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"James, get your behind down here and finish your greens!"
Shelly's voice boomed through the house, and even though it took eight-year-old James Linwood only thirty seconds to turn off his Xbox 360 and race down the stairs, his younger sister, Tasha, was already sitting at the table, eyeing him while munching loudly on a celery stalk. When James sat down, Tasha, six years old but already a grandmaster at winning the game of sibling rivalry, stuck a green, mush-filled tongue out at her brother, who was more than happy to return the favor.
"That's enough, both of you. James, baby, I never excused you from the table. You have to ask to be excused." James looked at his mother and gave an exaggerated sigh, then picked up a single piece of lettuce. He took a bite, grimacing as if it had been marinating in oyster juice. "I don't know what you're looking at me for," Shelly said. "Some people actually think vegetables taste good."
Tasha nodded along with her mother, opened wide and shoved a whole stalk of celery in her mouth.
"Those people are stupid," James said, nibbling at the lettuce.
"No, if you knew what kind of vitamins and minerals veggies had, you'd know those people are quite smart," Shelly said. "Did you know LeBron James eats a double helping of carrots before every game?"
"Does not," James replied.
"Does too," said Shelly.
"Does too," said Tasha.
James gave his sister a cold glare. He tore off a piece of lettuce and chewed it with vigor, letting several shreds of green gristle fall onto the table.
Shelly watched her children eat, their eyes more concerned with her approval than their nutrition. The soft jingle of a wind chime could be heard from the back porch, as well as the noise of a television set blaring from the house next door. Mrs. Niederman's hearing had begun to go last year, and now she watched Alex Trebek at a volume that could be heard from space.
Shelly took a moment to gaze around her house. Just a few years ago, the back porch was riddled with termites, the wood rotted, the whole structure ready to collapse. She never would have let Tasha and James play on it. Randy was never very good with tools, and they simply didn't have the money to rebuild it. Not yet.
After their terrible ordeal, when their family had been fractured, the Good Samaritans of Hobbs County had reached out to help the Linwoods. Now barely a day passed where James and Tasha weren't outside shooting off water guns, dangling from the railing like a pair of spider monkeys. At least the porch had been rebuilt.
While the kids were at school, while Randy was away at work, Shelly would often find herself looking at the old photos of their house, taken when they'd first moved in years ago. She barely recognized what it had become.
The white paint was fresh, blue trim even, the mailbox upright. Nobody egged their house on Halloween, and she never had to call the police to report the teenagers who used to drive by once a week and knock the mailbox sideways with wielded baseball bats. Those kinds of things never happened anymore. There were more cops; she could feel their presence. They stopped by every so often, just to see how she and Randy were holding up. I'm fine, Shelly would say. We're fine.
The cops always turned down a cup of coffee. As though being any closer to the sorrow might somehow infect them.
James was grimacing through his last scraps of food when Shelly heard the doorbell.
"That's got to be Daddy," Shelly said. "He probably forgot his keys again this morning. James, would you let your father in?" James didn't move. "Did you hear me?"
"I'm cleaning my plate like you told me. I can't answer the door and eat at the same time." He smiled at this catch-22. Shelly sighed, though silently proud of her son's intelligence.
"Fine, you can stop eating if you let your father in. But if I hear that video game start up before you finish your social studies homework, you won't watch television until you graduate college."
James sprung up like he'd been shot from a cannon, then bolted from his chair.
Shelly smiled at her daughter. Tasha. Her beautiful, young daughter, who would grow up to be strong and vivacious like her mother had never been. Shelly felt an ache in her stomach and placed her palm on Tasha's cheek. Tasha smiled at her, that big goofy grin full of baby teeth.
"Mom?" James's voice bellowed from the hallway. "There's a kid here. Do you know anyone named Daniel?"
A napkin fell from Shelly's hand and fluttered to the floor.
what did you say, baby?"
"Daniel. There's some kid at the door says he knows you. Wait, huh? Uh, Mom? He says
he says you're his mom."
Shelly leapt from her seat. She dashed through the house, nearly knocking over the coffee table, and sprinted into the front hallway.
The wooden frame was open to reveal the screen door. A boy was standing behind the screen, looking confused as to why he hadn't been allowed in yet. Shelly covered her mouth to prevent a scream from escaping her lips.
On the other side of the door stood a boy Shelly both knew and didn't know. He was about five foot three with a lock of dark hair that fell over his hazel eyes. His father's eyes. His limbs were gangly, full of sharp angles, as if he'd grown a great deal in a short amount of time and the flesh hadn't caught up to his bones. Everything and nothing was just like she remembered.
"Baby, oh my God
She gently pushed James away from the door and tore open the screen. The boy stood on the front porch with a look of slight bewilderment, a twinkle of recognition, a blurry memory slowly coming into focus. He didn't move. Instead, the boy's eyes met Shelly's as though waiting for something, and before another second passed Shelly Linwood gathered the boy up into her arms and squeezed him like there was no tomorrow, until his arms tentatively wrapped themselves around her body and held on. She remembered how he'd felt in her arms, and though heavier, he was the same child she'd held in her arms for the first six years of his life. She showered the boy's head with kisses until he pulled away slightly, an embarrassed grin on his young face.
"Oh my God," she whispered. "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. Baby, is it really you?" The boy shrugged, then was muffled as Shelly attempted to squeeze the life out of him again.
Shelly heard a car pull up. When the engine cut off, she looked up to see Randy's silver V70 Volvo in the driveway. The door opened, and her husband climbed out with a groan. Randy was forty-one, just ten pounds heavier than when they'd met in high school. His jawline was still visible above a slight jowl, his arms still maintaining some of the tone from his linebacker days at Hobbs High. Shelly loved to run her hands down his arms when he lay on top of her, the definition of his triceps making her shiver. It had been a year since she last felt that, but now she needed to feel him closer more than ever.
Randy stretched his back, ran his fingers through his thinning hair, then reached back inside to grab his briefcase.
"Honey," he said, noticing the commotion on the front porch. "Please tell me there's a Michelob left in the fridge, I"
"It's Daniel," Shelly blurted. "He's back."
Randy looked up, confused. Then when everything came into focus, his briefcase fell to the ground. He stared for a moment, shaking his head, then ran up the steps to join his wife. He placed his palm over the boy's forehead, pulled his hair back, gazing into the young, confused eyes. Then he joined his wife in the embrace.
"You people are weird," James muttered. "I don't get it. Who is he?"
"This," Randy said, turning the boy to face him, tears streaming down his face, "is your brother. His name is Daniel. Do you remember him?"
James had been just three when it all happened. Shelly didn't take it personally when Daniel looked at his sibling, bewilderment reigning over his face, a slight twinkle of memory.
"My brother?" James said. "I thought he was, like, stolen or something."
"He was," Shelly said, stroking Daniel's hair. "But thank you, God, somehow our boy has found his way home."
James looked at Daniel. There were no bruises on his body; no cuts or scrapes. His clothes looked new enough to still have the tags on them. Though he was so young, Shelly wondered if James remembered all those people rushing in and out of their house. Men and women with badges, other loud people with cameras and microphones. Once on an Easter egg hunt, Shelly had entered the bedroom to find James and Tasha rifling through a trunk stuffed full of newspaper clippings about Daniel's disappearance. James had asked Shelly about Daniel once, and she answered with a single tear, a trembling lip. He never asked again.
To Shelly, this was God's will. It was fate that her family be reunited.
To James Linwood, though, he couldn't understand how his brother, who'd disappeared nearly five years ago without a trace, could simply reappear like magic without a scratch on him.
The bar was sweltering hot, but the swirling fans made it more palatable than the thick sweater choking the New York streets. It didn't take long to learn that Augusts in New York could be brutal. My first summer in the city, I made the mistake one day of wearing a T-shirt and sweater to the office. Jack told me between my clothes and the Gazette's sporadic air-conditioning, I'd lose ten pounds before the day was up. While I doubted the New York summer could get any hotter than my childhood years in Bend, Oregon, when later that night I peeled off my sweater and squeezed out the moisture, I realized East Coast summers were just as brutal as their West Coast counterparts.
I took another sip of my beermy third of the night, and third in slightly under an hourand casually glanced up at the baseball game. Out of the dozen or so patrons, only two or three seemed to care about the outcome. The others were nursing a drink, chatting up the bartender or, like the six people my age playing darts, far too busy reveling in their own bliss.
I'd gotten to know the bartender, Seamus. Things like that happen when you become a regular. Some nights I had trouble sleeping. This necessitated finding somewhere to go to kill time. Somewhere I could be lost in my own thoughts. That's how I stumbled upon Finnerty's. Quiet enough to lose yourself. Loud enough to drown everything out.
Most nights I was happy to imbibe among young Irish gents and apple-cheeked female bartenders. U2 and Morrissey seemed to emanate from the jukebox on an endless loop. Though I enjoyed the Irish pub, sitting in Finnerty's made me feel that much closer to the elder drinkers, sitting with bottomless glasses of whiskey, talking to the bartender because he was cheaper than a psychiatrist. All of this, by proxy, made me feel more and more like I was becoming Jack O'Donnell. In many ways being compared to Jack would be a compliment. Just not this one.
Jack O'Donnell, to put it bluntly, was my idol. He'd worked the city beat for going on forty years, and any conversation about New York journalism was incomplete without mention of the old man. Growing up, I'd gone out of my way to read every story O'Donnell wrote, not an easy task for a kid who lived three thousand miles away from New York. I had our library special-order the Gazette on microfiche. I would take on an extra newspaper route just so I could afford the next O'Donnell book in hardcover when it hit stores. I couldn't, or wouldn't, wait for the paperback.
A few years ago I'd arrived at the New York Gazette a fresh-faced newbie reporter who deigned only to shine O'Donnell's shoes. He was a journalistic institution, writing some of the most important stories of the past half century. Despite his age, Jack seemed to grow younger with every word he typed. Even though Jack's first assignment for me led to disasternamely me being accused of murderhe was the first person at the newspaper to give me an honest shot at showing what I was worth. Both Jack and Wallace Langston, the Gazette's editor-in-chief, had taken me under their wings, given me stories that I grabbed on to tenaciously and reported the hell out of. Without Jack I probably wouldn't have come to New York. Because of him I found my calling.
Like any idol, though, once you got closer you could see that some of the gold paint covered a chipped bronze interior. For all his brilliance with a pen, Jack's personal life was a disaster. Several times married and divorced. On the highway to alcoholism while seeming to hit every speed bump at sixty miles an hour. Yet, despite Jack's faults, he was the tent pole to which I aspired to in this business. As long as I could stop there.
Nights like tonight, I was content to sit on the aged bar stool and ignore everything. It was easier that way.
Then I felt a cold splash on my back, whipped around to see a tall, lithe redhead standing over my shoulder, her hand over her mouth as if she'd just seen a bad car accident.
"Oh, my gosh!" she said, grabbing a pile of napkins off the bar and mopping at my shirt where she'd spilled her drink. From the look and smell, I could tell she'd spilled a cosmopolitan. I'd say I was thankful it wasn't one of my good shirts, but the truth was I didn't own any good shirts. Just one more article of clothing with an unidentifiable stain.
"No big deal," I said, wringing as much liquid from the cloth as I could. "It's a bar. You kind of expect to be hit with a drink or two."
She smiled at me. I wondered if she thought I was funny, or if she was just relieved I wasn't the kind of asshole who would bark and shout at a girl who'd accidentally spilled a drink on him.