeth had gotten old enough in her mother’s eyes to share in at least a few of these things. It was exciting and, if she were honest, a little frightening.

Elizabeth’s mother told her haltingly that for the first time in her life, she felt like she was in over her head. The type of Americans she was dealing with now—white people who had been rich for hundreds of years—had their own way of doing things, ways that confused and frustrated her.

At the Christmas party, everyone from the across the river was nice to her, but she could tell they were unimpressed or (even worse) amused by her smallish house and tacky furnishings. Her turquoise dress, covered in rhinestones, was perfect for parties in their neighborhood, but when compared to the simple elegant dresses of the American women she stood out. Even their cars out in the driveway made her aging hatchback look like a jalopy.

She explained that, up until recently, she’d known it was for the best to keep a low profile and not appear to be throwing her money in other people’s faces. So she bought a medium-sized house in the middle of town, and she had a beat-up car, and she sent her kids to the local public school.

But by now everyone knew who she was and they knew that she owned a piece of almost everything for miles around. It had reached the point where the community even expected her to flaunt what she had…living modestly among them was starting to seem offensive to them, as though she was making fun of them is some subtle way.

However, she didn’t even know where to begin living up to what was expected of her. Now that she was starting to get involved with New Orleans politicians and businessmen, she was going to need help becoming the sort of flashy businesswoman who would fit in with them.

What she really needed, she said, was someone who was completely American to tutor her. “And who better for the job than my favorite American?”

“Me? I’m your favorite American?”

“No, the man in the moon. Of course you!”

Elizabeth thought about this. “What about Jason?”

“Him too.”

So Elizabeth spent the day taking her mother shopping. They bought a used Mercedes and a new wardrobe from Dillard’s. Elizabeth had tried to take her across the river to Macy’s or even Sak’s Fifth Avenue, but her mother told her that there was no way she would set foot in a store full of “highway robbers.”

They ended the day with a manicure, pedicure, and haircut at a salon that was technically closed for the evening but willing to stay open for the owner and her daughter. Elizabeth’s mother told her that they had to look their best for the weekend, when they would go to a New Year’s Eve party at the home of a city councilman named Jerome Johnson.

“Johnson, he’s a very important man…very important. A good friend for me to have.”

“I’ve never heard of him.”

“You’ve never heard of anything, with your face stuck in a cell phone all day long! But someone you have heard of will be there: Mr. Alexander Budd. So look extra-pretty. That’s an order, mister!” She winked at her daughter.

“Really? I thought you hated him.”

“Hate him? He gave me a wonderful Christmas gift. By corrupting my innocent daughter—ha ha, that’s a good one!—his father now asks me for forgiveness.”

“Oh.” Elizabeth thought about this for a few seconds. “You’re saying the whole thing gave you a kind of political advantage?”

“Exactly, okay, now you’re catching on!”

“Then why was I grounded?”

“Because you almost ruined my Christmas party!” Elizabeth’s mother said, but she was smiling. “You weren’t grounded for kissing that boy.”

“But I thought-”

“No daughter of mine will ever get in trouble for kissing a boy with a rich and powerful daddy!”

“Mom…”

•••

That spring, at her mother’s encouragement, Elizabeth became a frequent visitor to the Budd household. City Councilman Budd was happy to have Nhung Huynh’s daughter visit whenever she liked; he and his colleague Jerome Johnson had begun to form a political alliance with her mother, who held sway over an unexploited supply of Vietnamese voters.

It was Alexander who gave Elizabeth her nickname, noting that her mother’s heavy accent made her name sound more like “Litta’Bit” than “Elizabeth.” The nickname stuck because Litta’Bit was quite petite, though her mother pointed out that she wasn’t really that small by Vietnamese standards, only when placed next to “American monsters.”

In eighth grade, Litta’Bit transferred to St. Odo of Cluny’s Prepatory School For Boys & Girls, the private junior high the Budds attended with Andre and Robert. She became a founding member of The Gang, and quickly replaced the Disney Channel style she’d perfected at her previous school with a prep school look more fitting for her new surroundings. Alexander may have helped a little here.

She was around the twins all the time in those days, but she never quite became Alexander’s girlfriend. He made out with her from time to time, but he made out with other girls, too. She suspected that he saw her mostly as an accessory, no different from with his wristwatch and his pocket square and the non-prescription tortoiseshell glasses he was wearing off and on that year.

Then The Gang moved on to Beaumonde Acadamy, and for the first few months Alexander began spending a lot more time with Litta’Bit. She thought that things were finally getting serious with the two of them. But then over Fall Break, he didn’t call her once and was never around when she tried calling him. When she asked Lillian about it, her answers was vague and airy and all ended with implied ellipses.

On the first morning of the first day back to school, Litta’Bit met the newest member of The Gang, Emily Bellecastle, who had just moved back to New Orleans after spending most of her life at a boarding school in Manhattan. Alexander, without a trace of guilt or apology, introduced her as his girlfriend.

When Litta’Bit finally got Alexander alone and confronted him about this, she was told that things hadn’t changed between them. He had never meant to lead her on, and if she had misconstrued the nature of their relationship, he was sorry but it wasn’t his fault she’d gotten the wrong idea. It was just kissing, after all.

For the next few weeks Litta’Bit tried to hide her heartbreak as best at she could, but it was hopeless. She was hopeless. By Thanksgiving, Alexander-—out of what he called concern but was more likely boredom and annoyance-—proposed that she start dating Robert Johnson. In fact, he had already approached Robert with the plan and all Litta’Bit had to do was give her consent for everything to move forward.

She told Alexander that if he was going to be dating Emily, then it didn’t matter to her if she dated Robert or Andre or David or even Lillian, because none of them were him. This was close enough to a ‘yes’ for Alexander, and he assured her he would work out all the details. Then they spent the rest of the evening making out in Alexander’s room. After all, Litta’Bit told herself, it’s just kissing.

She reluctantly turned her affections to Robert. He wasn’t Alexander but he was gracious and attentive and kind, and she found that this was something she needed after all. Eventually she loved him without ever falling in love with him. She adapted to him and, without even meaning to, she conquered him.

Ninth grade became tenth, and tenth became eleventh.  Things changed and things stayed the same, but it was the wrong things that changed and the wrong things that stayed the same.

•••

She thought back to junior high, when Elizabeth Huynh had commanded the female half of the entire seventh grade. Then she met the twins, and had traded her crown for the chance to spend high school looking at their backs.

She knew now that seventh-grade Alexander hadn’t seduced Elizabeth Huynh, he’d beaten her. He was more like Ms. Huynh than Litta’Bit could ever be…just the knowledge that a competitor existed, no matter how weak, was enough to awaken their predator instincts. He’d met his Vietnamese public school counterpart and defeated her years before she realized it had even been a battle, and now it was too late.

He’d given her a new name and made her his flunkie, his yes-girl, his pet. But the worst was that she loved it, that she gave it all up and willingly offered more, that she wept and begged when he went away.

But there was something else she knew she could be, but something that she was never quite able to define the exact dimensions of. How could she need it so deeply and so desperately that it kept her up at night, turned her cruel towards the one person who deserved it least, made her do the stupidest shit, and yet never knew exactly what it was?

Litta’Bit Huynh had a secret, but she didn’t know what it was and she didn’t know how to find out. What could she do, leave Beaumonde? Her mother would kill her; missing Alexander would kill her. Or maybe the twins wouldn’t come back after all, and then next year…no.

So Litta’Bit remained haunted by the ghost of her better life. It circled constantly behind her back, but it always fled when she turned to catch a glimpse and she never saw its face. But she knew its name.

July

Forty-Three

After his run and after his shower, Andre wrapped himself in a towel, surrendered to his recliner, and vowed again that this would be the last day he was ever going to jog.

In the end, it came down not to the running but the runners. That day, he’d gone to the park to jog, thinking it would be a nice change of pace, but had instead found himself in the midst of Serious Joggers. He hated their shiny clothes and he hated the way they talked to each other, their faces open and bright as though they were both so proud of being able to carry out entire conversations while effortlessly working through an array of stretches.

And when they ran past Andre on the track–and all of them, even the slim and sturdy retirees, passed Andre–they slid around him with their heads erect and their bodies steady, like foxes moving across a distant field. None of them loped and gasped, none of them gradually pulled their arms up to their chest and dropped their heads as they ran until they resembled an elderly T. Rex, none of them made deals with themselves about how, if they ran another thirty seconds, they could walk for a minute. And when the run was over, none of them pushed their faces into the lukewarm flow of the nearest water fountain, then sat in their Volvos with the air conditioner on high before their hands stopped shaking enough to let them drive home. No, they just took discrete sips from Nalgene bottles and immediately began more inane stretches, before waving discreetly goodbye to their friends still running.

No, Andre would never let himself become a Serious Runner.

Eventually, without getting out of the recliner, he rooted around on the floor for his laptop and continued working on an essay about that old movie Pretty In Pink that he’d started that morning for This Toilet City, his blog.

There’s the widespread belief that the director’s later work was a betrayal of his earlier aesthetic. Some might even say that perhaps he’d been forced to embrace shallowness as a defense mechanism after getting too close to the true stuff of life in his earlier films. But after you strip away the facile generational indentifiers of those earlier works—the soundtracks, the ready-made angst, the near-religious belief in the strict immutability of the caste system–you find that the shallowness had always been there. Indeed, commodifying shallowness was  his one artistic touchstone.

Andre wrote a few more paragraphs, but he grew disgusted by the way his chest—as plump and hairless as a cherub’s—was illuminated in the crisp bluish light of the screen. Though he’d returned from his run over an hour before, he found that he was still too hot to put on clothes, so he found an undershirt and a pair of boxer briefs and got back to his blog.

He hadn’t posted on This Toilet City since before his aunt had arrived a few weeks before. Well, nothing serious, anyway…there were always dumb pictures to caption and links to exceptionally contemptuous news articles to post. But he hadn’t actually written one of his mini-essays for the site in a while.

Even though his aunt had left a few days before he was still too busy to write. His father had torn the house apart, undoing a lot of the work that Andre and Aunt Marissa had spent two long weeks accomplishing. Ordinarily, Andre wouldn’t care—the house only looked presentable once a year, when his aunt visited—but Emily and Michael were coming over, and he didn’t want them to see what his father had done.

He’d only had three days to get the house back in order, so he came up with a shortcut: they were going to be watching a movie in the home theater his father had built a few years ago, before The Troubles, so Andre would just clean a path from the back entrance of the house, through his bedroom and family room, up the stairs and down the hall to the theater. Everything else got pushed behind closed doors.

Andre had finished the work of clearing this trail earlier that afternoon, then surprised himself by continuing to clean more than was necessary by putting the dresser back together in the guest bedroom and righting the dining room set. And then he’d surprised himself even more by pacing around the house, restless and punchy with hours to go before Emily and Michael’s arrival, until he’d finally admitted to himself that he wanted—no, needed—to go for a run.

However, counterfeiting earnestness is not yet a crime. Hughes’ films are entertainments, harmless diversions for harmless people. His characters might be cardboard, with the sort of clear-cut emotional motives one never sees in real life, but they clearly resonate with his fans, who perhaps identify with his characters’ desires for a substantiality and depth that is beyond their ability to achieve.

But one of his films, Pretty In Pink, has an ending—or rather, lacks an ending—that sends a message that is anything but harmless. In fact, I don’t think I go too far by saying that this ending has ruined the romantic expectations of a generation of filmgoers.

Andre looked at the time. Crap, they would be there in twenty minutes, and Emily was usually on time. Why was it always like this with him? Even when he was running way ahead of schedule, he’d always find something to distract him until, like always, he’d end up throwing everything together at the last minute.

He pushed himself up out of the recliner, a move that had been getting harder these last few months as his gut expanded, and was now made even more difficult by his sore and stiff legs. Andre looked around for clothes to wear, and chose of course black jeans, a black t-shirt, and a pair of black Doc Martens. The muscles in his legs were so tight that he had to get down on the floor to get his boots on. Maybe stretches would help.

Starting at the back entrance, Andre shuffled through the house–almost bowlegged with stiffness–making sure everything was in its place. He went through the den, past his room, up the stairs, into the foyer, across the living room, down the east wing hallway, just past the spotless guest bathroom, and into the home theater. Good.

He had meant to clean a few more rooms in this hallway–it looked weird having all the doors leading up to the theater closed–but he’d run out of time.

Andre listened at his father’s door and heard deep crunchy snores. Just before his jog, he’d made his dad a frozen pizza, which Reuben Meyer had barely touched, and for dessert he’d let him have a handful of his favorite sleeping pills. Andre didn’t want him up and wandering around while his friends were over, and allowing his father to take a few extra sleeping pills on Movie Night had become Standard Operating Procedure since February, when Reuben’s whiskey dinner had worn off halfway through “His Girl Friday” and he’d almost stumbled into the theater looking for a drink. Thank God that Andre’s ears were tuned to the exact frequencies of his father’s shuffling gait, and he had been able to turn his father around without anyone else in The Gang seeing him.

Back downstairs now, and into the garage. In the corner was a stack of boxes from a wholesale beverage distributor, the same company that supplied Reuben Meyer’s theater chain. The boxes had been delivered two days before, and Andre hid them by rolling the three family bikes in front of them. His father, repulsed by all physical exertion, would never dare approach the bikes, so this was all that was really required to keep the boxes.

Andre pulled bottles up one at a time out of the topmost box until he found some gin, then dug around some more until he found a bottle of vermouth. He’d already stocked the little bar at the back of the theater with tonic, ginger ale, and olives, but he hadn’t wanted to leave liquor out in the open until the very last moment.

As he climbed up the stairs–one at a time, wincing with each step–Andre tried to think of anything else he needed to do before Emily and Michael arrived, and came up with nothing. Maybe make popcorn? Traditionally, Movie Night was accompanied by an antipasto or a selection of cheeses, usually brought over by David or Robert. Popcorn wasn’t unheard of, but it was rare. (Alexander, no doubt, considered it common.)

Halfway up the stairs, Andre’s cell phone beeped twice. Balancing both bottles in the crook of his arm, he fished it out of his back pocket. running late, the message from Emily read. b there son

• • •

A few blocks away, in the living area of Emily’s little cottage, Michael stretched back on a large overstuffed chair. Emily, straddling his hips, squinted at the screen of her cell phone, her lower lip between her teeth, until she was sure that her message to Andre had gone through. As soon as the minuscule check mark appeared beside the cartoon envelope, she flung the phone across the room and continued demolishing Michael with kisses. Before the phone had even stopped bouncing on the cushion, Emily had her mouth in the hollow of his throat, and he had again run his hands under her short full dress, holding her hips at first but then touching her back, his palms on her waist and the tips of his fingers against the muscles of her spine.

Emily slowly straightened up again and gazed down with hooded eyes at Michael beneath her, fully dressed but with his shirt unbuttoned to his chest. Both of them were breathing heavily at exactly the same time, inhaling and exhaling to a rhythm that existed only for the two of them.

“All right,” Emily whispered. “Okay. We have to get up now.”

Michael ran the back of his finger up her bare arm, watching his nail leave a trail of goosebumps in its wake. “Okay.”

“Okay.” They looked at each looked through the semi-darkness of the cottage, but neither of them moved. The same invisible rhythm pulled them together without either of them moving first: Emily leaning forward to find his mouth, and Michael pulling himself up to meet her.

It went on like this for a while. Let’s skip ahead.

• • •

Emily stood before the large full-length mirror that leaned beside the cottage’s long-unusable fireplace and tried to fix her hair.

“I swear, Michael, this whole thing with us has probably doubled the amount of time I have to spend on my hair. And the amount of money, too. Someone should totally invent a product that gets rid of this ‘I’ve just been ravished’ look. I’d buy a case of it.” She caught his eye in the mirror. “And with you around, I’d have to.”

Michael leaned forward and kissed the back of her head. “I don’t tend to be the one doing the ravishing.”

“Oh, you do a pretty good job.” But it was true: when they tumbled together, Michael was rarely the aggressor. He was an enthusiastic, passionate, and inventive participant, but Emily always set the pace and he never tried to take more than she offered him.

It would be easy to just say he was a Proper gentleman, but even though that was part of it, there was something more. No, David Sebastian’s wildest dreams weren’t coming true: he clearly liked girls and all that, but it was as if he had never learned the boy vs girl dance of Two-Steps-Forward, One-Step-Back.

It was sweet and sorta gallant, the way he respected her even as he undressed her and brought his hands and mouth to her skin, but it could be frustrating, too: despite ending many of their evenings damp and out of breath, their physical relationship was pretty much still rated PG-13. Emily didn’t really mind–him moving this slow with her was charming and romantic and, she had to admit, exciting as hell–but still…what was the point of a summer fling if you never got flung?

Michael turned his back to her, looking over his shoulder at the wrinkles on the back of his shirt. My boys and their clothes. She pecked his cheek and took his hand, led him to the foot of her bed. “Michael…we need to talk.”

Michael frowned a bit. “Emily, honey…what more can we say about it?”

They had found the shoelace tied around Emily’s handlebars a few nights before…it was the signal they’d agreed on two weeks ago with Lucas Budd: when they saw the shoelace, they knew it was time to take the first step of his plan. It was time to visit Harry Sebastian.

Ever since receiving the signal, Emily and Michael had talked about little else. They both more or less agreed that they would end up going through with it–though each of them reconsidered daily, leading to another conversation–but actually doing it, as opposed to just talking endlessly about it, was daunting. Taking that first step made it all real, made them co-conspirators, and they both admitted they were nervous. Days had passed.

“What? No, that’s not what we have to talk about. (Although I guess we sorta do need to talk about that, too.) I just meant we need to talk about where we’re going to sit tonight.”

“What do you mean?”

“In the theater. We have to think about where we’re sitting.”

In the middle of Andre’s house was a large home theater, but describing this room as just a “home theater” is misleading; lately, anyone with a tacky big screen TV and a handful of speakers calls their den a “home theater.” But this was an actual miniature theater inside of Andre’s home, installed by the same crew who maintained his father’s chain of cinemas. In better days, The Gang had spent almost all of their Sunday evenings there.

“I don’t know…on one of the sofas, I guess.” The floor was divided into four steppes, each one holding a couch, a couple of loveseats, or a few recliners.

“No, Michael, listen: we have to be careful. We have to plan stuff like this out or we’ll ruin everything. Okay, usually you and Lillian sit on your sofa, and Alexander and I have our loveseat, and Andre is always in his easy chair. But what about tonight…are we going to sit in the same places, but by ourselves? Are the three of us gonna share that big couch on the second level? Or are we gonna sit in three separate chairs, all spread out?”

Michael thought about it, then shrugged. “Are we?”

“I don’t know. But that’s not even really what I’m talking about. Tonight’s going to be torture. All I’m gonna want to do is look at you, touch you, kiss you. God, Michael, the way I feel when I’m with you…anyone who even glances at us should be able to see it, as clear as if we were wearing t-shirts that say The Two Of Us Are Crazy…you know, Crazy About Each Other.” Her voice got small. “This is new for us, Michael. Promise me you’ll be careful…and I’ll do my best to be careful, too.”

Michael looked at her, almost gravely, but he didn’t speak. The cottage and the world outside was so silent now she could hear the hum of her bathroom light.

“Okay, look,” Emily said, “I’m sorry I implied that you’d ever wear a t-shirt with writing on it-”

“I know what you’re saying.” His voice was low and he didn’t look away from her eyes. “I do, I know. I’ve been worried about it all night. Andre’s smart…maybe not about stuff like this, but he’s smart regardless. And we don’t have to guess whose side he’ll be on if he figures this out.”

Emily nodded at him.

“But Emily…this might be new for you, but it’s not new for me. I hid the way I felt about you for years. I’m not some master thespian, but I think I did a pretty good job, remember?” Michael’s lips grew thin, he raised a single eyebrow, and his face became as distant and beautiful as the moon on winter mornings. “I can do it again.”

He kept it up until both his eyebrows were high on his forehead, and his lips were sucked fully into his mouth, and his eyes rolled up as his eyelids fluttered. Emily shook him, pleading with laughter for him to cut it out, and finally his face melted and he kissed her cheek and throat with smiling lips. She ran her hands lightly down his back, her fingertips mapping the terrain of his wrinkled shirt.

“Okay, we have to go, we’re like an hour late,” she said at last, and Michael rose from the bed with only two more kisses. Emily fetched the spray starch from her bathroom, and returned just as Michael was tucking his shirt in. She sat on the bed, right behind him, and straightened out the back of his shirt. She didn’t need to, Michael’s tucks were always flawless. She misted the spray starch across his back.

This had become their ritual over the last few weeks…after their time together, Emily would lovingly tug and smooth the wrinkles from Michael’s clothes, “making him decent again,” they would joke.

When she was done, she stood in front of him in the full-length mirror and met his eyes. “How do we look?”

“Not guilty, your honor.”

Emily frowned a little. “I don’t look forward to you being cold to me again. Even if it’s just for a few hours.”

“I’m not looking forward to doing it.” He took her into his arms, his palms going naturally to her tummy. His hands were always so warm, so warm, and she could feel them through the light fabric of her dress. He looked over her shoulder at her mirrored reflection, and she rested her head back on his chest because, really, what’s five minutes more when you’re already an hour late?

He whispered in her ear. “When you were getting ready and you caught me looking at the back of my shirt, I wasn’t thinking about the wrinkles. I wasn’t. I was thinking about how I got them. And I was thinking about how, maybe one day, I’ll spend the afternoon getting ready, and I’ll put on my favorite linen suit, the one that wrinkles if you just look at it too hard, and I’ll put on a crisp cotton shirt, one that I have to spend half an hour ironing, and I’ll fix my hair until it’s just right, and then I’ll come over here and without even taking off my jacket I’ll take you to bed and roll around with you.”

“Michael,” Emily said, her voice soft.

“I know. We have to go.” His voice was even lower now, his beautiful lips brushing against her ear. “But listen: later, much later, after we’re done for the moment, we’ll get up and I won’t touch a thing. I won’t fix my hair, and I won’t fix the tuck of my shirt, and I won’t smooth down the back of my jacket.” His voice barely more than a breath now. “And then we’ll go out, take a cab to the Quarter. And we can go into a restaurant, or a hotel bar—a tourist place, but nice—somewhere nobody who goes to school with us will be. And everyone who sees us, all those strangers…they will know. They’ll know why my clothes are so wrinkled, and they’ll know why my hair is swirled in the back. They’ll know what I’ve been doing. And they’ll know…they’ll know it was you.”

• • •

Finally, something like an hour and a half late, Michael and Emily showed up. Neither of them apologized for the delay or even mentioned it, which Andre knew they learned from Alexander–”Establish enigmas, not explanations,” was one of his many personal mottos; everyone in The Gang knew he’d stolen it from someone else even if they were all too lazy to Google it–but still: damn, ninety minutes late? The twins would never have tolerated it. They’d only been gone a month and the old ideals were already fading away.

(Though Andre had to admit that to Alexander, the word “punctual” had a rather fluid definition. At a dinner party, twenty minutes late was punctual. At a cocktail party or a school dance, an hour late was just about right. But nobody was ever late for Movie Night…I mean, c’mon.)

Andre, sitting the family room, watched through gauzy curtains as the Mini crept up to the gate. All the Gangmembers knew each other’s security codes, and within a minute the Mini was crunching to a stop just outside the window. Andre fought the desire to get up and greet them at the door. He was looking forward to seeing them, to seeing anyone, but Andre had no plans to become some dull “get up and greet you at the door” type.

Emily and Michael approached the back entrance of the house, but then paused slightly, and Andre thought he could hear a quick muffled exchange just outside. Finally, tentatively, Emily knocked on the door, her thin bracelets clinking against the wood on the offbeat.

“What the fuck?” Andre called. “Come in, for Christ’s sake, come in.”

He made himself sound grumpy and put-upon when he said it, but in fact it struck him as the saddest part of his summer so far: Emily’s knuckles tapping cautiously against the door, when only a month before anyone in the Gang would have walked in without a second thought.

The door opened and Andre, for an extra beat, kept pretending to read the section of the paper he’d been holding. But then, looking up, he was unable to stop himself from smiling as Emily bounced into his family room. She had this way of entering a room as though she’d been carried in by a huge translucent bubble that eventually burst to reveal a grinning Emily, surrounded by hearts and stars and rainbows.

“Andre!” She threw her arms around him before he was even able to get all the way up out of the couch, and they both stumbled back towards the cushions.

Michael came in then, entering the room as he entered all rooms, as though the world had a secret choreography and only he knew the steps. He made walking out of a hallway a display of grace and beauty, and he arched his eyebrow at all the other stumblers.

Emily sniffed the air and widened her eyes. “Wow, Andre, your place smells so clean.”

“Well, you know…since it’s me and my dad I have to keep on top of things or it would start smelling like a frat house before the end of the week.” Actually, though, what Emily was smelling was the lemon mop water from a few hours before.

Michael nodded once at Andre, with something like a smirk of approval, an expression only Michael could pull off, and do so in a way that was equal parts heartening and maddening.

“Andre Meyer,” Michael said, in his chummily formal way, and held out his hand for a handshake. At first Andre thought he was presenting his hand for inspection. Take a look at this perfect specimen.

“Oh. Hey, Michael.” Andre shook his hand, but he did something wrong–his grasp fell short or he didn’t rotate his wrist right or something–and Michael’s firm grasp found only Andre’s fingers, the way a Victorian gentleman greeted a lady. It happened like that all the time for Andre.

“You look good, Andre. You look…well-rested?”

Andre had no idea if he was being made fun of (I like to sleep in, is that a crime?) so he just rolled his eyes and turned back to Emily. She was removing that night’s DVD from her thin clutch, which wasn’t actually that much bigger than the DVD case itself.

“I can’t believe you have your own personal copy of this.” They were going to watch Pretty In Pink, which had prompted the beginning of his blog review. Andre held the case as though the movie might somehow get on his fingertips. “This isn’t from NetFlix?”

“It’s my mom’s…not that I wouldn’t own it, you snob. I wanted Michael to see it. I called him Duckie on the phone the other day and he had no idea what I was talking about.”

“Duckie? I can understand if you called him Steff, but…”

“Be nice,” Emily said.”EvenifItotallyagreewithyou.”

Andre led them up the stairs towards the theater, still looking at the DVD box. “Gosh, I’d have thought this would have been a Criterion edition for sure.”

“You’re right, Andre, forget it. Let’s just watch one of your favorite nine-hour Polish suicide notes instead.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

They were passing through the upstairs living room now, and Emily caught sight of a magazine stack on a side table. “Oh, hey, it’s Laura.”

The top magazine of the stack had Laura Brennan-Spade on the cover. In fact, all of them had Laura Brennan-Spade on the cover, and Andre cursed himself for leaving them out. “Yeah, my Aunt Marissa left those here when she left.” He hurried along, praying that Emily wouldn’t want to look at the top magazine and then discover the rest of the pile. Not there was anything unseemly about him having them. They were his research.

“You know, she’s going to be here in a few weeks. Uncle Sammy’s visiting for a weekend.”

“Oh yeah? It would be cool to see him again.”

“It would? You’re always bellyaching about how bad his music is.”

“No, no. I talked to him at your birthday party. He’s a good guy.” Andre opened the doors to the theater and found the light switch. “So. John Hughes, Pretty In Pink. Considered one of his masterpieces, and there’s the widespread belief that Hughes’ shallow later work, like Home Alone or that one about the baby, is a betrayal of movies like this one. Some even suggest that he’d had to embrace this shallowness after getting too close to the real nature of life in his earlier work. But if you strip away the facile generational indentifiers of Sixteen Candles and most especially the tremendously overrated Breakfast Club…if you take away the soundtracks, the boring angst, and Hughes’ unshakeable belief in the kind of high-school caste systems that only exist in the movies, you find that the shallowness had been there from the beginning. You might say it’s his aesthetic calling card.”

Andre had been loading the DVD into the wall-mounted control center as he’d recited all this, and glanced over now to find Emily and even Michael looking at each other and then back at him, with shy grateful smiles and blinking eyes.

“What?”

Emily quickly pecked his cheek before he could protest. “We’ve just missed you, Andre. That’s all.”

He waved it away, an annoyed look on his face and the cliche of her lips’ tingle still on his cheek. “Yeah, yeah. So, uh…I made a-” so embarrassed now to actually say it “-uh, a popcorn bar, with melted butter in this little mini-Crockpot thing and there’s salt and powdered cheese and, let’s see, chili powder and curry powder and cinnamon and some other stuff. Michael, you can pick whatever you want as a topping. Emily, as usual, you can dump a little bit of everything on yours.”

“You know me so well. But since when do we have popcorn? Geez, used to be the worst we’d get would be, like, a cheese platter. Or some samosas from Taj Mahal.”

“Used to be people didn’t show up ninety minutes late for movie night.”

Michael, as inscrutable as always, filled up the air-popper with kernels and pressed a couple buttons, his fingers moving deliberately on the machine as though he were playing a delicate Chopin sonata.

Emily’s eyes brightened. “Oh, hey, remember that night Litta’Bit brought those incredible Vietnamese dumplings she’d made with her grandmother?”

“Yeah…I’m pretty sure those were pot-stickers she got at a Chinese takeout place on the way over here.” Andre frowned at her from behind the leather-topped bar in the corner. “I mean, she didn’t even put them in a different box.”

“I know. But still, it was a nice gesture.”

Andre, without asking, made a gin and tonic for Michael and a martini with extra olives for Emily. He had read somewhere that, years after meeting you, Frank Sinatra might not be able to remember your name, but he would always remember your drink. Andre would never be confused for Sinatra, but he had his aspirations.

He glanced up at them as they mounted the first level of the theater. “Oh, hey. I just moved three chairs together for us. I figured we didn’t want to be spread out on a bunch of couches.”

For himself, he poured a bottle of ginger ale into a highball glass and added a single large ice cube. (Earlier that day, while cleaning, he’d filled a silicone muffin pan with water and used it as an ice cube tray, a trick he’d learned from David’s dad.) He swirled the ginger ale around in the glass, as though mixing it with a fine rye whiskey.

Andre brought the tray over to his friends and Emily fished out one of the olives and chomped on it loudly for laughs, then made a show of delicately washing it down with a sip of her drink.

Andre laughed for her, but he saw Michael stare at her blankly and then look away. What an ass.

• • •

They popped popcorn.

They covered it in butter and spices.

They refilled their drinks and dimmed the lights and found their way to their seats. What more is there to say? They watched a movie. Let’s skip ahead.

• • •

After the film ended, they moved back downstairs, to sit in Andre’s family room. Long ago, it had been the favorite room of Andre’s aunts and uncles when they were children, and they gathered there every evening to do homework and practice the clarinet and build model airplanes as their mother worked on her needlepoint and their father rattled the paper. Only Reuben hid away in his room, reading Theodore Sturgeon and Jack Vance paperbacks.

Decades later, after Reuben and his family took over the mansion, the family room was where the Meyers would have Movie Night throughout Andre’s childhood. For Andre’s family, though, Movie Night was pretty much every night, and by the age of ten, Andre listed The Dark Crystal, Time Bandits, and Tron as his favorite movies. He had tried unsuccessfully to stay awake with his parents for 2001 and Tarkovsky’s Solaris on too many occasions to count, and he could recite Roy Batty’s dying words from memory. Fleischer’s Superman shorts and Flash Gordon serials were his babysitters, Doctor Who re-enactments were a favorite family vacation past-time, and Andre trick or treated in a homemade Muad’Dib outfit.

Then more time passed, and the family room became one of The Gang’s favorite hangouts, a place to meet up before a party or after a night out without worrying about parents or siblings. Though Andre complained when they arrived, complained while they were there, and complained on his blog after they left, he liked being the person The Gang came to.

But all those memories were lost in time now (like tears in rain), and Andre haunted the downstairs most nights the way his father haunted the upstairs. The family room was now just the place he went when his bedroom felt too cramped, a place with a TV where Andre could fall asleep as the early morning pre-news shows began transmitting to the still-dark world.

Emily sat cross-legged on the floor with Michael beside her, but Andre, who knew what he looked like when he sat cross-legged, was above them on the couch. He had the overhead light off, claiming he never used it. But in fact he always used it, and the one lamp he had on instead was far too weak for the room, giving their conversation about the movie the air of a campfire chat.

“Well, I guess the movie was made in a different time,” Emily admitted. Michael had been confused about why Duckie was considered a lovable underdog when he spent the bulk of the movie indulging in behavior that, in this more enlightened age, would be considered repulsive at best and sociopathic at worst.

“An innocent era, before stalking laws…” Andre offered. “But the Duckie situation is really central to the movie, and seems to be almost completely misunderstood by the movie’s fans.”

“What do you mean?” Emily asked.

“Well, there’s this almost-universal idea that Hughes should have ended the movie with Andie and Duckie getting together, right? As I’m sure you know, it was even the original ending of the movie. But…Michael, why haven’t you ever tried to hook up with Emily?”

“What?” Michael, who up to that moment looked like an artist’s model posing silently for a figure study titled Listening To His Friend Speak, looked up with a jerk. Andre saw something in his eyes that he had never expected to see: true and graceless terror. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, she’s a pretty girl, you guys know each other, people claim you’re an attractive guy. Sure, both of you are dating someone, but they’re both out of town…why not go for it?”

Something wild flashed behind Michael’s eyes. He blinked furiously once, twice, three times. “Because…um.”

“Because you’re not attracted to her?”

Michael focused his eyes and set his jaw. He was back. “I’m wildly attracted to her, Andre, you know that. I feel the same way about Josephine and Litta’Bit. But, aside from the fact that I’m dating Lillian, I just don’t feel romantic about her.”

Andre nodded. “You’re right, you’re right. That’s a much better way of putting it: you don’t feel romantic about her. My point is, you can’t force that feeling. Andie just doesn’t feel romantic about Duckie, and all the fans hoping it could be different can’t change that.

“In the movie they play the whole thing for laughs. But real Duckies aren’t funny, they’re not harmlessly moonstruck. They’re miserable. They’re desperate. ‘Why doesn’t she love me? Why doesn’t she love me? I’m her best friend, I’m always there for her, I’m always letting her cry on my shoulder when yet another jerk dumps her. I’m doing everything right.’ And he never understands that it’s already too late. To her he might as well be gay…no, not gay: he might as well be a eunuch. Sexless. Castrated.

“I’m not blaming the Andies. Far from it. Andie wants to have a normal relationship with Duckie, a real relationship, but instead he put on a pedestal she never wanted to be placed on, and now instead of just being his friend she’s forced to play the role of the unattainable girl that Duckie will always be chasing fruitlessly forever.

“Duckies say that Andies only date jerks, and Andies know that it’s true. But if she were honest, she’d say that at least jerks are straightforward about what they want from her. Jerks are honest about their intentions—brutally so—and Duckies are liars. I don’t think that’s too strong of a word. They pretend to want friendship when they really want nothing of the sort.

“But of course, Andies don’t want to be with jerks. Andies want to be with Duckies…just ask them, they’ll tell you. ‘My dream boyfriend is a little nerdy, kind of awkward, but he’s always there for me and we know everything about each other.’ Then, when you point out their nerdy awkward best friend who’s been crushing on them for years, they’re like: ‘Um.’ They all want to date a Duckie…they just don’t want to date their Duckie.”

Andre looked up into the lamp, touching the hem of the shade with his fingertips. “People talk about how Hughes ruined the ending by having Andie and Blane get back together. But I think the ending is one of the few things he got right. The ending says: look, if you think that Duckie and Andie would end up together in the end, you have a lot to learn about how the world really works.”

It wasn’t long before it was the middle of the night. Eventually, Emily eased herself down onto the half-lit carpet of the family room, pulling her legs up to her chest and smoothing down her skirt in the back with her free hand. Inside her white pumps her toes wiggled extravagantly.

“Are you falling asleep?” Michael asked in a flat and affectless voice.

“No…I’m just getting comfortable.” Emily opened her eyes wide in attention, looking up at Andre and then Michael. “Keep talking, I’m listening,” she said, and it surprised neither of them when, within minutes, her eyes closed and her lips parted in sleep.

Michael and Andre chatted for another half hour or so, about…what? Later, after they were gone, Andre couldn’t say. Michael had a way of making conversation that was so impersonal that it ceased almost to exist, as insubstantial as the breath that formed the words. He remembered only that they has spoken about the upcoming school year, and Andre’s classes, and there had been an awkward moment when Andre asked if he’d heard from the twins. Michael admitted he hadn’t, then quietly asked the same question of Andre and got the same response. Neither of them spoke, and finally Michael turned towards Emily’s sleeping body.

He placed a hand on her shoulder, squeezing once, and Emily woke up like a child, happy and silent and smiling broadly up at Michael before she came fully awake. “I wasn’t asleep,” she mumbled, sitting up with a hand on her hair.

Andre walked them out–a hug from Emily, a shoulder-clap from Michael–and stood in the doorway as they got in the Mini to depart, holding the highball glass with the last of his ginger ale. He leaned against the doorframe, one leg crossing the other, and swirled the lonely, quickly melting, ice cube around the bottom of his glass.

He could hear them talking softly as Michael opened the driver’s side door for Emily–a little showy, that, and not strictly Proper–but he couldn’t make out what they said. Andre had learned something that night, something he was still putting together in his head. That frantic look in Michael’s eye, when Andre asked him why he’d never hooked up with Emily…there was no mistaking it: the mask had slipped for just a second, and underneath it Andre could see the real Michael, the Michael who was madly in love with an Emily who had no idea.

Or did she? The reason they’d watched Pretty In Pink, she said, was because she’d called him Duckie…was that a reference to his pointless affection for her? If so, that made Andre particularly satisfied with his damning lecture about real-life Duckies.

“Fascinating,” he said to himself out loud, then immediately felt like such a douche for doing it he scrunched up his nose. Still: there were people in the Gang that would be very interested to hear about this. It was just up to Andre to decide who to tell first.

The car’s headlights came on, framing Andre in the doorway with his glass in his hand. He didn’t wince or look away, just continued looking at Michael’s now-darkened form in the passenger seat. Above his head he could hear the first mosquitoes of summer headbutting the porch light.

As the car pulled out, Andre raised his glass at them, as if toasting their departure, and let them see him take a last drink from his glass. He hoped it looked louche and Continental. Only he knew the glass was empty, offering only the smallest trickle of melted ice.

He waited until he heard the gate close behind the Mini before he came back inside. There was no forced relaxation any more; Andre was frantic now. He leaned into the bathroom long enough to chuck the ice cube into the sink and abandon the glass beside his toothbrush and sports watch. Then he hopped down the hallway, kicking off first one boot then the other, pulling off his shirt and walking out of his pants. Then he was back in his bedroom in just boxers and an undershirt, the way he’d started the evening, with a comet-trail of clothes behind him in the hallway.

His laptop was on the recliner, and he lifted it up just long enough to take its place, then cracked the computer opened and waited for the barely audible buzz of the hard drive waking up. The screen flashed on and the cursor blinked in the Notepad document Andre used for This Toilet City entries.

Okay: think. Think. Start from the beginning. How did you start it?

The belief that the movie should have put Andie and Duckie together in the end…

Not quite. Again.

The idea among fans of the film that Andie and Duckie should have ended up getting together is rampant.

Shit. Shit! Stay calm, you’ll remember it.

To fans of the film, there’s an almost-universal idea that Hughes’ only misstep was in ending the movie without Andie choosing Duckie over Blane. Indeed, it was the original ending of the film…

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Forty-Four

Detective Ron Maglione lingered in the elevator bank of The Citadel Center, a 50-story skyscraper standing just to the side of New Orleans’ downtown business district. He yawned into the palm of his hand. The concierge had summoned the upper floor express elevator for him, but it was a busy Thursday afternoon and there was a wait.

The concierge probably had a thimbleful of coke in his back pocket—minus a sniff or two, judging by the sweat around his collar—and was convinced that Maglione was here to place a large hand on his shoulder, whisper to him about not making a scene, and lead him gently out of the lobby.

Instead, Maglione just yawned again and continued waiting. On a better day he might have tried to talk to the guy, amuse himself by stoking his paranoia a little, but he was tired. He didn’t just work long hours, his work was spread throughout the day and into the night, so that even six hours of sleep was a luxury.

Sometimes Maglione felt like he’d been tired since the day he got out of the academy, certainly since he’d made detective. Maglione tried to think back to any point in his adult life when he’d felt truly well-rested, and the only time he could remember was more than a decade ago.

• • •

Maglione had been off on a Sunday night, driving home from the video store, when he passed a Domestic Disturbance on the sidewalk near the Stop ‘n’ Shop on Claiborne, right out in the open. A guy—dark but not too dark: maybe mixed race, maybe Latino—was slapping the everliving shit out of a black girl, and she was barely defending herself.

“Unbelievable,” Maglione said out loud, more exasperated than incredulous, and pulled the unmarked Caprice Classic over beside them. (God, how Maglione missed those old boxy Caprices, the last truly great American car.)

He got out of his car calmly and patted his pocket to make sure the extra key was there, then locked and closed the door with the engine still running, a habit his father had taught him.

“Mind your own business, pardner,” the man said, but Ron Maglione didn’t answer him. Everything in the world felt right, like he was following a script only he knew. The man didn’t flinch at all, too busy cussing him to see the beautifully delivered roundhouse Ron Maglione deployed against his face.

Maglione had been a semi-professional boxer before joining the police force, but few of the punches he’d ever thrown in his career had felt as good, as solid, as that one. He felt the jaw break under his knuckles, knew the man was out cold even before his head had finished snapping back. Even back then, Ron Maglione’s job required so few duties that could be described as purely good and useful, but surely this was one of them.

He turned back to the girl. He knew his lines: he’d put her in the back of his car, call in the arrest, then take her statement and offer to get her a ride to her family or a shelter. He expected—like a chump, like a damn rookie—her gratitude. “Blimp,” she said, just as she pushed a distressingly long fingernail file into his abdomen.

Maglione staggered back. The black plastic handle, all that was visible of the file, became covered in thick blood. His blood. He stopped himself from pulling the blade out. It hurt on the inside.

“Why’d you do that?” he asked in shocked surprise.

“Fat.”

He stumbled his way back to the driver’s side, tried the door and found it locked, then dug into his pocket for the key. There was blood on the door handle, blood on the jeans he wore only on his days off. This pair was new, he’d only worn them twice before, and now they were ruined. Number one rule of dealing with Domestics: separate them first. Separate them first.

Ron Maglione pulled out onto the deserted street and, picking up the suddenly slick microphone, called in to the overnight uptown dispatch.

“Hey, Ronnie Sweater,” Charlie said back. “I thought it was your night off.”

“Charlie, it’s a 10-8, a 10-8.”

Charlie sucked in his breath, and when he spoke again all emotion was left behind. “All right, everyone clear the air. This is a 10-8. Repeat, clear the air immediately. Come back, Ronnie.”

Maglione nudged the Caprice back into his lane. He remembered the times a 10-8 had come in while he was at the station, how everyone froze, staring to their radios to hear what had happened to the injured officer, then flew madly towards him. “Delachaise and Claiborne, proceeding…west, I guess. I got a 36-something…I can’t remember the codes. I been stabbed, Charlie. This girl, she stabbed me.”

“Oh, Ron…you got stabbed? Pull over, I got units all around you. Jesus Christ. Is it still in you? You didn’t pull it out, did you?”

“It’s okay, Charlie. I’m six blocks from the Baptist Hospital. Call the emergency room, let ‘em know I’m coming. I’ll be there in a minute.”

All around him, in the distance, he could hear sirens firing up. Every member of the New Orleans Police Department within a five mile radius was screaming towards the Baptist. What a pain in the ass, Maglione thought with half-closed eyes. Charlie mumbled something urgent to an operator, then came back. “You with me, Ronnie? Where you at now?”

The steering wheel was hard to hold on to, and blood was pooling under his lap on the seat, making it feel like he’d wet himself. “Claiborne and Milan. I’m almost there.”

“You’re slurring your words, Ron. Look, just put it in park, right in the middle of the street. I’ll have someone there in seconds.”

Maglione doesn’t remember the rest of the trip, but he somehow made it to the Baptist Hospital and up the emergency ramp, bouncing like a pinball off the sides twice before coming to a stop. When the paramedics got him out of the car, he’d asked the ER doctors “Can I pass out now?” and, after getting their permission, drifted off.

He woke up a day and a half later. The fingernail file had nicked an artery and then, when he sat down in the car, pierced his bladder. The dirt from under her fingernails had caused an infection that they were still fighting. “Nobody give this girl a real weapon,” was the most common joke.

They never found the girl or the guy, hadn’t even known what to look for or where to look. And Ron Maglione was in trouble again, of course, back then he was always in trouble: for not calling it in beforehand, for not following Domestic Disturbance procedures, for not calling for back-up, for excessive force (even though the only proof they had of this was his own story), for driving on a public street in his condition, for damaging his patrol car and the hospital. He even had to pay to have the blood in his car cleaned out.

But Ron Maglione didn’t care that much. All he knew was that he got to sleep for 36 hours, and then spent a week in the hospital dozing off and on with no beeper, no phone calls, and no alarm clock.

The infection cleared up, but he was kept in the hospital a few more days for observation, and the nurses kept slipping him a sleeping pill every night with a wink. He suspected he was being kept at the hospital so that his superiors could finish dotting the Ts and crossing the Is of his official reprimands.

Towards the end of his stay he awoke to find that he had two visitors—one white, one black, both in suits—sitting at the small table by the window. The clock said 6:30, and outside the sky was bruised with color, but Maglione had lost track of day and night and didn’t know if he was seeing the beginning of a sunrise or the last evidence of a sunset.

“Detective Maglione,” the black man said, looking up from the copy of the Times-Picayune he’d been looking through. He had an efficient smile and a voice that simulated warmth. “You’re awake, good. You’re not in any pain, are you?”

“No. No, sir.” Maglione recognized him, of course. It was Jerome Johnson, Mayor Thomas’ right hand man. He’d just announced his candidacy for City Council about a month before.

The white guy, Assistant District Attorney Lucas Budd, had been reading from the free Bible that had been sitting for a week, untouched, on the dresser. He held up a finger and began to read. “And out of the desert came Ron The Baptist, preaching ‘Repent ye, and turn away from sin. The axe is laid unto the root and every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit will be hewn down, and cast into the fire. The day of reckoning is close at hand.’ So what do you think? It’s a lot catchier, right?”

Johnson nodded over at his associate and smiled thinly. “He’s trying to give you a new nickname.”

“Yeah, what is this people are calling you? Ronnie Sweater? Because you sweat a lot? It’s disgusting.”

Maglione closed and opened his eyes. Lucas Budd and Jerome Johnson were in his hospital room, arguing about his nickname. He was pretty sure he was hallucinating, but he played along. “No, no…it’s because of my last name. Maglione is Italian: ‘Sweater.’ Like the clothes.”

Budd shrugged. “Okay, fair enough. But still, it’s unpoetic. ‘Ronnie Sweater,’ it doesn’t scan right. The syllables are all wrong.”

“So he’s trying to get people to call you Ron The Baptist instead.” Jerome Johnson tugged at the fabric of his pant leg.

“It’s about more than the nickname. It’s about respect. Look, Detective…all the guys out on the street, I’ve been talkin’ to them, you know what they’re saying? They’re saying you were out on your night off, you saw some creep beating on a woman, and you took care of business. The patrolmen, the other detectives? They got a lot of respect for that. You even drove yourself to the hospital. That’s real police.” He pronounced it the way cops did: real PO-lice. “And now you’re up here in the hospital and the big boys, the ones who haven’t been at a crime scene in years, they want your head on a platter for it.”

“Like John The Baptist,” Jerome Johnson explained.

“Exactly. Now, a lot of your colleagues don’t think it’s right, and I don’t think it’s right, and Jerome here doesn’t think it’s right either.”

Jerome Johnson hit the newspaper softly against his slacks, and nodded once in agreement, his lips firm with conviction. “You know, Detective Maglione, when Lucas and I were in law school we’d go over to the boxing matches across the river. We saw you fight a few times.”

“Did we ever. You’re tough, Ron…and more important, you’re tenacious. What was that fight where you got knocked down, what was it? Eight times?”

“Just seven. Against Joe Dumaine.”

“That’s right, Lapalco Joe. You just kept getting back up. They should have called the fight after the third time…after the seventh the whole crowd was chanting ‘Stay down’—we thought we were watching a suicide—but then when you got back up all of us, even Jerome here, went so nuts I thought the roof of the Civic Center was going to come off.”

Maglione nodded for him. “Thank you, sir. I don’t remember anything after my fourth trip to the mat.”

“Doesn’t matter. What matters is you got back up. You didn’t win the fight, but by God you were on your feet when they announced it.”

Jerome Johnson started to speak, then stopped himself, pursed his lips, and started again. “Lucas and I are here today because that’s a character trait that we’d like to see more of in the NOPD.”

“Look, we’ll cut to the chase. I know a lieutenant was by here earlier in the week, detailing exactly what was going to happen to you once you got out of here. Well, you can forget about that. It’s off the table.”

Ron looked from one to the other. “What do mean? Why?”

Jerome Johnson laughed for the first and only time during his visit. “You have a lot to learn, Detective. When City Hall tells you to forget about something, you don’t ask ‘why.’”

“Ron, we took care of it, that’s all you need to know. We don’t need guys like you putting themselves on the line and then getting shit on for it. You walk out of here tomorrow, the next day, it’s like nothing happened. You were on vacation for a week. We couldn’t get you a hero’s citation, but this is good enough, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir. Thank you.”

On the table was a manila file folder that Jerome Johnson picked up and showed to Ron. “We’ve been looking through your service record, Detective. You won’t be offended if I say that it’s not terribly distinguished, will you?”

“No, sir, not at all. I’ve messed up a bunch, and I’ll probably mess up a bunch more.”

Johnson nodded deeply. “That’s good, that’s good. Own your shortcomings.” He opened the folder for a moment, then let it fall shut again. “Of course, it wasn’t all your fault, was it? A lot of this…wheel-spinning has to do with your talents being wasted.”

“Exactly,” Lucas Budd said. “A man with your qualities, your abilities, checking pawn shops every week for stolen merchandise? Quote-unquote investigating car thefts? It’s not right.”

Maglione didn’t say anything.

“So we created a new position for you, you start it in a week. Right now we’re just calling you a Special Liaison, but we’ll come up with something better, especially if Jerome finds a way to get elected next month.”

Johnson crossed his legs. “We’re not pushing you, Detective…you can say no if you want and go right back to your old job. But the sort of work we have in mind requires a special touch, and we think you’ve got what we’re looking for. All we ask is that you think about it.”

“I don’t have to think about it. Do whatever you need to do to make it happen.” Maglione’s voice was thick. The sleeping pills in his system were making him groggy again, turning all of this slippery and insubstantial, and he clenched his teeth so he didn’t have to yawn in their faces. “Besides, I owe you guys now, right?”

The last thing he heard before tripping heavily back into sleep was Lucas Budd laugh out loud. “See, Jerome? He’s a quick learner.”

The next morning Maglione was discharged and he waited in the sunshine in front of the Baptist hospital for the patrol car he’d requested, wearing the clothes his sister had brought him. The conversation hadn’t been a dream; his partner told him that a bright shiny transfer order, signed by Mayor Thomas himself, was waiting on his desk. Ron Maglione smiled to himself, even though he had no idea what his new job entailed. He smiled because the sun was out and glowing on the maples and he felt fully-rested, totally awake, and ready for whatever was awaiting him.

And that had been fifteen years ago.

• • •

The express elevator’s doors slid open and revealed the Law Offices Of Harry Sebastian in all its casual glory. Every time he visited Harry’s office, Maglione questioned the choices he’d made in life…the exact response Sebastian’s downtown office was designed to elicit. The elevator up to the 43rd floor opened right in his lobby, and as the doors slid open visitors saw three things all at once:

First was the office itself, which made the business look less like a law firm and more like a successful advertising agency’s converted warehouse offices. The walls were exposed brick, decorated with tasteful black & white photographs of New Orleans artifacts shot in extreme close-up: a pile of Mardi Gras beads, a Hubig’s pie wrapper, an old Meyer’s Pharmacy sign. Overhead, exposed pipes ran between thick wooden beams that had been sanded and stained a dark reddish brown.

It was like no other law office you’d ever been in, and this was exactly what Harry Sebastian, who styled himself as being like no other lawyer you’d ever met, was going for. Maglione knew Harry had paid a lot of money to get this effect, too; the office looked like a loving renovation, but it was all expensive artifice. This was the 43rd floor of a mirrored skyscraper, it’s not like the walls were really brick or supported by wood timbers. The bricks were probably an inch thick at most, and the heavy beams were actually hollowed-out timbers attached to the ceiling with hidden screws.

(Maglione, who could never quite turn off the cop part of his brain, realized these empty beams would be a pretty genius place to hide contraband. If his business here today went really south, he’d have to remember to add the fake ceiling beams to the eventual search warrant.)

The next thing visitors noticed when stepping off the elevator was the receptionist’s desk, which was so big and elaborate that it was more of a wooden fortress. It enclosed the receptionist completely in low carved walls, accessible only through knee-high doors. In a previous life it had been a 19th century clerk’s station in a courtroom before being discovered in an Lake Charles antique store by Harry’s wife and meticulously restored by a team of antiquarians. A specialist came by once a month to check the finish and to polish the wood until it shined so brightly you could read by it.

Harry’s receptionists were always precise and efficient young ladies, maybe two years out of college, with delicately thin eyeglasses and haircuts that looked like a stylist trimmed each individual strand one at a time. They were all frighteningly good at their job, routing office visitors and phone calls with the smooth grace of a Tai Chi master. The faces changed every year or so, but each new receptionist took the departed’s place seamlessly, as though she inherited the experience and knowledge of all her predecessors instantly.

Maglione had no idea where Harry found these girls or where they went after they left his law firm, because he never saw women like this anywhere else in New Orleans. He tried to picture them away from that desk and he never could. He decided they were part of a secret sisterhood, selected at birth according to arcane methods then raised in the dark secrets of the Receptionist Arts. They spent ten years traveling from front desk to front desk of whatever elite businessman could afford their cabal’s pricey services, then retired back to the shadowy nunneries of their Order to spend the rest of their lives training the next generation of receptionists…

Damn, I should write this stuff down.

“Good morning, Detective. Is he expecting you?” He’d never seen this one before—a redhead whose lovely face had less pigment than Maglione’s inner thigh—but of course she somehow already knew everything about him. Then again, it wasn’t like Ron Maglione could ever go undercover: everything about him, from his sports coat to his haircut to his broad-shouldered thick-gutted physique screamed police detective at top volume.

“No, no, just in the neighborhood.”

“I’ll let him know you’re here.”

There were two other men in the waiting area with him. One was a young guy, probably a Tulane kid spending the summer in town, with the sour and arrogant look of the hungover. The other was a middle-aged black guy with his arm in a sling, who glared at the hardwood floor of the lobby, mouthing a slow but constant stream of silent words. Here was DUI and Personal Injury, the twin pillars of Harry Sebastian’s empire.

Ron turned his attention away from them, though, drawn into the third feature of the lobby every visitor was struck by when they first arrived: the incredible view of the city offered by the floor-to-ceiling windows that made up the far wall of the entire office.

The Citadel Center was a few blocks off to the side of New Orleans’ central business district, so the view of the other downtown skyscrapers was remarkable: they were just far enough away that they didn’t block out the vista, but so close that there was no way to ignore their massive size.

Two of Harry’s employees passed in front of the window, both of them flipping through printouts as they walked, neither of them even looking up to see the city spread out beneath them. Maglione spent all of his days down in the streets below, and he couldn’t imagine ever getting so used to this view that he would ever walk right by it without at least glancing out. You can get used to anything.

He moved past the reception area and stood up against the window. Directly across the street from the Citadel Center was the Superdome, and from this angle the sheer size of the thing was tremendous: the white canopy of the dome swelled up just beneath his feet and took up almost a quarter of the view. Maglione’s baby sister had been born on the day the Superdome opened, all those years ago, and her baby book held the two never-used tickets his father had spent almost an entire paycheck on. Instead, he had to watch the game at the hospital, feeding dimes into a B&W set with ten-year-old Ronnie on his lap, but he always said it was the best game he ever attended.

Beyond the Dome was the huge Crescent City Connection bridge, as tall as many of the downtown buildings, high enough to let ocean-going ships pass under its span on the way up to Baton Rouge. It was three o’clock on a Thursday, and the Mississippi River was busy with freighters and tugboats and ferries, and it glowed bright gold in the afternoon sun despite the filth underneath.

Traffic was just starting to pick up down below him. Maglione watched the cars poke around, stopping and starting, and he saw how modern and clean New Orleans looked from up here, just another 21st century American city. From up here it looked like a real city…from up here you’d never guess that it belonged to neither this century nor this country: built in a swamp on the banks of the most dangerous river in America; susceptible to hurricanes, tropical storms, tornadoes, floods, and fires; infested with rats, thumb-sized cockroaches, toxic caterpillars, alligators, and nutria; surrounded by noveau riche hillbillies and God-fearing shitkickers who would push the city into the Gulf Of Mexico if they thought Louisiana could survive without the tax revenue; and ran by genuinely evil mofos who’d gladly burn the whole thing down themselves if they thought they could get either votes or profit out of it.

Maglione closed his eyes but resisted the temptation to put his forehead against the cool glass. He didn’t mean it, he didn’t mean any of it. He loved New Orleans, he was just in a bad mood because of what he was about to do. And he was tired. He was always tired.

High heels clicked behind him as the receptionist returned to her desk. Harry Sebastian, wearing suspenders, was standing in the hallway with his trademark fedora was pushed back on his head. “There he is…Ron The Baptist.”

“Hey, Harry.”

Harry’s eyes narrowed and his voice got raspy. “What are pennies made of?”

“Copper.”

“What kind?”

Maglione chuckled. “Dirty copper.”

Harry clapped him on the back, smiling broadly. Their exchange was dialogue from some old gangster movie, Maglione couldn’t remember which one, with James Cagney or maybe Spencer Tracy. Harry had shown him the clip on YouTube during one of Maglione’s earlier visits to the office, and now he wanted to recite it every time they got together.

On the way back to Harry’s private office, they passed more of Harry’s employees, young lawyers in jeans and tennis shoes. Harry took great pride in running a casual office with no dress code, where everyone—including himself—was on a first name basis. Maglione saw, however, that the “no dress code” culture was just as strict as any other. There were no suits, no ties, but also no shorts and no t-shirts. For an office without a dress code, everyone looked surprisingly similar: all the lawyers wore immaculate jeans, collared shirts with the sleeves rolled, and brown or black lace-ups. There was a dress code, just not one that was ever spoken of.

Despite the casual atmosphere, though, Harry’s law firm was well-known in the legal world of New Orleans for being fiercely competitive and dispiriting. The work wasn’t exciting, and could even be depressing as hell, so Harry preferred to hire fresh young lawyers more than willing to spend eleven hours a day in a cubicle fighting on the phone with insurance companies. Every spring Harry hired something like the top 90% of Tulane Law graduates; the best of them eventually became trial lawyers, the rest were gotten rid of to make way for the next class. A judge once told Maglione there were only two kinds of personal injury lawyers in New Orleans: those who worked for Harry Sebastian and those who’d been fired by him.

“How’s your bride? Her business doing well?” Maglione asked.

Valerie Sebastian, Harry’s wife, had a “lifestyle boutique” in the Quarter that sold clothes, jewelry, and home decor to other Notable Wives like herself. Just before Christmas, someone had broken into the store and the NOPD had barely investigated, just said it was probably a couple of addicts and scratched out a police report for her insurance claim. Maglione helped Harry out and did a little extracurricular snooping, even though he secretly thought the NOPD’s lazy guess was probably the correct one. He discovered, to his genuine surprise, that the robbery was an actual whodunit: there were two addicts behind it, yeah, but one of them was Valerie’s assistant manager, who had planned the break-in, carried it out with her boyfriend, and did an almost flawless job of making it look like a random smash ‘n’ grab. Almost.

“Oh, Val’s place is doing gangbusters business, let me tell you, Ron. Last month was her most profitable one yet…she was only in the red by about three grand.” Harry shrugged. “Look, she has something to do, she’s not in my hair all day, and I catch a healthy tax break on her losses every year…trust me, the money I sink into that place is money well-spent.”

They were inside Harry’s windowless private office now. The big office everyone knew from the law firm’s late-night commercials—Harry sitting on the edge of his excessively large oak desk, tearing up an insurance company’s insultingly paltry check—was only used to impress colleagues, business partners, and the more lucrative of his clients. Harry did most of his real work in a smaller office off to the side, which held a cheap desk and a thrift store couch and was as sparsely decorated as a dorm room.

Harry gestured to the couch, but before Maglione sat down he half-turned and pushed the door to the little office closed. If Harry noticed, he took it in stride. “How about that nephew of yours, is he keeping it under the speed limit?”

About a year before, Maglione’s nephew had somehow gotten a ticket way across the lake in Mandeville, where Maglione didn’t have any favors owed to him (or at least none that he wanted to call in over a speeding ticket), but Harry made a single two-minute phone call and the ticket vanished.

“Well, I’ve been driving a white hatchback around, if that tells you anything.”

Harry shook his head. “You’re kidding me.”

“The goof got arrested for street racing. Can you believe that…racing a Honda? It makes no sense. And, hey, you wanna know the worst part?”

“What’s that?”

“The little creep lost the race, and I had fifty bucks on him.”

Harry laughed, and leaned back in chair so he could prop his feet up on the desk. “Hey, Ron, you want anything to drink? That mini-fridge is pretty well stocked up.”

“Nah, I appreciate it, but I’m only here for a second.”

“So what’s up?”

“Oh, it’s nothing, I just wanted to give you a head’s up about something.” Maglione fished a few index cards out of his jacket pocket. “And don’t worry about it, because I already deaded it. But you know that task force that’s doing the Lucas Budd investigation? They recorded a phone call the other night from Lucas—I mean ‘recorded’ like they wrote down the time and duration of the call, not, you know, recorded. Anyway, they looked up the number he called and it was a cell phone registered in your name.”

Harry was a good lawyer, Maglione had to admit: he didn’t flinch or even react much, aside from furrowing his brow a little.

“How do they know it was actually from Lucas?”

“Yeah, that’s exactly what I said, too. You know these task force guys: teach a bunch of jock traffic cops how to trace a phone call and all of a sudden they think they’re in the CIA.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, Ronnie, other than I haven’t talked to the guy since…gosh, I don’t know, that Gaudioso fundraiser back in March, maybe?”

Maglione laughed and shook his head. “Hey, look, I know you’re not in a conspiracy with Lucas Budd. Hell, even if you were, it’s none of my business. That’s not what this is about. I just wanted you to know that, one, it popped up and, two, I squashed it.”

Harry nodded his head deeply at the detective on the couch. “And I appreciate it. But I’d still like to get to the bottom of it. Are you sure it was my personal phone?”

“Nope, and that’s exactly what I told them, too. ‘Both of these guys are successful lawyers, they probably have fifteen cell phones each that are registered in their names. Who knows what number the guy called. These dumb fucks don’t understand anything about relay towers, didn’t stop to find out where the call actually originated from. I said, ‘Look, Harry’s kid has been friends with the Budd kids since they were in cribs together. Maybe that pretty little Budd girl is in Lafayette feeling lonely, decides to call the Sebastian boy and get him to drive out to Lafayette for a quickie, we don’t know.’”

Harry chuckled. “Could be, could be. He hasn’t mentioned hearing from the twins, but it’s possible.”

“The point is, there’s a million different innocent reasons. It doesn’t matter…I made it a dead issue. I’m not here to get to the bottom of it, I’m just here because I figured you’d want to know it happened.”

Harry Sebastian brought his wingtipped feet down from the table one at a time. Slap…slap. “Well, Ron, I want you to know that I truly appreciate it. I owe you one.”

Maglione waved it away. “It was nothing. I watch out for my friends.”

Friends? Later, this would be the only thing he regretted: the two of them had a history together, Harry had done some secret business for Maglione’s bosses in the past, and they enjoyed each other’s company. They were friendly, but they weren’t really friends, and invoking the word in the middle of this crummy business was a low blow.

“I’m just doing everything I can to protect the innocent on this one. This Lucas Budd case is a monster—a hungry monster—and when it goes to trial it’s just going to devour everything in its path.”

The two of them were standing up now. Harry seemed to be thinking hard about something. “Yeah, it’s gonna be a bitch all right.”

“And anyone with even the slightest connection to Budd, especially after his arrest, is just going to get demolished, no matter how big they are. The word going around is that the FBI is about to get involved…we might have our fun and games down here, but once shit goes Federal we’re all on the hook.”

Harry Sebastian nodded, looking at Maglione’s face but not quite looking into his eyes.

“So when a whisper about someone I know starts going around, you better believe I’m gonna put that to bed with a quickness. Especially someone like you, Harry, who I know has the good sense to stay the fuck away from Lucas Budd at all costs, you know?”

Harry kept nodding, lost in thought.

“You know what I mean, Harry?”

The lawyer blinked slowly and made eye contact with Maglione. “Yeah, I know what you mean,” he said in a low voice.

“I’m glad to hear it.”

But Harry Sebastian was a natural lawyer, and he was his old self again almost immediately. He squeezed Maglione on the shoulder as he walked him to the door of the office. “Listen, thanks for watching out for me, again. I really do appreciate it. I don’t want the people you’re working for to think I have anything do with this.”

Maglione paused in the doorway, pushing index cards back into his jacket. “The only people I’m working for are the people of New Orleans.”

Harry smiled at this, the corners of his mouth going sour. “Keep saying it, Ron. Maybe we’ll both start to believe it.”

Maglione walked back to the reception area alone, feeling loathsome, with his hands pushed deep into his jacket pockets. He slowly rotated his jaw from one side to the other.

He couldn’t really say why he felt the way he did: it hadn’t taken him long to figure out that Harry wasn’t really in league with Lucas Budd, and what little he was involved with had just been scared out of him. That was good news, right? It meant one less potential confederate for Budd and it meant that Harry, the guy he’d just called his friend, was safe.

But still…but still, as Maglione walked back down the brick-lined hallway, he couldn’t help but think that these kind of tasks were too delicate for his clumsy paws. This Budd business was no damn good.

“Have a good afternoon, Detective,” the red-haired receptionist said as he passed, not looking up from her Day Planner.

Maglione turned back to her. “Hey, can I ask you a question?”

“Of course.” She looked up and smiled, straightening her glasses. Most people, a detective starts asking them questions and it’s like you just sent them to the principal’s office. Not her, though…her face was as open and innocent as the winter sun.

“It’s Saturday night: you wanna go out, you wanna have a little fun. Where do you go?”

“I’m sorry?” She tilted her head to the side, still smiling, probably thinking this was the setup for a joke. In ‘sorry’ he heard a slight Midwestern rounding of the vowels; maybe Wisconsin, maybe Minnesota.

“Don’t worry, I’m not asking you out, I’m just wondering…look, you gotta buy groceries, right? Where do you go?” His voice was too loud, he realized too late. “How come I never see you at Schweggman’s? How come I never see you at gas stations, banks, bus stops?”

Now she was confused, glancing over her shoulder with a slowly fading smile. A young lawyer, around 25, looked up from the copier and drifted closer to the desk, maybe about to come between Maglione and the receptionist.

Maglione squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them. “Listen, forget it. I was out of line. I’m investigating a…case, a girl about your age. I thought…never mind. Sorry.”

“Good luck, Detective.”

“Yeah, thanks.” He was already turned away, moving towards the elevators now. “Keep Harry in line for me.”

Thank God the elevator was fast. He waited only about ten seconds, the whole time refusing to turn around while the “what was that all about?” glances shot back and forth. He heard the young lawyer say “huh,” with a wary laughing voice, but Maglione kept looking straight ahead until those doors opened.

He just needed to get some sleep. That was all, just some sleep. He pressed Lobby and left this world of glass and steel behind, descending back to the streets where he belonged.

Uncategorized

Forty-Five

It was her Rest Day, so Josephine didn’t get up to run. Instead, she stayed in bed until she heard her mother go next door to Beaumonde at 8 am. She took a shower, one much longer and hotter than her usual morning shower–out of dread, however, not self-indulgence–then dried her hair thoroughly and put on the gray pencil skirt and plain white blouse she’d laid out the night before. It was time to look for a summer job.

She’d spent an agonizing ninety minutes putting together an appropriately simple job-hunting outfit. As a member of The Gang, Josephine had a closet full of thoroughly elegant and Proper outfits, and exactly none of them were suitable for dropping off job applications. Thanks to the efforts of the Budds, Josephine’s wardrobe was perfect for a femme fatale in a ’60s Italian spy movie, but not so great for a teenager trying to get hired at a smoothie place.

After getting dressed, Josephine went through the stack of papers she’d printed out the night before. She had resumes and cover letters, each carefully printed on heavy cotton paper, as well as the detailed itinerary she’d made for her day. Josephine had mapped the day out so she could hit the stores in the most efficient order: she’d start with the boutiques on Magazine Street, then move to the tourist places in the Quarter, and finally head out to the malls in the suburbs. This was probably the scariest thing Josephine had ever done, but having a plan seemed to make it a little bit better.

Her mother had left the keys to the car on the kitchen counter, along with a note–Abundans cautela non nocet–and Josephine checked everything one last time before she left: her clothes, her resume and cover letters, her hair, her hesitant traces of makeup. Unfortunately, she couldn’t find any reason to put it off any longer, so she breathed deeply a few times and spoke to the mirror.

“You’re going to do this,” she said softly, then again louder: “You are going to do this. Don’t be such a little bitch.” This was a favorite phrase of her sister Catherine, deployed against her friends, family, and boyfriends whenever she felt that their courage didn’t match up to her own superhuman taste for adventure. Josephine in particular was a frequent recipient of this taunt, and it had inevitably become part of her internal monologue.

She squared her shoulders and prepared herself to meet the terrifying tasks that waited for her. She hated meeting new people and couldn’t stand talking about herself, and she’d be required to do both for just HOURS. However, Josephine was resolved to cure her summer boredom. She had to do this…she had to prove to herself she was capable of doing it.

So she got in her mother’s Jaguar–this was Josephine’s thirteenth time driving a car by herself, but she tried not to think of that as an omen–then she drove five blocks down to Mahogany, the Magazine Street home decor boutique that was first on her list.

• • •

A few hours later, Andre was on the patio of his house, finishing up his pre-run stretches. Andre wasn’t a big fan of stretching: he found it humiliating and, besides, he had a hazy memory of reading somewhere that research had proven it wasn’t actually very effective anyway and was probably one step above a folk remedy. (But mostly: stretches were hard and Andre was bad at them.) Now that his aunt was out of town, he’d whittled his before-run stretch routine to a handful of dispirited reaches and twists.

He’d made it four days as a non-runner. During those four days, he sat around the house, wondering what he’d done all day before his aunt made him start running. But this morning as he was getting dressed (more out of habit more than necessity) he discovered that his black jeans, which had gotten microscopically less snug over the last two weeks, were now infinitesimally tighter again. He knew this was just a psychosomatic effect based on guilt, and he spent twenty minutes convincing himself that it was all in his head before finally giving up and just going running.

It was the heat of the day. Birds shifted uncomfortably on their branches, but had no energy to sing. A young black guy walked by, head down, an entire white t-shirt thrown limply over his head. Andre had a choice: he could run farther Uptown, passing out of the Garden District and behind Touro Hospital before turning around at Napoleon Avenue; or he could head towards Downtown, through the Lower Garden District, and into the Central Business District as far as Canal Street and the beginning of the Quarter. His aunt preferred the Downtown route because the scenery changed more often. Andre, though, preferred to go Uptown because there wasn’t as much traffic or as many people to see him struggling along.

Today Andre felt like changing things up a little, so he headed towards Downtown. However, one block later, he remembered that he’d have to pass by a wretched outdoor summer concert series in the CBD. The “Hump Day Lunch Break,” they called it, where cubicle ghosts could listen to weary nth-generation New Orleans music for an hour while slowly pushing Lunchables into their faces. So instead of going Downtown, Andre turned around and began jogging towards Napoleon Avenue, changing the course of both his jog and his summer.

Months later, he’d think about how such a simple decision–jogging Uptown instead of Downtown–had created such a profound effect on his life. He would wonder what other opportunities he’d missed out on, and what tragedies he’d unwittingly avoided, by making similar arbitrary choices. Andre knew such conjecture was banal in the extreme, but still, he couldn’t help but think about it, when so much had changed in his life because one July afternoon he jogged one block, turned around, and jogged the other way.

But such philosophical thoughts weren’t on Andre’s mind that day, however….all he could focus on was not passing out. After a four-day break from running, he was having a rough time with his pace. Over the last few weeks, he’d worked up to jogging three blocks straight and walking one, but that Wednesday, after twenty minutes on the road, he was struggling to make it even two blocks before slowing down to a stumble. His breath was ragged, and he knew his running posture was embarrassing.

He tried to get into the stance his aunt had taught him: back straight, head up, forearms parallel with his waistband, thumbs all but touching his hipbone as his arms moved. Once he got his posture more or less correct, he began to focus on his breathing. Aunt Marissa had taught him to breath in a little on his first and second strides, then exhale on the third and fourth: in in, out out. He would count each step in his head, which not only helped him breath but helped him clear his mind, which seemed to be crucial to a good run. …in in, out out…in in out out…in in out out…in in out out…in in out out…shit!

Up ahead of him, three blocks away, Josephine Brooks sliced around a street corner, sprinting at full speed directly towards him. Her long legs seemed to cover yards with each stride. It looked like she was leaving divots in the asphalt as she pushed off the ground.

She hurtled straight towards him, and would be standing where he was in seconds. Her hair was loose, galloping behind her as she ran. There was wildness in her eyes.

• • •

The first store on Josephine’s list was Mahogany, a home decor boutique a few blocks from her home. Josephine parked across the street from the store and watched customers enter and leave. She wanted to wait until the store had no customers, so she didn’t have to stand around, feeling awkward, until finally someone was free and she could ask to speak to the manager.

It took about five minutes before it seemed like the store was empty, and during that time, she proofread her resume for the hundredth time. With horror and disgust, she realized that, under Skills, she’d left out an Oxford comma. She considered going home and reprinting all of them, but she knew in her heart that this was just an excuse to put off job-hunting for another day. And that was no good, she knew it. So instead of fixing the typo, she minutely adjusted the paper clip holding the cover letter to the resume, took a deep breath, and walked across Magazine Street to Mahogany’s front door.

…I’m Emily charming a stranger…I’m Litta’Bit flirting with a boy…I’m Lillian cocking an eyebrow and destroying the world…

There was nobody in the store. Not just no customers, but no salespeople either. Josephine didn’t know exactly what to do. She considered leaving and coming back later, but she forced herself to walk into the store and pretend to look at a collection of geometric bud vases arranged on a table.

There was laughter from the back, and Josephine looked up, as though caught. She could hear two women talking in the room behind the counter. Josephine shuffled to another table, this one displaying candles and tealight holders. She breathed deeply and tried to concentrate on the merchandise. There were too many mirrors in this store.

One of the ladies from the back walked by the door and saw Josephine. She was older, maybe thirty, and could have been the manager that Josephine needed to talk to. “Oh, hi…I didn’t know you were out here. Can I help you with something?”

Josephine looked up at her, a $65 candle in her hand. She had heard what the lady had really said. Not “Do you need a hand finding something?” but “Can I help you?” As in: “What are you doing here? You don’t belong in here.”

Josephine glanced down at the floor and put the candle back on the table. “No. No thank you. Just looking around.”

The saleswoman stayed behind the counter, so Josephine pretended to examine a beaded pillow. It felt like the lady was suspicious, watching her closely, but Josephine didn’t dare look up to see if this was true. She wondered if she should buy something; she was afraid that the woman thought she was stealing. Oh my god, I come in to apply for a job and I end up arrested on suspicion of shoplifting…

But Josephine couldn’t summon the courage to go up to the counter—and also there didn’t seem to be anything for sale under thirty dollars—so she just mumbled a goodbye and escaped out onto the street.

Okay, so that was a disaster. But, as she got in the car, Josephine told herself that the first store was just a warm-up. She was still getting a feel for her task, and the next store would be better, and the next store would be better than that, and soon she would be an expert. It was like running: one foot in front of the other.

But when Josephine arrived at the next place on her list, a high-design clothing store that looked like an art gallery, she just parked in front, watched the customers come and go, and never got out of her car. She told herself she didn’t like the sort of people she saw shopping there–frightening college girls who cut their own hair–but she knew this was just an excuse: she was still upset about what happened at Mahogany and too scared to go in.

So she drove down Magazine Street, stopping in front of the next three stores on her list but not once making it out of the car. Soon she found herself circling Whole Foods again and again, trying to force herself to go in and ask for an application. She was crying a little now, the thin tears probably ruining the whisp of eye makeup she’d put on, and she knew it was no good, no good, no good. She had failed herself again.

She slunk off into the deserted residential side streets and found a place to pull over where no one would pass by and see a young girl wiping her eyes in the front of her mother’s Jaguar. She sat sniffling in the almost-silence of the air conditioner’s hum. Josephine hit the steering wheel once, then again, then two more times, crying out with a frustrated yelp with each blow. She was useless, she was worthless, she needed to dry her eyes and prove that she could do this. But even as she yelled at herself to get it together and try again, she knew she wouldn’t be able to. Job-hunting was over.

She didn’t even need a job, anyway, and if she wanted one she didn’t have to hunt around. She could just ask her grandfather or David’s mom or even Andre–through his father–to give her part-time work, and any of them would. The idea of picking up the phone and making that phone call had been appalling last night, but now that she was parked on a side street, crying, with a resume half-crumpled on her lap…well, it was still appalling, but she couldn’t quite remember why.

But that wasn’t the point. It wasn’t about the job, it was about being bored, bored beyond boredom. And it wasn’t even about that, either: mostly she had wanted to prove to herself that she could do this, that she could meet people and hold her own in a conversation, the way the rest of The Gang could. The way normal people could.

Alexander had often joked about Josephine needing therapy, but in fact Josephine had been to see therapists before. The first time was a couple of sessions when she was a kid, after her father died. Then, three years ago, Josephine dedicated herself to mastering her diabetes through diet and exercise, and her mother—fueled by Catherine not minding her own business as usual—began to worry that Josephine actually had an eating disorder, and asked her to talk to someone “just to be sure.”

Josephine carefully planned for the meeting, and went in nervously clutching her workout schedule, food diary, and fitness plan. It wasn’t necessary: the therapist, himself a runner, knew that it was possible for a teenage girl to be focused on being fit without it being a symptom of a troubled body image. He chatted with her a bit and confirmed that Josephine just wanted to stay healthy, for healthy reasons, and was going about it in a healthy way. All he asked was that she meet with her pediatrician, because most nutrition books are written with adult, not teenage, metabolisms in mind.

Josephine was relieved, so relieved in fact that she didn’t even notice that the therapist had gently steered the conversation towards the non-fitness aspects of her life. Later, she realized how sneaky he’d been: he could tell that Josephine was uncomfortable talking about herself, so he faced away from her a little, never making eye contact, and only asked oblique impersonal questions, as though they were just chatting about a theoretical teenage girl they both knew. Without even realizing she was doing it, Josephine began cautiously opening up to the doctor in a way she did to no one else, except sometimes David. She talked about how she felt about her friends, and her feelings about her mother and her relationship with her sister. But what Josephine really wanted to ask him about was why she was so shy, why every interaction with another person left her ashamed and flushed and hatefully disappointed in herself, why she always stammered and hyperventilated no matter how much she wanted be a normal girl in a normal conversation. But she hadn’t been able to ask him any of this…she was too shy.

Josephine looked at herself in the rearview mirror of the Jaguar, at her red eyes and wet cheeks. She didn’t cry very often—this was the first time since her mother and Catherine had gotten into a huge fight on the day before Christmas Eve—but when she did, she could never stop herself from looking in the mirror, to see what she looked like when she wept. It was upsetting to see, but there was also something deeply satisfying about it that she never understood.

There was nothing in her mother’s glove compartment to dry her eyes with. Buried under some papers in the console was an individually-wrapped maxi-pad that Josephine briefly considered using–it was certainly absorbent–but she quickly decided that this was too hinky. Besides, what if somebody walked by and saw her wiping a sanitary napkin across her face?

She chuckled shakily at this, swiping her cheeks with the back of her hands, then pulled the car out onto the street. She knew what she’d do: she’d go running, get in an extra sprint workout, even though it was her Rest Day. Yes. Running always made her feel better. When she sprinted through the neighborhoods of her city, the world became sculpture, and the people just statues, and she alone was alive and moving. She wasn’t Josephine when she ran…no, wait: she was Josephine. She was the real Josephine, the one she was scared to be the rest of the day, the one who could speak up, the one who looked at the world and what she faced and responded not with a blush or a stammer but with a shrug and a “Fuck it.”

This plan to find a job had just been another attempt to prove that she could be that girl, that better Josephine, all the time. She had tried so many times before in her life and was always disappointed: two summers ago, in LA with her sister; last summer with Leonard. Now this summer with job-hunting and her other idea, the one about Lucas Budd and Emily and Michael. She’d already failed at the first, and she was too frightened to do much more about the second than obsessively jog, every day, past their houses.

Still driving, she began sobbing once more, this time much harder. Her tears, which had been just a mist before, gathered and rolled down her cheeks. There was a sound coming from her throat, but she didn’t know she was making it. Josephine didn’t stop driving, she didn’t pull over, she just drove on through the back streets towards her home. She was weeping so hard her chest hurt…she had failed again. There was another, more perfect Josephine buried inside of her, and she had failed again to help her find a way out. How much longer could she stay in there, how many more times could Josephine fail her, before she turned her back and retreated into nothing?

• • •

Luckily for Andre, he was just in front of Pedo Priest Park, so after a half-second of panic he ran out of the street and hunkered down quickly behind the statue in the center of the park. He was pretty sure Josephine hadn’t seen him, but he wasn’t certain. She been about three blocks away when she cut around the corner, and it’s not like she’d be expecting to bump into Andre out jogging in the street. He just had to wait here until she passed, and then a few minutes more just to be certain, then he could sneak home and never go running again. He tried to listen for the sound of her feet as she flew past, but St. Charles was a couple blocks away, and there was too much traffic to hear her.

The weeks he’d been running, it had never occurred to him that he’d run into her on the street like this. She ran early in the morning, he ran in the afternoon, and he was pretty sure she took a different route than he did. Of course, now that he was hiding, shivering, behind a statue and waiting for her to pass, he realized how empty and useless all of those arguments were, and how foolish it had been to put his faith in any of them.

(As he ran, he would sometimes daydream about what it would be like to run into her one day: it would be at the end of the summer, after he could jog for miles and miles without walking, and she’d see him and stop and then they’d jog together at last, and every morning from then on, it would be their little secret that no one else in The Gang needed to know about. It was ridiculous, he saw, and it pained him to think about all that time he’d spent while jogging, thinking about it.)

She couldn’t see him…not now, not yet. He was crouched painfully behind the statue, trying to steady his breathing and his heart from the interrupted run and his nerves. The statue he hid behind depicted a kindly African-American priest counseling a young boy and girl who were on their knees praying. It had been built in a simpler time, when all it represented was a lovely monument to a beloved clergyman. However, it was now a favorite of New Orleans teenagers because seen through cruder modern eyes, the statue from a certain angle seemed to depict a lewd act made all the worse for the beatific expression on the priest’s face. Andre, though panicked, looked up and read, for the first time in his life, the dedication at the bottom of the statue:

In loving memory of
Father Fitzwilliam Johnson

1936-1985

“Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones;

for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always
behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.”

Fitzwilliam Johnson. “Holy shit,” Andre whispered. All these years smirking at The Statue Of Pedo Priest Park and he’d never known that it was one of Robert’s ancestors. He wondered if even Robert knew.

Andre relaxed a little. Clearly Josephine would have passed by the park by now, but he’d wait, his back to the statue’s granite base, just to be sure. Andre sighed, shaking his head. How demeaning…hiding behind this statue like a child. He turned around and dropped slowly to the ground.

Josephine was standing at his feet. Of course. She must have circled around and come up the back of the park. Meaning that she’d been standing there for just minutes, not saying a word, as he hugged the granite and waited for her to pass by.

Andre didn’t react, or at least he tried not to. When he turned around and saw her Sauconys on the grass before him, he didn’t look up at her, just shrugged, as though he had been expecting her to be there. “Hey, Josephine,” he said.

“What are you doing?” There was a edge to her voice that he’d certainly never heard before. He wanted to look up, but he made himself just shrug and continue looking down at the grass.

“Oh, you know…it’s a nice day, thought I’d get out of the house, go sit on the ground for a while.” He plucked up some grass and sprinkled it back through his fingers. “Hey, you’ll never guess who this is a statue of.”

“Why are you dressed like that? Are you making fun of me?” Now her voice sounded shocked, hurt, and Andre had to look up at her.

He knew it was beyond corny to say “all he could see was her eyes,” but for now at least it was true. Later he’d notice her thin workout clothes, and the way her whole body—up from the legs, through the shoulders, and down to the arms—still swayed in the soft subtle rhythm of a run, as though she were weightlessly navigating undetectable currents of air. But right now her eyes held his attention. Andre had often seen Josephine appalled, had occasionally seen her mortified, but he’d never seen her devastated, he’d never seen her fierce. It was too much, he wanted to look away again, but he didn’t dare.

“What? Why would you say that? Josephine…”

“Why are you dressed like that?” Her mouth was thin, colorless, and set in place with anger or dismay or both. “I just jogged by your house a few minutes ago. You saw me. You saw me and you put on those clothes. You want to make fun of the way I run.”

“So I see you three blocks away and hide behind Pedo Priest? That’s, like, the worst prank ever.” He swallowed and looked up, over his sweaty glasses, and into the blurry cloudless sky beyond. Andre shook his head at her, softened his face. Sarcasm was his native language, but he knew this was no place for it. “Josephine, listen: I’ve been running in the afternoon. I’m a…I’m a runner now, I guess. Remember my Aunt Marissa? She visited me a few weeks ago and made me start running and I somehow failed to give it up unlike, you know, everything else in my life. I wasn’t, I swear I wasn’t, making fun of you in some bizarro way.”

Josephine’s mouth relaxed just a little and she blinked down at him. “Why do you want to run?” Her voice was no longer hurt, but it wasn’t her own voice, either.

“Because…Jesus, you want me to say it? Because I’m, I’m chubby, okay? And I don’t want to be anymore.”

“Why else?”

“Why else…? Isn’t that enough? Because it’s the one athletic thing I’ve ever done in my life that I actually sorta enjoy.” Josephine just waited. “Because it makes me feel good. Not when I’m doing it, but afterwards. Like I’ve accomplished something, like the day hasn’t been a waste.”

Josephine looked down at him for a long time. Even silent, she wasn’t herself. He’d never seen her like this…even her body language was different, more forceful. Finally, she asked him again, only a little softer: “Why else?”

Because I wanted you to find me and be proud of me. “Because, I don’t know, because I was bored. The twins are gone, probably forever, let’s admit it, and The Gang’s broken up and…and Emily and Michael are hanging out together, and Robert and Litta’Bit of course, and you and David. It’s like everyone has somebody to be with except me, and I’m stuck down in my basement all day. So I run.”

“You were bored,” she whispered with a dry chuckle. She looked away, watching a bread truck pass by, slowly swaying on its axles from the uneven pavement of the New Orleans street. Josephine worked her jaw back and forth a little as she watched it pass; it was a small action, but one so foreign to her. Who was this girl standing above Andre?

He snuck a look at the rest of her. Her shorts were loose, tiny, high-cut on the sides, exposing most of her lean thighs. The white cotton sports bra was basically just a headband with straps, and it was tight across her thin chest. Andre didn’t understand: this was a girl who got wide-eyed and flustered if the twins made her wear a top with a neckline, yet when she ran she was pretty much nude. He could tell this wasn’t a one-day outfit, either, because her skin was a deep tan everywhere he looked. Josephine had long hair, and it was loose on her shoulders and back. This was the first time he’d ever seen her hair down…it was longer and thicker than he’d imagined. Other girls pulled their hair back when they ran, but Josephine, who always wore a ponytail no matter how much the girls in The Gang begged her to take it down, let it loose when she ran.

This is important: when Andre looked up at her, he didn’t see a modest introvert suddenly revealed as a secret beauty. Josephine wasn’t a flower waiting to bloom…she was plain. Andre knew this was a brutal thing to admit, but it was true (and besides, it hadn’t mattered to him in years.)

Josephine wasn’t ugly, she wasn’t even unattractive, especially after the girls did her makeup and forced her to wear the clothes that they’d picked out for her. But she would never have the profound effect on boys the way that Lillian did (breathless yearning and desperate poetry), or the way that Emily did (mad crushes and hopeless daydreams), or the way that Litta’Bit did (boners).

This was about something deeper. Above him, even though her lean and muscled body was on display, Josephine was no longer shy or awkward. She was casually aggressive in the way she held herself and in the way she talked to him. He didn’t understand.

Josephine turned back and looked down at him, still on the ground at her feet. A sort of furious peace had come over her face. She chuckled again and shook her head slowly. “Okay, fuck it. Let’s go.”

“What does that mean?” he whispered. He’d never heard her curse before…he’d never heard her laugh before.

“Let’s go…come on. You want to run, and I’m a runner, and it makes no sense, the two of us not running together. Get up.”

Andre struggled up to his feet, embarrassed that after a month his gut still got in his way. “Are you sure?”

She ignored him, cocked her head towards the street, and began walking out of the park. The slightly curled ends of her hair swung gently between her shoulder blades.”Okay. Today, we’re gonna walk one block, jog one block.”

“That’s how my aunt started me, too, but I’m up to jogging three blocks, walking one.”

Josephine shielded the sun from her eyes with her hand. “How long?”

“Not long…forty minutes on Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Twenty-five on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

Josephine nodded. “Okay, well, if you’re running three blocks at a time for forty minutes, you’re ready to let loose. So we’re going to change things up a little. Today’s your long day?”

“Yeah.”

“Good. That watch has a stopwatch on it, right? Okay, the idea is simple-” Her shoulders dropped. “What?”

“I’m not laughing at you! I promise. It’s just, I don’t know, something about the way you said ‘the idea is simple’…you sounded like Alexander just then.”

She actually rolled her eyes at him–another new facial expression!–but he saw something else playing at the corner of her lips: a proud, shy grin. “Pay attention: we’re gonna start running, and when we do, you start your stopwatch. We’re gonna run for forty minutes today. Whenever you want to stop, just stop. We’ll walk as long as you want. But when you’re walking, your stopwatch is stopped. Okay? I don’t care how long it takes you, you owe me forty minutes of running today.”

“That’s a lot of running.”

“It’s okay. You have all afternoon, all evening, all night if you need it. We’ll get there.”

“Fantastic.” Andre laughed. “I quit.”

Josephine turned back to him and raised her hand to touch his arm, but lowered it again before reaching him. Her posture changed just slightly, and there, peeking through, was the Josephine he knew. Andre didn’t know what had brought about today’s change in her, but he saw now that it was slipping away. Already her eyes began cutting away when she spoke, and her voice was losing the definition it had a few minutes before.

“Andre, listen,” she said softly. “You want to do this, right? And…and you’ve tried to do it on your own, but you’ve never been able to. So…you have to fight, okay, you have to fight to make it real this time, no matter how easy it would be to go back, because this might be your last chance. Failure isn’t an option, Andre, it’s a…it’s a lifestyle, you know? You’re seventeen already, and I’ll be seventeen in a couple of weeks. We’re about to become the people we’re gonna be for the rest of our lives, and we have to fight to make sure that person is someone we want to be. So, if you fight, I promise I’ll fight, too. And we can, you know, we can fight together. Okay?”

“Okay.” He swallowed, and looked away from her. The world around him shivered from the heat rising off the pavement. “Um, I was just joking about quitting.”

“Good.” She smiled a little–bashful now–and turned her back on him again. She began walking slowly, waiting for him to pass her. “Then let’s run. You set the pace.”

He passed her. “Okay. I usually walk a block or two first.”

“I said run.” She was forcing her voice to be light now, even carefree. In the corner of his eye, he saw her raise her hand, hesitantly at first, but then with more confidence. She pinched the fat at the back of his arm and twisted hard, the way only someone with a sister could. “Run.”

“Ow!” Andre began trotting a little, rubbing the back of his arm. He looked around to see if anyone else had heard him yelp, but no one had: they were the only two people in the world. “For Christ’s sake, Josephine.”

Josephine raised her hand again. Andre ran.

July

Forty-Six

Emily and Michael couldn’t put it off any longer: it was time for them to visit Harry Sebastian. So they made plans to hang out with David and then, on the damp evening of a wet Wednesday, they entered the Sebastian house through a side door, the one with the security keypad that every Gangmember knew the code for. David wasn’t expecting them for another half an hour yet.

On their way to Mr. Sebastian’s office, they passed through a hallway that Valerie Sebastian, David’s mom, had apparently set up as an impromptu art gallery. The interior design of the large Sebastian house was ever-changing, and neither Michael nor Emily had ever seen this display before. The hallway was lined with photographs of Lillian and David in romantic poses.

These pictures were used in advertisements for Surroundings, Mrs. Sebastian’s French Quarter “lifestyle boutique.” Lillian had been appearing in the ads for about a year and a half, and David had started posing with her in the last six months or so.

David wasn’t a bad choice for the ads: he was very pretty, and his blond hair and delicate features made him look more like Lillian’s twin than Alexander. But he also looked like a teenager in a way that Lillian didn’t, and everyone wondered why Valerie didn’t use Lillian’s boyfriend, the more mature-looking Michael, whose olive skin and dark curls would have contrasted and complemented Lillian’s look.

The photos, in gauzy black & white, were blown up and placed inside heavy but plain wooden frames, then lined down the hallway at exact intervals. The ads, Valerie said, weren’t just pictures, they were a story: here was a young beautiful couple in love and living a lifestyle that others dreamed of, a lifestyle that could be purchased at Surroundings.

Emily and Michael couldn’t help but slow down and look at the pictures as they passed. They missed Lillian, they missed David (even though they were about to see him), and they missed the promise that these pictures represented. Michael, his languid and distant mask already in place, looked impassively at each one, but Emily shook her head as they moved down the hall.

“This is really sick,” she whispered. “It’s like David’s mom is trying to prove something to guests. ‘Of course my son likes girls…and here are the photographs to prove it.’”

Michael, of course, said nothing.

The last photograph in the hallway, the one leading out into a tastefully minimalistic sitting room, was the best of the series, and the one that was used most often in Valerie’s ads. Lillian, wearing a modest blouse ($79) that exposed nothing, not even the hollow of her throat, sat on a brown leather settee ($1999), with David on the floor between her knees. Lillian’s burgundy skirt ($215) was lifted demurely up to her knees and, leaning forward, she had slipped her hand down the front of David’s partially-unbuttoned tuxedo shirt ($185). With eyes closed softly, David rested his cheek against her forearm, his mouth slightly open.

The focus of the shot, though, was Lillian’s face, and the look of undisguised longing she gave the viewer. Without showing anything more than her shins, the photograph was almost indecent: her eyes were hooded and dark, her bangs fell across her face, and her full lips—clearly moistened moments before by her tongue—were parted and expectant. You could almost hear her breath, shallow and quick from desire.

It was an arresting image. The other pictures in the series were good photographs, but this was a classic. Valerie knew it: she ran the ad so often that she had to go out of her way to continue carrying the products featured. The photographer himself knew it: it was currently on the front page of his website, the first image visitors would see. Even random adults knew it: a modified version of the picture—with David cropped out and Lillian turned into a flatly colored illustration—was spotted by one of Litta’Bit’s friends on a flier to promote a local club’s DJ night.

At school there was the rumor that this picture had gotten Lillian discovered by an international modeling agency. It was said that she would soon be departing for New York, London, Paris, Munich. The truth wasn’t nearly as exciting: a local talent agent had merely called to ask if she would consider modeling in ads for other New Orleans businesses. Lillian had declined.

Michael looked briefly at the photograph, then turned away. To anyone else, it would have seemed no different from the cursory, almost dismissive, inspections he’d given the other pictures, but Emily could tell that he didn’t want to linger in front of this one. She saw the fleeting darkness come over his features, like the shadow of an airliner slipping quietly across the unchanging ground below.

Of course it hurt him…of course it did. When you saw the photo you sighed because the image seemed so tangible and real that it was easy to imagine, if only for a second, that lovely Lillian was speechless with desire for you. But only Michael, and Michael alone, had ever actually seen Lillian look like that. And now she was gone.

For just a second, as they left the hallway, Emily put her hand on the inside of Michael’s arm. He didn’t react, but he didn’t pull away like he normally would have while in character. She squeezed his arm through the cotton of his thin button-up shirt, then let her hand drop. Following Michael across the sitting room, she felt sad for him (of course), and she felt jealous of Lillian, but she felt something else, too: pride in her ability to know when Michael was hurting, and in her ability to soothe him.

They paused at the bottom of a staircase and looked up at David’s bedroom. It was only six-thirty, and he wasn’t expecting them until seven. From behind his door they could hear softly muted drum machines. Michael nodded at Emily, and they continued on to Harry Sebastian’s office.

They found David’s dad on the couch, his feet propped up on the front of his desk. His tie was loose and his collar button was undone, and he was wearing house slippers styled to look like large oversize basketball shoes. An unlit cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth. There was a stack of manila folders to his right and one open on his lap, but Harry Sebastian ignored them. He slowly shuffling a deck of cards and staring absently out the window.

“Yeah?” he said, the cigarette bobbing up and then back down. He didn’t look over.

“Harry?” Emily said, because he had never allowed them to call him Mr. Sebastian. “Do you have a second?”

“Oh, shoot.” Harry dropped his feet and set the cards on the small table by the couch. “Mike, Emmy! How are you? I thought you were David. He’s the king of sneaking up on me while I’m working. Just between the three of us, I’m thinking about making him wear a bell when he’s in the house.”

“That’s a great idea. You know how much he loves accessories.”

Harry Sebastian threw back his head and laughed, his fedora almost tipping off. “Ha! That’s great. He’s in his room, I think, if you guys want to go on up…”

“Actually…” Emily said, looking quickly over her shoulder at Michael, who nodded at her, “we’re here to see you.”

“Oh! Well, come in, come in.” Harry gathered up the files and looked around for a place to stack them, finally placing them on the side table, under the deck of cards. “We’ll make it official, then: you guys sit over here, I’ll take my place behind the desk like a real lawyer.”

Michael and Emily came into the office and he shut the door behind them. The rest of the house had been carefully designed by Valerie and her swarm of interior decorators to function as a backdrop for Surroundings’ photoshoots, but Harry’s office was the chaotic hidden heart of the home. It belonged to him and him alone: every flat surface held precarious stacks of law journals and old notebooks and manila folders. Unframed movie posters (Animal House, Caddyshack, The Big Lebowski) and all-but-unused calendars from the last few years were scattered along the walls. The desk was a little too big for the room, but it held piles of opened mail, dirty coffee mugs, handheld video games, a broad assortment of paper scraps, and photos of David and Valerie. An Ole Miss bumper sticker and two receipts were taped to the wall beside his chair. Harry swore he knew where everything was, that he had a system.

“So, what’s up?” He walked behind the desk but didn’t sit down. His hands went to the back of his old faux-leather chair. “Speeding ticket, fender bender? Um…DUI?”

“No, no. Nothing like that.” Emily glanced over at Michael. “Lucas Budd sent us. He says you have something of his.”

“What?” Harry looked from Emily to Michael. He closed his eyes and opened them again. “What do you mean?”

“He said you’d be expecting us.”

“Not us,” Michael added, in the slow, bored, and slightly dreamy voice he used in public. “But someone.”

Again, Harry looked at both of their faces, one at a time. His eyes drifted up to a spot somewhere on the wall behind them and his face grew pale.

“No. Oh no.” Patting his pockets slowly, softly, he pulled out his pack of cigarettes. Only after he took one out did he seem to distantly realize he already had a cigarette in his mouth. He put both of them back in the pack. “Oh, Lucas, what have you done?”

His unsteady hand came up, crossed over his face, and he slowly removed his fedora. It dropped to his desk.

“He told us to say orchid,” Michael said.

Harry glanced over at him, a scowl just behind his face. “Of course he did. Lucas loves all that cloak and dagger garbage. Orchid,” he spat out.

Neither of the teenagers spoke.

“Is…is David involved?”

“No,” Emily said quickly. “No, of course not.”

Harry Sebastian sat down slowly behind his desk. He picked up his fedora for a second, then put it back down. “I don’t…I don’t know what Lucas promised you two, but you have no idea what you’re playing with. No idea.”

“Mr. Budd was framed.”

Harry nodded. “Maybe he was, Michael. Knowing Jerome, there’s a real good chance of that. But maybe he wasn’t framed…Lucas was always a mysterious dude. And you know what? That’s not even the point. Here’s what the point really is: you two have no business getting involved in this. You’re just…kids, you’re in over your head. Please, for me…you have to just walk away.”

“We made a promise,” Emily said. “We have to help him.”

“No…no. You have to help yourselves. And that means you get as far away from this as you can.” Harry Sebastian blew air through his lips. “I hate to play, like, the parent card, but do you know how close I am to calling your folks?”

“Please don’t. We trust you.”

“I didn’t say I was.” Harry looked over at Emily, almost hurt. “Listen: you can’t believe Lucas, even if he’s telling the truth. He’s…he’s the best lawyer I’ve ever seen. He’ll convince you of anything. I mean, for God’s sake, did he even tell you what this was about?”

“He told us he’d been framed by Mr. Johnson,” Michael said. “And we needed to pick up a package from you to help him and his allies.”

“His allies? Okay, maybe. But did he tell you what’s in the package? I mean, do you guys think you’re here to pick up, you know, evidence, something that’ll expose the conspiracy to the world? Or do you think it’s proof that he’s innocent, at least? I mean, did he even tell you what was in the package?”

They didn’t answer.

“No, of course he didn’t. But I bet it didn’t matter at the time because Lucas made you feel like you were part of a…secret fellowship, right?”

“That’s not fair,” Emily said.

“I don’t mean it as an insult, Emily. I fell for it myself. That’s why you’re in my office right now.” Harry looked at the ceiling for a moment, silently moving his lips. “It’s nothing like what you think it is. It’s not evidence, it’s not proof. It’s just a contract for a shady real estate deal, one that involves Lucas and Jerome. Not the only one they were involved in, probably not even the shadiest.”

Michael sighed, as though the conversation bored him. “If it’s so minor, why does Lucas care?”

“Because if Lucas gets the contract, he’ll have a weapon to use against Jerome, even though he’ll go down hard, too.” Harry leaned forward. “But don’t mistake me. The contract isn’t why I’m scared for you…the fact that you’re going against Jerome is what scares me. Have you guys been following the scandal at the S&WB?”

“A little.”

“So this guy, Andrews, is being investigated for massive kickbacks. Which is fine, because he’s guilty as hell, and everyone’s known it for years. But a few weeks ago at a dinner–at a private dinner–he made a little joke about Jerome being behind the recent shake-up on the School Board. Just a joke…I don’t even know if there was any truth to it. Hell, Andrews might not have even known if it was true.”

“And Mr. Johnson did something to him?”

“He did nothing…nothing at all. Except this: behind the scenes, he let it be known that the Johnson Machine was no longer protecting him. That’s it. Without the Machine behind him, the NOPD and the SBI and the Mayor’s ethics committee moved in.” Harry Sebastian pointed at each of them with his hands. “He told one joke, that’s all he did. And what you guys are doing…it’s no joke.”

Emily swallowed and looked over at Michael. He still had a slightly condescending half-smile on his face, but there was a hollowness to the expression. She looked back over at Harry.

“What’s the contract about?”

He shook his head. “Who cares what the contract is about? Haven’t you been listening to me?”

“But shouldn’t we know what this is about, if it’s so minor? I mean, maybe you’re right and the contract is so nothing that we shouldn’t risk messing with Mr. Johnson over it. But we won’t be able to make that decision if you don’t tell us what it’s about.”

“Young lady, let me know if you decide to apply to law school. I’ll write you one hell of a recommendation letter.” Harry Sebastian did something they weren’t expecting: he laughed out loud, one quick barking Ha!

He cleared his throat. Okay. There was some land. It was way over on the Westbank, almost out of the city, in the part of town where all the Vietnamese immigrants live.”

“Like where Litta’Bit lives?”

“Sure, yeah. Right near there. It wasn’t much, just a few empty acres of scrub land. But to some people…well, back before the Vietnamese moved in–like just after the Civil War–this land, it was given to former slaves. And the children and grandchildren of these slaves, they went into the city and invented jazz, they moved out to the country and invented the blues, and they went deeper into the bayou and invented zydeco. They invented New Orleans.”

Harry paused for emphasis. His inner showman was overcoming the reluctance he’d felt to tell them about this.

“So one Vietnamese lady basically owns that entire part of town, and she decided she wanted to build some McMansions on the land, so she got the City Council to support her. There were two exceptions: Councilman Lucas Budd and Councilman Jerome Johnson. They fought the development for weeks, even tried to get a memorial or a museum put on the land. But they lost…which was crazy, right? Because they never lose. So now there’s this Vietnamese lady that nobody even knows anything about, and she just beat The Johnson Machine in head-to-head combat. Well, let’s just say her stock rose quite a bit.”

Emily started to say something, but then she seemed to think better of it.

“So one evening Lucas Budd and Jerome Johnson come over, and they’ve got someone with them: the Vietnamese lady. And they want me to look over a contract. Not a legal contract, just a little document they made to cover a partnership.” Harry opened his hands, as though showing them the final reveal of a magic trick. “They were all in on it together. Lucas and Jerome fought the development while at the same time pulling strings on the Council to make sure it happened. They maintained their integrity, got their way on the Council, and helped make the Vietnamese lady a player in New Orleans politics. That’s how deep Jerome thinks about stuff like this.”

“But why?” Michael asked, glancing out the window. “A bribe?”

“Yeah, that’s what I assumed at first, but when I read the contract over, I realized it was more than that: they weren’t just helping the developer: they were the developers. They were investors, equal partners with the Vietnamese lady. This contract was a private agreement to keep them all honest. And they needed me to be a witness, since they obviously couldn’t get it notarized. I mean, this was a document that tied Lucas and Jerome into some pretty serious ethical violations. Like prison serious.”

He paused and raised his eyebrows. Outside, there was a slow rumble of thunder in the distance, and all three of them chuckled a little at the effect. Rain began hitting the windows again, one drop at a time.

“So. There were three copies of the contract: one for them, one for her, and one for me. And it wasn’t even a contract really…it was mutual blackmail. Both sides know that the other has the evidence to destroy them.”

Emily raised her hand a little, then looked embarrassed. “Three? Why not four? One for Lucas and one for Jerome.”

“You don’t understand how closely tied the two of them were…they considered their alliance as a single unit. It’s possible that Jerome was pulling strings even then to cut Lucas out, but it’s just as likely that it never occurred to them to get two copies. Whichever it was, I verified that all three copies were identical and watched them sign it. You see, Emily, like you I wanted to feel like I was important enough to be a part of something bigger than myself. Like I was one of the secret conspirators, you know?”

“That’s not how we feel,” Emily said, but Michael interrupted her.

“How much did they offer you?”

Harry Sebastian looked over at Michael for a long time. “Three percent. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but trust me, it was.”

An arched eyebrow. “You turned them down?”

“I turned them down. I have enough clean money to last me for a good long time, I don’t need dirty money on top of it. So I made a crack about them owing me one and watched them sign the contracts. The Vietnamese lady has one, and–since Lucas needs my copy–I’m guessing Jerome has the third one. I have the backup.”

“Why doesn’t Mr. Johnson try to get your copy, too?” Emily asked.

“I’m not entirely sure, but I’ve come up with a few theories these last few weeks. Maybe he really did have nothing to do with Lucas Budd’s arrest, and he knows that even if Lucas tries to sell him out to save his own butt, Lucas has no proof. Or maybe Jerome just has more important documents to worry about. I’m sure this wasn’t their only backdoor deal, just the only one I was asked to be a part of. And finally, maybe he just doesn’t think Lucas is a threat and he’s let his guard down. Because frankly: is he a threat? I mean, no offense, but he has two teenagers out running errands for him.

“But the real reason? He doesn’t have to get it. He thinks I won’t do anything with it, because he knows I’m scared to death of him. After this thing with Lucas—assuming he did it, of course—the whole city is jumping at shadows. I mean, he straight-up destroyed Lucas.…took away his career, his reputation, his family. You have to understand, this was a message to everyone in New Orleans, especially anyone thinking about running against him for mayor. And the message wasn’t just ‘Look at what I can do’…it was ‘Look at what I’m willing do.’”

Outside, it was raining harder, the water hitting the office window and streaking down the glass. “Just now you said that Mr. Johnson doesn’t think that you’ll do anything with the contract,” Emily said softly. “Does that mean you will or you won’t?”

Harry Sebastian looked up at her, his lips tight and thin. He made a fist, like he was going to hit his desk, but he put it back down slowly. “That’s what you just got out of all this? Listen to me: if Jerome was capable of doing this to Lucas, a guy he’s been friends with since grade school, think what he’d do to you, no matter who your daddy is. This isn’t a game, this isn’t putting on suits and sipping cocktails and acting all constipated. This is real.”

Harry took a deep breath and relaxed his fist. “Please, honey: walk away. I don’t care how deep into this you guys are, you can still get out. I can protect you…I’ll keep the contract, let Jerome know that if anything happens to either of you I’ll send it to every reporter in this area code…”

“You’re scared,” Michael said.

“You’re goddamn right I am. Haven’t you been listening? Jerome can-”

“No, not of Jerome. Of Lucas…you’re afraid of letting him down. And you’re afraid of letting go of the contract. It’s the only power you have in this.”

“Please. Lucas doesn’t want this to come out any more than Jerome does.” Harry stared down at his desk and breathed loudly through his nose. Finally, he looked back up at them. “You know that this won’t just affect Lucas and Jerome, right? If it comes out, it’ll take out both of them, sure, but what about your friends? I mean, what about Robert?”

“And Litta’Bit,” Emily said. “Her mom is the other partner, right? The development, it’s where they live?”

“She…yes. She is. So why are you doing this? None of us even know if Lucas was framed or not…you could be ruining the life of your friends to help a…a drug-addicted closeted pedophile.”

Emily’s voice was low, barely audible over the rain, but she didn’t break eye contact with him. “Because if we help clear this mess up, the twins will come home.”

Harry closed his eyes and started to speak, but he didn’t say anything. He turned away from her and stared out the window across the room.

“And if you can’t help us,” Emily said, “we’ll go to Ms. Hunyh. We thought we could trust you, we thought you’d be someone we could count on. But you’re not. This doesn’t even concern you, and you’re still not going to help us.”

Michael glanced quickly over at Emily, his eyebrows raised, but she shook her head at him, just a little.

“That’s fine, though. It’s okay. We were expecting it, really. Mr. Budd said this was a long shot anyway, that you probably wouldn’t come through when push came to shove.”

“Enough.” Harry turned back to her. “I see what you’re doing…just stop it. I never said I wasn’t going to help. I just wanted both of you to understand what you were getting involved in, and give you…give you the chance to get out. I’ll turn over the envelope. I won’t get in the way of your little adventure. But–fuck me, I sound just like a Dad–but I want you to know that I’m just so…disappointed in both of you.”

Neither of them spoke. Michael looked away, and eventually Emily did, too. With a sigh, Harry Sebastian pushed himself up from behind his desk.

“Go on and visit with David. The envelope isn’t in this room, it’ll take me a second to get it.” He walked around the desk and opened the door, but he didn’t leave the office just yet. After pausing in the doorway, he turned back to Emily and Michael with a desperate look.

“Look, I don’t care what you the two of you do. But you promise me this: don’t you dare get David involved. You hear me? You leave my boy out of this.”

The rain continued to fall. “We promise,” Emily whispered.

Harry Sebastian looked into each of their faces once more, then turned and left the room.

July

Forty-Seven

Robert and Litta’Bit, sitting out on her backyard patio, could hear thunder mumbling to itself in the distance. It was raining in the city, but here the air was only damp and musty. The storm had slipped up out of the Gulf, tiptoed past them, then opened its arms over the city.

Litta’Bit hadn’t done anything for just days, so when Robert called earlier that afternoon he found her restless and lazy, and she surprised both of them by inviting him over. At the time, she thought he might have some ideas about how they could spend the evening, but as soon as he got here she remembered that Robert never had any ideas beyond “whatever you want to do.”

Well, actually, he did have an idea about something they could do together, and whenever they were alone together in the house he would attempt to put this plan into action, but…ugh. Litta’Bit had pushed him off every time.

She finally suggested they sit on the back deck while her brother jumped on the trampoline. On their way out, Litta’Bit went to pour a couple of glasses of wine for them, but her mother had been in kitchen taking her vitamins before going to bed, so she grabbed two bottles of water instead. Not because she wasn’t allowed to have a glass of white wine but because she knew her mother would tease her for “showing off”.

Westwood Village was a series of concentric circles, with the HOA building, pool, and rec center in the middle and

Litta’Bit’s home was the largest in Westwood Village, and like all the more expensive houses in the development it was on the outer perimeter, so the backyard had only the view of the surrounding stand of pine trees and not another family’s yard. The trees were a few hundred yards away, so dense and deep that they wavered in the eyes like an optical illusion. A small concrete canal, built for storm drainage rather than aesthetics, marked the edge of the Village. Sometimes there were alligators in the canal; the children of the neighborhood tossed pebbles that bounced off their tough greens heads to no effect, not even a blink.

They watched as Jason wiped off the trampoline with a towel, inching carefully around the bounce mat. Even before he started jumping, though, there were damp spots on the knees and the butt of his sweatpants.

They’d had the trampoline for years, ever since her mother had bought a sporting goods distributor in an exhausted mini-mall a few miles away. It was a competitive trampoline, used at gymnastic tournaments, with no safety features to stop the Huynh children from maiming themselves on it. They had loved it and spent countless hours of their childhood on it without injury. Well, without serious injury, anyway.

Litta’Bit was too old for it now, and hadn’t really been on it much in years. She hadn’t outgrown it so much as overgrown it: the last couple of years it had become indecent for her to be on the trampoline in anything less than her most restraining sports bra. It made her feel self-conscious about her body in a way she almost never was.

Her brother, though, had never lost interest in the trampoline, and usually spent a few hours a week on it, twisting and turning through the evening air. When the trampoline was as dry as it was gonna get, he tossed the towel over to the concrete of the patio, then began warming up. Standing in the middle of the square bounce mat, he began bouncing steadily, increasing his height a little each time. The trampoline had been used in competitions and was capable of much higher vaults than those made by companies who had to worry about lawsuits. Soon Jason was soaring up almost thirty feet into the muggy night air.

“Too overcast tonight,” he called down to his sister in the flat, unaccented way of 14-year-old boys everywhere. “I can’t see it.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think you could.”

Robert looked over at the stand of pine trees in the distance that Jason was attempting to peer over. “He can’t see what?”

Litta’Bit smiled and took a sip of his water. “On really clear days, if you get up really high, you can just make out a little sliver of the Gulf on the horizon.”

“Really?” He looked back to the trees, as though he, too, would see it. “I didn’t realize it was so close. Or that he could get that high up.”

Coming down, Jason caught Litta’Bit’s eye, the corner of his mouth turning up just a little, but he didn’t say anything.

“No, you totally can. At night, when the moon’s full, sometimes you can see it reflecting on the water, and sometimes you can see boats in the moonlight. And in the summer you can see bonfires on the coast, where people are having parties.”

Robert’s eyes widened. “Seriously?”

Litta’Bit was going to keep going, but when she opened her mouth to speak she caught her brother’s eye again and she couldn’t stop herself from laughing. Jason joined her, chuckling darkly as he left the ground again.

“No, not really. We’re not that far away from the city, geez.” Litta’Bit sat back. “That’s just something we’ve been telling the neighborhood kids for years now, that you can see ‘the coast.’”

“Ah.”

“These other kids, whenever we get on the trampoline, they come over into our yard and just stand there, silent, watching us. They never ask us if they can get on it, they’re too scared to, I guess, but they just stand there and stare at us and wait for us to ask them if they want to get on with us. Which we don’t, because Mom’s afraid of getting sued if one of the kids lose a tooth or something. And also because they’re so annoying, just standing there watching us like that.”

Robert smiled but didn’t say anything. She didn’t quite like the way he was looking at her, but she didn’t pursue it.

“Besides, there’s no ‘coast of Louisiana,’ you dunce. No wonder you’re not gonna be valedictorian. You start walking through those trees and it would be, like, five miles of solid ground, then five miles of muddy ground, then five miles of soggy ground…you know? Eventually you’d be wading through water up to your waist and surrounded by cattails.”

“Right.” He raised his eyebrows, even laughed a little. “So no bonfires, then?”

“Sorry, was that cruel? I just couldn’t help myself.”

He shrugged. “It’s okay.”

Litta’Bit started to say something, then changed her mind.  “No, no bonfires, just…swamp hillbillies and fishing boats. Though if you walk that way-” She pointed off to her right, then thought about it for a second and pointed back to the left. “-no, that way, sorry…you’ll eventually run into more Vietnamese. And more fishing boats.”

There were two distinct Vietnamese communities in New Orleans. Litta’Bit’s section was on the west bank of the Mississippi river, and was composed of immigrants from more urban parts of Vietnam. They grew up in Hà Nội or Sài Gòn and had worked in shipping offices and at universities before coming to America. Their quickly fading memories of Vietnam didn’t involve simple villages or horizons of rice paddies, but rather streets crammed with rusty bikes and laundry drying on the fire escape.

The other group of Vietnamese lived on the same side of the river as New Orleans, but so far outside of town that the landscape had become a sort of compromise between dry land and bayou. They came from the countryside of Vietnam, where they were mainly shrimpers and fishermen, and once they got to America they remained shrimpers and fishermen. In the 70s and 80s, the joke was while Litta’Bit’s group was fresh off the boat, but the eastern group never even got off the boat.

The part of town that Litta’Bit grew up in was frequently visited by white people, mostly college students or the newly graduated, who were drawn to the bubble tea cafes, unusual grocery stores, and pho restaurants of the West Bank. But no matter how exotic some of the shops were, they were still undeniably in America, and outsiders were welcome there.

The same wasn’t necessarily true in the other part of town, which had a reputation for being isolated and thoroughly unassimilated. There were few restaurants, and the shops were simple and bare, selling nothing suitable for decorating dorm room walls. There was a story that the main highway through the community had once been called Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, but had since been renamed Ho Chi Minh Trail. This was an urban legend–and, frankly, didn’t even make any sense–but it says a lot about how outsiders saw this part of New Orleans.

Jason, having warmed up, was now starting to move and twist as he rose up into the air. Soon he was twirling and rotating and corkscrewing on every jump. At last he spread his arms wide, stalled out at the top of his ascent, and fell back into a gentle double back flip. Jason had excused himself from the obligations of gravity.

After six years of near-daily sessions, Jason was able to make the trampoline disappear: he was no longer bouncing, he was weightless, caught in an airstream that lifted and lowered him, slowly turning and spinning his body.

This wasn’t exercise for him, this wasn’t practice. It was something else. Jason, usually so distracted and agitated, became something approaching serene when he was on the trampoline. Litta’Bit suspected that it was almost a form of meditation for him, though she was smarter than to actually mention this to him. (And god forbid anyone suggest that he might want to take up gymnastics…gymnastics, after all, was totally gay.)

Since their mother was home, Litta’Bit knew that he wouldn’t be doing any of his more spectacular moves–like flying over, away from the trampoline, and running along the side of the house before pushing off again–but he was still worth watching.

After a while, Litta’Bit spoke. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I think we should try to visit Mr. Budd.”

Robert looked over at the side of her face. “What do you mean?”

“I just…I don’t know, I feel like we should go over and see him. Find out if there’s anything we can do for him.”

“I really can’t imagine there is.”

“I know.” She frowned at him. “We have to do something, though, we can’t just sit around all summer. And, you know, maybe the twins can come back sooner if we help him.” She had wanted to say ‘if we help prove him innocent,’ but when she tried to speak the words she realized how corny and ridiculous it sounded, like she’d watched too much Scooby Doo. (Plus, she wasn’t even sure if he was innocent…)

“Maybe.” Robert didn’t seem to entirely agree, and Litta’Bit looked away.

“God, just forget it.”

His hand appeared gently on her arm. “No, Elizabeth…it’s something to think about. It is. But the first problem is how we’re even going to get in to see him. I drive by their house every day, and there are guards in front around the clock. I don’t think they’re letting anyone in.”

“Well, we could tell them we’re friends of the family. Or…oh! We could say that we’re Alexander and Lillian!”

“Us?”

“Yeah.”

“Me and you?”

“Who else?”

Robert looked at her in that particularly infuriating way he had when he thought she was being adorably dumb. “Honey.”

Litta’Bit crossed her arms. “What?”

“Me and you—a six foot, two and a half inch black guy and a three foot tall Vietnamese girl—are going to pretend to be brother and sister?”

“Oh.” She hadn’t really thought it through when she suggested it. “Okay, so we’re adopted.”

“We’re also supposed to be twins, too.”

Litta’Bit groaned at him, but she was laughing a little, too. So maybe strategy wasn’t her strong suit. “Never mind.”

“It’s an idea, though. We just need to think it through.”

She didn’t answer.

Robert chuckled. “Elizabeth, come on.”

“I’m not three feet tall,” she finally mumbled, with something like a smile.

“And I’m not two and half inches…” Robert grinned at her with a certain look in his eye.

“Gross.” With a massive eye roll, Litta’Bit turned back to Jason, who was just finishing up. His vaults became shorter and shorter, and his flips often went unfinished. He usually spent much longer on the trampoline, but it was Thursday night, and he never missed the Tulane radio station’s weekly hip-hop show on Thursdays.

Immediately after the show, the DJs held an all-ages event at a club near campus. Jason often pleaded with Robert to take him and his friends there, but Robert had begged off every time. Jason claimed he wanted to go with Robert because Robert had a driver’s license, but Litta’Bit suspected it was really because he was too scared to show up to a hip-hop night without a black guy beside him. (Litta’Bit had been to that lame college bar before and witnessed the melaninly-challenged dorks who turned up for hip-hop night…Jason had nothing to worry about.)

Finally, with one last defiant leap into the air, Jason was done. His butt hit the bounce mat, and, after rebounding a few times, he made his way to the edge of the trampoline. “Hey, Mom told you to put up those boxes in the guest room.”

“I know, Jason…God.” Litta’Bit hadn’t forgotten, but she’d wanted to wait until Robert left. She knew what would happen if Robert found himself alone in the secluded guest room with her.

And sure enough: “I’ll help you,” Robert said, almost immediately.

“No, it’s fine…I only have to move these boxes of stuff from the bed to the closet. They’re not heavy.” The large guest bedroom closets held boxes of old pictures, and a nostalgic Litta’Bit had been digging through them the day before, looking for pictures of the eighth grade St. Odo’s Winter Formal. She had attended the dance as Alexander’s “companion”; he discouraged the word “date.” She didn’t find the pictures and eventually got distracted by a reality show marathon in the TV room and never put the boxes up, which her mother had unhappily discovered just before Robert showed up.

Robert finished his bottle of water. “It’s no trouble. I should probably be going anyway.” He screwed the lid back on his empty water bottle, just three quick identical twists, and set it down exactly in the middle of the round patio table.

“Oh, don’t go so soon,” Litta’Bit said, because she felt it was only polite and because she didn’t really think it would get him to change his mind.

The guest bedroom was immaculate, with a large king-sized pillow-top mattress set in the middle of a cherry wood bed frame that was almost, but not quite, too big for the space. Above the bed was a large framed drawing, in delicate pen and ink, that depicted a small fishing village in Vietnam, with women wading in the water, their long skirts held in their hands, and men pushing off in a long curved boat. Sweeping calligraphy ran up the side. The room’s palette, according to the contractor, was “Spring in Aspen” and “Feather Down” and it made the room feel like the sort of place you would stay the first night after your death, while Eternity’s bureaucrats finalized your paperwork.

The room had the inert air of a space that was more about potential that actuality: it was kept in a nearly perpetual state of absolute readiness for guests that, as far back as Litta’Bit could remember, had never arrived. Ms. Huynh wasn’t the “overnight guest” type. She was, however, the “gaze upon my beautiful guest bedroom in fear and longing” type.

Robert quickly moved the boxes to the closet, one at a time. Once he was done, though, he looked at the uneven stack of different-sized boxes and, with a small frown, pulled half of them out of the closet and effortlessly rearranged them. In spite of their differences, Litta’Bit would still admit that Robert was the most efficient person she had ever known. He was like Batman. Michael moved like a cat, Alexander was extravagant in his motions, David was hyperactive, and Andre was just plain lazy, but Robert always moved with a confident crispness that was comforting and sometimes even sexy.

“There. That’s better,” he said when he was done. He was still kneeling on the floor of the closet, one crescent of azure sock revealed by his now slightly-rumpled linen trousers.

He looked up at her with an expectant smile, proud of being able to help her in this small matter. The hopeful look on his face, so different from the unchanging mask he wore when they were in public together, made Litta’Bit suddenly feel so sorry for him. She felt guilty about how she treated Robert, and at the same time she knew that it was worse than even that: she would never feel guilty enough to treat him differently.

Again she was struck by how unfair it was…unfair to him and unfair to her. She should have been stronger a few weeks ago, when she had tried to end it, she shouldn’t have taken the easy way out when he’d misunderstood what her text message had meant.

Robert, still kneeling at her feet, reached up and put his hand softly on the back of her thigh. She didn’t push it away, and he didn’t move it. He looked up at her still, his smile fading from his mouth but not his eyes.

Litta’Bit, without a word, touched the top of his head, running her thumb across his stubble. After a moment, he moved his hand up the back of her leg slowly. His palms were nearly large enough to cover her entire thigh, and the guitar’d callouses on his fingers weren’t unpleasant on her tender skin.

“Robert,” she said, not a question or a command. Just his name.

His fingers slipped beneath the hem of her denim shorts. Though small and fairly tight, her shorts were just loose enough that his hand could have slipped inside and cupped her left cheek. But when his fingers found the beginning of her plain cotton underwear, they stopped moving.

“Oh,” Robert said in a low voice. Litta’Bit always wore a thong, except for a three or four day stretch every month. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay.” She nuzzled the short growth of hair on his scalp. “I like the way your hand feels on my leg.”

“Good.” Robert had such a pretty smile…she wished he’d show it more people. “I like the way your leg feels under my hand.”

They stayed there like that for a a few seconds longer, but the moment had passed. Litta’Bit eventually stepped back and sat down on the edge of the bed. Robert stayed on the floor, leaning against the wall. She moved her bare foot over towards him with a shy smile, and he covered it up with his large hand.

“Wanna hear a funny story?” she asked at last.

“Sure.”

“Okay, see that picture on the wall?” She gestured to the framed ink drawing over the bed.

“Yes.” Robert craned his neck up and back to look at it. “Another fine import from your mother’s gallery, I assume?”

“Of course.”

By this point, most of the wealthier Vietnamese immigrants had become thoroughly American. Ms. Huynh, always one step ahead, realized what would come next: as bad as post-war Vietnam had been for many of them, they would begin to romanticize it, remember the good things more than they remembered the bad things. So she began selling Vietnam back to them.

Every grocery store in the area already sold little Vietnamese trinkets as reminders of the homeland, but Ms. Huynh was targeting the upper-middle class. She began importing expensive artworks, like the authentic reproduction above the guest bed, that they could hang on their walls and remember the good ol’ bad ol’ days. Never mind that, even back in Vietnam, most of them had never been anywhere close to a fishing village, their nostalgia made them long for simpler times that had never existed and never been close to simple.

Ms. Huynh made money selling this fine art, to be sure, but it couldn’t have been even a sliver of a percentage point of her bottom line. Litta’Bit assumed, though her mother never confirmed this, that it was more about being secure in the knowledge that she still knew what the “Overseas Vietnamese” wanted, could make them realize how badly they needed what she had, and then sell it to them at an outrageous markup while they thanked her profusely.

Litta’Bit wiggled her toes under Robert’s hand. “I was in seventh grade back when my mom first got into this business, right? And we were having a fancy Christmas party…”

“A Christmas party? But aren’t-”

“Listen, it’s a chance for the wives to dress up, drink cocktails, and silently judge the other wives. That crosses all religious barriers, trust me. So we were having this Christmas party, and like I said, my mom had just gotten into importing these phony masterpieces, so she’d hung up a lot of this art around the house. And sure enough, some of the women started asking wherever could they could get such beautiful pictures as these.”

Robert nodded deeply, his chin almost hitting his chest. “Nice.”

“The other reason we were having a party is that my mom was just starting to get involved in politics, and a few white politicians from across the river had been sniffing around. So this party was sort of a meet and greet, so my mom and these guys could see see what each other was all about.”

“And having powerful New Orleans politicians at your Christmas party was probably good for a little gloating, too, right?”

“Exactly. So one of the politicians that came over to the party was Lucas Budd, and he brought Anita and the twins. And that’s the first time I ever met Alexander or Lillian.”

“Huh.” Robert turned out his lower lip. “How odd to think about meeting the Budds for the first time.”

Robert couldn’t remember the first meeting between him and the twins, but he’d seen a picture of it his whole life. In his baby book, there was a picture of two pale newborns, just home from the hospital that day and burrito’d in blue and pink baby blankets, on either side of a slightly larger and considerably less pale two-month-old infant. The infant in blue is crying extravagantly, and the baby in pink has her head turned away with a serene expression, but baby Robert looks directly into the camera with calm unreadable eyes.

“Well, you can imagine what it was like for me, having grown up over here and never having dreamed that people like them even existed. I remember I was wearing this burgundy velvet dress with satin trim. I just loved that dress, God. I wish it still fit me.”

“Well, the length probably stills fits…” Robert smiled a little at her, and she kicked his palm with the top of her foot.

“That’s not funny. Anyway, I was in the dining room, cornered by these two evil old ladies who thought it was just hilarious and (I’m guessing) shameful that my Vietnamese was so bad, but then my mom came in and drove them back to Hell with her laser beam eyes, and she took me out into the living room to greet the new guests. And as soon as I leave the dining room I see this …boy, and he was wearing a suit. But not the kind of suit the boys at my school wore on picture day, this suit had thin rounded lapels and it fit him perfectly. The way he wore it, it was like it was just made for him. Which it probably was, sure, but I didn’t know that at the time…I didn’t even know the concept of that at the time.”

“Was Lillian there?”

“I’m getting to that, hold on. And this boy was surrounded by adults, talking to them, charming them, holding a glass of ginger ale like it was a cocktail and offering them clove cigarettes from a little case he kept in his breast pocket.”

Robert laughed. “Oh man, he was so insufferable in seventh grade.”

“Looking back on it, sure. But at the time, he just blew my mind. I had to know this guy. But my mom wanted to introduce me to his sister first, and I turned and here was this beautiful girl, taller than me but—I don’t know—more fragile looking somehow. My hair had taken me an hour to do, it was all curled and pinned up and sprayed, but she hadn’t really done anything fancy with her hair except comb it out really straight and wear a really simple jeweled hairband. And it was simple but just stunning, so long down her back and framing her face just perfectly.”

“I wish she’d grow her hair out again.”

“No, I like it short. It fits her.” Litta’Bit held her shirt out from her tummy, like she was showing it to him. “But then I saw her gown…it was burgundy velvet with satin trim.”

He shook his head. “The same dress.”

“No. That’s the point…it wasn’t the same dress at all. It was the same color and the same material, but her’s was so much more elegant and simple than mine, it was was like my gown was made out of a beach towel. But you know how Lillian is…it wasn’t like it made me jealous or hate her, it just made want to know her, to make her my friend. She just has this way, you know?”

“I know.”

“So then my mom takes me over and introduces me to the boy. And he totally blows me off! He was nice about it—he says hi, he shakes my hand—but then he turns and starts talking to my mother and someone else.”

Robert nodded. “Our Alexander.”

“Look, I’m not trying to be conceited or anything, but I wasn’t exactly used to a boy acting casual around me, if you know what I mean. But it was like that the rest of the evening…he’d acknowledge me when I spoke, smile at me, but then he’d turn away again.”

The guest bedroom was directly below Jason’s bedroom, and they could hear him moving around, accompanied by the faint murmur of his stereo’s bass.

“Finally, after a couple hours of this, after I was convinced he didn’t want to have anything to do with me at all, he shows up at my side and starts whispering in my ear, making a joke about the dress one of the politicians’ wives was wearing. I was gonna play it cool, freeze him out since he’d been so rude to me, but he was being so funny and charming that, once he started paying attention to me, it was like looking into the sun.”

Litta’Bit looked down at the duvet and smoothed it out with her hand.

“And I didn’t really know how to talk to boys. Don’t laugh! I mean talk to boys whose opinion of me I cared about…I’d never met any until I met him. I knew how to string them along and I knew how to destroy them, but I didn’t know what to do with Alexander. So I led him away from the party and made out with him.”

Litta’Bit peeked at him from the corner of her eye. Robert had been there during the intermittent relationship she and Alexander had during eighth and ninth grade, but now she almost never mentioned it in front of him. It didn’t seem Proper.

“Wow, that was some story, honey. Thanks for sharing that,” he said at last. He said it with a laugh, but Litta’Bit thought the chuckle was a little forced.

“No, listen. That’s not the funny part. We got Lillian to stand by the door and act as a lookout, right? This was in our old house, where the extra bedroom was at the end of a long hallway, so if people were coming, she was supposed to knock at the door once and then come in, like the three of us were just hanging out away from the party. Well, what I didn’t know was that back in the living room, more and more people had started asking my mom about the new pictures and photographs in the house, and she of course had started slyly talking about how nice it was to have, you know, beautiful reminders of Vietnam in her American home.”

“Was I at this party?” Robert asked suddenly. “I remember being at your old house for something around that time.”

“That was a dinner party in the spring. I didn’t know you yet at the Christmas party, I’d just met the Budds that night.”

“Are you sure we didn’t know each other yet?”

“Yeah, I know for a fact we didn’t. I didn’t meet you until a couple weeks later. This was the Christmas party, you and I didn’t meet until my Mom and I came to your parents’ New Year’s Eve party.”

Robert licked his lips slowly, nervously. “Tell the rest of the story.”

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. Tell me the rest of the story.”

Litta’Bit frowned at him, then started talking again. “So the Vietnamese women want to see more of the art, and my mom decides to show them this picture here, which was in the room me and Alexander were in. And for whatever reason, Lillian doesn’t knock on the door at all, so (this is the funny part) the next thing I know the door’s opening and there’s not just my mom and his parents but pretty much the entire party, including a bunch of disapproving middle-aged Vietnamese women, staring down at me. And of course my hair and my make-up are messed up, and my gown is all twisted around, and Alexander of course doesn’t jump off of me like a normal guy would but instead he straightens up all slow and adjusts his cuffs. Ha.”

Litta’Bit waited for Robert to respond, but he didn’t make a sound. Over the course of the story, his face had slowly crumpled, and towards the end he moved his hand from her foot and sunk his face into his palms.

“That’s classic Alexander, right? Just shooting his cuffs like that.”

Robert still didn’t respond, and she bit her lip. Why was hearing about her and Alexander bothering him so much?

“And then, just before Lucas grabbed him by the arm and pulled him out of the room, Alexander reached into his back pocket and offered me his handkerchief. To wipe my mouth with or to fix my makeup, I don’t know.” She didn’t mention that she still had that handkerchief upstairs in a drawer, the ALB monogram almost worn out from the idle tracing of her fingertips.

Robert didn’t speak, didn’t move, didn’t make a sound at all. He stayed there, on the floor, his head in his hands. She could hear his breath, heavy and steady as it left his slightly open mouth.

“Robert?” She moved her foot over and stroked his ankle with her big toe. He didn’t react at all. “Honey?”

Robert’s brow furrowed under his hands, which were now gripping his head so tightly the skin under his fingernails was deep red bleached to stark white. Litta’Bit wished she could see his face.

“Robert, look at me, baby.” Litta’Bit, to her surprise, found her eyes getting wet and her voice catching. She’d never seen him like this, not even when his grandfather passed away and she was the only one with him when he got the call. “You’re freaking me out. Robert, please.”

He exhaled, heavily, from deep within himself. Slowly he dropped his hands, revealing eyes wide as though in wonder and lips that moved without making a sound. Then he blinked hard once, then twice more, and seemed to come into focus.

“Elizabeth,” Robert said, his voice even and firm. “We have to break up.”

“…what!?”

“We-” He pinched the bridge of his nose, then let go and opened his eyes again. “We have to break up. It’s for the best.”

“What are you talking about, you maniac?” Litta’Bit laughed, but it had no effect on him.

“You’re unhappy, and you take it out on me so I’ll be unhappy with you. That’s not cool and you know it.”

“What are you…?” Before she knew she was doing it, she had reached up with her foot and gave his calf a short kick. “I’m not unhappy. What would I have to be unhappy about?”

Robert shook his head and prepared to stand up off the floor. “I don’t know.” His voice grew a little softer. “I wish I did.”

“Are you…are you serious about this?”

Robert brought his knees up, lifting himself up off the floor in a lean motion, then brushed down the wrinkles in his pants again. “Indeed.”

“Robert, look at me. Stop being such an asshole.” She pushed at his chest until he finally met her eyes. “I don’t understand what the fuck is going on here. I tell this dumb story and all of a sudden you go all crazy.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me.” His face was perfectly composed, and it worried Litta’Bit. This was the same cryptic, almost haughty, face he showed the rest of the world, not the exhausting love-sick vulnerability she saw so often these days. “There’s something wrong with us.”

Litta’Bit rolled her eyes. “Oh, hey, that’s cute. Very clever.”

“Elizabeth, listen to me.”

Robert’s face had softened a little, and he put one of his hands on her shoulder. Litta’Bit was annoyed and wanted to shrug it off, but she suffered it if only to hear what he wanted to say.

“You’re…you’re my trampoline. You’re out there bouncing up into the sky, laughing, having a good time. And here I am, silent, standing on the side and just watching you, waiting for you to ask me to join you but you never do and you never will.”

Litta’Bit glared at him, her mouth set hard and cruel.

“So we break up. Maybe not forever, okay, maybe just for the summer. We’ll be apart for a while, see how it goes, then talk before school starts.”

“No. Absolutely not. If you want to break up with me, then make sure that’s what you want because there is no way in hell I’m gonna let you come back. I’m not gonna be a part of your experiment.”

“It’s not like-”

You don’t break up with me!” she yelled suddenly, much louder and more vehemently than she meant to.

Robert’s only reaction was a sly smile, which made her so mad she dug her fingernails into her palm. They both waited, listening to the house for a moment to see if her family had heard her yell…apparently not.

“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” she hissed. “You and me, we don’t break up. We’re Robert and Litta’Bit.”

Robert didn’t respond, he just reached into his pocket and brought out his keys. Litta’Bit sighed, and found that her breath was ragged in her mouth.

“Fine. Go.” Litta’Bit turned away, ashamed that she was seconds from sobbing, with a mixture of anger, shock, and sadness in her veins. They’d broken up so many times, but it had never felt as final as this. Robert wasn’t mad at her…he was tired of her, and that pissed her off and made her want to burst into tears. “You’re not coming back.”

“If that’s what you want, I understand.” Robert looked at the side of her face, but she refused to look over at him. “Goodnight, Elizabeth.”

She didn’t say anything until he’d put on his jacket and turned away. He was almost to the door when her voice, full of a pleading and desperation she hadn’t intended, called out his name.

The sound of her voice got him to stop. Robert turned back to her and, seeing her expression, took her in his arms. She pressed her wet face against his chest and breathed in Robert’s familiar scent of leather and spices and starch.

His voice got soft again, one last time: “Elizabeth, I’m sorry.”

“You’re not.”

A warm palm on her back. “I am.”

“Then take it all back.” Litta’Bit hated the childish pout in her voice.

“I can’t, I’m sorry. I just…I just need some time, I promise. Let me get my head straight, okay? It’s just for the summer. You’ll see.”

“Okay.” She turned her hopeful face up to his. “Spend the night.”

Robert hesitated, or maybe she just imagined it. “I can’t. I want to, but I can’t. We have to do this quick. Like a band-aid.”

Litta’Bit sunk back down to the bed. It was her turn to bury her face in her hands. She knew she was being dramatic, but she didn’t care. Her hands smelled of the cheap dish soap her mother insisted on buying by the gallon at Sam’s Club. It was a brassy institutional scent, and Alexander always claimed it smelled “like poverty.”

There was a silence in the room, one that lasted for far longer than it should have. After what must have been minutes, it occurred to Litta’Bit, her face still in her hands, that Robert must have slipped out in his silent, efficient way.

“Are you still here?” she asked the room, not expecting an answer.

“Yes,” Robert said. His voice was gentle, and closer than she would have thought. His hand stroked her hair once, and she could feel the sadness in his touch. “I love you, Elizabeth.”

She didn’t answer him, not for a long time. She didn’t want to respond, didn’t want to let him end this on his terms. But she remembered how she felt just a few minutes ago, when she’d thought about how unfair she had been to him, how guilty it made her feel when she took him for granted. She dropped her hands and slowly looked up with a sad loving smile, but he was gone.

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Forty-Eight

To students at other private schools in New Orleans, one thing stood out about the kids who went to Beaumonde Academy above all others. It wasn’t the fastidious clothes, it wasn’t the understated etiquette, it wasn’t even the stilted and cautious way they spoke to one another at social gatherings, it was simply this: Beaumonde students never got drunk.

They drank, sure. They would even get tipsy–on red wine or elaborate cocktails, never beer from a can or vodka smuggled in a water bottle–and when they were tipsy they would take off their high heels or loosen their club ties, talk in their outside voices and laugh too loud. But they never got hammered, they never got wasted, they never got shit-faced. To other teenagers, born and raised in the middle of New Orleans, this was the one oddity they’d never understand.

Alexander insisted that Proper meant being in complete control of yourself and maintaining an air of detached dignity, and excessive alcohol consumption made this impossible. He had nothing against drinking, but he hated drunkenness as much as he hated any other loss of decorum or control, from temper tantrums to impromptu dancing.

It wasn’t always like this, however. In fact, one could pinpoint the exact moment that he revised the definition of Proper to exclude excessive drinking: the bleary morning after the twins’ tenth-grade Halloween party.

Alexander and Lillian had decided that the beginning of sophomore year was the Proper time to start drinking, and their Halloween party was the perfect opportunity. This being a Budd party, though, it was no mere high-school kegger. It was a costume party, of course, and the theme was The Roaring 20s: the Budds’ backyard and patio was turned into a speakeasy, serving only martinis and “bathtub gin.”

Unfortunately, the Beaumonde student body had a grasp of history was spotty at best…Alexander, Robert, and Andre spent an enjoyable half hour on the balcony as the guests arrrived, chuckling at what their classmates considered 1920s fashions. There were gangsters, private eyes, greasers, hepcats, beatniks, and—in two separate and unfortunate cases—hippies.

The Darling Budds and their Gang, however, were impeccably dressed, their costumes selected and approved by the twins. This party had been inspired by a book they were reading for their 10th grade English class, about a rich bootlegger’s relatively unsuccessful attempts to patch things up with his ex-. Unbeknownst to the other attendees, The Gang was dressed as characters from this novel.

The party was a victory on multiple fronts, first and foremost by demonstrating to the school that Michael wasn’t a wild variable among Beaumonde’s underclassmen any more. He was no longer the beautiful boy with the gorgeous clothes who wanted nothing to do with the twins…he was now safely enfolded into the The Gang. The message, whether the twins intended it or not, was sent to the rest of the school: The Darling Budds had met the invader, and had conquered him.

The party also introduced The Gang to the world of alcohol in a number of drastic ways as the night unfolded, none of which need to be detailed here except to say that the party was an evening of buzzing camaraderie, drunken confrontation, and catatonic reconciliation.

The next afternoon The Gang reconvened at the Budds’ house, where they struggled to nibble on croissants and sip at weak mimosas. A weary and headache-y Alexander declared that from here on only moderate social drinking was Proper, and only then after a few months of recovery.

And so it had been for the next two years, throughout all of sophomore and junior year. Some Gangmembers drank more than the others–and some didn’t drink at all–but no one ever drank to impropriety. At parties, for example, Litta’Bit was known to get flirty, even openly affectionate, with random classmates who couldn’t quite believe that this specific impossible dream was coming true for them, but she never lost herself to the point that she didn’t eventually turn away, adjust the strap of her dress, and leave the party on wobbly heels, supported by the arm of her dour boyfriend.

(The next Monday at school, the object of her flirting often discovered that he was shunned by Litta’Bit and her entire coterie of near-identical underclassmen girls, and that his social standing at Beaumonde had slipped in some small but measurable way that he would never understand.)

What was true for the Gang was more or less true for the rest of the school. Of course, the seniors, who had never signed on to the twins’ agenda and had spent their last year at Beaumonde in blinking incomprehension at what their school had become, retreated into weekends flowing with substances both legal and otherwise. But the underclassmen had mastered the art of  politely waving away the offered bottle once they knew they’d had enough.

Having said all that, however: a few hours after meeting with Harry Sebastian, Emily and Michael found themselves with David on the back deck of the Sebastian home, stretched out on chaise lounges before the lazy shimmer of the lighted swimming pool, doing a spectacularly poor job of not getting drunk.

• • •

It hadn’t started out like that. After meeting with Harry Sebastian, Emily and Michael had slipped back out of the house and called David, telling him they had just pulled up. David, who appeared to have been sleeping, said to meet him on the back deck. Since the rain had stopped, they’d sit by the pool and enjoy the evening. By the time they worked their way through the house again, David had put out a couple of bottles, a bucket of ice, and three glasses. The deck was wet, but the rain had finished for the evening. There were even a few overenthusiastic stars attempting to shine in the dark sky above.

Still overcome by nerves and unwilling to think through what they’d just learned about the situation, Emily and Michael made and finished a drink before David had even come back out of the house with the tonic water. He saw the empty glasses in their hands and the way their faces turned away from him in smiling embarrassment. “Guess we won’t be needing mixers, then…”

The unspoken idea had been to loosen up, to forget for a while what they’d just become involved in. The plan soon expanded to include getting tipsy, and after a bit more they discovered that their drinking strategy was flexible enough to allow them to tiptoe right up to the edge of drunkenness, if not trip and fall headfirst into it.

A couple of drinks in, one of the French doors opened a bit and Harry, with a blank face and his own overly-full highball glass, asked Emily if she would mind moving her car. When she returned a few minutes later, she discreetly patted her purse as she passed by Michael’s lounge chair. She had the documents…they’d done their part, the twins would be coming home any day now, and the crisis of the summer would all be over soon. Time to celebrate.

This was just what they needed, and David was just the person they needed to be with. He fiddled with his iPod dock and told them outrageous stories about what their classmates had gotten up to so far that summer. There had been breakups and hookups; close calls and free-for-alls; all-nighters, lost lighters, and I’ll-be-alrighters.

Away from the society of Beaumonde Academy, the students had slowly started to revert into the teenagers they would have been otherwise. It had been like this the past two summers as well, but the dramatic departure of the Budds had made the decline more precipitous.

In the fall, what was left of The Gang would have to marshall its forces and unite the school again, even if the twins didn’t end up coming back after all. What they were doing there at Beaumonde was bigger than the twins; it would have to survive without them. But that evening by the swimming pool, they too felt the hold of the twins loosening, if only for the night. Proper just so seemed so far away.

Michael had his shirt untucked and mostly unbuttoned in the moist heat that had crept into the backyard once the rain had slipped out. Earlier, they’d laid down towels on the wet concrete and dangled their feet in the pool, and so he was still barefoot, his chinos rolled up to his knees like Huck Finn.

Beside him, Emily sat very still on the chaise lounge, her legs straight out and crossed at the ankles, with her arms placed almost scientifically on the armrests. She looked past the pool, squinting at the dark horizon as though it were hours later and she was refusing to turn away from the rising sun. Maybe her dress had ridden up a bit, because it seemed that more of her slightly freckled thighs were on display than had been just a little while ago.

David, on Michael’s other side, had wanted to face his friends, but had been far too tired to stand up and turn the chaise lounge, so instead he’d just twisted his body around in the seat and propped his feet up on the reclined back. At some point he’d unlaced a long nylon cord from a pool float and tied it into an oversized loop, and now he made sloppy Jacob’s Ladders with it as he emptied himself of all the scandals he’d stored up. “I may even have a little gossip about Josephine, if you can believe it, but I’m not sure yet,” he was saying when a cell phone began ringing.

David stopped talked, and both him and Michael rolled their heads towards Emily. The DJ set that David had put on infinite repeat played on softly behind them, as though an impossibly cool European nightclub–far different from the frat bars and tourist traps of New Orleans–had opened just around the corner and down the street. The phone rang again.

Emily suddenly jumped. “Oh! That’s me, that’s my phone.” She swiveled around to sitting, tugging her dress down as she did, and reached under the seat for her purse.

While Emily answered her phone, Michael turned his head back over towards David. “Gossip about Josephine?”

“And maybe some about Andre, too. But I don’t know if any of it is true yet or not.”

“Hasn’t stopped you before.”

David nodded his head. “True.”

“Honey, calm down,” Emily was saying softly into the phone. She stood up slowly, steadying herself on the armrest. “It’ll be okay.”

With a raised index finger and a significant look, Emily slipped inside the sunroom, talking worriedly into the phone. She seemed steadier than Michael thought she should have been, and he wondered if he’d overestimated how much she’d had. Emily didn’t refuse alcohol like Josephine—or pretend to drink like Andre—but she was always more of a sipper than a drinker (though he could have sworn he’d just seen her gulping.)

She was in the sunroom for quite a while, maybe ten minutes, during which time David pledged that he had known Josephine since second grade and he would never tell Michael any story about her unless he had her explicit permission, or unless he was 100% certain it was true, or unless he had reasonable cause to suspect it was more-or-less true, or unless it was too juicy to keep to himself. Michael enjoyed teasing it out of David much more than he cared what the gossip was, and he was just on the verge of getting him to break when Emily came out of the sunroom, tucking her phone into her purse. She looked worried.

“Guys, I have to go, I’m sorry.”

“Go? Why?” David and Michael had both turned in their chairs, and were beginning the process of standing up slowly.

“That was Litta’Bit. She’s a wreck…her and Robert broke up.”

David and Michael glanced at each other, not wanting to be the one who said the obvious. Finally, David came out with it: “Uh, so?”

“No, Robert broke up with her.”

“Oh my god.”

Emily nodded, one corner of her mouth turned up. “So she needs somebody over there.”

“Wait.” Michael blinked substantially, then again. “You’re in no shape to drive.”

“I know, I already called a cab. It’ll be here in a few minutes.” Emily began digging for something in her oversized purse, never an easy procedure in the best of circumstances and apparently all but impossible now.

“A cab?” David said. “A cab ride over there is gonna cost you like fifty bucks.”

Emily looked up from her search. “It’s- I didn’t really call a cab. I called one of my dad’s drivers. It’s a service we use.”

“Oh, we’ll all ride together! It’ll be fun.” David patted his pants and shirt, as though looking for something himself, then shook his head. “Eh, probably not a good idea. But, no offense, why did she call you and not me? I’m an expert at being broken up with. Years of practice.”

Emily had apparently found what she’d been trying to find. She folded it up while her hand was still in her purse, then tried to put it in Michael’s palm. “Since I can’t drive you home. For the taxi.”

It was a twenty dollar bill. Michael stepped away, his hands held up. This was probably an overly-dramatic gesture, but in his not-technically-drunk state, Michael found that dramatic gestures were the only ones he was capable of. “No, no. I’ll be fine.”

She frowned at him just a little. “Please. I feel guilty.”

Michael could tell that David, out of the corner of his eye, was observing the exchange with clear curiosity. “I’ll spend the night with David,” he said, stepping closer and putting first one, then both arms around his skinny waist.

At this, David brightened considerably. “Yeah, he’s staying here with me.” He looked over at Michael, his face very close, and put his hand on Michael’s bare torso. “Do you sleep on the right side of the bed or the left?”

“The right.”

“That’s perfect! So do I.”

A few minutes later, a sleek black Lincoln materialized in front of the house, and a driver in an ill-fitting but otherwise immaculate suit actually escorted an embarrassed Emily to the car, an umbrella needlessly over her head and his hand hovering a few inches behind the small of her back. The boys watched the production, and even raised their hands to wave as the car drove off, though the windows had been tinted until they were indistinguishable from the rest of the car.

“A drink before bed?” David asked, once the car had slipped into the darkness at the end of the street.

“I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

But once they were back in their deck chairs, new drinks in their hands, they both found that the mood had changed. Not necessarily changed for the worse, but definitely changed. Michael had no idea what time it was, but he could tell that it was no longer just late…it was the middle of the night, and a middle-of-the-night mood prevailed.

They sipped their drinks and watched the slow-motion shimmer of the water’s reflection on the back wall of the yard. David’s next-door neighbor had an elaborate garden hidden away behind his eight-foot brick walls, and the broad tops of his banana trees rolled around to their own rhythm, seemingly independent of the light warm breeze of the night.

David sat his drink down on the patio with a careful motion that was nevertheless accompanied by the slight sound of glass scraping on the concrete. He looked up at Michael, his head still bent low. “I know gossip about you, too.”

Michael smiled over at him, a friendly smirk playing on the corner of his lips. “That’s my favorite kind of gossip.” Stay calm, this is David. It’s probably nothing.

 

“Like…I know how you really feel about Emily. I see the way you look at her when she’s not paying attention.”

Michael felt his chest go wobbly. He kept his face composed, but without even realizing it he tensed and twisted his toes on the cushion.

“It’s okay,” David said. “I won’t tell Alexander that you secretly hate his girlfriend.”

Michael, who’d been doing his best impression of a louche degenerate all night, let out a single barking laugh. It was a bit out of character, but he only realized that after the laugh had bounced off the back wall and returned to him. “I don’t hate Emily, David. We just have a complicated relationship, that’s all.”

“Hey, who doesn’t?” David waved it away. “But I know more gossip about you. And this one I know for a fact is true.”

“Oh, I can barely wait.”

“Well, it seems that your girlfriend…” The eager smile on David’s face soured and then disappeared completely. He pinched his eyes shut. “No, fuck it, wait…not like this. I’m sorry, Michael, I’m just drunk.”

“Sorry for what?”

“Sorry for almost telling you about it like that. Sometimes…” David put his fists up to his eyes for a moment. “Sometimes I get so lost acting like this dishy bitchy queen that I forget that I’m not really like that. It’s fun to pretend, and I’m good at it, but it’s not me. You know?”

Michael was too tipsy not to chuckle at that. “Yes, I know. But what were you going to say about Lillian?”

With a sigh David sat up on the lounge chair and swung his legs off to the side. “I was gonna say…I was gonna say that your girlfriend had been cheating on you, making out with another guy. And that it knew it was true because, well…because the other guy was me.”

Michael breathed in and breathed out. Deep inside himself, he wondered, quite detached, whether he was really upset by this news. If he had a right to be.

“And I’m sorry I tried to tell you about it like it was just a laugh, that was shitty.” David slipped across the divide between the chairs and landed on Michael’s cushion. “But maybe it wasn’t really cheating? Because of who I am? And because it was just once?”

“Tell me what happened.” Michael, oddly, felt almost a bit groggy, as though he was fighting sleep. He took a sip of his drink, holding the glass in both hands like it was hot cocoa.

“Well, it was one of those times when we were shooting the pictures for Mom’s shop. Maybe the third set of pictures? I can’t remember. It was one of the sets where we were in full-on Couple Mode.”

David reached over, stretching as far as he could without quite getting up off the lounge chair, and pulled his drink closer by his fingertips.

“And we just couldn’t get it right. None of the shots were good at all…the photographer showed us the pictures on his little screen, and it just looked like Lillian and I were playing dress-up, you know? Or in a school play.” He finished his drink, slowly spitting an ice cube from his mouth back into the glass. “Damn, we should have just brought the bottle over.”

“Here, have some of mine.” Michael had to slow down anyway, this was getting ridiculous.

David made a face. “I don’t know…where’s your mouth’s been?”

“I’ll never tell.”

David laughed, putting one hand on Michael’s leg for just a second. “Okay, so. My mom’s there, her assistants are there, the photographer is there, his girlfriend-slash-assistant is there, and Lillian and I are just burning everyone’s time because all of our shots are just garbage. Everyone’s getting frustrated with us, and we’re getting frustrated with ourselves, so my mom calls a lunch break and takes everyone over to that vegetarian café that used to be next door to her shop. The one that was there before the owner of the café divorced her Daddy and he turned it into a spa for dogs? I was gonna go with them, but Lillian asked me to stay with her so we could practice.”

“Practice being a couple?”

“It wasn’t like that. Except after a while, it was like that. At first it was just us posing on the couch, her sitting on my lap or us just holding hands. Then we tried to make up a story about what kind of couple we were. How we met, where we went to school, what kind of bands we were into, stuff like that. And then we started practicing…I know this sounds really weird, but then we started practicing saying ‘I love you’ to each other. Like looking into each other’s eyes and trying to be the people we’d made up, trying to feel all the things they’d feel.”

“Whose idea was all this?”

“Mine. It was all my idea.”

“Really? Because it sounds like the sort of thing Lillian would come up with.”

“I-” David’s eyes flicked away for a second.  “I don’t know, it was a long time ago. Like months.”

“So after you practiced saying ‘I love you,’ that’s when you started kissing?” Michael wasn’t asking out of a burning jealousy; he was just moving the story along.

“That’s when we started kissing, yeah. It just…made sense, you know? We kissed for, I don’t know, ten minutes. That sounds like a long time. Maybe less?”

David played with a small pendant he was wearing around his neck on a simple leather cord, a gift from the guy in Chicago he’d be visiting soon. David claimed he never took it off under any circumstances.

“I don’t know what Lillian was after…she’s so hard to read. I guess you’re probably aware of that, ha. But I do know that once everyone got back to the studio and we started shooting again, whatever problem the two of us were having, it was gone. We got so many good shots that day, especially that one they use all the time.”

“The one with her hand on your chest?”

“Yeah, that one.” David sighed. “If it makes you feel any better, I never really felt like I was kissing her, you know? I was kissing her mouth, but I wasn’t kissing her.”

David looked away, shaking his head slightly. This wasn’t the dramatic David whose every motion was saturated with theatrics. This was the other one, the one Michael wished he saw more often.

“That’s all, I guess. I’ve felt really guilty about it ever since, and I’ve always tried to convince myself that it wasn’t that big of a deal. I mean, I’m gay, and we were just rehearsing for the camera… But if it wasn’t that big of a deal, then why couldn’t I just tell you about it?”

“David, it’s okay.” Michael put his hand on David’s. He’d meant to just pat his hand, but David held on. “You were just playing a role.”

“But I wasn’t! That’s the thing. I wanted to kiss her. Maybe not actually really kiss her, obviously, but…I don’t know.” He shook his head again, then looked back over at Michael. The look in his eyes was one that Michael was familiar with. “Making out with me meant that, for however long we were kissing, Lillian was thinking about me. You can’t ignore someone when they have their tongue in your mouth. And it meant that, for a few minutes at least, I had joined them in a way. That’s all I wanted. I didn’t want to make your girlfriend cheat on you, I swear. I just wanted to be a part of their life.”

“I know, David. Believe me, I know.”

David nodded slowly, his eyes closed in exhaustion or drunkenness or regret, and something about the motion touched Michael. He pulled on David’s hand and brought him forward, until he lay beside Michael on the lounge chair, his hand on Michael’s chest. Through the cottony fog of the liquor, it occurred to Michael that this was an advantage to gay friends: you could comfort them the way human beings should comfort each other, without worrying about clumsy back slaps and bro hugs.

The night was as quiet as Uptown New Orleans got. In the distance, a helicopter was landing somewhere in the hospital district, probably bringing the victim of a backwoods drunk driving accident into the big city’s trauma unit. A car passed by two streets over, its fan belt crying out in protest of the late night trip. And the pool’s filter gargled on, tempting Michael’s eyelids to close.

“Do you know what some of the girls at the school call you?” David asked, long after Michael thought he must be asleep.

“Is this more gossip about me?”

“This is the ultimate gossip about you.” David, his face on Michael’s chest, looked up at him. “They call you Perfect Michael.”

“Heh. And the gossip is that I’m not so perfect? Frankly, I’ve been suspecting that for a while now.”

David smiled a little and propped himself up on one elbow. “No, the gossip is that none of those girls have any idea how difficult it is for you.”

“How difficult what is?” Now that David was up, Michael closed his shirt. He didn’t button it.

“Trying to keep your secret safe. Pretending to be something you’re not. Living a lie.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Michael said in an even voice, but apparently David saw all the confirmation he needed on Michael’s face.

“It’s okay, Michael. It’s just us tonight. I’ve known for a while now, I figured it out a few months after you got to Beaumonde. And I might be a gossip, but I want you to know that I’ve never told anyone. Not anybody in the Gang, not anyone at school.”

Michael tried to swallow, and found that his mouth had suddenly gone dry. He wanted to speak, but the words had been drowned in his cocktail glass.

“That’s all…I just wanted you to know that I knew the truth about you, about who you really are. And I need you to know something: I understand how you feel, like you have to pretend to be the same as everyone else when you know deep down how different you are. I’m here for you, Michael.”

Wait. “David, what are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about the person you are at school, the one who works so hard to keep up appearances. And I’m talking about the person you are at home, when you’re alone. I know how ashamed of yourself you must feel. But Michael, it wasn’t your fault how you were born. All that matters is who you become afterwards.”

“David, I’m not gay.”

David’s smile was maddeningly vague. “Okay.” He leaned forward and put his lips against Michael’s.

Michael didn’t move, but he didn’t move away, either. David’s lips kissed at his, and he let him, though he didn’t kiss back.

Once again, Michael found that his emotions had hidden away, leaving only detached intellectual curiosity behind. This was the first time another boy had ever kissed him, and Michael assumed it would probably be one of the last, so he tried to record the sensation and his thoughts for posterity.

He asked himself if he was enjoying it, and he decided that he wasn’t, not particularly. It was like kissing a cousin, close but not close enough. David was thin and his hair was long and soft against Michael’s face. Aside from a small bit of roughness along the chin, it wasn’t that different from being kissed by a girl. However, Michael suspected that this wasn’t the answer David would have wanted to hear: that Michael only liked the parts of kissing him that overlapped with kissing a girl.

Was he aroused? Again, he took stock of himself and saw that he wasn’t. He hated to say this (it wasn’t very 21st century of him) but he was relieved by this. The relief wasn’t from not being gay so much as having his sexuality settled one way or the other. So many of his friends acted like being gay was something that waited, just under the surface, for the proper stimuli to nurture it. Like a straight guy could be just living his life, getting hard-ons when girls walked by, when all of a sudden he accidentally clicks on the wrong website and boom: gay for life. Michael knew homosexuality didn’t really work like that, but still, it was nice to know that his sexuality was settled once and for all, having survived a fairly substantial challenge.

Michael moved his hands up to David’s chest, and—after puckering up at last and giving him one soft chaste kiss back—gently pushed him away. The two of them regarded each other there in the humid darkness, then they both sunk into a easy laughter.

David waved his hand, brushing away the air between them. “Eh, it was worth a shot.”

“So, you use that little speech a lot? About how hard it is living a lie?”

David looked at him with something like a smirk and something like a grin, Michael couldn’t tell which. “Why would I?”

There was only about two swallows left in Michael’s glass, so he drank half and handed the rest to David, who finished it.

David shook his head a little, looking past Michael, then made eye contact with him.

“It’s been a long summer,” Michael said, his voice hinting at a laughter he didn’t feel.

David released a sigh that turned into a slight chuckle. “You’re telling me.”

He slid back over to his lounge chair, and the two of them sat there in the lukewarm breeze of the wet summer night, watching the swaying shadows cast by the floodlights through the banana trees. Neither of them seemed in any danger of being awake in five minutes.

“Perfect Michael,” he said to no one, not even himself.

David had been digging around in the cushions of his chair, and finally excavated his cell phone. A red light on an upper corner blinked out a five part rhythm.

“Five missed calls?” David peered at the screen, as though it were written in a language he had only a passing familiarity with. “All from Litta’Bit, hours ago. My ringer was off…she did call me first.”

Michael looked over at him, his eyes barely open. “Probably for the best. Girls know how to deal with stuff like this better than us.”

But David was asleep, or irreversibly close, with the black rectangle of the cell phone still lying flat and heavy in his palm. Michael thought he should get up, find the blankets the Sebastians kept in the sunroom, but the thought hadn’t even finished before it grew indistinct in his mind and became a kind of dream, and he was asleep as well.

July

Forty-Nine

Robert Johnson was lost. After leaving Elizabeth’s, trying and failing to not think about what had just happened, he found he didn’t feel like being at home…didn’t feel like being anywhere. So he passed by the gates of house and continued down St. Charles without stopping. He began drifting through Uptown on a mindless course, turning right here, left there, and soon he was lost.

Well, not exactly lost, really…Uptown isn’t that big. He knew that all he had to do was drive towards the river or towards Canal Street for just a few minutes and he’d know where he was.

But Robert preferred, in his current state, to continue drawing his random patterns throughout the city. The windows were down and the moon roof was open, and he had one of WWOZ’s late night jazz shows on just a bit too loud. All he knew was that he couldn’t stand the idea of being locked away in his room. He knew that if he sat alone, the only person awake in his house, he’d start to think about the story Elizabeth had told him, so he drove on through the damp dark streets of the city.

He’d considered going somewhere — that all-night coffeehouse on Magazine, maybe, or even back across the river to wander through the aisles of the 24-hour Wal-Mart — but he didn’t want to go alone. But then, when he tried to think of people to be with, no one came to mind. He tried calling Andre and didn’t get an answer, hanging up without leaving a message.

In retrospect it made so much sense: for as long as he’d known the twins, Lillian had always mimicked the people around her in her own off-kilter way. It wasn’t done out of jealousy, it seemed, but out of an analytical curiosity, an attempt to replicate their behavior through her own actions. People always said that Lillian’s heart-shaped face, large eyes, and silent unknowable demeanor made her look like an alien. And maybe it was true after all…like an extraterrestrial anthropologist doing field work among humanity, Lillian imitated others to live inside them for a bit, to gain an understanding of how they acted.

Robert didn’t hit the steering wheel with the palm of his hand, but he wanted to. He had to maintain control. He had to, even though his last five years had been a lie. No, not a lie, worse: a misunderstanding, a mistake, a misinterpretation that Robert had built on for years. Back in seventh grade, Lillian hadn’t wanted to kiss him, she had just wanted to get caught kissing someone, the way Alexander had been caught the week before. It just so happened that Robert was in the room with her. It could have been anyone else.

But Robert had believed it was about him, that she had offered herself to him that New Year’s Eve, and only his weakness and uncertainty had prevented him from taking her. At midnight, he’d had the only possible New Year’s Resolution: to drive those qualities out of himself, to sweat them out like a fever. He’d become even stricter, even more controlled. Where before there had been vulnerability, now there was only determination; where there had been doubt, now there was conviction. The stone-faced, emotionless Robert had been born that night. He became a statue, a memorial to the time he had failed her, waiting in hard silence through the years for her touch to return him to flesh.

“Oh god,” Robert said out loud. The worst is he’d pulled Elizabeth into it as well. In ninth grade, Alexander had played matchmaker between him and Elizabeth — one would assume out of guilt for how he’d dropped Elizabeth once Emily had started at Beaumonde, except that guilt was a foreign concept for Alexander — and Robert had gone along with it, even though up until then he’d never felt for her one way or the other. He didn’t care who he dated…he was preparing himself for Lillian to look again and find him worthy.

He did eventually begin to care for Elizabeth, but she would always be his runner-up. Maybe that was why he’d gotten so suffocating when she started to pull away from him…if he couldn’t keep his runner-up, what chance would he have when Lillian next turned her gaze to him?

And after a while, he realized that he would always be Elizabeth’s runner-up as well. There was someone else: not someone else she wanted to be with, but someone else she wanted to be. Someone who wasn’t dating him.

For just a moment, earlier on Elizabeth’s floor, his inner eye had opened and he could see the situation clearly at last. He saw with absolute clarity that he had to end it, he had to set her free, he had to release his grasp on her wrist and watch, with his last breath, as she swam alone to the surface.

But now, in the SUV, Robert’s conviction was fading. He was starting to doubt himself: the Lillian situation wasn’t nearly as dramatic as he wanted to think it was. She had tried to kiss him when they were in seventh grade, just kids, and that was that. He hadn’t really reinvented himself…he had always been silent and guarded and besides, nobody ever really changes. Not really, anyway. Maybe he should call Elizabeth, tell her he was sorry and he was wrong, suggest that they take it day by day and see what happened.

No. This was for the best. She would be free of him now, free to be with someone who wanted to be with her and her alone. Robert imagined her with someone new, though, and it made him taste acid to think about it.

He shook his head. He’d been thinking about all of it again. It was like a mosquito bite in his mind…scratching it did no good, in fact made it worse, but he couldn’t stop himself from doing it.

It was late, and there was almost no one on the dingy Uptown street aside from groups of two or three guys — teenagers like him — gathered under the occasional streetlight, their expressions hooded as they watched his SUV drifted past. Robert wandered where he was, exactly. He knew he was near the Magnolia projects, but he wasn’t exactly sure what neighborhood he was in.

He remembered when he was younger, and an unusually gregarious Jerome Johnson had driven Robert around his city council district one Sunday after Mass. His father told him about each neighborhood, what it had been in the past and what it was now.

“What would you call this part of town, son?”

“I don’t know.” Robert was ten or eleven at the time. “The ghetto?”

“Exactly. That’s the word rich people use — white people, if you ask your Uncle Tony — that’s what they say to get out of caring about a part of town. They don’t know the difference between Central City and Gert Town, or between Hollygrove and Pigeon Town. To them, it’s all just the ghetto. They don’t know or care that all of these neighborhoods have their own little cultures, their own histories.” He pointed out through the windshield of his Town Car at the row of simple shotgun houses lined up and down the street. The sidewalk was cracked and uneven from sinkage and tree roots. “Look around. Would you say this a bad neighborhood?”

“Yes?”

“Is it? The houses are small and the cars are in pretty bad shape, sure, but look again. None of these cars are broken down or abandoned. The houses could use a coat of paint, but they have all their windows and the lawns have been been mowed recently. And look, someone even planted a few flowers by that porch, you see?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Most of the people in this neighborhood have jobs, or they’re people who’ve retired. They might not have it easy, not at all, but they’re doing what they can. There’s a big difference between a poor neighborhood and a bad neighborhood, Robert. Never forget that.”

And Robert never had forgotten it, which was why he could say now that the part of town he was currently doing long aimless loops through was decidedly a bad one. Here the houses were either abandoned or looked that way. Aluminum foil covered the windows, though vague yellow lights occasionally pulsed from far in the back. He was up where even the dogs didn’t care any more, they just stood in the road and stared dolefully up at drivers, who had to swerve around them.

Just up ahead was a corner store, the front door a rectangle of brightness that reflected hazily on the wet concrete of the empty parking lot. No one stood in front of the store, and Robert couldn’t tell if it was open or not.

The small wooden shotgun houses were giving way to the imposing brick squares of the Magnolia projects. The housing development took up numerous city blocks between here and Claiborne Avenue, and was home to hundreds of families.

He wondered what his classmates would think if they knew he was up here. Robert remembered reading somewhere, he couldn’t remember where, that “the projects” are the modern version of the haunted house: a hundred years ago, genteel society warned you to stay away from haunted houses, where you would be instantly killed. Now they warned you to steer clear of the projects.

There were four or five guys on the corner across from the first building, leaning on a chain link fence that surrounded an asphalt basketball court. They weren’t drinking, and none of them were smoking, they were just talking past each other, looking over the other’s shoulder as they spoke. Two of them weren’t wearing shirts.

Robert decided to turn and drive up the side of the projects for a few blocks. He looked away from the group as he turned–across the street, on the sidewalk that ran in front of the projects, an older man was walking a small child’s bicycle with a flat back tire–and he must have cut his turn too close. One of the guys on the corner kicked his head back, a silent goodbye, and stepped off the curb. Robert heard the unsettling thump against the side of the SUV as he ran the man down.

Suddenly everything was happening very quickly. The man was down on the ground, holding his leg as he screamed out in pain. His friends surrounded him and yelled at Robert to stop. Inside the SUV, Robert’s foot stumbled onto the brake, and he put the truck in park and jumped out. Oh my god, oh my god. “I’ll call 911,” he shouted, but he hadn’t grabbed his cell phone on the way out. Nobody was listening to him anyway, they were too busy yelling angrily, incoherently, back at him. It was an accident, why are they so mad at me? Robert thought.

The man lay on the ground, his fingers twisted up in the loose denim of his jeans. The leg was straight out, the foot flexed, and the man’s eyes were shut by the pain. He curled his lips with silent curses and Robert saw saliva shining between his clenched teeth.

Robert swallowed. “I’ll get my phone,” he called out, turning back to the SUV. One of the men from the corner was opening the passenger side door, he saw, and then something hit Robert hard from behind, pushing him roughly to the ground. One of the shirtless guys ran past him, elbows still out like a linebacker. He pulled the driver’s side door open.

“Wait,” Robert said. The rest of the men were piling into the back seats. There was no noise, no collaboration, just single-minded movement. Robert’s trousers were torn at the knee; he could feel the grit and the wetness from the road on his leg.

He looked up, across the street. The old man was gone, though now a teenager sat on one of the steps of the building, one foot on the ground. Robert made eye contact with him from across the street, and the boy slipped off the step and disappeared into the depths of the projects.

“That’s my car,” Robert said, as though it was all a ridiculous but perfectly understandable mix-up. The men were just then closing the doors of the SUV, and the brake lights dimmed as the truck lurched forward. The last man, the one Robert had hit, was standing over him now, and he put his hand steadily on Robert’s shoulder, pushing him even lower to the ground.

Robert knew what was coming, but there was no time. No time to struggle, no time to beg, no time to call out for lover, mother, or mercy. Only enough time for the guy to slide the pistol — probably a sleek boxy .45 — out from the back of his jeans, smash a bullet into the back of Robert’s head, and leave him to die in the streets of his father’s district.

• • •

No…wait. Robert straightened up, feeling the back of his head. There was no blood, really not even that much pain. It hadn’t been a bullet, it had been a fist. The guy had punched the back of his skull, probably hurting his hand more than Robert’s head.

This last carjacker ran down the street, towards the SUV waiting on the corner. Robert, still in shock and not entirely understanding what had just happened, thought the guy must be in a lot of pain to be running on that leg.

And then, as quickly as it had started, it was over. The SUV turned the corner again, away from the projects, and headed deeper into the surrounding neighborhood. The tires gave a small dispiriting squeal as they took off. And then Robert was utterly alone on the street.

He stood up slowly. His left knee wouldn’t stop shaking, though not from any injury, and his jaw was chattering. He clamped his teeth together, but it was no good. The molars kept clicking together. A shudder ran from his shoulders down through his back.

He wanted to yell profanity, but he couldn’t catch his breath. As he tried to calm himself, he snuck a hand to the crotch of his trousers. When he thought he’d been shot, he’d pee’d a little before he could stop it. Luckily, though, only his underwear were wet, though they stuck to him now, clammy and sticky.

There was nobody else out. A few windows betrayed that the crime did indeed have onlookers, but when Robert looked up at them the curtains and blinds flickered and were still. There was a bank of pay phones back at the corner store. He started walking towards them, even though he had no change and…oh fuck, he’d put his wallet in the console after paying the toll on the Mississippi River bridge. Shit.

Robert could actually feel the adrenaline leaving his body, and he staggered once before catching himself on the chain link fence. He leaned back against it, one hand on his head and the other mindlessly touching the tear on his trouser leg. These pants had belonged to his great-uncle…his father was going to kill him.

His father. He looked again at the deserted windows of the housing project, and at the wet empty streets that stretched away from him. Robert panted, and stared out through hollow eyes at the world around him. He had no car, no phone, no wallet, no ID, no way home. He was lost.

He heard a car coming up the main avenue in front of the projects, which some people in New Orleans used as a faster way to get to the nicer neighborhoods near Tulane. They just locked their doors and crept through the red lights.

Robert stumbled out into the street, waving his arms and yelling something that was almost but not quite coherent. For a moment he was blinded by the headlights of the Jetta, but then it quickly veered off around him without even slowing down. He continued yelling after it, but it was no good.

He’d seen the faces of the college kids inside as they passed, he’d seen how in the space of a second they’d gone from mystified to mocking. And Robert knew why. He knew what he looked like to them, what he had become: just another black boy in the middle of the ghetto.

• • •

Officer Mark Hansell of the New Orleans Police Department let his patrol car drift to a stop in front of the Magnolia projects. He was assigned to the housing development’s miniscule police station, located just around the corner in a group of trailers in the courtyard. Having a police station right on the property was supposed to deter crime, but Hansell knew it just made the residents feel — and act — like criminals. He’d done a tour in Iraq in ’06, he knew the downside of treating people’s homes like occupied territories. But what can you do? You go where you’re assigned.

Across the street, a young black kid with impossibly good posture was testing each of the pay phones one-by-one. He’d pick up the receiver, listen for a dial tone, dial 911 anyway, then finally hang up and move to the next one. The kid was dressed like he was coming from a fancy dinner, but his shirt was ragged and untucked and there was a hole at the knee of his pants. He didn’t look like a junkie, he looked like a castaway.

“Oh man, now there is a kid who doesn’t belong up here.”

Hansell’s partner, Officer Greg Leitner, looked up from his cell phone and snorted, then lowered his eyes back to the screen. Leitner was an avid amateur investor, and he spent most of his shift monitoring the price of gold in overnight trading or the performance of some obscure overseas stock.

Hansell and Leitner had been partners for about three years, back in the Marigny first and now up here in ‘nolia. About three months into their partnership, one of the jokers at the station realized that Leitner was from an area just outside of New Orleans known as Gretna, and soon the partners had a new permanent nickname, one now used by all the other officers and even their superiors: Hansell & Gretna.

The nickname had been funny at first, but the two of them had been transferred together, as a unit, and then both of them were consistently turned down for promotions despite excellent records. The only explanation they could come up with was that the NOPD found “Hansell & Gretna” a witticism just too perfect to disband and was doing everything in its power to keep them together.

Hansell watched the kid move to yet another pay phone. Yeah, he was definitely an outsider: everyone who lived up here knew that there wasn’t a working pay phone within a mile’s radius of Magnolia. Disposable cell phones and nervous repairmen had taken care of that.

“What do you think? Kid from the ‘burbs comes into town to buy, gets jacked?” Over the years, Hansell had arrested plenty of suburban teenagers trying to buy drugs in the Magnolia projects. They could have gotten the same boulders, bumps, and dime bags in their own neighborhood, but buying from a friend of a friend of a coworker just didn’t satisfy their longings. So, like yuppies headed to a farmers market, they drove into ‘nolia to get the authenticity they craved.

Leitner’s eyes drifted up from his cell phone again, and he took in the scene with a bit more interest. His mouth opened just slightly for a few seconds before he spoke. “Hold on,” he said flatly.

“This kid’s gonna get killed. He hasn’t even turned around once to watch his back.”

“Hold on. Hold on a minute.”

“Hell, most of these guys can smell a cop car from five blocks away. We’re parked right across the street.”

Leitner pointed through the windshield, fumbling with his cell phone and dropping it to his lap, then the floorboard. “Mark…! That’s Jerome Johnson’s kid!”

Hansell, who’d rarely heard his partner raise his voice before, looked over at him and then back to the kid. “Please tell me you’re screwing with me.”

“It’s him, I know it’s him. I’ve worked enough extra shifts at fundraisers and shit like that. Johnson always has his kids with him for the photo op, a son and a daughter. That’s him. It is.”

It made sense. The clothes, the cluelessness. The kid even looked a bit like his old man, too…they both had the same hair. And it seemed that the stick perpetually lodged up Jerome Johnson’s butt was genetic, having been passed down to his son as well.

“Oh god,” Hansell said with a slight moan. “We are so fucked.”

The two policemen made eye contact, something they almost never did in the patrol car. The Crown Vic was just a bit too small for two guys to look each other in the face without feeling like they were violating the other’s personal space. Instead, they usually talked to the windshield, their heads inclined slightly towards each other.

But tonight they turned and looked directly at each other. Hansell saw on Leitner’s face what he knew was on his own: the wild reckless urge to just creep the patrol car on around the corner and wait for the inevitable emergency call. A clean up was much easier than a cover up.

Neither of them knew exactly what would happen to the two cops who found the son of one of the most powerful men in New Orleans buying rock in the projects, but one thing was certain: the helpless teenager at the pay phones was more dangerous to them than any gun or knife they’d ever faced down.

But just because they wanted to flee didn’t mean either of them seriously considered it. Sure, if they didn’t do everything by the book, if they didn’t correctly read and anticipate the shifting internal politics of the department over the next few hours, there was a really good chance they’d spend the next few years writing 36-in-a-35 school zone speeding tickets. But there was no way in hell they were going to leave some hopeless Garden District rich kid stranded in the middle of the projects at three in the morning.

“If I don’t make it out of this,” Hansell said, flipping on the blue lights, “tell my wife I loved her.”

• • •

Michael awoke slowly to the sound of a siren. There was a police car passing by the front of the Sebastian house, accompanied by the whine of an engine and the short squeak of old brake shoes. There was another siren two blocks over, also screaming through the pale darkness of the Garden District. After it had faded out, Michael could hear more sirens, all over Uptown, converging somewhere many blocks away.

He had no idea how long he’d been asleep. In the east, the sky slightly faded from black to a deep dark blue, but Michael couldn’t tell if he was seeing the beginnings of dawn or just the glow from the Quarter reflecting on the night’s canopy. Michael’s mind was fully awake–the alcohol was draining out of the bottom of his brain–but his body still wanted to sleep. Despite the warm air, Michael was covered in the chill of sleep, and he fumbled with buttoning up his shirt, though this did little to warm him.

The siren hadn’t caused David to stir, not even a little. He was curled up at the very foot of the lounge chair, his cell phone still laying carefully in the palm of his hand. He licked his lips quickly, and his forehead bunched up, as though he were dreaming of mathematics.

Michael knew he was in that short grace period between being drunk and being hungover. He should get up, use the bathroom, convince David to move inside. That’s what Michael’s mind wanted, anyway, but his body made a compelling case for staying exactly where it was. Michael surrendered to it, and closed his eyes again.

• • •

It occurred to Robert that tonight might be a good night to be a criminal in Uptown New Orleans: the entire available police force was currently parked at the corner of LeSalle and Washington. Every single car had its blue lights spinning frantically, until it got dizzying to look at any one spot for too long. Police officers spoke into handheld radios, sending and receiving terse combinations of letters and numbers that baffled Robert. Other officers studied the dash-mounted laptops of their patrol cars, tracing their fingers just above the digital maps displayed on the screen. Most of the officers, though, stood around, speaking in low hushed voices and casting shy looks in the direction of the black teenager sitting sideways in the passenger seat of Officer Hansell’s patrol car.

By this point he’d told his story five or six times, retelling it whenever someone with a higher rank appeared at the scene. The audience grew every time he began the story again, as everyone who’d heard the story already stayed to hear it again. Sometimes these officers interrupted him, asking him a question that he was sure they already knew the answer to. Robert couldn’t tell if they were just trying to get all the facts straight for everyone or if they were trying to catch him in a lie. Probably both.

The first two policemen, the ones who’d found him, had stayed by his side during the entire ordeal. Robert could tell that he was their responsibility now. An hour ago, at the end of his third retelling, Hansell had whispered to his partner, the one everyone called Gretna, who nodded in agreement. Their superiors had already drifted off with cell phones pressed to their ears, and Hansell squatted down to face Robert.

“Listen, Robert. I don’t mean this the wrong way, but…you keep saying it was an ambush.”

“A set-up,” his partner corrected.

“Right. But that thing they did? Where they pretended you ran into them? Certain people up here, they do that pretty much anytime a car gets too close to the curb. It’s a natural instinct at this point. They probably didn’t even realize they were doing it until you got out of your car.”

Gretna nodded. “They did it to me when I was a rookie. I jumped out just like you did, expecting to see a guy with a crushed leg. Instead, they stole the microphone from my radio, unscrewed it right from the base. And my clipboard. Who steals a clipboard?”

Hansell chuckled, still squatting in front of Robert. “Imagine being a brand new cop and trying to explain to your sergeant that someone had gotten into your car, which you’d left with the engine running, and stolen your microphone.”

“I had to pay for it out of my paycheck, work a bunch of shit details for a couple months.” Gretna shook his head at the memory. “But that’s not the worst part. The worst of it was that they took the microphone and threw it up over a power line, right in the middle of the street, all tangled up and hanging there. So for six months I had to drive underneath it and be reminded of the whole mess.”

Robert spoke up, looking from one of them to the other. “But it was a setup. There was even a lookout…I saw him. There was this teenager on the steps across the street, and he ran away as soon as they had the car.”

Hansell rubbed his jawline, which made a barely audible scratching sound. “That wasn’t a lookout, that was Dwayne. Good kid.”

“Well…” Gretna raised and lowered his hands, as though weighing Dwayne’s pros and cons.

“Okay, he has good intentions at least. But he wasn’t running away, Robert, he was running to get us. That’s how we knew you were over here. He could tell you were in trouble.”

“Oh.”

Every window that faced the street was now filled with shadows, and there was a small group gathered on the opposite corner, smoking and laughing and trying to peer into the dazzle of lights to see what lay at the center. At one point an older man in a torn and frayed tank top called into the crowd of officers: “Let him go! He didn’t do nothin’!” And Robert had shook his head no. No, don’t let me go…take me in, lock me up, keep me away from this humiliation, this shame, this life.

At some point, Robert’s father had been called. Robert stood by as the lieutenant apologized for waking him up, then explained the situation and assured him that his son was fine. The lieutenant listened carefully, then explained the situation again in more detail. He was a trim light-skinned black man, and he’d apparently lost a low-key, high-stakes tussle about which of the high-ranking policemen on the scene had to make the call. He stared into the distance as he listened to Jerome Johnson, as though watching his lieutenant stripes fleeing from his chest. Robert assumed the phone would be handed over to him at some point, but with a curt “Yes, sir,” the lieutenant had ended the call. “Your father says a family friend is on the way.”

Robert was confused for a second, because in any other context the “family friend” was Lucas Budd. But, considering the situation, he had to assume his father meant Detective Maglione. Robert drifted back over to Hansell’s patrol car and he’d been sitting there ever since. His family had been notified, half the police force was looking for his dad’s car, and Detective Maglione was on the way…all that was left now was the waiting.

On the floorboard was an assortment of food that the other officers had dug out of glove compartments and gym bags for him. There was a regular Snickers, a larger Snickers, two Clif Bars, various bags of chips (including a bewildering five bags of Funyuns), as well as warm bottles of water, Vitamin Water, and diet soda. There was also a cheap wool blanket with the Saints logo on it, in case Robert got cold in the middle of July.

One officer told Robert he’d run down to the Trolley Stop Cafe to get him a sandwich and had disappeared, the lights on his car still flashing, before Robert could tell him to stop. A plainclothes detective had offered him a sly sip from a flask she carried in her purse, and had looked so stricken when Robert turned it down, had apologized so fearfully, that Robert took the flask from her hand and pulled deep from it. The liquid–Jack Daniels, as near as he could tell–actually did calm his nerves, so he laughed for the first time all night and took another drink. “That’s a boy,” the detective said in comforting tones. “There you go.”

Each officer who brought him food had approached him bashfully, usually waiting until Hansell and his partner had been pulled away. Robert, how you doin’ tonight? You holding up? You hungry? I brought you a little something to snack on. They’re gonna find your dad’s car, don’t you worry. Every one of them had made sure to carefully introduce themselves and use their name whenever they could. Only one of them had been brave enough or clueless enough to just come out and say what they were all thinking — “You tell your dad that Officer Leo took real good care of you, ya heard?” — but Gretna had run him off, even raising his foot up to mime literally kicking his butt as he fled.

Robert felt Maglione’s presence before he saw him. The mood of the parking lot froze, then shifted in some slight but unmistakable way. Officers who had been leaning on the sides of cars, shooting the shit, slowly straightened up and became lost in their scribbled notes. Everyone’s face, one by one, somehow became both slack with relief and clouded with anxiety.

Finally, Robert saw him off on the edge of the crowd, chatting with another plainclothes detective. Ronald Maglione, broad-chested and heavy stomached, smoothed down his red-fading-to-gray hair and smiled just a little as they talked. From a distance, it looked like the two were just having a friendly chat, maybe discussing a baseball game, except that the other detective, try as he might to look casual, kept shifting his legs in a quick nervous dance, like a terrier waiting to be let back in the house.

Maglione made his way around the outside of the crowd, occasionally producing crumpled index cards and jotting something down by the light of a streetlamp. Sometimes he stuck his head in a patrol car to peer, through crooked half-lensed reading glasses, at the laptop display on the dash. As near as Robert could tell, he spoke only to street-level patrolmen and avoided entirely the small knot of higher-ranking officers, who seemed both grateful and offended that they’d been left out.

He spiraled his way into the center of the parking lot, arriving at last at the car where Robert waited. “Hansell, Leitner,” he said, shaking their hands and giving their biceps a short squeeze. “I heard you found a stray puppy out here on the street.” Maglione gave Robert a broad wink, the first time he’d acknowledged him.

They stepped away, out of Robert’s earshot, and talked for at least twenty minutes. Robert couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he could follow the line of their conversation regardless: Hansell mimed grabbing his leg, then later punched the air around his knees. At one point, his partner pointed at each pay phone, one by one, from left to right. “Dwayne?” Robert heard Maglione repeat, writing the name down on the back of another index card.

Finally, the detective squeezed a shoulder of both of them and seemed to speak reassuring words to them. He clapped them on their backs, handed them each a business card, then walked between them, towards Robert.

In spite of his thick torso, Maglione squatted down easily in front of Robert and looked at him for a long moment. He’d been part of Robert’s life for almost as long as the teenager could remember, but aside from occasional hellos and back slaps, they’d almost never interacted. Maglione was often over at the house, but he was never a guest: Robert’s father would step out on the back deck to talk with him, both of them with their hands in their pockets and their heads held low. A few times, Robert would come into his father’s study late at night and find Maglione with him, the two of them perched over an open folder on the desk. They’d look up at him with expectant faces, and Robert would apologize and back out.

Maglione glanced over at the pile of food on the floorboard. “Would you look at all this? You can’t feed strays, you’ll never get rid of ‘em.”

Maglione’s head, like his hands and the rest of his body, was thick and surprisingly solid, as though molded from a single block of clay by someone who’d lost interest in the bust after only sketching out where all the features should be. His skin was still smooth and boyish, with a slight reddish tint, and he had a smile that combined friendly charm with a kind of half-serious gravity.

“Robert, let me fill you in on what’s going on: we got basically every car we can spare doing circles, all through Uptown, Downtown, and in the east, trying to find your dad’s truck. We got guys talking to their people inside Magnolia, see if they knew these boys, and where they’d go with a stolen car.”

A few of the patrolmen’s radio came alive for a short burst of coded transmission, and Maglione stopped talking and looked back over his shoulder slightly, to hear what it was. He turned back, fishing an index card out of his pocket.

“So, look, from what I can tell, these weren’t hardened criminals, they were just broke and bored and possibly a little lit. They probably just wanted it for a joyride, or maybe they wanted to drive it around and try to meet some girls. They’ll abandon it when they’re done with it, I’m guessing some time after sunrise. They don’t seem like the type to try to sell it, and they’re probably not dumb enough to think they can keep it.”

Robert nodded. “Okay.”

“So my question for you is: these guys are gonna be here for a few more hours yet, taking statements, getting some pictures, and generally just racking up overtime, but I think we’re probably done with your part of the festivities. Now, we can stay here if you want, but maybe you’re ready to get home, get a shower, get into bed?”

This was the one thing none of the other cops had done for Robert. Everyone had been nice to him, everyone had made sure he was comfortable, but none of them had given him a decision to make, none of them had treated him as anything other than a liability.

“I’m ready to go home,” he said.

“Well then, let’s get you home.” Maglione put the smaller of the two Snickers bars in a jacket pocket and straightened up.

As he led Robert through the crowd of cars and cops, each head nodded silently at them and then turned away. Soon the flashing blue lights were behind them, causing the leaves of the neglected oak trees to pulse above their heads. The trees had grown too big for their yards and now sprouted thick roots up through the sidewalks.

Robert navigated the peaks and valleys of the sidewalk, but Detective Maglione walked in the street, a few feet from the cars parked along the side. Robert had seen the same thing done by all the younger male residents of these neighborhoods, and he’d always assumed it it was a simple but satisfying act of defiance: how dare you tell me not to walk in the street?

But the night had changed him now, and he saw with different eyes. If you were the sort of person who had enemies out here, walking down the sidewalk meant that people hiding around the corner, on a porch, or behind a car could jump you with little warning. Also, on the sidewalk you were hemmed in by fences on your left and cars on the right. But in the middle of the street you could maneuver a bit better.

“Up here to the left,” Maglione said in a low voice. He nodded at a shadowed face that watched him in silence from a porch. “Evening.”

Robert finally joined him on the street, and Maglione glanced over at him from the corner of his eyes.

“You scared of dogs too?” he asked him. “Listen, there’s a couple places I’d like to check on the way back, if you don’t mind. These…safe havens, I guess you’d call them.”

“What are they?”

“A place you can leave a stolen car without getting arrested. Most of these guys, they just want a car for an evening, either to impress girls or to run a quote-unquote errand in them. And us, we just want the cars back. So there are a few places around town where they can dump a car. We drive by them every few hours and turn a blind eye if we see anyone walking out.”

“This is official?”

“Well, no. I mean, we don’t publish maps, if that’s what you’re asking. But the system works out for both of us.”

It was a warm night now that the rain was steaming off the ground, and Robert could feel the sweat gathering on his bald head. Maglione, despite his added heft, brisk pace, and wool jacket, had only a little flush on his face.

His car was just around the corner, two blocks from the crime scene, and parked in front of Huey’s Garage. The car repair shop didn’t appear to have been open for years and years, though a fresh sign on the door announced that they’d be closed for July 4th, only a few weeks ago.

Maglione stopped him a few feet in front of the car. He seemed the slightest bit nervous, though Robert couldn’t quite figure out what it was that gave that impression. A slight disinclination to make eye contact, perhaps.

“Listen, Robert. Ah…I’m gonna step behind Huey’s here and take a leak. While I’m over there…you see this storm drain here? Look, I’m not accusing you or anything. You’ve always been a good kid. But if the reason you were up here was to buy something, and if it’s something you’d rather not have your father find out about, why don’t you take this opportunity and drop it into the sewer here, okay? Make everyone’s life easier.”

Maglione gave him a reassuring arm squeeze and started across the street, but Robert, his lips suddenly tight, stopped him.

“Ron…Detective Maglione.” Robert turned out all his pockets, even his back pockets, and showed him that there was nothing in any of them. “I can take off my shoes, too, if that’ll make you happy.”

Maglione laughed and shook his head, clapped him on the back. “Well, shit, you’re related to Tabitha, that’s for sure.”

The bathroom break forgotten, the detective unlocked the doors of the blue unmarked police car and waited until Robert got into the passenger side. Once inside, he started the engine and put the A/C on high, but didn’t pull out just yet. Instead, he pulled a few index cards from his jacket and thumbed through them. Some he annotated with a small golf pencil he found in his cup holder, others he tucked away behind the sun visor.

Robert sat silent in the front seat of the car and looked out at the still-damp asphalt of the street. He was safe, now, he was on his way home. Maglione said his dad would get his car back, and his parents would probably be too relieved that he wasn’t hurt to be too mad at him. He was fine, he was okay, he was going to make it through this. In just a few years this would be a story told to embarrass him in front of his new girlfriend on her first visit to the Johnson home.

So why, now that he was finally safe, did the fear and shame grab him again around the neck? Why was his breath suddenly so jagged and raw? Inside his chest, something wet and uneasy shifted around and then broke. He felt it rising up, unstoppable now, and he only had time to turn his head before it escaped through his throat and out his eyes. Robert hid his face and wept.

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Fifty

When Michael woke up on the back deck for the second time that night, the sky was still dark and the air heavy with sleep. David, on the lounge chair beside him, didn’t stir.

“David,” Michael said, but there was no response beyond David parting his lips and exhaling with a slight hum. Trying again a little louder—”David, wake up”—produced only a slight twitch of the eyebrows, so Michael sat up slowly. He found his footing, pushed himself up, and moved with careful steadiness towards the house, and the bathroom just beyond the sunroom.

A bit later, with cold water splashed on his face and the back of his neck, Michael was back outside, sitting on a patio step as he put on his shoes and socks. The night was so warm that slipping on even his light cotton socks felt like a tragedy, but he had a long walk home and he didn’t want to sweat into his leather shoes.

He covered David with a burgundy blanket he’d pulled off the back of a sunroom couch, then stood over him and watched him breathe, deep and innocent like all sleepers. He placed a hand on David’s fine blonde hair for a moment or two, then slipped out the side gate of the Sebastian home and started towards home.

This time of night, whatever time it was, the streetcars ran only once every hour, so Michael would just head up to St. Charles Avenue and begin walking down the streetcar tracks towards home. Eventually he’d hear the clang and rumble of a streetcar coming up slowly behind him, and he’d have enough time to either jog up to the next stop or double back to one he’d just passed.

But Michael didn’t go directly up to St. Charles, not at first. At the end of the block, he stopped to stare up at the dark face of Beaumonde Academy. There were no lights burning, not on the grounds or inside the building itself. Even the Beaumonde sign in the front was dark and obscured by its own shadow. Once his eyes adjusted to the dark, Michael could barely see the faint red glow of exit signs through the heavy windows of the school.

When he’d stopped, he thought it would be nice to gaze upon the school and be lost in a short reverie about the changes that had occurred in his life since the first time he walked through its doors almost two years before. Alcohol always gave him a taste for grandiose sentimentality, but it also robbed him of his ability to articulate these moods. And indeed, though he stood there for minutes trying to summon a fitting meditation on Time and Change and Youth, nothing really came. It was too late, far too late.

He tried to focus on his interior monologue, but he kept getting distracted: he noticed that the left side of the front building didn’t quite match the right, as though it were a later addition; he watched two birds flip and flit between themselves as they tumbled from one tree to another; he glanced over to headmistress’ house next door and saw that there was still a light on in one of the bedrooms.

Michael gave up on being profound and wandered over into Dr. Hayes’ yard. He’d only been over to Josephine’s house a few times before, partially because (Michael guessed) Dr. Hayes felt it unprofessional for Josephine to invite Beaumonde students over, and partially because Josephine wasn’t exactly the sort of person to have people over. He tried to remember where her bedroom was…he knew it was on this side of the house, but he couldn’t quite remember if you turned left or right out of the hallway.

If it really was close to the first hint of daybreak, like he suspected, it made sense that this would be her room. She always got up so early for her summer jogs. He reached for his cell phone, to send her a text message or at the very least finally see what time it was, but he couldn’t find it in any of his pockets. It was probably still in Emily’s car, locked up on the side of the road by David’s house, because why would he have brought it in with him? (God, had it really been just a few hours since they’d parked the Mini and snuck one last quick kiss? It felt like weeks…)

Josephine’s window was above his head, but he knew that if he stepped a bit into the bushes and stood on his tiptoes he’d be able to tap on her glass. Michael had been turning something over in his mind for a month, ever since he learned that she’d known about his real background from the very beginning. He had something he wanted to say to her, but he was scared and had been putting it off. Now, though, the combination of the late hour, the last traces of alcohol, and the victory of getting the documents from Harry Sebastian made it the best time—no, the only time—to offer her these words. He stepped into the dark red mulch at the base of the hedges just as someone spoke to him in the darkness.

“Michael, what on Earth are you doing?” The voice was calm and low, but in the empty clarity of the night it sounded very near. It was a voice that had spent years in front of classrooms, and had long ago learned how to be heard without being loud.

Dr. Ellen Hayes was sitting on the steps of her porch, the faint blue glow of a cell phone’s keypad reflecting off her cheek. She was wearing a modest black cocktail dress that Michael recognized as being from a famous designer’s limited edition line for Target. Her hair was pinned up off her neck and a cigarette, unlit, set poised between her knuckles.

If Michael had been entirely sober, he’d have jumped, stumbled, perhaps even squeaked out the high-pitched yelp that otherwise died in his throat. But his reflexes were dulled by drink and exhaustion, and instead he only stepped out of the mulch, dropped his arm, and turned towards her, as though he’d long suspected she was sitting there.

“Dr. Hayes, is, um, is Josephine awake?” Michael couldn’t quite decide what to do with his hands, which were suddenly unsteady. He put them both into his pockets instead, despite such a stance being expressly forbidden by Alexander as Improper.

“Of course not, Michael. It’s the middle of the night.” She spoke into the phone softly: “No, no…it’s just a student. Everything’s fine. Let me take care of this and I’ll call you back.”

Dr. Hayes folded up her cell phone with a slight snap and set it to the side. She regarded Michael through not unkind eyes, and he felt compelled to come closer to where she sat instead of fleeing into the night as he wanted.

She lit her cigarette without dropping her eyes and, as she took her first drag, handed him the pack and lighter. She didn’t invite him to sit down, so Michael remained standing where he was, where the sidewalk met the stairs. The porch was just high enough to put her at eye level, and she watched him as he slid a cigarette out from the pack, fitted it into his lips, and lit it.

He handed the pack back to her, as casually as he could. He had decided that the only way out was through. “Well, don’t you look lovely? That dress came in crimson as well, didn’t it? You made a good choice with the black, it flatters your hair.”

“How do you know that? You kids freak me out.” Dr. Hayes shook her head and blew out smoke. “I have the crimson, too.”

“I’m sure you look deadly in it. Probably best to keep it stashed away until you need to deal the fatal blow.” This was a wildly inappropriate way for him to talk to her, and part of him was screaming to shut up for God’s sake before he got expelled, but Michael knew that acting guilty always made it worse. “Who was tonight’s victim?”

Dr. Hayes laughed a bit rudely, which revealed for a second the often-hidden resemblance between her and Josephine’s awful sister. Michael realized that he probably wasn’t the only one who’d spent the night holding a variety of glasses. “Roger. His name’s Roger, not that it’s any of your business. He lives across the lake…I was just talking to him as he drove home.”

“Dinner? A movie?”

“Dinner,” she said, and touched her hair. Just like that, Michael the liar saw that she was lying as well. He could tell from her bangs that her night had begun with her hair worn down, that she’d pinned it up only later, and a bit too hastily.

“Was it good?” Michael inhaled a mouthful of smoke, leaving it in his mouth before exhaling it again. “The dinner, I mean?”

Dr. Hayes smiled for him, but he could tell that she was inspecting him as well. The silence lingered, and she changed the mood of the conversation with just that thin smile. “Michael, is there anything about you that’s genuine?”

“Excuse me?”

“You’re an excellent fake smoker. You look like you’ve been smoking since you were a toddler. You even had me fooled for a few puffs, holding it so perfect, like a Frenchman in a cafe. But you don’t actually smoke, do you? Have you even had a cigarette in your life?”

Michael took the cigarette out of his mouth and looked at it, the way one would read the brand name on the side of a pencil. “About a year ago the twins were mad for smoking, and insisted the Gang join them. Not all of us did…your daughter didn’t.”

“She better not have.”

“She didn’t, trust me. Neither did Emily or Robert. I didn’t want to, but I went through most of a pack anyway. Not trying to smoke them, just learning how to light them, how to hold them.”

Dr. Hayes shook her head at him, but he wasn’t quite sure what she meant by it.

“Then the twins lost interest, so I threw the rest of the pack away.” Michael pinched out the coal at the end of his cigarette and handed it back to her.

Dr. Hayes looked it over, as if not quite sure what to do with it, and eventually set it beside her pack. This was still the Dr. Hayes he knew, but she was someone else, too. Possibly the girl she was back when she was his age.

“Michael, I swear…you’ve spent two years trying to fit in with them-” she gestured over at the dark school “-and you still don’t understand, do you?”

A raised eyebrow, a slight smile, just like he practiced. “I’m sorry?”

“All your stories, all that energy spent covering up, and just to convince them that you’re just like them.”

His face didn’t change. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“What you don’t understand, Michael, is that these kids have been surrounded by people just like them their entire lives. Their parents have employees…nannies, au pairs, drivers…whose job is to keep them away from people who aren’t like them. So of course when these kids get older they seek out anyone different. They see their world as fake, because it is fake, and they’re desperate for something real, something authentic. You could have given them that. It’s too late now, of course, but if you’d just, I don’t know…” Dr. Hayes shook her head softly and tipped the ashes from her cigarette into the Dixie cup on step below her.

“I’m gonna go,” Michael said, but he didn’t move.

“You worked so hard to fit in, and it worked: you’re one of the elite, one of the twins’ favorite pets. πολλοὶ γάρ εἰσιν κλητοὶ ὀλίγοι δὲ ἐκλεκτοί. But if you’d just come into Beaumonde and been what you really are, with them but not of them, you would have ended up running this school by yourself.”

This was a dream. He was still on David’s patio, sleeping off the liquor. Dr. Hayes seemed to recognize that she’d hit her target, and pressed on.

“You know, you’re not unique. There’s one of you every few years. You’re a bit more discrete about it, I’ll give you that. And you’re lying to hide away, while they mostly lied to stand out. But you’re not unique.”

“Yardley,” Michael said, his voice flat. He’d never met Yardley Smith—she’d been a freshman when Michael was still in public school—but he’d heard plenty about her when he arrived at Beaumonde the next year. A transfer student from a UK prep school, Yardley spoke with a lofty British accent and had hot tea with her lunch. After only a few months of this, it had all broken down spectacularly and she’d been revealed as what she was: the daughter of a family that owned several auto part manufacturing plants across the South, who had moved here from the Birmingham in Alabama, not in England. She’d fled Beaumonde in shame, and the last anyone heard of her she was living with an aunt in Baton Rouge, where she was active in her school’s drama club.

“Exactly. And before her there was a young man who claimed to be the nephew of a famous Hollywood producer who flew him all over the world on the weekends. On Monday mornings he’d come in talking about how nice his uncle’s place in Abu Dhabi was this time of year.”

Dr. Hayes chuckled, blowing smoke through her nose, and again Michael caught a hint of her other daughter.

“He was…he was found out, too?”

“Oh God, yes. I’m not supposed to say this, but it was actually pretty hilarious when it all came crashing down. We had to have an assembly. Yes, he was found out…all of them are, Michael. Always.”

Michael drew in his breath and straightened up. “I understand what you’re saying. I do. I’ll…I’ll transfer in the fall.”

“No, Michael, no…I like you, you’re a good kid.” Dr. Hayes reached out and took his hand. “We need you at Beaumonde. I don’t want Robert putting everyone to sleep with his valedictorian speech next year. Besides, if nothing else, you keep the twins in check.” Her palm was surprisingly soft and warm, as though she spent hours a day moisturizing. “You just made some bad decisions, that’s all. You were only 15.”

She squeezed his hand, and Michael noticed that, though she no longer wore her wedding band, there was still a crease in her ring finger ten years after her husband died. But that didn’t make sense: Dr. Hayes and Dr. Brooks, he knew, had only gotten officially married at last only a few weeks before his death. He realized she slept in the ring. By day she was a single mother, a widow dating after a decade alone, but at night she was still his wife.

“But, Michael…the end’s going to come. It always does. They’re gonna find out, especially if the twins aren’t here to protect you. So do you come clean and try to control the damage, or do you let the school find out on its own? Are you strong enough to act first? Are you brave enough?”

At the sound of her words, Michael bent forward, as though into a strong wind, and brought the back of her hand up to his forehead. He wanted feel her skin on his, and he wanted to hide his eyes from hers. “I don’t know,” he said at last, and he wasn’t lying.

They stayed like that for a moment. There was no longer any ambiguity between them. She was a teacher, she was a mother, and he knew what he was. She discretely took her hand back, and he straightened up.

“I should go.” Michael was empty, he was just taking up space on the lawn.

“One more thing.” This was Dr. Hayes’ favorite phrase, which she preferred to deploy after the bell had rung and her students were almost out the door under the impression that they weren’t going to have any homework. “Don’t come back over here.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Like I said, you’re a good kid. But that was your headmistress talking…now I’m Josephine’s mom.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “Here you are: your girlfriend’s out of town, it’s the middle of the night, and you show up in my yard, you’ve been drinking, your shirt’s half-open, and you’re tapping on what you think is my daughter’s window.”

“No, I…”

“You and I both know you can have any girl in the school…any girl except one. I don’t know what you’re up to, sneaking around here in the dead of night, but you leave Josephine out of it, you understand?”

Michael moved a stray lock of hair that had found its way into his face. “Dr. Hayes, it wasn’t like that.”

“You know what? I believe you, I really do. But actions have consequences, Michael…I like you, but I can’t trust you. Whatever you want with Josephine, it can wait until the sun’s up and you’ve slept it off. Do you understand?”

“I-” he started, but Dr. Hayes had dismissed him. She already had her phone out, the screen glowing blue on her face as she picked at her contact list. “Yes, ma’am. I understand.”

“Good.” Dr. Ellen Hayes threw one last glance up at him, then her eyes went back down to the phone. “Be safe getting home.”

Uncategorized

Fifty-One

Detective Maglione drove them through the amber-lit streets of New Orleans, away from Robert’s house. They were up in the center of the city’s arc, where the Crescent City folded in on itself and Uptown brushed up against Mid-City in the forgotten areas under the I-10 bridge. They’d already visited one “safe haven,” though Maglione insisted they weren’t called that, and seemed ashamed he’d used the term to begin with.

Their car crept between brick warehouses that were the last remnants of otherwise abandoned industries, still hanging on somehow long after the years and city had moved on. They hadn’t seen another car for blocks–not driving between buildings nor parked off to the side–though a hundred feet in the air they could hear the buzz and hum of late-night interstate traffic. There weren’t any people, either, not even the usual phantoms could always be found in even the most forsaken residential areas. This was a world that existed only in daylight, and just barely then.

The quiet of the world outside the car, though, did not affect Detective Maglione’s soft, thoughtful, and almost completely unbroken monologue inside the car. The detective, it seemed, was a talker…but whether this was because he was lonely or awkward or just trying to make his passenger feel better, Robert couldn’t tell. Maglione had started talking as soon as Robert, empty of his sudden inexplicable sobs, discovered a small package of Kleenexes on the center console.”

“A little tip for you: always keep tissues in your car. You’d be surprised how often you get a girl in your car, bawlin’ her eyes out, getting snot everywhere. Happens all the time. Well, to me, anyway. Maybe that says something about me and my lifestyle, I don’t know. Once, I was in the parking lot at the station, talking to these two goofball lieutenants, and I’m cleaning out my glove compartment while we shoot the shit. I told this guy Gray Davis–he’s retired now–why I carry tissues, and he says ‘Jesus, Ronnie, how often you gettin’ crying women in here?’ And the other guy–Joseph Loggins, but everyone calls him Roundman, because he’s five feet tall whether he’s standing up or lying on his back–he yells out ‘Gray, if they ain’t cryin’ when they get in, they sure ‘nough cryin’ when they get out!”

And from there Maglione was off. Robert didn’t mind, as he was in no shape to hold up his end of a conversation. Besides, Robert found Maglione different from other people who talked to him. Other people told him stories to appear more entertaining or more important than they really were, but Maglione talked only for himself. Most people talked because they had nothing to lose, Maglione talked because he had nothing to gain.

By the time they had slid the unmarked Crown Vic through the faceless buildings underneath the interstate, Maglione had already told him how two stories about working for his father, which led to a story about chasing a completely nude man through the Central Business District when he was a rookie, which led to a series of hilarious, outlandish, and occasionally horrifying tall tales about the young guys Maglione used to box with back when he was Robert’s age. Which led, finally, to this:

“Yeah, it’s good to have a group of friends when you’re your age. You seen any of your crew since the twins left town?”

“Have I seen…?”

“You know, that group of friends you’re always over at the house with. The Budd kids, I know they’re gone, and I’m sure you see your girlfriend, but what about the others?”

“The others.” Robert knew the detective was just making conversation, but The Gang seemed so far away now, especially after what had happened that night.

“I’m just saying, it’s tough, what everyone’s going through this summer…you shouldn’t be alone. You should be with your friends. You could call up Harry Sebastian’s kid, or Alexander’s girl, what’s her name? Emily? And maybe Lillian’s boyfriend, that shady kid with the million dollar face.”

Robert snorted, feeling a little unsure of himself. “You think Michael’s shady?”

“Yeah, of course. Don’t you?”

“I do,” Robert said quietly. He tried to remember when Maglione had been at the house the same time as Michael. Suddenly he was aware of how late it was, how they’d driven into the deepest part of the night, where the city despaired of morning ever coming. He had to sleep…it was past his bedtime.

They were at a stoplight, and Maglione looked over at him. “You know what the worst part of my job is? It’s not the long hours, or the late nights, or being out here on my own most of the time. It’s that the people I’m protecting out here? They’re never even going to know it was me watching over them this whole time.” The traffic light changed, tinting his pale skin from red to green. “I gotta feeling you know what I’m talking about, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” Robert whispered.

Maglione let his foot up off the brake and they coasted through the intersection, but the detective was still focused on him, with only occasional glances towards the road.

“I don’t even know what I’m protecting them from. I haven’t…I haven’t figured it out yet. There’s something about him that doesn’t add up.” Robert blinked at himself, unsure of where this was coming from. Maybe Maglione just had a face you wanted to confess to. “I don’t want Lillian to get hurt.”

The detective straightened up a bit and moved his eyes back to the street ahead of them, but his tone stayed just as soft. “Robert, do you want me to help you? Do you need someone to-”

“Baptist Boy, you there?” A crisp metallic voice burst out of an unseen walkie-talkie stashed beneath the driver’s seat. Both Robert and Maglione jumped at the noise, Robert even letting out a little yelp, and both of them laughed out of nervous embarrassment as Maglione leaned forward to fish out the radio.

The detective wasn’t a multitasker: the car drifted into the empty oncoming lane as he listened to what the dispatcher had to say. To Robert, the tinny speaker made the dispatcher sound like he was reading out a list of car parts during a rocket launch, but Maglione apparently understood every code. “Roger that, we’re on our way. Thank you, Richie.”

He tossed the radio on the seat between them. “This thing, I swear. I forget about it every time, and then I jump out of my skin when it goes off. And it’s always on the highest volume, which I’ll never understand. I don’t listen to it that loud, how’d it get turned up? It’s a mystery.”

Apparently Maglione had decided that the moment had passed for whatever they’d been talking about before, because he just laughed, shook his head, and motioned towards the radio again.

“Oh, and you just got a little bit less grounded: Richie says they found your dad’s truck.”

• • •

In fact, the SUV was less than a mile away, near the Claiborne exit of the interstate. Maglione said it was possible that the carjackers had even passed over the heads of Maglione and Robert as the Crown Vic twisted through the neglected industrial streets below.

Every car on the street at that hour had been looking for the SUV, and it had been spotted within five feet of exiting the interstate. Three different patrol cars had thrown on their lights and sirens at exactly the same moment, the officers inside no doubt dreaming of the glory of returning Jerome Johnson’s stolen automobile. What should have been a simple arrest became something far more frantic, however, as the carjackers reacted poorly to the nearly instant convergence of NOPD cars in front of, behind, and beside their vehicle.

Running a red light, they led the policemen on a short chase, not to get away but just to get closer to a familiar territory where, on foot, they had a chance of escaping behind houses and into dark schoolyards. The four men abandoned the SUV in the parking lot of a long-bankrupt gas station and poured out of the truck, the engine still running, and scrambled off in four different directions. This would have worked out well in most cases, as they knew the neighborhoods they sprinted through better than any of the officers following them, but tonight they were being chased by the entire available police force.

Two of them had been run down and arrested, while two more appeared intermittently in the spotlights of the patrol cars and police helicopters that shadowed them. No one made a move to capture them, however, now that they were inside of a neighborhood…they were trapped in a three block area and desperate, so it was better to keep them on the move and let them exhaust themselves before the officers moved in and brought the pantomime to a close.

Maglione had explained all of this to Robert on the drive over to the SUV, translating the garbled mumbles coming through his walkie-talkie. They were headed over to check on the truck for no real reason that Robert could divine, except that it felt like the right thing to do, and it was close.

Maglione had chuckled when Robert asked what would happen to the four men. “Well, it depends on their prior records, of course, and other circumstances. Anyone else would be looking at a few years for the theft, plus a few more for punching you, and they’d end up serving maybe two of them, tops. But they had the incredible luck to steal Jerome Johnson’s car, so…well, they’re probably shouldn’t be making any plans for the next, oh, fifteen Christmases.”

There were only a couple of patrol cars by the SUV–everyone else wanted to be a part of the arrest–and their lights turned everything within 200 yards the color of blueberry soda. How long would you have to serve as a policman, Robert wondered, before the sight of blue lights against the darkness stopped looking lurid and scandalous, and became just another feature of the workplace?

Maglione hefted himself up out of the car in a perfunctory way that made Robert understand he should probably stay where he was. He watched the detective pull up his wrinkled sports coat to fish index cards out of his back pocket as he walked over to the four policeman gathered around the SUV.

He chatted with them for a little while, chuckling at this or that, all of them craning their necks back when a helicopter flew over. Finally, Maglione tilted his head towards the SUV and shrugged, almost in apology, and the policemen drifted away from him just a little too casually to be convincing. They didn’t just want to not see what he was doing, they wanted to be seen not seeing it.

Robert watched Maglione lean into the open driver’s side door without actually getting in, his large belly pushed up against the side of the leather seat. He went through the console, looked under the seats, pocketed the keys that were apparently still in the ignition, and then he came around to the other side.

After looking through the glove compartment, he finally moved around to the back and opened up the two doors, fumbling with the key fob for a moment before they unlocked. Once inside the SUV, he lifted up the carpeted cover that hid the spare tire and stuck his hand in. Maglione stared up at the blue-tinted awning of the fossilized gas station as he felt around, apparently under the tire, and then glanced over at the other officers to make sure their attention was elsewhere.

Finally he found what he was looking for: a manila envelope surrounded by three or four plastic Meyer’s Pharmacy bags. Once Maglione gently peeled away the bags and was satisfied that everything was in order, he swaddled the envelope again and shut the doors of the SUV.

Robert turned away as Maglione rejoined the other policemen. An empty Cheetos bag was turning lazy somersaults in the damp parking lot, the foil inside pulsing with the lights of the police cars. Beside it a spent scratch-off lottery ticket lay stuck and soggy on the wet concrete, though one corner vibrated in the breeze of the occasional car, as if struggling vainly to get up. New Orleans, Robert thought, the city that never sweeps.

The dome light of the unmarked car came on as Maglione slid behind the steering wheel with a grace that came from repetition if not agility. “Okay, got your wallet here. What’s this thing made out of? It’s leather but it feels like a chamois. Crazy. Anyway, it’s got all your credit cards and ID in it, though I’ll need you to go through and confirm that. Your mom will probably insist you change all your cards out anyway, though I don’t think these guys are the identity theft types, you know what I mean? Cash-wise, there’s nineteen dollars in it, is that right?”

Robert tried to remember. “I…I think so. Yes. I had a twenty, and I got nineteen back from the toll booth on the bridge.”

“I guess it never occurred to these geniuses to look in the console. Oh well, their loss. Just between you and me, I had the officer in charge to ‘forget’ to mention the rubber in the wallet when he was doing his report. Keep things sane between you and the folks.”

“Thank you.” In fact, it was his parents who had given him the condoms in the first place, with his Uncle Tony as the intermediary. Apparently Tabitha Johnson had seen the way the boys looked at Litta’Bit when she walked past–and the way Litta’Bit walked when she knew there were boys watching–and had charged her brother-in-law with buying and delivering the condoms. Uncle Tony more than lived up to his assignment, buying a wide selection of different condoms, enough to last his nephew until graduate school: some were flavored, some were ribbed, some were oversized, some were warming, some were numbing. He had given these to Robert one evening a year ago, accompanied by a talk about the dangers of promiscuity, clearly orchestrated by Robert’s mother, that he was almost as embarrassed about as Robert.

If only Robert had needed the birth control as much as his parents thought he did…over a year later and he’d barely made it halfway through the first box.

Maglione had pulled back out onto the street, pointing the car at last towards Robert’s home, though he paid no more attention to the traffic than he ever did. His hand deep in one of the pockets of his sports coat, the detective kept up his inventory as the car gently slalomed between the empty lanes of traffic. “What else? Got your cell phone, your garage door opener…we had to keep your keys, of course. Once the forensics team gets done crawling around the car, someone’ll drive the car back over. Wouldn’t be surprised if the Chief of Police himself shows up to do it.”

Robert took the cell phone and garage door opener (though in fact it was actually the remote control that opened the gate in front of the house) but something was bothering him, and after doubting himself for a few more minutes, he finally gave it a voice: “Those guys, the ones who stole the SUV…?”

“Yeah?”

“You said…well, you implied they’d be treated differently because it was my dad’s truck they stole. That they’d get a harsher sentence.”

Maglione nodded, though he was busy watching a young guy walking past the bus stop across the street. “They picked the wrong SUV to jack, that’s for sure. Your dad has connections and a long memory, that’s two strikes against them right there.” He glanced over at Robert. “But it’s not about his truck…it’s about the fact that his son was driving it at the time, you know?”

“I know, but…still.” Robert was suddenly embarrassed, and he looked out the passenger window. “It’s not fair. They should get treated the same as anyone else.”

He could feel Maglione turn towards him in the car, staring at the side of his face. “Robert, I’ll tell you a story. Last one, I promise.”

“Okay.” They turned onto St. Charles Avenue, but a few miles away from Robert’s house, up by the campus of The Parvenu School…Robert would be home in just another five minutes.

“When you first make detective, you spend a year or so basically running errands for the other detectives. Or at least I did, anyway. And one of the things you end up doing a lot of is driving people home: victims, witnesses, suspects, anyone that we think would benefit from spending a few extra minutes in the presence of an NOPD detective, you know what I’m saying?”

Robert wasn’t entirely sure he did, but he nodded anyway.

“So one night we finally get the witness to a shooting to come in and give a statement. We’d been after him for weeks, but he wouldn’t budge. I mean, I don’t have to tell you what the average lifespan of a criminal informant is, do I?”

“No, sir.”

“He came to the station in the middle of the night, gave his statement, named his names, and we started to give him cab fare home. You know, since showing up in a cab is a lot less conspicuous than showing up in a squad car, you feel me? But get this: dude asked us if he could just have the money instead and get one of the officers to run him home. We gave him twenty bucks and, since we have a vested interest in keeping witnesses alive until the trial, I don’t put him in a cruiser, put him in my personal car, an old Cavalier. God, I hated that car.”

Up ahead of them, a few blocks away, a young man in a white shirt was walking down the middle of the street, on the large grassy median where the streetcars ran. This wasn’t unusual; even though there were sidewalks on both sides of St. Charles, this was where most people ended up if they were on foot on St. Charles. As Robert had learned earlier that night, sidewalks in New Orleans had their disadvantages.

The guy had the determinedly carefree gait of the recently drunk, and was clearly walking towards home only until the next streetcar rattled up behind him, which beat the boredom of just standing at a stop waiting. Even Robert, who’d never been on public transportation in his life, understood this.

As they drew closer, Robert recognized the line of the guy’s trousers and the cut of his shirt before he recognized his face. It was Michael, walking home in the empty darkness of the early morning, his curly black hair heavy with sweat. He didn’t look over at their car, and Maglione didn’t seem to notice him…only Robert had seen him. He turned in his seat as they drove past him and watched him recede away into the shadow of the elms.

“We get in front of his- What is it?”

“It’s nothing.” Robert turned back around and settled down into his seat. He wasn’t sure why he didn’t tell Maglione who it had been. Maybe it was because it felt like at some point in the night he had left the real world and stepped sideways into a dream, a dream about Michael. But it wasn’t even necessarily his dream…it could have been a dream Maglione was having, dozed off on a stakeout somewhere. Or it could have been a dream that Michael himself was having, or maybe even a dream of Lillian’s, about her absent boyfriend. “I thought I went to school with him, but I was wrong. I’m sorry, that was rude of me. Please continue.”

“Nah, no rudeness. Right, so we get in front of his house over in Mid-City and as soon as I pull up: bam, this hooptie comes flying the wrong way down a one way street, comes tearing around the corner, again going the wrong way down the street, and slams on his brakes right in front of my car. Oh shit, I thought, they know he snitched and they’re gonna end him right here in his yard.”

Maglione’s cell phone buzzed loudly in his jacket pocket, and though he put his hand up to take it out, he reconsidered and left it where it was.

“The kid’s oblivious, he hadn’t even seen the other car. He’s half outta the Cavalier, right, but I grab him by the back of his shirt and throw him into the floorboard. So now he’s cussing me out, but I yell at him to stay down, and I yank my sidearm out and point it at the windshield.”

The detective demonstrated, one large solid fist resting on the palm of the other hand, as though he were aiming out the window. He kept the car mostly on the road by propping his wrist on the steering wheel.

“I knew I didn’t have the time to get out of the car before these guys start shooting, so I just lined up my shot right through the windshield.”

“What happened then?”

“Then?” Maglione chuckled. “Then the door to the other car opened, a big tall white guy hops out and flings a newspaper on a couple porches, then drives off. He never even saw me, never even realized how close he’d come to getting plugged.”

Robert shook his head. “Unbelievable.”

“But here’s the thing, right? That was the first time I’d ever drawn my weapon on the job, and it was twenty years ago but I still remember what was going through my head. I may not be the best Catholic, but I remember I was praying.”

“I think most people would be.”

“Probably. But I wasn’t praying for my own life, I remember that. My prayer was just: ‘please God don’t make me have to kill somebody,’ over and over.”

Robert didn’t know what to say to that, and Maglione pulled up in front of the Johnson mansion in silence. He glanced over at Robert as he stopped, searching his face for something he clearly didn’t find.

“No? Okay. Thought it might be relevant.” The detective laughed out loud, then reached over and squeezed Robert’s shoulder. “Here you are, Robert. This is as far as I can take you…you’ll have to face your mother on your own.”

“Ron…Detective Maglione, I just want to thank you for everything you’ve done tonight.” For some reason, Robert was embarrassed to say it. His gratitude was real, but it came out clumsy and formal.

“Just doing my job. Now scoot, it’s past my bedtime, too. May God have mercy on your soul.” He moved his hand from Robert’s shoulder and made the sign of the cross in front of him. Finally, as though he’d almost forgotten it, he turned a bit and found the envelope he’d pulled out of the SUV, still wrapped up in plastic bags. “Oh, and hey: give this to your dad, will ya? Tell him it’s all in one piece.”

• • •

The house was dark when Robert stepped inside. Only the myopic glow from the night lights his mother had sprinkled through the house kept the foyer from complete darkness. He’d known all along that his parents weren’t the type to be huddled together in the family room, worrying away the night with coffee cups in their nervous hands, but he was surprised that nobody was up at all. He slipped his shoes off at the door and padded through the barely lit house.

At the far end of the residential wing, his bedroom door was open by about a foot, casting a trapezoid of light out into the hallway. He was so close to his bed, to sleep, to turning off the world for a few hours at least and waking up fresh and ready to endure what his parents had waiting for him. For the first time in years, he skipped brushing his teeth.

Miranda’s door opened soundlessly as he passed it, and his sister looked out at him with large eyes that combined both concern and disdain, an alchemy only little sisters are capable of. It’s possible that in another family she would have stepped out and embraced him, grateful for his safety, but Robert knew that his family wasn’t like that, and he wasn’t surprised–was even relieved–when she stayed behind her door, watching him pass without a word or expression. He tucked the envelope under his arm and lifted his wrists up as a joke, miming a handcuffed man being led to his fate. It was too late, though: she had already turned away, the door closing softly behind her, and he saw a sharp blue glow against her left cheek. She had been on the phone, whispering to a friend until he was home safely.

Robert appreciated that his parents were letting him go to bed and get a little rest before facing down their disappointment and punishment. For him, arriving home meant the ordeal was over, but for them it was when it begun. Now that they knew their son was a bit shaken up but essentially okay, they could put aside their worries and focus instead on their parental duties.Thank God they at least decided it could wait until breakfast.

Except, as Robert pushed the door open, he saw that they hadn’t waited after all: his desk chair had been pulled into the center of the room, and sitting in it, facing the door—in pajama bottoms and a robe, reading the next day’s Times-Picayune, his legs crossed at the knee and the paper quartered as though he were getting a haircut—was his father.

Jerome Johnson glanced up at him as he came in, though surely he’d heard him approaching long before. After a moment, he calmly set the paper over on Robert’s desk, leaning to reach the desktop. With the newspaper folded into fourths, only part of the headline could be read:

FEDERAL PR
IN ONGOING BU

FBI Task Forc

“I’m home,” Robert said, then regretted how obvious it sounded. He couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Robert’s father looked him over without saying a word, his expression stern and unknowable yet somehow benevolent in spite of this, like a presidential portrait. He smoothed down the crescent of graying hair at the back of his head as he moved his gaze from Robert’s face down to his feet and back up. When he saw the torn knee of Robert’s trousers, dotted with a few streaks of blood that had turned brown in the air, his brow darkened for just a moment.

“Those boys hurt you, Robert?” Jerome Johnson was lanky and lean, the same weight in middle age as his freshman year at Tulane, but his heavy soulful voice—every word chosen with care then delivered with power, passion, and precision—belonged to a man decades older and many pounds heavier. It was a voice that belonged behind a pulpit; he claimed in interviews that he’d learned public speaking by staying up late at night as a child and listening to the impassioned evangelists, both bla