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October 23, 2006
The Vincent house had been new when they bought it, when Caleb was four and Lark an infant. On TV, it looked like nothing much: two-story, tri-gabled, putty-colored brick in the style of every other house in the development. Set mid-block on Waverly Way, one of the longer streets, it was hard to find without checking the address. Their half acre of bermuda turned lion-colored in fall, like the others, and though in recent years the Vincent plot could be counted on in any season to look worse than its neighbors, it had been freshly raked for Caleb's arrival. A foundation volunteer had bagged the lawn's leaves at the curb but overlooked the bushes crowded against the house behind a barricade of cockeyed railroad ties, where oak leaves remained caught between the twigs. Above the front door was a fanlight window of milky stained glass, the Vincents' one outward quirk, depicting, if you looked closely, a rooster. All the other windows—from the columns of glass that flanked the entry to the slitted row in the automatic garage door—were backed by pale curtains or blinds, always, so that the house resembled a closed eye.
Each day required at least one visitor from outside, usually a foundation volunteer bringing in groceries, packages, the forwarded mail, in several trips up the walkway. These people, officially careful of the Vincent privacy, were on hand to assist in the house with any number of tasks but took their leave as soon as possible, generally within the hour. The last had departed that morning, leaving Marlene and Jeff Vincent alone with Caleb. This was their message to the world: time alone with our son. But the FBI had said Give him space, so inside the house they were still looking for the balance.
Lark—stashed for a few days with her aunt while Jeff and Marlene flew across the country, returned with Caleb, and got him settled—would be home soon. In the meantime, the three in the house drifted separately from room to room. Jeff and Marlene battled to keep phone calls and e-mails brief, so they would be available if their son wandered near. Their son, this strange tall boy of fourteen. With each other as well, they spoke only the necessary words before they floated apart to farther corners where he might find them.
Marlene was rinsing dishes, pretending the kitchen was as sunny as it would be if she dared open the curtains, when a sound rattled her. At first she couldn't place it: a bang of padded hammer to string, a burble of notes, but in a pattern. It had been years since the children had taken piano lessons, and no one in her house had ever played more than "Jingle Bells." But this was organized noise, an entire verse of something. The TV, maybe? She shut off the water. Definitely the piano.
A skillet in one hand, she rounded the breakfast bar half ready to fight. All she could conceive of was that some ravening reporter had broken down the door and invaded the living room in order to play—what? A Chopin prelude? "Ode to Joy"?
Caleb sat at the piano bench, his back to her. After their few days of monitored visits in Spokane, then the roughly twenty-six hours he'd been at home, she had only just become certain in recognizing his shape at this distance, the narrow beauty of his adolescence. The hollow at the back of his neck; the gleam of scalp through hair shorn close but carelessly, a half inch to nothing, marked by the clippers. Caleb—only sitting there, it seemed, until she caught the flutter of his hands at either side and the melody proceeding in its sure tempo. She remembered him at age eight or so, struggling through scales or "Streets of Laredo" one clang-bang note at a time, whining all the while to be released from this hell. Six weeks of lessons and she'd given in, let him run hollering victory into a summer evening in suburbia, this place she and Jeff had once sneered at from their hip Atlanta youth. OTP, it was called: Outside the Perimeter. But eventually there had been no room to argue against cheap housing, good schools, streets where kids could ride their bikes and play until dark.
On soundless steps, she drew close enough to see the silvery jag of the scar behind his right ear—one of many, one of only a few he would show her—and he was still playing, no sheet music before him. From behind the metal-framed glasses he'd chosen without her, or that had been chosen for him, his eyes looked not at his hands but somewhere into the body of the piano. His face wore no expression—none, at least, that she could read—before he stopped, fingers settled into the dropped keys, and withdrew his hands.
"It's out of tune," he said. Not even a glance to see if she was impressed. He slipped up from the bench, went to the front window, and leaned an eye to the edge of the blinds.
"Still out there?" she asked. Of all the questions she was afraid to ask him, how could What was that you were playing? be one of them?
He nodded his answer. Then, because she liked to hear his voice, he said, "Those same three, and a new one down the street, some kind of giant black truck. And that Channel Three lady with the camera going."
* * *
At the table that had been purchased the same year as the house, they sat for dinner, unable to remember who sat where. Did they have seats? Caleb took the chair that backed to the bay window, which put Lark across from him and Jeff and Marlene at the ends. It wasn't right, but Marlene couldn't remember the order. Had the entire table been moved?
"Do you like lasagna?" Lark asked Caleb, alert for the answer. No wonder if they all prodded him with every mundanity as they would a space alien. Lark had arrived home wearing lip gloss and a skirt borrowed from her cousin, carting in the family's first meal, which she'd spent the day making herself with her aunt Bethanne's assistance.
Caleb said, "Sure. Lasagna."
Lark shrugged. "I usually make simpler stuff, like chicken with rice, or spaghetti with jar sauce, or something, when I cook for Dad." She gave Jeff an uncertain glance. "We take turns cooking. Or, I mean, I cook for Mom, too. I'm not very good."
"You're excellent, honey," Jeff said, while Marlene scooped the first cube, spilling steam and sauce, webby with cheese, onto Caleb's plate. They had not yet decided on when or what to tell him about who lived where and the rest of it, and as the days accrued, it was seeming less traumatic to let him glean it all this way, with one ear, or to wait until he asked.
"It looks great," he said. When they were dished up with salad and bread, Lark said a blessing for them, one of a few tolerable side effects of the private school they'd moved her to, the one with the highest walls. Marlene folded her hands, looking at Caleb. Caleb, with a check of everyone's hands, folded his also, then looked back at Marlene.
To her memorized table prayer, Lark added, "And thank you, Lord, for bringing Caleb home." Amen. They ate, complimenting the food, and Lark watched Caleb openly. They had spent an hour together, and already there seemed to be a joke between them—though Lark was plainly self-conscious and Caleb was … well, what was he? Quiet, they might have said. But did other fourteen-year-old boys speak more than this?
Lark pursed her mouth, raised an eyebrow, a more sedate version of the teasing expression she'd been using with favorite older relatives since she was five. Loosely translated: Are you some kind of crazy person? "Who cut your hair, anyway?"
Caleb chewed around what might have been a smile. "I did. You don't like it?"
"Well, you don't look like the poster too much," she said, as if he'd flubbed an assignment for school. "And it's kind of uneven."
"Hair grows," Marlene said.
"Maybe he likes it that way," Jeff said.
Lark brightened. "Did they show you the poster yet? I'll show you mine that I drew on. I drew glasses on one, like you actually have! Also I drew a Mohawk one, and one with, like, black lipstick and some pierces, because I know a boy who does that. Mom thought it was cool. She said you could look like anything, so it was good to think about all the ways."
Lark was eleven. There were moments—this the first of many to come over the next few months—when they all looked at her, her round face still androgynous with childhood, her solemn gray eyes and hair bobbed at the chin, and thought how she was the exact age now that Caleb had been when he was taken.
* * *
As soon as Lark and Caleb had entered her bedroom, she shut the door to show him the back of it: an eleven-by-fourteen poster commanding, in red letters, "Find Caleb Vincent!" Below were two images: Caleb on his eleventh birthday and Caleb age-progressed by a computer to fourteen. The age-progressed boy mirrored the smile and pose of the younger one and looked, despite the light in his eyes, dead somehow. The hair, a lush, lustrous brown, appeared painted on. At the bottom was written, "$50,000 reward for information leading to safe return." The door was recessed from the rest of the room, so Lark had to step back and let Caleb look alone.
"And there's a T-shirt." She fished it from the closet and held it up on a wire hanger that dented the shoulders: white, XL, same graphics as the poster printed front and back.
"That looks too big for you," Caleb said.
"Yeah, but I can't even wear it outside. We can't, really, like me and Mom and Dad. Because of the attention. It's already kind of hard to like go to a movie or something."
"So no one ever saw it?" he asked.
"Oh, god, there's like a million. Miss Fay made them and she gives them out all over town. And the posters and buttons too. On the button it's just the age-progressed one. I wonder what they'll do with all those posters and stuff now. We could seriously wallpaper the whole entire house."
The rest of the room did not feature him, and while he took it in, she said, a bit sheepishly, "Grandma Vincent sends me all this stuff. I'm kind of into the cloud forest, in Costa Rica? You remember how Grandma went to live there?"
Her canopy bed crawled with jungle life. Stuffed monkeys and sloths wrapped their arms around the posts; toucans and coatis and iguanas lounged on the pillows. On top of her bookshelf perched an iridescent green bird—a quetzal, she told him—with a tail hanging halfway to the floor. Posters of leatherback sea turtles swam the walls beside trees caught in clouds, golden toads, butterflies of unearthly blue. At ceiling level along one entire wall was a tempera banner painted for a fund-raiser she'd organized at school. "Save the Cloud Forest!" it said, its outer edges decorated with her own renderings of a toucan, a poison-arrow frog, elephant-ear leaves.
"So I started this whole thing at school," she said. "I got kids to raise money for the cloud forest, and some other schools were doing it, too, in a bunch of other countries, so now there's a whole part of the cloud forest in Costa Rica, like a bijillion acres, that we bought just ourselves."
"Seriously? That's impressive."
As he turned his head, lifted his chin to examine the banner, she saw how much he looked like their mother. The poster didn't show it. Marlene had always been petite with a distinct jawbone and ropey little muscles—she needed her long, twisty hair, she used to say, so she didn't look like a teenaged boy—and Caleb was like a flash of what she might look like with her head shaved. Same height, same body almost, even some echoed ways of moving. He had her flattish, disklike face and her pointed chin. But not her hollow eyes. Behind the glasses, which no one in the family wore, his eyes were regular eyes, a densely lashed hazel, murky and meditative like pond water in sunlight.
"I really wanted to go there bad," she told him as he studied her Costa Rica map. "Like to go to school there and just … live there."
She shrugged. "Not so much now."
* * *
Once or twice a day, someone sanctioned pulled past the news vans and into the driveway. Often it was Fay Tomlinson, the Find Caleb Foundation director, or it was another foundation representative, bringing the day's deliveries and ignoring reporters with a smile. Or it might be Bethanne McCall, Marlene's sister, who was likely to roll her eyes and yell something mock-cheerful or sarcastic in the general news-van direction. Until Thursday, the fifth day of the media siege, Lark stayed home from school, closed up in the family shell. Then twice each weekday, for a little excitement, the garage door rose and emitted Jeff Vincent's Honda CR-V, in which he ferried his daughter to her brick-walled private school, and twice more it rose to take him or the two of them back in, though it was soon clear that both occupants would be unreachable for the trip, hard to distinguish behind smoky window glass. From time to time, the police rolled in and ticketed vehicles or rousted the reporters for loitering, and then the neighborhood might have a few hours to breathe in peace and not feel as if the whole world was watching.
The Vincents were no strangers to attention and for years had welcomed, in a way, almost any violation. When rumors of Marlene's drug use spawned tabloid-vulture excrement (the most insane, street-person-looking picture of her they could find under headlines like "Did This Soccer Mom Sell Her Son for Drugs?"), she was happy enough when it got her a spot on Larry King Live, which she agreed to do no-holds-barred, admitting to every stray ounce and bump she'd ever done, if they would put up Caleb's picture and rehearse the details. Three years later, after Jeff had moved out ("temporarily") with Lark, giving up on Marlene as he had on Caleb, she'd still been dreaming up ways to interest at least the local media enough to say his name again, post his picture. So it was no surprise if all those people induced over the years to look now wanted to hear the end of the story.
Lark, by the week's end, was the Vincents' sole ambassador to the world, or at least she was ambassador to the girls of Agape Academy. With hardly a precedent for a "new girl" in their midst, let alone an unchurched refugee from a public school, the Agape girls had taken her in three years before and developed their own protocols, as with a celebrity, for protecting her from their own harassment. Once, when Lark was nine, a woman reporter had shoved a microphone in her face and said, "Do you think your brother is still alive?" Most of them had seen this image of Lark, a small, slightly pudgy girl shrinking smaller except for her round gray eyes, saying on their TV screens, "I don't know," and then, "I hope so." It stopped similar questions in their own mouths—no matter how badly they wanted to ask—and made them all the more eager for a chance to fend off one of the reporters parked at the school gates with a prim I'm not talking to you, as they had been instructed to even if the question seemed nice, like "Are you a friend of Lark Vincent's?" or "How is she holding up?"
They were all thrilled, of course, that Caleb had been returned, and, despite the power of prayer, they were quite as shocked about it as the rest of the world. Some time ago, their prayers had changed from Please bring Caleb home to Please bring the Vincents peace, which meant a sad thing. But now they praised the Lord and shouldered in afresh to embrace Lark, reinforcing their status as friend to this girl who, if you overlooked the semifamousness, was really rather strange. Few of them were allowed near the latest TV news about her brother, and those who happened to catch some—it was hard to miss—were constitutionally resistant to the hints of secular filth. What happened to Caleb Vincent?, the question blaring from every channel, could be answered quite simply with no more information than was found at the surface: he had been taken by evil people, preserved for more than three years by the grace of God like Daniel in the lion's den, and brought home.
All the joyous, bubbling attention at school was just enough to keep Lark willing to go. Caleb was at home—waiting for her, because what else did he have to do?—and he was nothing like what she'd expected a returned brother to be. She'd assumed she would know him, first of all, that he would bear some resemblance to the brother she'd had when she was eight, though during the intervening years, missing him as a playmate, she'd already erased his bad qualities (his lack of patience, his refusal to include her if his own friends were around or to take any real interest in her or in things she liked, ever) until she had so transformed him that, despite the ubiquitous "Missing" posters, he had come to resemble in her mind something akin to the dashing cartoon fox from Robin Hood. Hadn't he even spoken with a faint British accent? She loved that fox brother, wrung her heart in her hands when he fell from the high tower and dropped like a stone into the moat. And would he surface? Only if she wished for it hard enough. Only if she stood poised at the crenellated turret above, ready with her own breath to make him alive.
Now she faced a stranger, half a grown-up, a fascinating relation. It was as if some creature more endangered and exotic than the cloud forest itself had been brought into their house and placed partly in her care. She wanted to sit all day studying his secrets. She wanted to find a way to tell him that her own hard wishing, like prayer, had breathed for him and brought him back.
* * *
Before the kids were up in the morning, Jeff folded and stowed the blankets from the front-room sofa where he had slept. It wasn't to keep a secret. Marlene had told their son he could sleep in her bed anytime he liked, and she said my bed, not ours, a maternal zone made free of men in case he might need it that way. But it seemed important that the house look as normal as possible, not just to the necessary attendants but to the Vincents themselves.
Caleb did not take his mother up on the offer, though he'd been that sort of child: a cuddly child, a child of many fears. He was the boy who could not make it through a single night of summer camp, phoned crying for his parents to fetch him, and as old as eight he would still wheedle his way into the bed between them. Now he slept in his own bed, if poorly. He was the last awake each morning, and Jeff often heard his footsteps past midnight or his low voice in the kitchen, having a late-night ice cream social with Marlene or, once, on the phone to Spokane and Julianna Brewer, his favorite FBI agent, specialist in crimes against children. It was only about ten o'clock out there, and Julianna had told him to call anytime. Though Jeff eavesdropped longer than he should have, they were talking about nothing special: the Seattle Mariners, movies they'd seen.
There was no guidebook for this. He worried Marlene was being too open with Caleb, as she'd once been with Lark, out of her own uncensorable need for something—intimacy, or venting. With Lark, she had not been able to stop herself from cataloging the possible horrors Caleb could be enduring in that moment, because children could never be too thoroughly warned. It had become, at least in a certain mood, her notion of responsible mothering.
In her late-hour kitchen chats with Caleb, Jeff overheard them trading the lists of drugs they had done, Marlene saying, "Mostly cocaine. Methamphetamine. And sleeping pills. What I really want most of all right now, though, is a drink."
Caleb's voice, harder to catch: "I don't like meth too much. Roofies are nice, or most pills—the sedative kind. And liquor." A pause, and he added, "Beer. I like beer."
"Oh, yeah," Marlene said, the smile in it unmistakable, "I could go for a beer. Mostly I was drinking what I called a lazy martini, just gin over ice. It's hard to get up the energy to mix things or stock extras when you're drinking alone. And also I was very busy, looking for you. Every minute you were gone."
Marlene, a believer in the inherent value of communication, had stumbled upon this method and urged Jeff to try it. "If you're alone with him, and very quiet, and just speak. But like he's a grown-up, you know? Like a friend. He'll talk." But Jeff was less sure—why not value silence? Let him alone, let him heal. He was home. If the FBI seemed satisfied with their working theory of what had happened, thin on suspects and ragged as it was, why should his parents press for more?
Most of the day Jeff worked from the basement office, because they were supposed to give Caleb space—that mantra in his head less reminder to himself than unvoiced argument to Marlene. He drove Lark to and from school. He ate meals with whoever was present, dinner generally the only time they were all four gathered around the table and unattended by relatives or foundation volunteers or agents of the FBI. Once a day Marlene accused him of "going quiet again," but he was just trying to be mindful, to take it all in, stay on top of it. More than anything, he was trying, still, to hear the news that his reasonably dead-and-buried son was in fact alive. It didn't compute. Caleb was gone; before him stood his Caleb, and so much time had passed. Jeff found himself unable to put the two together.
Marlene was supposed to be in rehab. Only because he'd had to track her down in a hurry, to let her know that there was news of Caleb, had he learned she'd enrolled herself in an outpatient program a few weeks prior. Now she claimed she didn't need it. Not that she was recovered—more like she'd never really had a problem.
"Let me tell you about addicts, okay?" she said, hissing in the relative remove of the front hall. "And I've met my share, even before I started up with that group therapy … whatever. Half of them are just idiots with no self-control. The others are people with real reasons for using that can't be fixed, who had horrible things happen to them that can't be undone. But me, I'm a special case. I was one of them, but my horrible thing was undone! There's no precedent for me."
"Is that what your doctors say?"
"More or less."
Marlene had been addicted to her own anguish, to the Internet at two A.M., to the endless search. Jeff was willing to concede that the drugs had been mostly the facilitators to being awake for it or to knocking herself back down. But he knew the first mandate of rehab was "be asleep at night and awake during the day," and he wasn't sure she was accomplishing that with much more success than their son.
Caleb was not addicted anymore, if he ever had been. He'd been found living in a small town an hour outside of Spokane with a doctor, a man he called Jolly. Jolly, he said, had taken him away from the man who kidnapped him. Jolly had gotten him off the drugs.
* * *
The piano tuner said, "There must be a fire out there or something. I was like, jeez, what's going on? Had to park down the street."
It was a busy day in the Vincent house. The therapist, a pleasantly toadish woman with yellow and gray hair, commissioned by the FBI, was down in the basement with Caleb, who really could not be taken out to meet her at her office. Mitch Abernathy, the agent in charge of Caleb's case, was having coffee in the kitchen with Marlene. He said, "Maybe I could sneak him out to the field office. We could play racquetball or something."
Marlene smiled—it was hard not to get a little giddy, borderline amorous, every time she looked at Mitch. For three years, four months, and fourteen days, he more than Jeff had been the man in her life, loved, hated, endured. She, his special tormentor, called at all hours, hurled abuse as she pleased, turned shamelessly sweet to seduce from him information and pointless effort; he dog-trained her to behave and learn patience. After everyone else had given up, even the Find Caleb Foundation forced toward repurposing its resources, it had been only the two of them struggling on, Mitch using any spare time to scour databases with their thin evidence. There had never been much: Caleb's BMX bike hidden in the woods behind the elementary school, a connection to a sketchy neighbor, a sighting with a strange man, none of it fruitful. Eight months on, they found Internet photographs (blurred horrors including a boy clear enough to call Caleb, photos Marlene would not have been shown but that she raged until Mitch relented) that linked to an ongoing investigation but, as Mitch insisted, could have been taken at any time and, in any case, did not offer much hope of what they called a "live recovery." After that, nothing of note. When the FBI released the bike from the evidence locker, Mitch brought it back to the house on Waverly Way, where Marlene was living alone, and hung it on the garage wall for her beside Jeff's, Lark's, her own.
Now it was as if, after all that frustration and sorrow and suppressed wrath, she and Mitch had just fallen into a coat closet and had some kind of glorious, planet-rocking sex. Probably they had wanted each other more than once through all that time, every emotion so intensified by the fact of a missing child that it bled to adjacent ones. Lingering over their coffee in postcoital paradise, they both felt the impending end. What would be left to them without the source of all that energy?
When the piano tuner was finished, Marlene wrote him a check. He said, "Oh, man, you're those people with the kidnapped kid, right? I shoulda known. I must be dumb or something. Wow, so what's it like? You must be going crazy knowing he was walking around loose like that and didn't tell no one, right?"
All but the first sentence was blocked by Mitch's intervening, dark-suited body, moving the man to the door without violence or effort, like a snowplow. "Thanks for the service, friend," he said. "We really appreciate it."
* * *
Before they had boarded the plane together for Spokane, Mitch had advised the Vincents not to concern themselves with this itchy question, the million-dollar why. Over pizza and champagne the night the DNA results came back, he said (though they had not asked), "It's really not all that surprising or something to dwell on too much. He was either terrified of Lundy or he felt like he owed him for getting him out of the first place. I don't have any doubt he was every bit the captive there. He was made to feel like he had no choice."
But no one had asked Caleb the question.
* * *
"What about Caleb?" Lark asked—she'd been reporting for them the goings-on at Agape over Sunday pancakes, one week to the day from his return. "Where will he go to school?"
Jeff looked at Marlene, who chewed a piece of bacon. Over her usual damp-eyed vague anxiety lay a film of bliss he felt at least partly responsible for: sex for the first time in a year, the first in three that had not put her into a temper at herself or at him. She'd always been the sexual one in the relationship, he a little in awe of a woman he had to work to keep up with, but the abduction—not just the loss but the apparent nature of it—had, without diminishing her drive, touched all sex with something rancid. Now he watched the quiet in her limbs, hoping she'd stay willing to forgo reserving the bed for Caleb, with the world peeping through the blinds. Step one toward completing the restoration of his family. He wondered, though, how long it might go on being more hers than his, she the de facto head of the household and parent of their son because she had won their all-in bet.
"Caleb won't be going to school for a while," she said.
"I won't?" Caleb asked. All of them turned to her with the same questioning eyes. It was one of those topics that had not yet come up.
"I can't let you just yet, honey. We'll have to figure something out. Maybe homeschooling."
Caleb tightened and kept quiet. Lark drew a breath on his behalf but waited also. Marlene said, "You see how it is out there. If you go out, I can't keep it from you. And I don't mean just the cameras. Every kid in your classes, every teacher, every parent … I don't want those people making this follow you forever."
Hard to argue with, and no one, least of all Jeff, was inclined to try. His decision to leave her the year before, to take Lark, had underscored the general assessment that her tenacity over Caleb indicated mental imbalance. If she might forgive him for it one day, she would not now, if ever again, be questioned.
"Maybe," Jeff said, "if we find the right private school, it wouldn't be so bad. Kids there have to get used to … differences."
Marlene shook her head, unhearing. "Even if we move," she muttered.
"I like school," Caleb said quietly, to no one. They all stopped chewing. He so rarely spoke. He almost never made a request or offered these droplets of information, each bursting on impact into a little scene. They knew—everyone knew—that for two whole months he'd been a freshman in a public high school in Providence, Washington. He'd ridden the bus, sat in class each day, had friends, and he had liked school. Maybe his liking school in the first place, wanting to go, was the reason he'd been enrolled in it.
Jeff swallowed, sliced another bite of stacked pancake. Was he the only one who heard defiance in that sentence? The insistent I of it: I am no one you know. I lived without you. I lived while you buried me and it's too late now for you to know who I am. God, what kind of father was he, resenting his son for taking his son away?
Marlene rose in a casual way with the butter dish and stopped behind Caleb's chair to lay a hand on his head, set her lips to his forehead at the hairline. "We'll think of something. I promise." For as long as a meditative pause allowed, she stroked his bristly hair. "But for now. Until Christmas, at least."
* * *
"Fair warning," Bethanne said, unpacking groceries into Marlene's pantry. "I think Mama's going on TV."
Marlene, unsurprised, said, "You are fucking kidding me."
"I told you you should have let her come over."
Their mother, according to Bethanne's theory, was angry about being excluded from the house and having most of her calls ignored, but Marlene was certain that whatever the woman said on TV would only be worse if she had insider information to back it up.
Her mother's latest voice mail: "I want to make sure you're watching him around Lark. You know how they are after a thing like this, and you have to accept that he's going to be messed up in the head. Fourteen is plenty old to be a danger to little girls. And you know we can take Lark out here with us, any time."
This might have counted as an improvement over her previous assumption, equally damning, that Caleb would turn out to be gay—except that all of what her mother considered sexual vices could be lumped together as committable by the same person and everyone fell into one of two categories: the untouched and the guilty. Marlene would never forgive her for saying once—three years before, at the first hint of molestation—that maybe it was for the best, after all, if he was dead.
* * *
He knew the rooster over the doorway, the one he'd named Doodledoo when he was four. But the house it guarded was smaller, his room shrunken, his bed's edges closing in—more every night as if he were growing by the minute. He lay on his back in Caleb's bed impersonating Caleb, eyes closed, then open because the door was shut, so they couldn't peek in to check if he was still there, if he looked like Caleb yet. Through the bathroom they shared slept his sister. He remembered having one there, the dance of locked and unlocked doors. Amid all the house's shrinking she alone had grown, from a doll-girl into a person. Of them all, she was the most changed, though still younger than him, so he trusted her more to be herself and not a trick. His parents, in certain glimpses, could seem like very good copies of themselves planted by aliens or evil government interests.
Outside in the carpeted hall, footsteps—his mother's—crossed back and forth, a pause at each pass to listen for him. Shoulders aching, he held the horizontal shape of Caleb, a boy who would be asleep by now. It seemed as if he'd be required to endure this posture only a short time, a couple of weeks. As if being himself in this place could be no more than temporary.
When he was little he'd seen a Disney movie about a cream-colored horse with two owners. A poor boy, who called the horse Taffy, had lost it to a rich girl, who called it Bo. Whose horse was it? To decide the matter, the boy and the girl stood at opposite ends of a paddock and called the horse, one calling "Taffy!" and one calling "Bo!," and the whole town watched, expecting the horse to know which one it was.
The blinds kept out most of the light, and he woke late in the morning, glad to feel the day half gone without him. The room, a blur without his glasses, was still his room and exactly as he had left it, half of everything in it a secret code of Haylie he could no longer read. Posters for the bands she liked, a sketch she'd made of a bearded man, poems by poets only she had heard of, line drawings copied from old books of strange, nineteenth-century machinery. Haylie was his babysitter, a graduate student who spoke to him as if he were her own age and could follow half the loopy things she said. He tried, but the closest he could come to her was her music. Some of these leftover possessions—like the poster for a CD on the back of his door: a woman in a white nightgown on a yellow moor, running away, looking back over her shoulder as she disappeared into fog—made him almost remember her voice.
And the music. Though he couldn't recall a word or a note of a Metacarpals' music, he felt how their eerie, gothic melodies haunted some locked-up room in his head on an endless loop. The disappearance of Caleb Vincent could be reduced to a very short story, and maybe he alone knew it. Once upon a time a dim little boy fell in love with his babysitter and thought he could impress her by liking a band she liked, collecting the band's music, showing up at the concert where she would be.
He took a shower, dressed himself in whatever new clothes had appeared in his room the day before. Downstairs, he could count on a lingering hug from his mother just for getting up, a hand on his shoulder from his father, and he was glad for these simple things; he could lean on his parents as if a child, forget for a few seconds what they were thinking. Because they were waiting for it, he forced out some words like a line in a play. He was playing himself. What would Caleb say now? But whatever he came up with, he knew, would not stop them from thinking what they were thinking about him, the hundred-headed beast of their every thought.
His mother called it "mooning about" when he hovered from room to room, trying to think of what Caleb would say but more often forgetting that effort, just lost in his head, somewhere else. So he parked himself in the upstairs game room and noodled around on the new GameCube, a present from someone who was glad he'd been found. Funny how his mother had made all these online friends, most of them parents of missing kids, who now sent to Caleb the gifts they couldn't buy for their own children—as if taking candy from strangers hadn't gotten him gone in the first place. An iPod nano, a phone with GPS, clothing … boxes came daily, filled with things he once would have loved but that didn't interest him much now.
Sometimes his parents left him alone so long that he switched from video games to the TV he wasn't supposed to watch. The war in Iraq must have been on a break, because every news channel featured his eleven-year-old face, his name in a printed graphic. "WHAT HAPPENED TO CALEB VINCENT?" For a current photo, they all showed the same loop of video shot through a car window, an FBI transport that had been physically stopped, momentarily, in the road. Also there was a digital snapshot taken by a classmate in Providence, depicting the boy they'd known as Nick Lundy and Caleb himself knew as Nicky: blond, wearing glasses and half a smile, head cocked with a hint of attitude, a fourteen-year-old who looked absurdly content and unmanacled to be under headlines about sex slavery and mysterious pedophile rings. And the kidnapper had sent him to school! Caleb wondered if his parents watched secretly, if they had by now gotten an eyeful of Nicky, the boy whose head he'd shaved into oblivion but whose glasses he still wore.
Sometimes he caught a glimpse of Charles Samson Lundy—always the three names, as with serial killers—huddled under a jacket, out on bail and led away by a lawyer. It was hard to see any of his face. But in the smiling portrait from his hospital ID badge, shown as often, every feature was clear, and some bleached-blond commentator would generally be on hand to express surprise or shock that this man, aside from being "almost" attractive, appeared so friendly, intelligent, normal, which is what the neighbors and his co-workers all confirmed as the impression he made. He was thirty-eight years old. His eyes were lively behind wire-framed glasses, his nose a little large, his dark hair grown out over his ears, wisping around his neck—nothing marked him.
Caleb's mother was right. He shouldn't watch this. It only made him angry, guessing what other people saw in a picture, or what drove them to watch. The man would be no real mystery—they knew him in advance. Caleb Vincent was the one they wanted to untangle and lay bare. No one said Hey, let's rape the kid all over again on national TV, but that was the footage they wished for, the part of what happened they most hoped to reproduce. Jolly had warned him.
All this hiding in the house on Waverly Way, refusing to answer questions, granted a certain protection but only gave the newspeople more to wonder about, to fill the airtime with. Perhaps he cannot speak, the effect of the horrible trauma. He will be this way; he will be that. He must not be blamed. He will require extensive therapy. He may feel himself to be at fault, he may feel ashamed, he may identify with his molester, even love his molester, he would have been too terrified to leave, he could not possibly have wanted …
He lay in Caleb's skin, sleepless in Caleb's bed. Pop went the lock on the door, his sister done in the bathroom. He could slip into her room and tell ghost stories on the tall canopy bed, or he could go downstairs and find his mother in the kitchen. Usually he did one or the other. Once, choosing neither, he'd been caught crying by his mother, but he couldn't tell her why. She stroked his back, saying, "I'm your mother, I'm your mother," her hair making a hot tent over him in the dark. It wasn't what she thought. None of it was what anyone thought. Mainly he was ashamed to be the center of it all. He was ashamed of what they all knew even knowing so little, the parts too horrible to speak. And it was just hard, keeping up every minute with who he was supposed to be when he heard those voices calling two names in the dark.
* * *
They were not supposed to ask him much. Even if they could, how much would they want to know? With him safely returned, it was as if he'd only been away at a particularly mysterious boarding school, sequestered in the far western mountains and later shut down for undisclosed atrocities. He was presumed to have endured something he should not have, though he'd come home changed by far more than this, by more than the hormones racing in his blood, stretching his bones long, hardening his eyes. He had come home educated.
Yet if he wanted to pretend none of it had happened, they should let him. They should let him feel their willingness to listen, even if he waited months, years.
"What do you want?" Marlene asked him, as safe a question as she could think to murmur at the breakfast bar after midnight, when they had finished all the ice cream there was. "Most of all, right now. If you could have anything."
He didn't take long to decide. "I want everyone to stop thinking about me all the time."
* * *
The high school he would have been attending had he never gone away sent him books. The algebra book was the exact one he'd been using in Providence, where a test had been given on chapter 5 the day after a pair of FBI agents had pulled him from class. It was comforting in a way to go on to chapter 6 as if he'd taken the test, even if he had to forge on alone.
He missed friends. Not the specific ones in Providence—he hadn't known them long—as much as just people to hang out with, the pack of kids and his place in their midst. His once best friend, Patrick, still lived down the block in the same house. ("Patrick mows Mom's lawn!" Lark had blurted—forgetting she was supposed to pretend the lawn had always belonged to all of them.) His mother said, "Yes, well. Patrick. Of course he remembers you," and then tried to discourage him four or five ways that danced clear of what she wouldn't say: that even if she'd consent to letting him out of the house again, ever, he would not find anyone willing to be his friend.
Eventually she'd given in, gotten on the phone with Patrick's mother and arranged for the boys to get together at the Vincent house, maybe play video games. When Patrick had backed out at the last minute, Caleb wasn't sure Marlene hadn't preempted it somehow. And should he be mad if she had? Was it worse to be rejected, or to be so protected that he never could be? Boys change so much between eleven and fourteen, she told him; maybe it was for the best. And yes, Patrick had new friends now, wild friends, and Caleb really could not be involved in all that.
Julianna had given him a journal before he left Spokane, leather-bound with creamy, unlined paper. "Try writing down some of that stuff you're spinning up there," she said, meaning his head. Mostly he sketched. Lots of eyes. Tattoos. Hands. Pieces of things. He wrote out some of the Latin he could remember, mixing it with made-up words, ghost words. (On many pages: leechee bone.) Real things, whole things, scared him. He wrote "I want to kill myself" and scratched it black before he even knew if it was true. He drew a mouth with freckles all through the lips: Julianna.
The media had finally given up on the house and cleared the street, though now and then an unmarked van drove past, slowly before the Vincent house. Plain gawkers of all types—teenagers, mostly—pulled up and pointed, their windows down, their voices loud enough to hear from inside. Solitary people parked and stared: perverts, deviants, celebrity stalkers, sad people who had lost something and needed to sit close to joy; there was no way to guess which. The police, if not parked outside, swept through every twenty minutes to move them along.
Lark tried to interest Caleb in Mario Kart as he lay on the game-room floor on his back, his legs bent over the sofa seat, arms outspread. His feet were laced into green Converse All-Stars that had arrived in the mail and had never touched the outdoor ground. Downstairs, their parents were having a semi-polite argument, Marlene saying, "I've been here. I'm not the one who left."
"They're not really fighting," Lark said. Caleb went to the window, lifted one slat of the blind. The rain had ended, the last half hour of daylight backing and sculpting the clouds. There were no cars out front. On the outside of the window screen, a daddy longlegs with white-striped legs felt its way along with one feeler leg, longer than all the others, tapping ahead in all directions like a blind man's cane.
Lark went on. "The only reason Dad and me left is because Mom lost her mind a little, while you were gone. But now she's fine. Now we'll all be together."
She'd given him versions of this story before, though she tried to avoid the upsetting topics. When her parents had flown out west, she and her aunt and cousins had moved all her belongings back to her old bedroom to make it look as if she'd never been gone. But they had said she didn't need to lie to him, and under that pretext Lark told him whatever she considered he ought to know, anything she'd be curious about herself in his place, though all of it was spun in this soothing, upbeat way that was natural to her. They were the stories she told herself, and she offered them to Caleb as truth.
Near the stairs below, Jeff said, "Now hold on. I thought recovering addicts weren't supposed to make any major decisions for the whole first year, or something. Isn't that right?" And Marlene said, "I am not a recovering anything."
What major decision? Lark wondered. Aloud, it might have qualified as an upsetting question. Caleb, listening also, turned abruptly and left the room.
She followed him down into the garage. He was behind the cars, and when she got to him, his BMX bike rested on the concrete floor before him. "Your bike," she said, staring, as if it were a ghost object he'd caused to appear from the air. She knew every little thing about that bike, mainly from listening to him—nine turning ten—describe the exact one he wanted. It might have given her some kind of déjà vu except that he was so much taller beside it.
"I'm going for a ride," he said. "Don't tell them."
"You can't!" she squeaked in whisper.
"No one's out there." He wheeled the bike past her to the side door that opened to the yard. "I won't be long."
"I'll come with you. Get my bike down."
He set a hand on her head, dipped his face toward hers. "What are you, my keeper? Wait here. You can stall them for me if they notice."
Then he was gone, leaving a panicky tightness in her chest. His hand on her hair had removed the option of ratting him out. And it wasn't like he was a child. He was fourteen. But she couldn't let him leave on that bike either, the very one they had found in the woods behind the elementary school the morning after he disappeared. The only question was whether to follow him on foot or to try to get her own bike—sparkle pink, with a white basket and pink and white streamers, untouched in three years—down from the wall.
She made a try at hefting the bike, and her hand sunk into the back tire—flat. Just as well. She didn't especially want to be seen on that little-girl bike, plus she still had on her school uniform with its khaki skirt. On her way out the door, she caught sight of the blue Razor scooter, Caleb's once. She had taken it over for a season before the pink bike. She grabbed it from its hook.
On the street, she didn't know which way he had gone, but there was a circle the family had once ridden together on evenings in nice weather, up through the lot of the elementary school, over into the park, around the duck ponds and back. He just wanted some air, some exercise, she was sure—though the man he called Jolly was out there somewhere, even if all the way on the opposite side of the country, and it seemed Caleb might be drawn straight to him on some kind of tractor beam, pedaling through the sky like one of those kids in E.T.
Instinct aimed her toward the school—past Patrick's house, where no one was about—too slowly on the pitiful wet-blacktop scratch of her scooter, and she was winded fast from the slight incline of the road. "Helmet," she remembered aloud, and Caleb didn't have one either, but maybe they were old enough not to need them now. It was growing dark.
A black car passed, headlights on in the blue dusk, then turned around and pulled up beside her. "Lark," called a man's voice from the window. "Lark Vincent."
She was semi-used to strangers calling her by name, but it always terrified her. Worse than the obnoxious jokesters were the friendly ones, the ones who acted like they knew her or wanted her to think they did. Jaw set, she shoved her foot harder against the street as if she could outrun him. But then she abruptly stopped where she was. She couldn't lead some stalker creep to Caleb.
"It's Mitch," he said. She could barely see his face through the window, and he switched on the interior light. "Agent Abernathy, of the FBI. You wanna see my badge? Get in the car. How you gonna get anywhere on that thing?"
Panting for breath, she climbed into the front seat, dragging the scooter along behind her. She tried to explain about Caleb, but the agent was already turning down a side street headed away from the house, no faster than the speed limit.
"Are you watching us or something?"
"Not really," he said. "Just driving by."
She looked at him again, with a stutter of uncertainty that she had recognized him correctly. She knew the name well but hadn't been around him enough to be certain of the man attached to it. He said, "I assume this is what you're after," pointing ahead through the windshield. There was Caleb, coasting around a corner, then pumping the pedals hard into a hill.
"Go!" she cried. The car had rolled nearly to a stop at the curb.
"He's fine, don't worry. We'll give him some space." He put a cell phone on her thigh. "Call your mother, please, before we get ourselves into an Amber Alert situation out here."
She opened the phone, turned to him with a sudden curiosity. "Do you like my mother or something?"
He frowned, twitched. "I like all of y'all. It's, uh, star three."
He blinked at her with strange, small eyes she remembered better now, vague and distracted-looking, as if he was always a little put out, and she puffed a breath through her nose, held his gaze. "I promised I wouldn't tell. And they won't even know we're gone yet."
He shook his head, mouth folded in. "You got a bit of your mother in you, you know that?"
She didn't know that but didn't say so. Ahead of them, a red Corolla pulled out of a side street faster than it should have, with a bleat of tires, a wave of its tail. "Seat belt, kiddo," the agent said, and she clicked it into place. The car ahead peeled off down another street of the neighborhood maze, but they didn't follow, just continued on toward the park at their leisurely pace.
At the park entrance, they pulled up and idled. The streetlights were on, glowing in the damp pavement, illuminating the empty tennis courts under the tree shadow. A woman walked an elderly golden retriever up the path toward the exit. There were a couple of cars parked back near the bathrooms, but Lark could see no other people, no bikes. "Where is he? Aren't we going to find him?"
It was hard to get too worked up, though, while seated beside a federal agent. A G-man. They sat for a minute, and the agent rolled down his window as if to get some air, but instantly there was Caleb on a shush of tires, headed the opposite way, toward home. The agent tipped his hand out, crooked two fingers, and Caleb stopped beside the window. Lark could hear him breathing hard. "Agent Abernathy," he said lightly, a greeting.
"Caleb. Have a nice ride?"
"Yeah. It's a little chillier out than I thought, but you get warmed up."
The agent smiled. "You headed home?" Lark, in the dark of the car, hoped Caleb wouldn't notice she was there at all.
"Yeah, on my way. I just went around the block."
"All right. You go on straight there. I'll be behind you."
Through the window, Lark could see Caleb's chest heaving in his long-sleeved T-shirt, his knee cocked up by a pedal. Maybe he was making up his mind to argue about it, but then a car coming toward them, crawling against the opposite curb—the Corolla—swung around and took aim. There was shouting, whooping, the car stopped in the road with its high beams on Caleb and at least two people in it hanging out windows with cell phones.
Caleb stood on the pedals to race away, but the agent was already out of the car, the bike caught by the handlebars. Another car had turned up behind them, less decisive than the first, but waiting. Before she saw him move, Caleb was at the passenger door, shoving Lark over—she had to quick undo her seat belt—and he slammed himself in and hunkered low, wordless and watching. The agent, with the bike's handlebars gripped in one hand like a dog by the collar and his badge in the other, moved toward the Corolla, from which someone said, "Hey, man, it's just pictures. It's a free country."
The second car changed its mind and slunk away. A few people had come out onto porches and into yards. Leaning over the Corolla's window, the agent delivered a lecture and a threat and received no guff in return. Seconds later, the car creeping away backward to turn itself in a driveway, the agent opened the back door of his own car and hoisted in the bike.
With a sigh, he settled back into the driver's seat and glanced toward the two of them, still ducked and frozen together, but he didn't seem angry. "Getting near dinnertime, isn't it?" He rolled up the window, put the car in gear.
Caleb started an apology as they drove toward home, and the agent said, "No, don't you say a word. That right there is not a lesson anyone should have to learn. Just so long as you're clear on where you'd be if you'd taken off just then, because these are some goddamn yahoos who'll run you flat down in the street. They think someone's gonna give them a million fucking dollars for some crap off a cell phone, and that's all you are to them."
The phone rang—Lark had to dig it out from under her. Marlene, it said across its face. She handed it to the agent, who flipped it open and said, "I got 'em both. Right here next to me. We're pulling in now."
Copyright © 2013 by Sheri Joseph