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ONE DAY HENRY was there, and the next he wasn’t.
I assumed he was home sick. Well, playing sick, more likely. When it came to faking an illness, Henry was a master. True, he’d had his slipups, like the time he gargled hot tap water before taking a thermometer from his mother, only to have his temperature come in at 109 degrees. But that was an exception. (To Henry’s credit, his argument about the thermometer’s “defective engineering” was so convincing that his mother wrote a letter to the manufacturer.)
Most of the time, Henry managed to convince his parents that his cough, headache, nausea, and/or fever were reason enough for him to stay out of school (“I’d feel really bad if I gave it to the other students”), but not serious enough for him to see the doctor. His parents would phone the excuse into the attendance office and head off to their Very Important Jobs in pet insurance and contracts law, while Henry would pass the day downloading music onto his MP3 player and teaching himself the guitar.
Had it been a normal day, I would have sent Henry a text—Hope it isn’t fatal—and Henry would have replied right away with something like, Pray for me. And bring me my homework. (Please.)
But there was nothing normal about this day, because there had been nothing normal about the night before. I was all set to act like nothing had happened, if that was how he wanted it, but I wasn’t prepared to find an empty desk in our first-period class (Spanish II) or in any of our shared classes that followed (AP European history, honors chemistry, dance, advanced geometry, honors sophomore English). Henry might be lazy, but I had never taken him for a coward.
“Where’s Henry?” the girls in dance class asked, as they always did.
“The usual,” I said.
Henry was the only boy in dance class, which was exactly why he’d signed up. Anyone who didn’t play a sport was required to do two years of physical education or dance.
“I’ll take the one where the girls wear spandex shorts and tank tops,” he had said.
As for his own clothes, he’d talked the teacher into letting him wear basketball shorts and a T-shirt. Of course he had.
“You want to take one of these for Henry?” our chemistry teacher asked, giving me an extra packet. Only a month into sophomore year, and our teachers had figured it out: Henry would be absent a lot. I’d take his work. Henry would catch up without any problem.
It made me crazy, how easily Henry pulled As without even trying. Sick or healthy, I never missed a day of school. I never forgot a homework assignment. I never left a paper till the last minute. And yet my GPA was lower than Henry’s. Not by a lot, but still.
Henry, Henry, Henry.
“I think you’re secretly in love with him,” my mother said back in ninth grade, when we first started partnering up for school projects, sharing inside jokes, and exchanging endless texts.
“We’re just friends,” I told her.
But we weren’t just friends. We were best friends. And best friends don’t disappear without saying anything. Which must mean that our best-friendship was in jeopardy.
By the end of the day, after checking my phone during every passing period and lunch, I still hadn’t heard from him. I won’t be the first to text, I swore.
And then, of course, I thumbed a message before I had a chance to talk myself out of it: I have your chemistry packet.
Text sent, I had nothing to do but wait for a reply. Because there was no way I was going to text him again.
Well, unless a whole hour went by without a word.
Will you just answer already?
Still no word.
You promised things wouldn’t be weird.
Things are weird. Let’s call a do-over. Last night didn’t happen. OK?
Finally, at five o’clock, with my mounds of homework not yet begun, I called him and got a recording: “I’m sorry. But the number you are trying to reach is not in service.”
I felt cold all over. And then I laughed. No wonder Henry hadn’t returned my texts—his phone wasn’t working! I should have known there was a good explanation. Henry wasn’t a coward. Our friendship hadn’t turned weird.
In my room, I found my laptop buried under last night’s pajamas and booted it up, positive I’d find a message waiting. I didn’t.
“I’m taking some homework over to Henry,” I told my older brother, who was sticking three frozen burritos into our vintage microwave. Our kitchen, also vintage (which sounds so much better than old) was red-and-white tile. It looked like an In-N-Out Burger.
“Mm,” he grunted, pressing in too many minutes. Peter was the king of the exploding burrito.
“Yeah, so tell Mom when she gets home.”
Chemistry packet in hand, I let myself out the rickety gate that led to the horse and jogging trail behind our house. The trail wound around a murky pond and then led to a street that led to another street that led to Henry’s house. By the time I reached what Henry called the Fortress (picture light sensors and triple locks and a security system with video cameras), I was sweaty and dusty and out of breath.
Though it was big, Henry’s house was not what I would call pretty. In fact, it was what I would call ugly. All hard angles and sharp lines, the Fortress was painted an icy white and roofed in blue metal. The gray-blue trim helped, but not much. The one soft touch that Henry’s parents had added, red roses under the windows and salmon bougainvillea along the sides, had been planted for security purposes only. An intruder would think twice before braving those thorns. The bees were a bonus.
I climbed the familiar steps to a front door so big that it never failed to intimidate me. Or maybe it was the discreet video camera mounted above the door that made me squirm. I ran a hand over my sweaty forehead and pushed the doorbell. Chimes echoed: Ding-DONG. Ding-dong-DING. Averting my eyes from the video camera, I looked instead at the weatherproof sign planted among the red roses: A-1 SECURITY. ARMED RESPONSE.
It did not make me feel better.
I waited for footsteps. Don’t let it be his mother. I was still wearing what I’d worn to school: a rock band T-shirt, denim miniskirt, and artfully torn black tights. Mrs. Hawking would not approve.
No one came. But maybe Henry had his headphones on. Maybe he was watching TV.
I pushed the doorbell again, listened to the dings and the dongs. Still no answer.
The late-afternoon sun reflected off the windows. Not that I could have seen inside anyway; Henry’s parents kept the blinds drawn at all times. A flash of color caught my eye: A stained glass sun-catcher, shaped like a shooting star and attached with a suction cup, hung between the blinds and a living room window. That was new. Or maybe I’d just never noticed it before. How like Henry’s parents to put something pretty (well, pretty-ish; actually, it was kind of tacky) behind the window blinds, where they wouldn’t even see it.
Finally, I pulled my phone out of my pocket. In all the time we’d been friends, I’d never called Henry’s home number. There had never been any reason to. Besides, I wouldn’t have wanted to risk talking to Henry’s parents. (“May I ask who is calling?… Oh. Daisy.” Here his mother or father would insert a disapproving silence. “Henry is rather busy right now.”)
But Henry’s parents were clearly out of the house. The phone rang four times, and just when I expected a machine to pick up, it rang a fifth time. And a sixth. After eight rings I gave up and slipped the phone back into my pocket. Despite the heat, I shivered.
I shuffled down the steps, paused, and turned back one last time in the hopes that Henry would appear. But the door remained shut. The house appeared deserted, but then it always looked like that: mean and lonely.
As I made my way down the front walkway, I glanced over at the driveway. Not that I expected to see a car there—Henry’s parents would never leave their vehicles potentially exposed to thieves and vandals and goodness knows what—but …
I froze. A newspaper, wrapped in orange plastic, sat in the middle of the gray pavers. I crept toward it as if it were something alive. Something that might bite. A lizard, maybe. Or a rabid possum.
I tried to quiet my mind. Maybe it wasn’t the daily paper. Maybe it was some kind of free circular tossed there during the day.
But no. Hands shaking, I picked up the bundle, reached inside, and pulled out the Orange County Register. I checked the date: today.
That was when I knew: Henry was gone.
Copyright © 2016 by Carol Snow