“Of course, sir.”
“So here’s how this is going to work. I’m going to ask you questions, and you’re going to give me honest answers, all right?”
“Okay, what’s your middle name?”
Stella and I shared a glance.
“Do you have a driver’s license?”
“Give me your wallet, please.”
Albert did so. Jamie checked it. “His middle name is in fact Eugene. Great. Okay, Albert. Now this is where it’s going to get a little weird. Are you ready?”
“I’m ready for weird, sir.”
“Is Noah Shaw alive?”
It took an eternal, agonizing second for Albert to answer.
“Yes, Noah’s alive?”
“Yes, he is.”
I wanted to do cartwheels on the lawn. I wanted to fly. I wanted to rocket into the sun.
“Where is he?”
“At the Horizons Residential Treatment Center, sir.”
“Are you sure, Albert?”
“Yes, sir. I drove him there myself.”
“Three weeks ago.”
That was shortly after I’d been dropped off myself.
“Do you know if he was there just for the retreat or if he’d been admitted long-term?”
“I’m not sure, sir.”
“Aren’t his parents worried about him?”
“Not particularly, no.”
No surprise there.
“Are they home?” Jamie asked. “Can we speak to them?”
“I’m afraid they’re in Europe at the moment.”
“What about Katie?” I asked. Jamie repeated my question.
“Her as well,” Albert answered.
Jamie looked at me and shrugged. “What next?”
I didn’t know. But at least we had one more answer than we’d had when we’d arrived; there had been no funeral. Which meant his family believed he was alive. But they also thought he was at Horizons. Noah had gotten himself thrown in there for me. To be with me. And now—
Now he was nowhere. Because of me.
JAMIE AND STELLA TRIED TO cheer me up when we got back into the car. “It’s not hopeless,” they said. “We’ll find him.” But I began to feel hopeless and doubt that we would find him. I had nothing to hold on to, so I held on to myself. My arms crossed over my stomach, pressing his clothes against my skin as I tried to think about what he would have said if he’d been there. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine him, what he would have looked like, sounded like, if he’d been in the seat next to me.
I pictured his face, careless and unworried, his hair a tousled mess as he reminded me that his parents were idiots. That they never knew where he was, even when he was home. He would tell me not to believe something unless it could be proven. Once, I would’ve said that just because you couldn’t prove something didn’t mean it wasn’t real. But I wouldn’t say that today. Today I needed to believe he was right.
Jamie came up with the implausible explanation we would offer to each of our respective families when we showed up on our respective doorsteps. We’re still at Horizons. Everything is fine. We’re going on an extended wilderness retreat up north, where we can sing with all the voices of the mountains and paint with all the colors of the wind. I’d seen Jamie work miracles, but this was my mother I had to convince. I did not have high hopes.
But we didn’t end up visiting my house first. My mother and father would have been out working, and Joseph would have been at school. Stella’s mother worked the night shift, and her dad had left when she was little, so it was just her and her mom. Jamie talked to her mother, which seemed to go well, and then he went to talk to his own parents. I have no idea how that went because he didn’t invite us into his house. He walked out carrying a bigger duffel bag with “provisions.” For what, I didn’t ask. On his way back to the car (our third), he wiped his mouth and gave us the thumbs-up. I started the car. “Shotgun,” he said to Stella.
“But I’m already sitting here.”
“But I’m the one who got us the car. And the one messing with our parents’ memories. Come on,” he whined. “It’s hot in the backseat, and I don’t feel well.”
“How did it go?” I asked him.
Jamie shrugged. “Okay? They were surprised to see me at first, obviously, but I fed them the bullshit and they swallowed it.” He snapped his fingers. “Like that.”
“Like that,” I repeated. “You’re proving to be quite handy.”
“Yeah, I am. And you’re next.”
I was, finally. The afternoon light filtered through the palm trees and oaks that dotted the cul-de-sac we lived on, and I did a quick car check when we drove by the house. Mom’s, Dad’s, and Daniel’s cars were all there, which meant Joseph would hopefully be there too. Jamie said that would make this all easier—feed everyone the same lines at the same time, and there’s less chance that an inconsistency will crop up later and conflict with what they remember.
But for this visit both Jamie and Stella would need to join me. Because it wasn’t just my parent problem we needed to fix; we needed to get New Theories in Genetics from Daniel too. While Jamie was talking, Stella would entertain my brother, and I’d fetch the book. Lemon squeezy.
I realized when I walked up to the house that I didn’t have my key, and my parents didn’t keep a spare in any obvious places, like under the doormat or a decorative rock or something.
I looked at Jamie and Stella. “So what, I just knock?”
“I’d suggest it,” Jamie said.
“And then I’ll tell your family what I told my family, and Stella’s mom.”
Stella put a hand on my shoulder. “It’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”
It sounded easy enough. But my hand still shook when I lifted it to knock on the door.
My mother answered it. Her eyes went wide when she saw me. “Mara! What are you doing here?”
I don’t know why, but my eyes began to fill the second I saw her. I wanted to throw my arms around her and hear her tell me she loved me. That everything would be okay. But I couldn’t move, and I didn’t say a word.
Jamie did, though. “Everything’s okay,” he said smoothly as my mother ushered the three of us in. I watched her face as he spoke to her, told her the fake story of what had happened to us, why we were there, and why we’d be leaving again soon. My mother looked completely untroubled by all of it. Relaxed, even. She urged Jamie and Stella to sit at the kitchen table while she made us something to eat, and Jamie continued to talk. It all seemed so normal, except for the fact that it wasn’t, at all. I knew why we had to do this, but I still felt the urge to take my mother by the shoulders and scream that everything was not okay, that I was not okay, and that I would probably never be okay again.