Read an Excerpt
Here Lies Daniel Tate
The first question everyone always asks is, what’s your name?
I won’t tell you, because I don’t want to lie to you. I want to tell the truth for once; no fake names like the ones I used to give when people asked me. I had no choice back then. I was a born liar and, by the time everything began, I barely remembered my real name anyway. I left that boy dead and buried in a Saskatchewan town where the snow somehow turned gray the moment it hit the ground. I don’t mean that metaphorically, like I just shed his name and history, although I did that, too. I mean I killed him.
I crept back into town one night, skirting the bright pools of light from streetlamps and avoiding the houses where I knew dogs barked. Old, stale snow crunched under my feet. Inside my coat pocket I fingered a glossy baseball card that was creased and fraying at the corners from too much handling. It wasn’t a real baseball card, just a picture of me in my T-ball uniform with my name in block letters across the bottom. I was six in the picture, and already there was a gap in my smile, the tooth knocked loose by a closed fist. But I was still smiling.
When I reached my mother’s house, I stood in the darkness below the trees outside and watched her through the window. She was sitting in her usual chair, flipping channels on the television. I hadn’t seen her for a year, and I guess I expected to feel . . . something. But I didn’t. There was only the familiar hole in my chest where the feeling should have been.
I dialed her number from memory. Snow fell and clung to my eyelashes, and I blinked the flakes away to watch her. After three rings, she rose from her chair and crossed to the ancient handset mounted on the wall.
“Hello?” she said, the word partially muffled by a cigarette.
“Mrs. Smith?” I said. Not exactly that, of course, since “Smith” isn’t my name. “This is Officer Green of the Royal Mounted Police.”
“Yeah?” she asked. Getting a call from the cops didn’t faze her.
“It’s about your son,” I said. “I’m sorry to tell you there’s been an accident.”
I told her I was dead, hit by a speeding car as I crossed an icy road. I watched her close. She didn’t move or speak for a long time.
Then she said:
“I don’t have a son.”
She hung up and went back to her chair, and that was it. I left, and I left the boy I’d been behind with her, dead and buried in the dingy gray snow.
• • •
But that’s not where this story starts, not really. It began on another snowy night a few years later, with police lights bathing the world in red and blue.
I hunched against the cold at one of the few remaining pay phones on the east side of Vancouver. It was too fucking cold to be on the streets. I dialed 911 and counted along to the rings. After the seventh, someone answered.
“Nine-one-one. What’s your emergency?”
“Hello?” I ground my voice down against the back of my throat, making it sound low and gravelly. “My wife and I just came across this kid, and there’s . . . well, there’s something wrong with him. He seems really out of it.”
I heard the dispatcher suppress a yawn. Either bored or new to the night shift. “How old is he?”
“Like fifteen or sixteen,” I said. I’d learned by then what a crucial part of the scam that was, and luckily I had enough of a baby face to pull it off. “I think maybe he’s lost. Someone should come get him. It’s freezing out here.”
She asked for the address and told me they were sending a car. I sat down on the sidewalk in a protected alcove that had once been the doorway of a boarded up pharmacy. The cement was like ice through the fabric of my jeans, but I wouldn’t be there long. I pulled my baseball cap down over my eyes, flipped up the hood of my sweatshirt, and waited.
The squad car pulled up with its siren off but its lights flashing, painting red and blue beams across the lacy curtain of falling snow. I burrowed deeper into my hoodie and bowed my head to hide my face under the brim of my cap.
“Hi there,” one of the officers, the younger one, said as he climbed out of the cruiser. His voice was kind, but he kept his distance. Fresh out of the academy and still a little jumpy. “You okay?”
The older officer was less cautious and crouched down beside me. He had a ring on his left hand, maybe kids of his own around my age at home. “Hey, buddy, what’s your name?”
I didn’t speak. I didn’t even look up.
“Come on, you’ve got to know who are you,” the older officer pressed, his tone light and teasing. “Everyone knows who they are.”
“Okay,” he said when I didn’t respond. “How about you come with us? You’ve got to be half-frozen.”
He reached for my arm, and I recoiled violently. It wasn’t a hard reaction to fake. The officer held up his empty hands, while his partner’s hand flew to the holster at his side.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” he said. He looked back at his partner, who was still poised to grab his gun if I turned out to be violent. “Jesus, Pearson. Relax, would you? We’re not going to hurt you, son, I promise.”
I gradually let them talk me up off the sidewalk and into the squad car. They tried to engage me in conversation as they took me back to their station, but I kept my head down and my mouth shut. I used to talk, tell some sob story, but I’d learned there was more power in silence.
They stuck me in a holding room with a vending machine sandwich and a cup of hot chocolate until they could figure out what to do with me. I would have preferred not to have involved the authorities—it was riskier this way—but Covenant House was full and it was cold. These guys were my best chance for a bed. It took about an hour for them to come back with a small white woman in jeans and a messy ponytail. I had moved to the corner of the room, sitting on the thin carpet with my knees pulled up to my chest. She crouched down at my eye level, but well out of my reach, so she’d obviously been doing this for a while. She told me her name was Alicia, in that low, soothing voice that people who work with troubled children or wild animals seem to be born with. She worked at a province-run care home, and she was going to take me there so I could get some sleep.
“Then, tomorrow morning,” she said, “we’ll work all this out.”
The cops passed me off to her like I was a piece of lost luggage. Alicia sat beside me in the back of a squad car as a deputy drove us to Short Term 8. When we got there, Alicia’s coworker Martin—a big black man with the widest, whitest smile I’ve ever seen—took over. He took me to a bathroom and waited outside while Alicia went to get me something to change into. I washed the dirt from my face, frowned at the pale stubble that was reappearing on my jawline, and rummaged through the cabinets to see what was inside. I found a half a tube of toothpaste and rubbed some across my teeth with a finger. Martin knocked on the door and handed me a T-shirt and pair of sweatpants that smelled like mothballs and laundry detergent. After I’d changed, he showed me to an empty bed in a room where two other boys were already sleeping.
“You need anything?” he asked. I noted the way he curled his shoulders in, trying to minimize his physical presence. He was that kid everyone assumed was a bully because of his size but would never hurt a fly. Made sense he’d ended up in this line of work.
I shook my head and climbed into the bed. The sheets were worn thin from a thousand washings, but they were cool and soft against my skin. A much better bed than the pavement or some shitty adult homeless shelter, and as long as I kept my mouth shut, I could probably keep it for a couple of weeks.
• • •
My eyes flew open. I’d been dreaming about a small, dark space, and then someone was standing above me, their hand on my arm. Before my eyes had even focused enough to make the person out, I had hit their arm away and scrambled back until I hit a wall.
“Whoa, sorry!” A skinny black boy stood beside my bed, rubbing his arm. He shoved his glasses farther up his nose with one knuckle. “I just wanted to tell you breakfast is ready.”
I felt a little bad—I could tell from the sting in my hand how hard I’d hit him—but I couldn’t apologize. And, anyway, he shouldn’t have touched me while I was sleeping.
“Hey, what’s your name, man?” the other kid in the room asked. He had a shaved head and an amateurish tattoo on the side of his neck that looked like it was made with a safety pin and ink in juvie. His eyes were full of evaluation as he looked me up and down, trying to get the size of me. I met his gaze coolly.
“You deaf or something?” he said.
“Hey, guys!” Alicia appeared in the doorway with my clothes, clean and folded, in her hands. “Head on to the dining room, okay? Martin made pancakes.”
Both boys gave me wary looks before leaving the room. Alicia closed the door behind them and sat on the bed closest to me, knitting her fingers together in front of her.
“Hey,” she said. “How you feeling this morning?”
“Ready to talk?”
I shook my head.
“That’s okay—you don’t have to,” she said. “But can you tell me your name, at least? We’ve got a lot of boys around here, so ‘hey you’ isn’t very effective.”
In response, I swallowed and looked down at the bedspread, worrying it between my fingers.
“Okay, no problem,” she said, “but we’ve got to call you something. We picked you up at the Collingwood Police Station, so how about we call you Collin for now? That’s a pretty good name.”
I shrugged again.
“Okay, I’ll take that as a yes.” She smiled and went to put a hand on my shoulder but wisely reconsidered. Instead, she handed me my clothes. “Get dressed, and then we’ll go get some breakfast. You can meet the other guys.”
Alicia waited outside while I changed into my old jeans, tee, and hoodie, and then she showed me to the dining room at the other end of the building. The room was overflowing with boys and noise and the ambient heat of so many bodies packed in such a small space, and I could feel her watching me, waiting to see if I’d freak out. I probably should have faked it to keep up my traumatized act, go hide myself in the bedroom and refuse to come out, but dammit, I was hungry.
Alicia sat, and I sank into the empty seat beside her. She handed me a platter of pancakes, and I forked three onto my plate while I felt eyes around the table sliding in my direction.
“Guys, this is Collin,” Alicia said. “He’s going to be staying with us for a while. He’s a little on the quiet side, so don’t bug him, okay?”
The other boys, a dozen or so, reacted in a variety of ways. A couple said hi, a couple grunted, a couple didn’t respond at all. After that everyone went back to their pancakes, and that was all it took for me to become one of them.
• • •
When I still wouldn’t talk on my third day at Short Term 8—wouldn’t tell the staff or police who I was or where I’d come from so they could return me there—they took me to a government psychologist. I pulled out all the stops for her. The night before the appointment I bit my nails until they bled, because I knew she would notice. I cowered in my chair when she talked to me and rocked back and forth ever so slightly when she started to push. She told them to give me time, that I would open up when I was ready. Just like I knew she would.
I figured she’d bought me at least a week.
“Jason! Tucker!” Martin called from the hallway. This is how we were awoken most mornings. The only thing my two roommates had in common was they hated getting out of bed. “I said, get up!”
Jason moaned, and Tucker rolled over, jamming his pillow over his head.
“What about Collin?” Jason said. He pushed himself into a sitting position and groped for his glasses on the bedside table. “Doesn’t he have to get up?”
“That’s not fair!”
“I know. Life’s a bitch.” Martin appeared in the open doorway brandishing a water pistol. “Now wake up!”
He shot streams of water at both of the boys. Tucker told him to go fuck himself, and Jason sputtered and protested that he was already up.
“Don’t make me get the hose,” Martin said. “Be in the dining room in five. Collin, come down whenever you’re ready.”
“What the fuck makes him so special?” Tucker demanded, but Martin was already gone. I smiled, rolled over, and went back to sleep.
I liked it at Short Term 8. Three square meals, a bed of my own, and enough noise from fourteen other boys to drown out the voices in my head. Besides Jason, who was a sweet kid who brought me Oreos whenever he raided the pantry behind the staff’s back, and Tucker, who was an asshole, the other boys mostly ignored me. If you don’t speak for long enough, people eventually stop seeing you as an oddity and start seeing you as a piece of furniture, which suited me just fine. I liked to blend in to the chaos they caused until I as good as disappeared. Sometimes Alicia or one of the day staff would remember I existed when the others gave them a break and would take me aside for a kind word and a reassuring hand on the shoulder, which was all I needed.
But I knew it couldn’t last.
The cops got impatient first. They wanted to close the file on the kid they’d found in the snow and move on. They sent a couple of detectives over to talk to me. The day manager Diane had just arrived to take over from Alicia, and she took charge of getting boys out the door while Alicia sat beside me in the lounge. The detectives opposite us pulled out their notepads and pens, and I hung my head, keeping my eyes on the floor. One of them—the bigger one, whose buzzed haircut suggested a man who’d never quite let go of the military even years after rejoining civilian life—had been looking at me real close since the moment they’d arrived, and I didn’t like it.
“We need you to tell us your name, son,” the smaller one finally said after a reasonably polite preamble.
I started to rock back and forth in my chair, and I bit on the nail of my thumb. It was probably too late for my theatrics to do any good, but it wouldn’t hurt to try.
“Did you run away?” the smaller detective asked. “Were you being hurt?”
I didn’t say anything, and Alicia put a comforting hand on my knee.
“We can protect you,” he continued, “but we’ve got to know who you are.”
“Alicia.” The big detective spoke for the first time. “If this boy is really so traumatized he can’t answer a simple question, I don’t think it’s right for him to be staying here. He should be section sixteened.”
Section sixteen. Every kid who’s spent time in care or on the streets knows what that means: a psychiatric hold.
“Come on, Frank,” Alicia said. “Dr. Nazadi said he just needs some time.”
The detective turned to me. “Son, we need to know who you are. I want your name and where you’re from, or we’re going to have to take your prints and your picture and find out for ourselves.”
“This isn’t necessary, Frank,” Alicia said.
“Isn’t it?” he asked. “There aren’t a hundred other kids who could use that bed?”
Alicia glanced at me from the corner of her eye, and the detective was looking at me with a hard glint in his.
It was over.
• • •
That night I waited for Short Term 8 to go dark and quiet before I climbed out of bed. I’d had a good run here, but this was the end of the line. No way was I going to let them stick me in a mental ward or put my prints into the system. The bed wasn’t worth it.
I put on my warmest clothes, including the decent winter coat Martin had procured for me, and packed what little else I had in my backpack. I looked down at Jason for a second. I would miss him, I guessed, as much as I could miss anyone. I didn’t bother looking at Tucker.
I crept through the quiet building in my socked feet, boots held in my hand. Martin and Alicia were the staff on duty this time of night, and they were predictable. Martin would be at the television in the common room watching whatever sport was on with the volume turned down low, and Alicia would be on the computer in the office. They were pretty much there just to make sure no one died or burned the place down.
I crossed through the dining room, running my fingers along the grain of the table in the spot where I usually sat as I walked past it. I peered around the door of the dining hall to get a look at the front office. As I’d guessed, Alicia was in there, catching up on celebrity gossip on the Internet. I’d have to get past the office to get to the front door, and the office walls were lined with windows.
I thought about trying to sneak past her. If I crouched down low enough, I could get under the windows. But that wouldn’t get me past the open door unnoticed unless Alicia also happened to be in a mild, Kardashian–induced coma. I could go out an emergency exit, but that would set off the alarm, and the idea was to get out without anyone noticing I was gone until the morning. Anything that might wake Jason and Tucker or prompt Alicia and Martin to do a bed check was too risky.
Finally, I decided on the easiest option. I would wait. I felt like there were ants crawling under my skin every moment I was trapped in there, but I had all night. The important thing was to just disappear.
I sat down behind the door of the darkened dining hall. Neither Martin nor Alicia had any reason to come in here, and by cracking the door, I could see Alicia in the office. Eventually, she would get up to go to the bathroom or get herself another Diet Coke from the kitchen. I just had to be patient.
I’m not sure how long I waited. Maybe an hour. Finally, Alicia got up from her chair. I watched her walk down the hallway toward the staff restroom, and then scrambled to my feet and grabbed my boots. I had maybe a minute to get out before she came back. I stuck my head out into the hallway, checking both ways first. Alicia was gone, and the glow from the common room in the other direction meant Martin was almost certainly in front of the TV. I took a step into the hallway. My left foot had gone numb from being folded under me, and it came awake with painful pins and needles as I snuck toward the front entrance. There was an alarm panel beside the door, and I started to punch in the code I’d watched Alicia plug into it the first night they brought me here. I heard the distant sound of a toilet flushing. My finger slipped, and I hit the wrong button. The light on the panel flashed red.
“Shit,” I whispered, and quickly reentered the correct code. The light turned green, and I heard a door opening. I yanked open the front door and slipped through it, pulling it nearly closed after me. I tried to slow my breathing as I stood on the outside, ears straining. Had Alicia gotten there in time to see the door closing behind me? Could she see the small gap I’d left so that she wouldn’t hear the noise of the latch catching when the door closed? I waited, but nothing happened. Short Term 8 stayed quiet.
I carefully put on my boots and then, millimeter by millimeter, eased the door closed, the snick of the latch almost inaudible. Nothing. I was out.
I zipped up my new coat and started the walk to the bus station. I only had a little bit of cash that I’d gotten under the counter doing odd jobs my first few days in Vancouver, but it was enough to get me onto a bus and out of there. My feet crunched on the salted pavement, and soon I was downtown, where there were enough people for me to blend in with that I felt safe taking the hood off my head. I tried to remember how long I’d been doing this, moving from city to city, scamming my way into juvenile care homes by pretending to be younger than I was. I’d left home for good at sixteen. Sometime after that there’d been the petty robbery that went really, really wrong, and I’d gone from being a runaway to being someone on the run. The danger of being caught had long passed, but once you start running, it’s hard to stop, so I hadn’t stayed in any one place for long. Since I couldn’t say exactly how long I’d been doing this; I’d lived so many lives that it was hard to keep track.
I arrived at the bus station, which was lit up even in the middle of the night with fluorescents that gave the place a queasy, yellow glow, and walked up to the ticket window.
“What . . .” I cleared the frog from my throat. I hadn’t spoken for days. “What’s the cheapest bus ticket you’ve got?”
The cashier raised a perfectly drawn on eyebrow at me. “You don’t care where you’re going?”
She gave me a couple of options, and I picked the $82 bus to Calgary that left in less than an hour. After she handed me back my change, I had enough money for a coffee and muffin now and a sandwich on the road later.
I was standing in line at the station McDonald’s when I spotted him. Martin. He was hard to miss since he was a head taller than almost everyone else around.
I didn’t feel much anymore, but I did still feel fear. Every animal feels fear. It was a nice change from the usual nothingness, actually. I dropped my head, slipped out of the line, and began to walk slowly in the opposite direction from Martin. There weren’t enough people here in the middle of the night to disappear into the crowd, so I would have to be careful not to do anything to attract his attention. I headed toward the men’s restroom I’d clocked earlier. He would check it, but if I hid in a stall, maybe he wouldn’t find me.
How did he know I was gone? Maybe Jason or Tucker had woken up and reported me missing.
As I was headed to the men’s room, a cop on a radio started to head toward it too. He went inside, and I changed directions, flipping my hood over my head. I strolled toward a side exit instead. I’d wait around the corner until a few minutes before my bus was scheduled to leave and then slip back inside.
“Collin!” a voice called.
The footsteps behind me were moving fast. I dashed toward the exit just as a woman with a huge rolling suitcase came through the door I was aiming for. She slowed me down for only a few seconds, but it was enough. Martin caught up to me, a helpful cop on his heels. I immediately dropped to the ground and wrapped my arms over my head, burying my face against my knees. When in doubt, play the traumatized child.
“Hey, it’s okay, man,” Martin said, kneeling beside me and putting a careful hand on my back. “I know you’re scared, but everything’s going to be okay. Come on, let’s go home.”
• • •
I went with Martin back to Short Term 8, and Alicia hugged me hard as soon as I came inside. They took me back to my room. Jason and Tucker were both awake, and I wondered which one of them had ratted me out. My money—not that I had much left—was on Jason. Tucker was a dick, but he also wouldn’t care if I ended up dead in a ditch somewhere. He rolled his eyes at me and turned over in bed when I came in, while Jason handed me a mini Snickers from the candy stash he kept hidden in his dresser. I was pissed at him, but I was also hungry, so I took it.
I bit into the candy bar as I walked to the bathroom down the hall. I could hear faint voices coming from the kitchen and crept closer toward them. They were probably talking about me, and I wanted to know what they were saying.
The kitchen had double swinging doors, and I pressed my eye up to the gap between them. Alicia was making tea.
“The cops must have scared the hell out of him,” she was saying as she poured milk into two mugs and handed one to Martin. “Threatening to section him like that. If he understood what they meant, it’s no wonder he ran.”
“Yeah, but they’ll take him away for sure now,” Martin said.
Alicia sighed. “Poor kid.”
• • •
I wasn’t going to any fucking mental ward.
Locked up. Walls and darkness closing in on me, suffocating me, the close air stale from my breath . . .
I would do whatever it took to prevent that, whatever they wanted.
• • •
“I have to tell you something,” I said the next morning.
Forks hit plates and silence descended on the dining table, like something out of the movies.
Alicia recovered first. “Sure, Collin. Why don’t you come to the office, and we’ll—”
“My name’s Daniel,” I said. “Daniel Tate.”
• • •
The name meant nothing to Alicia. She hadn’t grown up in Southern California, where my name had made headlines.
Daniel Tate, son of the food packaging heiress. Daniel Tate, American prince. Daniel Tate, the boy who disappeared.
• • •
Did you believe me when I said I was some no-name runaway from the Canadian backwoods? You shouldn’t have. I told you I was a liar. That boy was just one of my many fictions. I invented him because he was tough enough to survive when I wasn’t, and because even his terrible life was better than the truth.
• • •
It was sunny the day it happened. I was walking beside my bike, because the chain had come off and I didn’t know how to fix it. I was taking it home to my father, because he would know. Dad knew everything.
A white van turned the corner and pulled up beside me. I was too naive to be scared. The door slid open, and hands emerged from the shadows. Some grabbed me, dragging me into the darkness and muffling my shouts. Others pulled my bike in behind me, erasing any trace I’d ever been there. That was it. Ten seconds and I was gone, with no one having seen a thing. A kidnapping can happen that quickly and that invisibly, even on a sunny street in a safe neighborhood.
They tried to make me forget who I was, and for a long time, they succeeded. I conjured dozens of different lives for myself as they moved me from dark room to dark room, passing me off from stranger to stranger. When it hurt, I would close my eyes and become someone else. I was a superhero captured by his evil nemesis. A king in hiding. An outlaw from a small, snowy town who was running from the cops. Anyone but Daniel Tate.
• • •
“I got away,” I told Alicia. “One day they accidentally left my door unlocked, and I ran for it. I didn’t know where I was, or even what year it was.”
Alicia’s eyes swam with tears, but she didn’t let them fall. “Why didn’t you tell anyone?”
“There’s so much I don’t remember,” I said. “For a long time I didn’t even know who I was. And . . .”
“And what?” she pressed gently.
“They’re powerful.” My hands clenched into fists in my lap. “More powerful than the police. If they find me, they’ll take me back.”
She put a hand over mine. “That’s not going to happen,” she said with the blithe confidence of someone who had no idea what she was dealing with.
“You don’t understand,” I said. “You don’t know who these people are, who they know. If I’m in some government hospital or mental institution, they’ll find me. They’ll get me out and I’ll disappear again and I’ll never get away a second time.”
“No one’s taking you anywhere,” she said fiercely. “We’ll go to the police—”
“No!” I said. “You can’t tell them who I am!”
“We have to,” she said, “but then you’ll be safe. Daniel, you’ll get to go home.”
• • •
Alicia took me back to the Collingwood Police Station, and soon we were entering the office of the detective who’d threatened to have me committed, Detective Barson. When we came in, he pushed aside a half-eaten sandwich and asked what we needed.
I told him I was Daniel Tate, that I’d been kidnapped from Hidden Hills, California, six years ago. He looked at me with total incomprehension, and I couldn’t blame him. I knew it sounded crazy.
“What did you say the name was again?” he said as he woke up his computer.
He entered my name into a search engine, and the first hit was the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Barson clicked the link, and up came a missing poster with the same information I’d just given him. My name, age, and the place I’d gone missing. Beside that was a picture. Dirty blond hair that was a few shades lighter than my hair now, hazel eyes, freckles across the nose, and a pointy chin. Barson looked back and forth between me and the picture.
“You sure this is you?” he said. “You said you don’t remember much.”
“I remember who I am.” Motherfucker, I added silently.
“It doesn’t look that much like you.”
“Come on, Frank,” Alicia said. “He’s ten years old in that picture. You know how much kids change between ten and sixteen.”
Barson thought about that, the frown lines on his face deepening. “Why didn’t you come forward before?”
Alicia’s patience abruptly ran out, and she threw up her hands. “The boy was imprisoned and traumatized! It’s a miracle he’s been able to come forward now!”
“Now, hang on there, Alicia. These questions aren’t unreasonable.” Barson studied me for another moment and then angled his computer screen so I couldn’t see it. “What’s your date of birth?”
I saw a brief flash of a blue birthday cake and foil balloons glinting in the sun. “November. The sixteenth.”
Barson, his jaw clenched, stood. “Wait here a minute,” he said, and walked out of the office.
I turned to Alicia. “He doesn’t believe me.” My voice came out shaky.
“He will,” she said. “It’s just a lot to take in at once.”
The minute stretched into two and then ten. Barson stuck his head back inside the office.
“Do you remember your address?” he asked. “Phone number?”
I shook my head. “I-I remember I lived in Hidden Hills.”
“But you don’t remember what street?”
Alicia put a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry, Daniel. No one could possibly expect you to remember something like that after all this time and everything you’ve been through.”
Barson just grunted and disappeared again. An hour passed and he still hadn’t come back. One of the officers brought us a couple of turkey sandwiches and sodas and told us Barson was talking to the chief. I grabbed a legal pad off the corner of Barson’s desk and started to sketch.
Alicia looked over my shoulder at the picture I was drawing of Tucker, scowling and holding up his middle finger.
She laughed. “That’s good. Can you do Martin?”
I worked on a drawing of Martin flipping pancakes and wearing a flowery apron while Alicia called Diane and filled her in. Alicia had just worked her full night shift, but it didn’t look like she was planning to go anywhere.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “You must be tired.”
“Hush,” she replied.
When Barson still wasn’t back a half an hour later and I’d gone through a half a dozen sheets of the legal pad, I couldn’t sit still anymore. I began to pace his office. It was exactly four steps wide. I thought about that bus to Calgary. How I might be on it now if I had spotted Martin a minute sooner or just walked a little faster.
“What if they’re coming to get me right now?” I said. I couldn’t contain the words anymore. Everywhere I looked, I saw hands reaching out of the darkness to grab me. “What if they take me back there and—”
“No one’s going to take you, Daniel,” Alicia said. She tried to take my hand, to stop me pacing, but I threw her off.
“You don’t know that!”
That’s when the door opened. I jumped away from it, but it was just Barson, followed by another man. Barson stood against the wall while the other man took his seat behind the desk, and I sat down too.
“Daniel, I’m Chief Constable Harold Warner,” he said. “I’m sorry you’ve had to wait.”
“That’s okay,” I said shakily.
“As I’m sure you can imagine, there’s been a lot happening since Detective Barson informed me of your situation,” he said, “but if you’re ready, I have your brother on the phone.”
I felt like I’d hit the ground after a long fall. All the air rushed out of my lungs. “What?”
“I’ve spent the last half an hour on the phone with the Malibu PD, confirming your story,” he said. “They put me in touch with Patrick McConnell. He’s your half brother, right?”
“Well, he’s on the phone now,” Warner said. “Do you want to talk to him?”
“Oh, Daniel,” Alicia said softly.
My throat was too dry for me to speak, but they were both staring at me, so I just nodded again. Warner said something to me as he picked up the phone on Barson’s desk and hit a button, but all I could hear was the rushing of blood in my ears and my mind repeating Patrick, Patrick, Patrick. I had just slivers of memory from my past life—even added together they only showed how much was missing—but lots of those pieces were of my big brother. Patrick teaching me to swing a baseball bat. Helping me with my math homework. Letting me stay up late to watch scary movies with him when our parents were out for the night.
Warner handed me the phone, and I immediately dropped it. Alicia grabbed it for me and squeezed my shoulder. “It’s okay,” she said.
I nodded and lifted the phone to my ear.
“Danny?” a voice said. “Danny, is that you?”
“Patrick?” I choked.
Alicia stood and gestured to Barson. He followed her reluctantly from the office, and Warner left after them, leaving me alone.
“Are you . . .” Patrick hesitated. “Are you really my brother?”
I nodded, even though he couldn’t see it. “It’s me, Patrick.”
“They said you’re in Vancouver?”
“They brought me here,” I said. “I was with them for so long, b-but I got away . . .”
“Oh my God. Danny.” Patrick started to cry. “It really is you.”
I started to cry too. “I want to come home.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’re coming to get you.”
• • •
Alicia drove me back to the police station the next day. My half siblings Patrick and Alexis—my mom’s kids from her first marriage—had gotten on a plane that morning and were coming to get me. At least that’s what everyone kept saying. I knew they were really coming to see me. To see if I was who I said I was and not some sociopathic con artist posing as their brother. That was the only reason it could be them coming and not my mother, because some part of them was afraid I was a fake.
It hurt, but I didn’t exactly blame them. I probably wouldn’t believe me either.
But what if they didn’t?
I chewed on my nails as we drove to the police station.
“Nervous?” Alicia asked.
“Everything’s going to be okay, Daniel,” she said. “It’s going to be great.”
I rubbed my thumb over the back of my hand and nodded. “Yeah.”
Chief Constable Warner was waiting for us when we arrived. He took Alicia and me into an interview room, the same one they’d put me in the night they picked me up off the street. It seemed smaller than I remembered, and grubbier. Suddenly, I saw everything in hyperfocus, from the coffee stains on the carpet to the chipping paint around the doorjamb. This is where I’ll see Patrick and Alexis again, I thought. Surrounded by these paint chips and stains.
I looked down at my clothes, taken from the pile of secondhand stuff Short Term 8 kept in a closet. I pulled at the slightly too short sleeves of the sweater. What would they think when they saw me like this? The drip-drop of panic I’d felt all day turned into a steady stream pooling inside of me, filling up that empty space that usually gaped in my chest.
The door opened, and I jumped, but it was only Warner.
“They just called,” he said. “They’re in the cab. Should be here in about ten.”
I paced. This room was wider than Barson’s office, almost six steps across. I counted them over and over as I walked from one wall to the other. When I was a kid, I saw a tiger in a cage at the zoo who did this exact thing, pacing back and forth in front of the viewing window, danger coiled in the muscles that rippled under her coat. I wondered if she did it because she was scared too.
“Daniel,” Alicia said cautiously. “How you doing? Can I get you something?”
“I can’t do this,” I said. “I can’t do this, Alicia. I have to get out of here.”
“Hey, it’s going to be okay,” she said in her most soothing voice. “I promise.”
“You can’t!” I snapped. “You don’t know it’s going to be okay. You don’t know anything!”
Then the door opened. And the world started to move real slow.
• • •
Warner came in first. Behind him I could see just a corner of a person, an impression of neatly brushed brown hair. Then he stepped out from behind Warner and became whole. Patrick. Broader in the shoulders than I remembered but with a thinner face. Tall and handsome and solid except for the sharpness of his patrician nose. He was dressed in an impeccable gray suit, something I was not expecting. I guess I wasn’t the only one who’d changed in the last six years.
Behind him, holding on to his hand, was Alexis. As insubstantial as Patrick was solid, blonde and delicate, a dandelion of a person. Patrick had always been like a god to me—gigantic—and he still seemed that way, but Alexis seemed to have gotten smaller.
They stood just inside the doorway, staring at me. I stared back at them. My joints and nerves and blood vessels were all quaking, and I was sure I would shake apart at any moment. They looked at each other, something complex passing between them in their eyes and expressions, and then back at me.
Patrick was the first to move, just a small step taken toward me.
“My God,” he whispered. “It’s really you, isn’t it?”
I nodded dumbly.
He huffed like the air had been pushed out of his lungs, and then he was rushing toward me, grabbing me in a tight hug, filling my nose with the smell of expensive wool and aftershave. His shoulders were shaking as he laughed or cried or both. He believed me, and I felt like a little boy again in his arms.
But it didn’t lessen my fear. If anything, it made it worse. Disappointment after hope can be lethal, and behind Patrick’s back, Alexis was still just standing there. Staring at me. Her eyes looking as scared as I felt.
Patrick pulled away from me and turned to our sister. He reached a hand out to her.
“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s Danny.”
Her eyes were filled with tears, and she shook her head, just a little.
“Don’t be scared,” Patrick said firmly. “Come hug your brother.”
She looked back and forth between me and Patrick, and then she took a step closer to us.
“Danny?” she said softly.
I nodded, and she reached out slowly, touching the tips of her fingers to my cheek. Like she was afraid her hand might pass right through me.
“I can’t believe it,” she said. She started to cry and wrapped her arms around my neck, holding me with more strength than I would have thought her capable of.
“Hi, Alexis,” I whispered.
Patrick laughed. “Why so formal, little brother?”
I swallowed. Warner nodded at Alicia, and the two of them slipped silently out of the interview room, leaving the three of us alone. Alexis let go of me.
Time passed in a blur of tears and laughter and talk. I couldn’t stop staring at them, drinking in the way they looked at me. Patrick asked what had happened to me, where I’d been for the last six years. Warner had told them what I’d told him, but he still had so many questions. Alexis just looked at me and silently swiped at tears that escaped her eyes while Patrick asked me question after question.
But my answers wouldn’t come. My throat locked up around them, holding them inside of me. Patrick told me it was okay, that they weren’t going to push me to talk about things I wasn’t ready to. Now was the time for happy things.
“The constable said you don’t remember much,” Patrick said. “About us or your life.”
I nodded. “I guess . . . I guess it was just easier that way. To forget who I’d been.”
He glanced at Alexis and squeezed her hand. “We understand.” Then he smiled in a wobbly way. “It’s so strange to hear you speaking with a Canadian accent.”
“Oh.” I hadn’t thought about that. “I guess . . . the people who had me . . .”
“You don’t have to talk about it now,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said. I tried to make the vowel rounder, more like the way Patrick would say it.
“Lex, where’s your phone?” he asked.
Alexis—Lex—dug into her purse and pulled out her cell phone. She seemed to understand exactly what Patrick was asking, because she opened up the pictures she had saved there, and the three of us bent over the screen.
“That’s Mia,” Lex said when she brought up a picture of a brunette little girl in pigtails and a yellow dress. “Can you believe how big she’s gotten? She was practically a baby when . . .”
She couldn’t finish the sentence. Patrick reached behind me to lay a hand on her back.
“She looks just like your dad, huh?” he said. He swiped the photo of Mia aside, and one of a pale, slim boy with glasses and a hint of a smirk around his lips replaced it. “And there’s Nicholas. He started visiting colleges a few months ago, and he swears he’s not going to pick any school within a thousand miles of California.”
I smiled. “Sounds like Nicholas.”
Lex looked up at me and then back down at her phone, swiping through photos until she found one of Mom, who was like a perfect blend of Patrick and herself. Tall and solid like Patrick. Blonde and beautiful—even if that beauty was fading around the edges—like Lex. In the picture, Mom was standing beside Mia as she blew out candles on a birthday cake. She was smiling, but the expression didn’t reach her eyes, which were focused somewhere in the distance.
“How is she?” I asked.
“She’s . . .” Patrick cleared his throat. “She’ll be happy to see you.”
They showed me dozens more pictures. My dad, our house, our old golden retriever Honey, my best friend Andrew, who Lex told me had moved to Arizona with his family a few years ago. Neighbors and cousins and playmates whose names I couldn’t tell them. I feigned some recognition for their benefit, but I doubt it was convincing. It was like looking at pictures of another person’s life.
But it was a life I wanted.
“Don’t worry,” Lex said. “We’ll help you remember.”
The door to the interview room opened, and Warner stuck his head in. “How are we doing in here?”
Patrick stood. “When can we take our brother home?”
“Well, now, that’s a bit of a tricky question,” Warner said. “He can’t just stroll over the border. He has no passport or identification.”
Lex dug into her purse and came out with a folder that she handed to the constable. “His birth certificate and social security card.”
“That takes care of the identification part,” Patrick said.
Warner looked at the documents inside the folder, faint frown lines appearing between his eyebrows. “Well. I’m sure this will help, but . . .”
“What?” Patrick asked.
Warner’s eyes flicked over to me and back again. “Maybe we should speak out in the hallway, Mr. McConnell?”
Patrick followed Warner outside, while Lex stayed with me. Even with the door closed, we could hear their muffled voices, but not well enough to make out any of their words. I didn’t have to hear to know, though. Daniel Tate’s birth certificate only proved that he had been born, not that I was him.
“Don’t worry,” Lex told me. “Patrick will get this all straightened out.”
She sounded sure. How could she sound so sure?
“Yeah?” I said.
“He’s very persuasive. And very stubborn.” Her eyes shifted to the door. “He always gets what he wants.”
The voices in the hall were getting louder. I could make out words now.
“Absolutely not!” Patrick said.
Warner was calmer and therefore harder to hear. “. . . simple test . . . verify . . .”
My nails dug into the flesh of my palms.
“. . . not doing a DNA test! That boy has been terribly abused, and we won’t subject him . . . don’t want him to think we have any doubts . . .”
I looked at Lex. Her eyes dropped from mine, but she wrapped an arm around my shoulders, her cashmere sweater warm and soft where it rested against the bare skin of my neck. I could feel her trembling. The door suddenly opened, and Patrick came back into the interview room.
“This is my brother, Constable,” he was saying. “Do you think there’s any chance my sister and I wouldn’t be able to tell?”
“It’s not that I don’t believe you,” Warner said, “but if you’d just let us confirm—”
“We’re not waiting weeks for a test to come back and tell us what we already know,” Patrick said. “My brother is coming home with us as soon as possible.”
“I’m not an expert, but I’m sure the authorities will require some kind of proof besides your word before they allow him across the border,” Warner said.
“We’ll see about that. I’ve already called the embassy, and they’re sending someone over. In the meantime, you’re not to touch him.” Patrick’s voice was steely. “He’s a minor, and I have power of attorney from our mother, making me his legal guardian, and I forbid it. We’ll see what the embassy has to say.”
• • •
The official from the embassy arrived with surprising—or maybe not so surprising—swiftness. She introduced herself as Sheila Brindell. Although her suit couldn’t have cost half of what Patrick’s did, she had the aura and graying hair of someone with authority. She wore no wedding ring but did have a small heart pendant around her neck. Only children buy women jewelry with hearts on them, so my guess was she was a career bureaucrat who’d been too consumed with climbing the professional ladder to bother dating and now smiled wistfully at babies in strollers and doted on her nieces and nephews to make up for it. Hard on the outside with a gushy, sentimental center. She sat down opposite Patrick, Lex, and me while Warner observed from a chair in the corner.
“I’m sure you’ll understand this is a highly unusual situation, Mr. McConnell,” she said, clicking the top of her pen subconsciously.
“I think you’ll find that no one understands that better than we do,” Patrick said. “We appreciate you accommodating us on such short notice.”
“Yes, of course,” she said. “The consul asked me to handle this personally and to ensure that everything was settled as quickly as possible.”
Patrick just smiled coolly. There was something happening here that I didn’t understand, some unspoken transaction taking place between this woman and my brother.
“However, before we can issue Daniel an expedited passport, I need to ask him some questions,” Ms. Brindell continued. “I need assurance that he is who you claim.”
“Of course,” Patrick said.
“In the absence of a DNA test . . .”
Lex tensed beside me.
“. . . this interview will have to serve,” she said. “Daniel, can you tell me your middle name?”
“Wait,” Patrick said. “My brother has severe memory loss from the trauma—”
“It’s okay,” I said. I knew the answer. “My middle name is Arthur.”
She nodded. “And your date of birth?”
“November sixteenth, 2000.”
“Can you tell me the names of your family?” she asked. “Just immediate family will do.”
My throat was dry, so with the very tips of my fingers I grabbed the bottle of water a deputy had brought me earlier, taking a long swig before I answered. “My parents are Jessica and Robert Tate. Patrick and Alexis McConnell are my half brother and sister. My older brother is Nicholas, and my little sister is Mia.” I could see that Ms. Brindell was trying to keep her face neutral, so I added, “They’re the best family in world.”
She looked down briefly at the table top and then exchanged another meaningful glance with Patrick. Then she opened her briefcase and pulled a stack of paper from it. She handed the stack to me, and I found it was photographs printed on regular office paper.
“Can you identify the people you just named for me, Daniel?”
I started to leaf through the photos. “Here’s Nicholas,” I said, pulling out what looked like a school portrait and sliding the picture toward her. I flipped past a couple of pictures of people I didn’t recognize, looking for Mia or my parents, when my eyes caught another familiar face mixed in with the strangers. My pulse quickened. I pulled out the picture: a teenage girl with round cheeks and spiky hair, posing with a snowboard. I never would have recognized her if Lex hadn’t shown me her picture just a couple of hours earlier.
“This is my cousin. Her name is . . . Ravenna.” It was lucky for me she had such a stupid name; it made it easy for me to remember. “After the town in Italy where she was born.”
Ms. Brindell raised an eyebrow and then, slowly, smiled. It had been a test. She wanted to see if I could pick out people from my past I wasn’t explicitly told to look for. I looked at the photographs more closely as I went through the rest, picking out the faces I recognized from Lex’s phone.
“This is my grandmother. She died when I was young. This looks like my best friend Andrew.” I could feel Lex and Patrick exchanging glances over my head, but none of us said a word. I flipped past a photograph of Mia on a swing set without comment and eventually reached the final picture, where a blonde woman and dark-haired man in formalwear danced at some kind of party. “This is my mom and dad.”
“You didn’t recognize your sister, Mia,” Ms. Brindell said.
I blinked. “She was only a baby the last time I saw her.”
She just nodded. I handed her the stack of pictures. Beside me, Patrick gasped and grabbed my wrist, and I jumped.
“My God,” he said, examining the small, dark patch of skin on the back of my hand, halfway between my thumb and forefinger. I could feel his hand shaking, and he looked from the spot up to me with wide eyes. “Jesus Christ.”
I frowned. Why was he—
Patrick dragged his gaze away from mine to look at Ms. Brindell. “You want proof?” he said shakily. “Check your file. Danny was born with this birthmark.”
Ms. Brindell looked at the spot on my hand and then down at the papers in front of her. Lex leaned forward to look too, and one of her hands flew to her mouth.
“You’re right. Café au lait spot above left thumb,” Ms. Brindell read from the report. She looked up at us and smiled. “I’m satisfied.”
“So . . . you’ll approve an expedited passport?” Lex asked breathlessly.
Ms. Brindell began to pack up her things. “We’ll get the paperwork started immediately. You can go home tomorrow, Daniel.”
• • •
Go home, go home, go home. The phrase thumped in my ears like a heartbeat as I packed my meager belongings.
• • •
The next morning, with my stiff new passport stuck in the pocket of my coat, I said good-bye to Alicia in front of the American Embassy. She hugged me and whispered in my ear.
“Good luck, Danny.”
Patrick beckoned from the town car he’d hired to take us to the airport. In that moment all I wanted was to go back to Short Term 8 with Alicia, to disappear again into the crowd there. I was right on the verge of getting everything I’d always wanted, but if I didn’t know they would catch me before I got five blocks, I would have run like hell.
Instead, I got into the car and watched Alicia wave to me until she was out of sight.
We sat in first class. The flight attendant brought Patrick and Lex glasses of champagne, which Lex quickly downed, and gave me a couple of warm cookies before we’d even taken off. The week before I’d been sleeping in a bus shelter and subsisting on bags of chips and candy bars pilfered from convenience stores.
I should have been happy. I shouldn’t have been struggling to swallow around the cookie that felt dry and tasteless in my mouth, but maybe happiness wasn’t something I was capable of anymore. Even if I was, I didn’t think I’d have been able to feel it over the fear pounding through my veins, like a tide that only came in, rising higher and higher inside of me until I could barely breathe.
They were going to be waiting at the airport when we arrived. The Tates. They would look at me and this would all be over, and it scared the hell out of me.
Because, of course, I wasn’t Daniel Tate.
• • •
I know I said I was going to tell you the truth. But I lied. It’s just what I do. Frankly, you have no one to blame but yourself if you believed me for even a second.
Everything from this point on is true, though. I swear. Not even I could make up what happened next.
• • •
I was screwed. Somehow I had fooled Patrick and Lex, but I wouldn’t fool the whole family. I couldn’t.
Lex caught my hand as I brought it to my mouth to bite at a stubby fingernail.
“Don’t be nervous,” she said, although she looked as uneasy as I felt. She lowered my hand back to my lap and squeezed my fingers. “Everyone’s going to be so happy to see you.”
“Who’s going to be there?” I asked.
“Just Mom and the kids. We didn’t want to overwhelm you.”
I nodded. Just Jessica, Daniel’s mother, and his siblings Nicholas and Mia. I’d found out from Patrick and Lex yesterday that Daniel’s father had been in prison for the past two years for tax evasion and embezzlement, and Mia had been too young when Daniel disappeared to even remember him, so that just left two people for me to worry about. It might as well have been a hundred, because I couldn’t imagine a mother looking into the eyes of a stranger and believing for a second that he was her son. No matter how badly she wanted him to be.
The flight attendant noticed my soda was almost gone and brought me another, along with a third flavorless cookie. This was my first trip on an airplane, and I tried to imagine how different the second one would be, when they’d be deporting me back to Canada and jail time after I was exposed.
This wasn’t what was supposed to happen.
Lex leaned over the armrest and pressed a kiss to my temple. She smelled of fancy shampoo and lavender laundry detergent, and all I could think of was how desperate and stupid she must be to swallow whole the ridiculous lies I’d told her. As she looked at me, her eyes started to shine. Ever since I’d met her, she’d been wide-eyed or trembling or crying, sometimes all three together. I should have felt sorry for her, or guilty for what I was doing, but I wasn’t capable of it.
“We’re together again, and that’s all that matters,” she said. “Everything’s going to be okay now.”
• • •
I walked up the jet bridge like a man must walk up to a scaffold. Dragging my feet, eyes on the ground, slipping once again into the traumatized child routine I’d used to fool people so many times in the past. I pulled my baseball cap down low over my eyes like I always did, and I’d shaved carefully that morning, even though what little blond stubble I had was barely visible. Usually these two things were effective at hiding my true age from disinterested cops, but I couldn’t hope this would slow down the Tate family for long. Maybe, if I was lucky, the act would last long enough for me to get away from them and disappear, something I’d been trying unsuccessfully to do ever since this thing started.
Patrick put an arm around my shoulder as we walked, both to reassure me and to move me along. He didn’t seem stupid. Maybe, despite all I knew about deception, I had underestimated people’s ability to fool themselves when it suited them.
The blast of cold air from the AC as we stepped from the gangway into the airport was shocking. Outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, the sky was a bright expanse of uninterrupted blue, and the sun made the tarmac shimmer like water. In Vancouver the gutters were still full of slushy brown snow. I had emerged from that plane into a different world.
• • •
Want to know how it happened?
I came up with the plan the night Martin caught me at the bus station. There was no way I was going to let myself be sectioned, but I’d blown most of my money on a bus ticket I’d never get to use and was being watched like a hawk by the staff at Short Term 8, who had also changed the code on the security system. I needed a scam that would occupy the cops for a while and give me the time I needed to figure a way out of there so I could run my traumatized-teen-found-by-a-tourist scheme in another city.
Things were never supposed to go this far.
Martin returned me to my bed at about one in the morning that night. I lay there thinking, figuring out my next move. Every half hour, Alicia cracked open the door to my room to make sure I was still there, and I feigned sleep. Five minutes after her 4:00 a.m. check, when I was sure she’d be back in the office, I slipped out of bed and retrieved my remaining cash from the hidden pocket in my backpack. I had one ten, one five, and a bit of change. Not much, but it should be enough.
I crept out of my room and into the room next door. It was a double occupied by two boys: Marcos, a twelve-year-old who was bigger than most linebackers and talked almost as little as I did, and Aaron, a scrawny kid who was prone to outbursts and mild kleptomania. I shook Aaron’s shoulder to wake him. He blinked up at me in confusion.
“Want ten dollars?” I said.
“What do you want?” he answered.
“I want you to scream.”
He eyed me warily. “Show me the money.”
I pulled the ten out of my pocket and let him see it.
“What are you going to do?” he said.
“None of your business.”
He sat up. “Fifteen.”
I clenched my jaw. That would leave me with next to nothing, but I didn’t have time to waste negotiating with this little asshole.
I handed over the fifteen dollars and told Aaron what I wanted him to do, and then I returned to my room. A couple of minutes later, Aaron started to scream. Tucker muttered a curse but didn’t open his eyes, and Jason just rolled over and covered his head with a pillow. When you grow up in care, you learn to sleep through a lot of shit. Seconds later, footsteps came pounding down the hallway, Martin’s heavy ones and Alicia’s lighter ones. When something set Aaron off, he would not only scream at the top of his lungs but punch and kick. It took two people, one holding on to each arm, to restrain him until he had calmed down. And during the night shift there were only two people on duty.
As soon as I heard Martin and Alicia enter Aaron’s room, I got out of bed again. I only had as much time as Aaron’s lungs would hold out, so I moved quickly. I went straight for the office but found the door closed. I was hoping Alicia would leave it open, but no such luck. The door locked automatically whenever it was closed, so I needed to find a way in. I inspected the doorknob. It was just a standard lock, which seemed generous and not a little naive given the type of kids who occupied Short Term 8. I could crack it easy.
I crossed the hallway to the recreation room and rummaged through a box of art supplies. A handful of paper clips and safety pins floated around at the bottom. I grabbed a long silver paper clip and straightened it as I returned to the locked office. Aaron was still going strong.
It took me a minute or two of fiddling and changing the bend in the paper clip, but eventually I got the office door open. I slipped behind the ancient desktop and jiggled the mouse to wake it up. Alicia had a game of solitaire going; she must have been really bored. I minimized the window and opened a web browser.
After a few minutes of searching, I found Daniel Arthur Tate on the website for the U.S.’s Center for Missing and Exploited Children. I felt pretty clever, coming up with the idea to pose as a missing American child. They wouldn’t section a poor abducted kid, and the amount of red tape that would need to be untangled in an international kidnapping should give me enough time to get my hands on some cash and get out of Vancouver. Daniel seemed like a perfect cover. He looked vaguely like me and would be about the age I’d been posing as, which was several years younger than my actual age. He’d been missing for long enough that the old pictures of him wouldn’t immediately give me away as a fake.
Because I was on borrowed time, I printed his missing poster and the first article I found about his disappearance to read later. Normally, I planned my scams better than this, but I didn’t know how long Aaron could occupy Martin and Alicia. I folded up the printed papers and stuck them in the waistband of my pajamas, cleared the browser history, pulled Solitaire back up, and put the computer to sleep. Then I closed the office door and crept back to my room. Once I was safely back in bed, I banged on the wall with my fist. It was the signal I’d prearranged with Aaron. Over the next few minutes he pretended to calm down, and everything inside Short Term 8 returned to normal.
I read the missing poster and printed article in the dim glow of the blue safety light outside my window, memorizing the details so that I’d have some basic information to back up my claim. If there were any questions I couldn’t answer, I would just claim trauma related amnesia. I stared at Daniel Tate’s face, imagining who he was, imagining myself becoming him. I constructed a story about where I’d been for those missing six years, and I felt Daniel start to take shape inside of me.
It had seemed like a good plan. There was no way for me to know what I was getting myself into.
• • •
Things weren’t supposed to get this far. I kept saying that to myself, like it would make some kind of difference, as I walked with Patrick and Lex toward baggage claim. The racing of my heart had become physically painful. Black fuzz was beginning to encroach on the edges of my vision. We’d see them at any moment.
We got on the escalators and began to descend toward the baggage carousels, and suddenly we were engulfed in pops of light. They came from the dozen photographers waiting below. I stared at them dumbly, my comprehension lagging a moment behind events.
Were we standing near someone famous?
“Oh my God,” Lex said. She pulled me behind her, shielding me with her body.
“Sons of bitches!” Patrick said. “How did they know we were here?”
“Patrick, don’t—” Lex said, grabbing for him, but he was already storming down the escalator, taking the steps two at a time.
The flashes continued to go off, and now people were calling Danny’s name. Fuck. They were here for me. The press knew—and cared—that Daniel Tate had been found. I was furious at myself for not considering this possibility. I had always been so unimportant that it had never occurred to me that Daniel Tate wouldn’t be, but the Tates were rich, and people paid attention to what happened to rich people.
This was incredibly bad.
Patrick dove into the clump of paparazzi, who split and re-formed around him like a school of fish around a shark. He was red faced and spitting legalese, and he shoved the man closest to him. Hard. I only noticed the security guards who had been struggling with the photographers when one of them grabbed Patrick by the arm to restrain him.
“Patrick!” Lex cried.
A pair of cops rushed to our sides, and my panic doubled. Patrick had told me I wouldn’t have to talk to the cops right away, that he’d take care of things. I’d been counting on that time to get away before the authorities here in the States busted me.
“This way, ma’am,” one of them said.
And then suddenly we were moving, pushed along by the tide of people. Lex called for Patrick again, and he shoved his way through the crowd to her side, braiding his fingers into hers. The cops took us to a door that required a security card to enter. One opened the door and went in, while the second stayed outside to close it after us. As quickly as the circus had started, we found ourselves alone in a quiet hallway.
Lex’s hands were on me, checking to see that I was still in one piece.
“Are you okay?” she said. “I’m so sorry, Danny. I had no idea . . .”
I was shaking. What a terrible, catastrophic mistake I’d made coming here.
“Don’t worry,” Lex said to me. “We’ll be home soon. You’ll be safe there.”
I don’t know what made her think that. Danny hadn’t been safe there.
“If you’ll just follow me,” the remaining cops said. “Your family is waiting down here, and we’ve arranged for you to exit via a side door.”
“Thank you, Officer,” Patrick said.
I’d barely had time to catch my breath after realizing the cops were just an escort and not here to question me before we were standing in front of the door that separated me from the rest of the Tates. I caught a glimpse of them through the small panel of glass above the knob and had only a fraction of a second to size them up. A fading beauty queen, a sharp slip of a boy, and a pigtailed girl. Then the cop was opening the door.
They jumped to their feet when the door opened. I could see how nervous they were. At least I wasn’t the only one. For a moment everyone was silent and still, just staring. I kept my head down, hiding my face beneath the brim of my hat. I waited for someone to see through me, to start shouting.
Mia was the first to speak.
“Danny!” She ran to me, limping from the cumbersome brace on one of her legs. She flung her little arms around my waist, and I jumped. Lex gently pried her off me.
“Easy, honey,” she said. “Let’s give Danny a little space, okay?”
She nodded. Unlike anyone else, her face was shining with pure excitement. It was weird. She hadn’t even known Daniel, could never truly have missed him.
I looked at Nicholas next, eyeing him from underneath the brim of my cap. He was looking me up and down and not bothering to hide it. Nicholas was my first real test.
“Look who it is, Nicholas,” Patrick said.
A creeping, stuttering smile started across the boy’s lips.
“Danny?” he said. He wanted to believe it.
I nodded. “Hi.” My instinct was to call him “Nicky,” and usually my best lies came from trusting my instincts. But I’d already gotten things wrong when I’d called Lex by her full name, which I soon noticed Patrick never did. Better to err on the side of caution and not arouse any more suspicions, however small.
Nicholas shook his head, like he was responding to some internal voice, and then stepped forward to embrace me. His hug was oddly sharp, just like him, all angles and bones.
I risked a brief glance at Jessica. This is where the wheels would come off this thing. No mother—not even the woman who’d given birth to me—could look into the eyes of a stranger and see her own son—I was sure of it. Jessica was staring at me, her lips pinched into two thin lines with uneven lipstick drawn over them. I waited for her to open them and scream.
“Mom.” Patrick reached out to her. There was a gray tinge to her skin underneath her blush. “It’s okay. It’s Danny.”
She turned her shoulders ever so slightly toward the door, like she was on the brink of running. The air-conditioning was raising gooseflesh on my arms as I waited to see what she would do. She kept her eyes on me, and I remembered how someone from my dead-and-buried life once taught me you’re supposed to maintain eye contact with a mountain lion to stop it from attacking you.
“Mom,” Patrick said more firmly. “Come hug Danny.”
Jessica took a hesitant step toward me, and I forced myself not to back away. Two fat tears built in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks as she stared at me silently.
“My son,” she finally said. She reached out to hug me. Her grasp on me was weak, but she held me close enough that I could smell the cigarette smoke beneath her perfume.
I was stunned. Could she really believe I was Daniel? Or was she just bowing to the excitement of the moment and the pressure from Patrick?
“Let’s go home,” Lex said.
• • •
We went out an employee entrance and climbed into a hired car for the trip to the Tate house. It was almost an hour’s drive up the coast from LAX to Hidden Hills, California. From the news story I’d read about Daniel’s disappearance, I knew the Tate family had money, but nothing had prepared me for Hidden Hills. The entire town was cloistered behind a gate, where a guard in a crisp uniform spoke to Jessica before waving the car through. This is what Lex had meant about us being safe here; no press would ever be able to enter the town. Once inside, it was all rolling green hills and elegant mansions bathed in sunshine and hidden from the world. My coat was bundled in a ball at my feet; I’d realized as soon as I’d stepped out of the airport and into the perfect twenty-four-degree weather that I wouldn’t need it here. I would have thrown the ratty thing away if I wasn’t sure they’d be shipping me back to Canada any second now, when the adrenaline wore off and they realized I was a fake.
We drove deeper into the community, and the houses got farther apart and farther from the road. At the top of a winding hill the car pulled up to a scrolled wrought iron gate where the driver punched in a code to open it. We drove into a tree lined lane where the sunlight turned soft as it filtered down through the green leaves and the white and purple blooms of the flowering trees. Then the foliage opened up, and I was looking at a mansion of pale yellow stone and endless windows poised on the hillside, red mountains distant on the horizon.
I struggled to swallow, my throat suddenly tight. What the hell had I done? Without even meaning to, I had stumbled into the biggest con of my life.
“Home sweet home,” Patrick said as the car stopped in the circular driveway, complete with fountain, in front of the house. “Does it look familiar?”
“A little,” I said.
The driver unloaded our bags and left. I felt everyone watching me as we walked up to the house. I didn’t know what they expected me to do, so I didn’t know how to act. All I could do was try to focus on keeping up the con. Don’t look too scared. Don’t look too shocked.
Patrick opened the door and ushered me inside. “Welcome home, Danny.”
“Thanks,” I breathed. Maybe it was just my imagination, but my voice seemed to echo in the cavernous foyer, reverberating off marble and crystal and glass.
We all stood together inside the door. The Tates just staring at me.
Lex was the one who finally spoke. “You’re probably tired, huh, Danny? Do you want to rest for a little while?”
“Yeah,” I said. “That would be good.”
No one moved. It took me a second to realize, with horror, why. They were waiting for me to leave, to go to my bedroom. Danny’s bedroom. If I walked in the wrong direction, I risked giving myself away, but if I kept just standing there like an idiot . . .
Lex raised the handle of her rolling suitcase. “Come on,” she said. “I need to drop off my stuff too.”
Saved by Lex again. She might not be bright, but she was helpful.
I followed her up the curving staircase. At the landing she turned right. The hallway was lined on one side with oversized windows that overlooked the velvety lawn below and the mountains in the distance. I counted the doors as we walked. She stopped in front of the fourth.
“Here you go,” she said. “Come back down whenever you’re ready, okay?”
She walked back in the direction we’d come, and I slowly opened the door to Danny’s bedroom.
Like everything else I’d seen of the house so far, the room was pristine. The kind of museum clean that made me simultaneously nervous to touch anything and tempted to wreck it all. It was obvious that no one but the maid the Tates certainly employed had been in here for a long time. The room felt faded and stale, like it belonged to a world that didn’t exist anymore. It was an interior decorator’s vision of a little boy’s dream room, with navy blue walls and framed vintage baseball posters and tasteful furniture. A bulletin board over the small desk held photos from fishing and beach trips, flyers for Little League tryouts, and ticket stubs from sporting events. Something inside of me started to come apart as I looked at these objects. I opened the middle drawer of the dresser and found little-boy clothes inside, the creases in the fabric permanent from going undisturbed for so long.
This wasn’t a bedroom. It was a tomb. A mausoleum for a body they’d never found.
I fled into the hallway and started opening doors until I found a bathroom. I locked the door behind me and stared at myself in the mirror. What was I doing here? What the fuck was I doing here?
• • •
Maybe you won’t believe me, but I honestly never meant to take Daniel Tate’s life. He was just supposed to buy me time and breathing room so I could get away from Short Term 8. I had no idea how quickly things would start to move once I became him.
I picked Daniel because he was the first missing boy I’d come across who was the right age and look. It was probably the worst choice I could have made, because, as I soon realized, the Tates weren’t a normal family. I’d been counting on many days or weeks of bureaucratic red tape to give me the chance to make my escape, but then Patrick McConnell had swooped in. He and Lex had gotten on a plane the next morning. They’d greased the skids at the American Embassy with their money and their connections to get me a passport within hours, after only a cursory examination of my claims. Even Alicia had commented on it.
“I’ve never seen anything like this move so fast,” she told me as we drove back to Short Term 8 for my last night there. “Detective Barson said there was a lot of pressure coming from the Americans to get this sorted out quickly. You’re lucky, you know, that your family is so powerful and loves you so much.”
That was me. Mr. Lucky.
It all moved too fast, and I couldn’t put the brakes on it without exposing myself as the fraud I was. So I’d been forced to play along, and now I was in California with a family that was somehow buying my bullshit, and when they caught me, I was screwed. I wasn’t sure exactly what laws I’d broken, but the power the Tates had wielded in getting me out of Canada would no doubt be brought to bear in a serious fucking way on the con artist who’d impersonated their missing son.
I ran my fingers back and forth over the fake birthmark on the back of my hand as I considered what to do next. I’d only had the thing for a few days, but already it had become a nervous habit. The birthmark had been mentioned on Daniel’s missing poster, so the night before Patrick and Lex came to Vancouver to see me, I’d given one to myself. Inspired by Tucker’s juvie tattoo, I’d swiped a brown marker and a safety pin from the box of art supplies in the rec room and spent an hour in a bathroom stall pricking the ink into my skin and most of the night holding an ice pack I’d swiped from the first aid kit that hung on the wall in the kitchen against it to curb the redness and swelling. It looked surprisingly convincing if you didn’t look too closely, which so far no one, not even Patrick, had.
I would never pull this off.
I had only one choice, which was to do what I’d always intended. Run. Before the Tates’ emotional high wore off and they realized I was a fake. Sure, now I would be in a strange country where I was out of my element, but at least it was warm here. I didn’t have a penny to my name, and there would be people looking for me, but I’d been through worse.
I returned to Daniel’s bedroom and rummaged through my backpack. I pulled out the baseball card I kept in the hidden pouch inside of it and put it in my pocket. It was the only thing in the bag worth keeping, so I would be ready anytime.
First chance I got, I would go.
• • •
I thought about leaving right then but quickly dismissed the idea. I was inside a giant gated community, basically a fancy prison. We were a couple of kilometers from the nearest entrance, and the odds were the Tates would notice I was gone before I could even reach one. My Daniel act had been convincing enough so far; it would hold up for at least a few more hours, maybe days. Part of me wanted to just lock myself in this room until it was late enough to sneak away, but that would seem too suspicious. So I took a deep breath and went in search of the family. Once I reached the foyer, I followed the voices toward the back of the house. By habit, I paused and peered around a corner when I got close, to get an idea what was going on in the room before I entered. I could see a sliver of Patrick leaning against a kitchen counter.
“—have to be patient,” he was saying. “He’s not the way you remember him. His personality is different, and a lot of his memories are gone. He barely even remembers us. The doctor said we shouldn’t push him to remember or to talk about what happened to him until he’s ready. We just need to treat him normally, okay?”
“Why doesn’t he remember us?” Mia’s little voice asked.
“That’s hard to explain, sweetie,” Lex said. “Bad things happened to him while he was gone, and his brain sort of . . . protected him. By hiding his memories away.”
“What happened to Danny?” Mia asked.
There was the scrape of a chair, and then Patrick said, “Mom, wait—”
“I’m not listening to this—”
Jessica turned the corner, moving fast. She slammed into me and recoiled, horror on her face.
She knew. I was suddenly sure.
But she didn’t start to scream or accuse. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m . . . I’m sorry.”
She fled upstairs with Patrick on her heels and Lex on Patrick’s.
“Mom!” Patrick yelled after her. “Mom!”
“I’ve got it,” Lex said, and she followed Jessica up the stairs, taking them two at a time.
Patrick turned to me, his annoyed expression changing into one of concern when he saw my face. I must have looked as ready to bolt as I felt. “Hey, you okay?”
Somewhere above us, a door slammed closed. Back in the kitchen, the phone started to ring.
“I . . .” Shove down the panic. Play the part. “She’s not happy I’m back,” I said, hopefully with enough pathos in my voice to tug at his heartstrings and keep him from noticing I wasn’t his brother.
“No, no,” he said, looking more stricken than I could have hoped for. “It’s not that, Danny. It’s just . . .” The phone was still ringing. Patrick glanced back into the kitchen, where Nicholas and Mia were still sitting. “Nicholas, can you get that, please?” He put a hand on my shoulder and guided me into a sitting room down the hall. He lowered himself onto a sofa that looked like it hadn’t actually been sat on in years, and I sat beside him. “Look, there are things you have to understand about Mom. She’s not the mother you remember. It started with my dad’s suicide, but you were so young, you might not remember.”
I tried not to show my surprise. I didn’t know Lex and Patrick’s father had killed himself. I didn’t even know he was dead.
“They’d been divorced for years, but they were still close, so it hit her hard,” he continued. “Then less than a year later you disappeared, and she just went to pieces. Barely got out of bed for months. Eventually she went to rehab and things got better for a while, but then your dad went to prison and they divorced and things got bad again.”
I nodded along and filed each fact away. Patrick was saving me a lot of research.
“I don’t want to upset you by telling you these things,” he continued, “but I need you to understand why she’s reacting this way. Any kind of change, even something good, is hard for her. And now that you’re back, she’s having to deal with all of her old grief and guilt. It’s overwhelming for her.”
Bad news for Jessica, but good news for me. Maybe she didn’t suspect me after all, and if she did, her instability would work in my favor. It looked like Patrick and Lex were the ones actually in charge in this family, and they both believed me.
“She’ll come around,” Patrick said. “She just needs a little time and some space. We all just need to leave her be until she gets her head around things. Got it?”
“Got it,” I said. That suited me just fine.
Someone cleared their throat. Patrick and I turned to find Nicholas standing in the doorway. Neither of us had heard him approach.
“Who was on the phone?” Patrick asked.
Nicholas’s eyes flicked over to me once and then back to Patrick. Instead of replying he asked, “Is Mom upstairs?”
Patrick nodded. “Lex is talking to her.”
Nicholas snorted. “Great. She’ll never come out.”
Patrick gave him a look.
“I’ll take care of it,” he said, and headed toward the stairs. Over his shoulder, he added, “Mia’s starving, by the way, and there’s nothing in the house.”
• • •
Having been replaced by Nicholas, Lex took over dinner and ordered from a local restaurant that delivered an obscene amount of food an hour later. Patrick made a face at her as he handed the delivery driver a couple of crisp hundreds from his billfold, but she just shrugged.
“We don’t know what Danny will like,” she said.
Despite Nicholas’s spending twenty minutes talking to her through her door, Jessica wouldn’t come out of her room, which was a little worrying. I just figured a mother would want to eat dinner with the son she hadn’t seen in six years, but apparently Patrick was right and it was too much for her. Or she suspected I wasn’t her son.
But as long as her belief held for a couple more hours, it wouldn’t matter either way because I’d be gone.
The rest of us sat down at the elegantly carved dining table that probably cost more than the house I grew up in and ate dinner from plastic containers, with filigreed silver flatware. It was one of the more uncomfortable meals of my life, which is saying something. Mia was the only one unaffected by the undercurrent of tension in the room. She chattered happily, telling me all about her teacher and her best friend, her horseback riding lessons, the puppy she desperately wanted. Trying to fill me in on the bulk of a life that Danny had missed all in one meal.
“I wanted to quit riding because my friend Daisy got thrown and broke her arm, but Mom said I can get a horse of my own when I’m twelve if I keep taking lessons, because that’s how old she was when Granddad got her a horse . . .”
“Gran and Granddad are in Europe right now,” Lex said, “otherwise they would be here to welcome you back.”
“That’s okay,” I said. The fewer relatives around, the better.
“It’ll take us some time to get you on the visitors’ list to see your dad,” Patrick added, “but he knows you’re home, so I’m sure he’ll call soon.”
When Mia finally ran out of things to say, silence descended on the table. I could practically see Patrick, Lex, and Nicholas struggling to think of a topic of conversation that wouldn’t reference something I couldn’t remember or the ordeal I’d been through.
“How’s the sea bass?” Lex finally asked. She’d already asked me a dozen questions about the food, what I liked to eat, could she pass me the salt or get me anything else. Food was a safe topic.
I looked down at the container I was eating from. I hadn’t even known the thing I was eating was sea bass.
“It’s good,” I said.
“Good,” she said, giving me a weak smile.
I glanced at the grandfather clock on the wall. It was almost late enough for me to plead exhaustion and go to bed. The phone rang, and Patrick jumped up and went to the other room to answer it. He came back a moment later.
“Who was it?” Mia asked.
“No one,” he said, at the same time Lex asked, “Who wants dessert?”
When dinner was over, Patrick announced that he’d better leave for his own home in L.A. Since he’d missed the last couple of days at the office, he needed to go in early the next morning to start catching up. He hugged Lex and Mia and then turned to me. He reached for me, hesitated, then laughed at himself and reached for me again. His embrace was quick and stiff. “We’re so glad you’re home, Danny,” he said.
“Me too,” I said, very aware of all the eyes in the room watching us.
He let me go. “I’ll be back tomorrow night. We should catch up.”
“Sure,” I said. I didn’t intend to still be here tomorrow night.
“I’ll walk you out,” Lex said to her brother. As she and Patrick left the room, she said over her shoulder, “Nicky, Mia, will you?”
They nodded and immediately started to clean up, collecting food containers and paper napkins for the trash and silverware for the dishwasher. I guess I got out of cleaning duty on account of having been kidnapped, which left me hovering awkwardly, unsure what to do with myself. For a while I stood in front of one of the floor-to-ceiling windows in the dining room, pretending to care about the view of the darkened lawn and mountains in the distance. Then I decided to go find Lex and tell her I was going to bed.
I walked through a darkened corridor toward the foyer. Lex and Patrick were standing in the doorway, their profiles illuminated by the lights in the fountain outside as they spoke quietly to each other. I stopped in the shadows and watched them. Although I couldn’t hear them, the way they looked at each other indicated an intense conversation. Lex shook her head, and I could tell from her pinched lips that she was crying again. Patrick put his hands on her shoulders and said something that made her take a deep breath and nod. They exchanged a few more words before Lex turned to go, but Patrick caught her by the wrist and pulled her back to him. He cocked his head to one side as he asked her something. She looked at him for a long moment before nodding again and gently removing his hand from her wrist. He kissed her cheek and left, and after she’d closed the door behind him, she leaned against it for a long time. The air felt charged and uneasy, so I slipped away without saying anything to her.
• • •
I returned to Danny’s untouched bedroom and locked the door behind me. I didn’t know what to do. I needed something to occupy me until the time I could sneak out, but, truthfully, I was having trouble keeping my eyes open. I’d barely slept the night before, and maintaining the Danny act was draining. The exhaustion had seeped into me, burrowing all the way to my bones. I noticed an alarm clock on the bedside table and grabbed it. I could let myself get a few hours of sleep before I snuck away, I told myself. It would probably be even better. When you’re tired, you make mistakes. I set the alarm for three and turned the sound down as far as it would go. I didn’t want to risk waking anyone else, and I was a light sleeper anyway.
I had nothing of my own to change into for bed, and I wouldn’t have worn Danny’s eerie, mummified clothes even if they weren’t child sized. I was about to shuck my jeans and shirt to sleep in my boxers when there was a knock on the door. I opened it to find Nicholas standing in the hallway.
“I thought you’d need these,” he said, holding out a T-shirt and a pair of sweatpants. “Doubt you still fit into whatever’s in the dresser.”
I took the clothes. “Thanks.”
Nicholas kept looking at me. It was the first time he’d made eye contact with me for more than a second or two, and other than that first hug at the airport, it was the closest he’d been to me. A fine crease started between his eyebrows.
“No problem,” he said. “Uh . . . do you need anything else? I’m sure Lex will—”
“What about me?” Lex asked cheerfully as she appeared in the hallway behind Nicholas. She looked like a different person from the fragile girl who had leaned against the door like she couldn’t stand on her own when Patrick left. Her smile was loose and her eyes warm and sleepy. I would have said she was tipsy, but I was pretty sure she’d only had the one glass of wine with dinner. “Oh, good, you lent him some clothes,” she said. “Danny, I was thinking that tomorrow we’d go shopping and get you the essentials you’re missing. Sound good? In the meantime here’s a spare toothbrush and some toothpaste.” She pressed the toiletries into my hand. “Is there anything else you need tonight?”
Maybe a less creepy room to sleep in—there must have been at least a couple of guest rooms in a house this size—but I couldn’t exactly ask for that. Besides, I wasn’t going to be in it much longer. “No, I’m fine.”
“Okay, well, my room’s the fifth one past the stairs if you think of anything,” she said. Nicholas had drifted away at some point, so it was just the two of us. “Don’t worry about waking me, okay? I won’t mind.”
I nodded. “Thanks, Lex.”
“You’re welcome.” She looked at me and smiled, and then . . . something changed. I don’t know exactly how to describe it. It was like the texture of our eye contact became different somehow. It felt like she was really seeing me instead of just looking at me. It made my breath hitch painfully in my chest.
She reached out and hugged me, and this time her arms were solid around me instead of weak and trembling.
“I missed you, Danny,” she said softly, the words warm against my neck. “I’m so happy you’re safe now.”
• • •
I lay in bed unable to sleep. The sheets were too crisp, the house too silent. I stared up at the ceiling, where I could just make out the outline of plastic star stickers that had long ago lost their glow.
I couldn’t stop thinking. First, I decided to stay the night. I told myself it was because it made more sense to run tomorrow night, after Lex had bought me some new clothes and other supplies. The truth, which I think I knew even then, was that I had felt . . . something when she looked at me and told me she was happy I was there. That I was safe. I’d believed her, and I hadn’t wanted to give that up so quickly.
And would it really be so bad to stay? For good? The Tates had eaten up my story, and in a way, I was doing them a favor. Danny was long gone, probably dead, and definitely never coming back. Me being here made them happy. And as for me, somehow I had stumbled into the con of a lifetime. A scam with the biggest risks I’d ever taken on but also the biggest rewards. If I could become Danny Tate, I could have a real life here, a better one than the little boy in Saskatchewan had even been able to dream of. Did I really want to just walk away from that? Wasn’t it stupid to go back to living on the streets and group homes when there was a perfectly good bed in a perfectly good mansion filled with a perfectly loving family right here?
Finally, I couldn’t lie there any longer, playing scenarios in my head, preparing lies. It was late; the rest of the family had to be asleep. I climbed out of the bed. If I wasn’t leaving tonight, I needed to learn the layout of the house. The Tates were less likely to get suspicious of me if I seemed at home here.
I padded on bare feet to the end of the hallway and started there. The farthest room was an office, lined with built-in bookcases and dominated by a massive desk. The next room was the bathroom I’d hidden in earlier, then a linen closet, then Danny’s room. Nicholas’s room, I knew, was next to mine. I was surprised to see the light on underneath the door and walked past extra carefully. Mia’s room was next, a night-light plugged into the outlet beside her door. There was one final room on this side of the stairs, a guest room that had probably belonged to a nanny once. Jessica didn’t strike me as the type to change diapers in the middle of the night.
I reached the stairs and ascended to the third floor, where I discovered just one set of locked double doors. The entire level must have been the master suite. I went back down to the second floor and turned left to explore the rooms in the wing on the other side of the stairs. I found two guest rooms, another bathroom, a bedroom I judged to be Patrick’s old room from the band posters on the wall, and then Lex’s room. A light was on inside. It seemed everyone was having trouble sleeping tonight.
I spent another twenty minutes exploring the first floor and the basement, walking from room to room until I had a good handle on the layout. I checked the alarm panel by the front door—it wasn’t activated—and then ventured out of the French doors and onto the back patio. It was overhung with a wooden lattice crawling with ivy and some kind of white flowers, and beyond that was a pool that glowed in the dark like a chlorine moon. I dipped a foot in the water. It felt good, just warm enough in the cool night air. It must have been heated.
I looked back at the house. It was dark; Nicholas and Lex must have finally gone to sleep. Fuck it, I thought. I might only be rich for this one night, so I might as well enjoy the perks while I could. I stripped down to my boxers and slipped into the pool, the shallow end, since I didn’t swim too well. The world went silent beneath the surface of the water. I kicked and twisted and spun and surfaced laughing. Then I floated there, weightless, looking up at the starry sky above me.
When I finally returned to Danny’s room, I fell straight to sleep.
• • •
At some point in the night, I woke. I opened my eyes and blinked at the dark figure standing in the doorway. At first all my eyes could pick out was the silhouette against the glow from the hall. Forgetting where I was, I thought that it must be Jason, returning from a raid of the pantry at Short Term 8.
But then I remembered.
“Nicholas?” I murmured.
He silently turned and walked away, closing the door behind him, and the chill that raced up my spine had nothing to do with the aggressive California air-conditioning.
• • •
When I woke the next morning, I wasn’t sure it had really happened. The memory felt fuzzy around the edges and hollow in the middle, like a dream.
What was definitely real was the weight in the bed beside me. I scrambled back and threw aside the comforter. Underneath I found Mia curled up, the tip of her thumb lying between her lips. I took a couple of deep breaths to calm the pounding of my heart and then nudged her.
“Hey,” I said. She was lucky I hadn’t hit her when she tried to climb into bed next to me. I must have been exhausted to have slept through it.
She frowned and blinked as she woke. “Morning,” she said blearily.
“How long have you been here?” I asked.
She shrugged and sat up.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
“I used to come and sleep in here sometimes,” she said, “when you were gone. Lex caught me once and got mad. Don’t tell her, okay? She wanted me to stay in her room with her, but she kicks in her sleep.”
I swallowed. “Why did she want you to sleep with her?”
“She said she didn’t want me to bother you by accident if I got up in the middle of the night,” she said. “Sometimes I wake up at night, and Magda used to help me go back to sleep, but she went home to Ukraine a few days ago.”
“Magda was your nanny?” I asked.
She nodded. “Lex said I could only sleep in my room if I stayed inside and kept the door locked so I wouldn’t bother anyone. I don’t want her to know I broke my promise.”
“I won’t tell,” I said. Was Lex worried her damaged, potentially destructive little brother might do something to Mia? It was a reasonable thought, but one that seemed at odds with the way she’d been treating me.
“Thanks, Danny,” Mia said. “Did you sleep good?”
“I . . . not really,” I said. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to talk to a kid this young. She was like a little alien creature to me.
“It’s always weird being in a new bed,” she said. “That’s why I bring my pillow with me anytime we go on a trip, so the bed isn’t totally new.”
I smiled. “That’s pretty smart.”
“Well, tonight your bed won’t be new anymore,” she said, “so hopefully, you’ll sleep better.” She climbed awkwardly out of the bed. I wondered again about the brace on her leg. It had pins that went into her skin. Had she gotten hurt, or was it some kind of disability she’d been born with? If the problem with her leg was something Danny had known about, it would be suspicious if I asked, but if Danny hadn’t known, it would be suspicious if I didn’t.
“I better go back to my room before Lex wakes up,” she said, and then she leaned toward me and wrapped her thin little arms around my neck, squeezing me with so much passion I could hardly breathe.
“I really missed you, Danny,” she said. And she sounded like she meant it, even though she couldn’t possibly remember the brother who’d disappeared when she was just a toddler.
I raised a hand to her back and gave it a couple of awkward pats. “Missed you, too.”
• • •
Mia returned to her room, and I brushed my teeth and changed into my one set of clean clothes before heading downstairs. Nicholas was in the kitchen, his wet hair looking almost black and dampening the collar of his shirt. He was pouring glasses of orange juice, and there was already a plate of toast on the table in the breakfast nook.
“Morning,” he said when I walked in.
I tried to smile like I thought I should. “Morning.”
“How’d you sleep?” he asked.
I looked at him closely. The question sounded almost too innocent coming from him, like he was daring me to ask why I had woken in the middle of the night to find him standing over my bed like some creepy fucking wraith.
But it was possible I was being paranoid.
“Fine,” I said.
“Great,” he replied, turning back to the fruit he was cutting. “Have a seat. Breakfast is almost ready.”
As I took a seat at the table, Mia came bounding in and sat across from me. I sipped my orange juice while she slathered a piece of toast with raspberry jam. Nicholas had a cordless phone on the counter beside him, and when it began to ring, he hit a button and it went silent.
“So what’s on the agenda today, Mimi?” he said.
“I don’t know. I was supposed to go to Eleanor’s house,” Mia said, “but Magda was going to take me.”
“I can take you,” Nicholas said. “What are you two going to do?”
“Work on our play,” she said around a mouthful of toast.
“You have a play?” I asked while I wondered why Magda had left with such apparent abruptness.
Mia nodded and licked some stray jam off her finger. “We’ve been working on it for a long time. It’s about a mermaid with magical powers. I play the mermaid, because I want to be an actress someday.”
“Acting’s pretty cool,” I said. “Getting to pretend to be another person.”
“Yeah, I’m really good at it. Eleanor does the costumes.”
“Does she want to be a fashion designer?” I asked. It turned out the kid was actually pretty easy to talk to.
“Not really,” she said. “She’s just not a very good actress, and she needed something to do.”
I started to laugh but stopped when Nicholas approached us, balancing several plates in his arms. He set a raisin bagel with cream cheese and honey down in front of Mia and a bowl of cornflakes with freshly cut strawberries in front of me.
“I decided to make everyone their favorite for breakfast today,” he said with a smile, “in honor of Danny being home.”
“Thanks, Nicky!” Mia said, pushing aside her toast in favor of the bagel. “What about Mom’s?”
Nicholas sat down beside her with his plate of scrambled eggs and took the uneaten half of Mia’s raspberry toast. “I don’t think she’ll be down for a while. Eat up, before it gets cold.”
Something seemed different about him. I frowned as I tried to put my finger on it, and he noticed.
“Something wrong?” he asked.
I shook my head. Behind him Lex walked into the kitchen, rubbing her head and making straight for the coffee maker.
“Morning, guys,” she mumbled.
“Morning,” we all replied.
I raised a spoonful of cereal to my mouth, and suddenly Lex was sprinting across the kitchen and knocking it from my hand.
“Danny!” she snapped. “Don’t touch that! Who gave him strawberries?”
“I did,” Nicholas said.
“He’s allergic!” she said. “What were you thinking?”
Nicholas looked at her and then me with wide eyes. “I’m so sorry, Danny. I completely forgot.”
The air was thick with tension. Nicholas stared at me and I stared back, and in my peripheral vision I saw Lex clench her hands into fists.
Then she sighed, and the room seemed to exhale with her. “Well, there’s no harm done,” she said. “I’ll make you something else to eat, Danny. What would you like?”
She took the bowl of cereal away, pouring it down the drain, while I looked at Nicholas, who just stared back at me. Did he suspect?
“Did you forget too?” he asked.
I nodded slowly and started my eyes watering. I’d always been able to make myself cry whenever I wanted. It was a useful trick.
“I guess . . . ,” I said. “It’s been so long since I’ve had fresh fruit that . . .”
Nicholas’s stony expression wavered.
“Oh, honey . . . ,” Lex said.
“I’m sorry.” I got up from the table. “I’m sorry, I’ve got to . . .”
I fled the kitchen. Behind me, I heard Lex going off on Nicholas and him apologizing, and I smiled.
• • •
I was holed up in Danny’s bedroom for maybe ten minutes before a soft rap on the door signaled that Lex had come to find me.
I curled into the most pathetic ball I could manage on top of the bed. “Come in.”
“Hey,” she said softly as she inched the door open. “You okay?”
“I guess,” I said. I sat up and rubbed my eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I freaked out. I just want to be normal, you know? But I can’t, and it makes me so mad sometimes . . .”
“Hey, hey.” She sat down beside me and put a hand on my shoulder. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I upset everyone.”
She rubbed my shoulder. “No, you didn’t. We’re all just . . . feeling this out. It’s going to take a little time, and there are going to be some bumps. But don’t you ever blame yourself, you got it?”
I swallowed and nodded.
“You know you can talk to me anytime, about anything, right?” she said. “I don’t want to push, but I’m always here.”
“I know,” I said.
She smiled and nudged my leg. “And don’t let Nicholas get to you, okay? I love him to death, but he’s an idiot sometimes.”
I cracked a smile.
“Aww, there’s my baby brother!” she said, ruffling my hair. “Come on, how about we go do some shopping? It’ll be fun.”
We climbed into Lex’s car and headed into town to buy me the essentials I was missing. It turned out my definition of “essential” was pretty different from hers. For hours we went from store to store, buying clothes and toiletries and shoes and a cell phone and a laptop, everything charged to the shiny platinum credit card Lex produced from her wallet. If I liked something, she bought two of it and never looked at a single price tag. It shouldn’t have surprised me after seeing the house or climbing into Lex’s tricked out BMW, but there was something almost magical about how she could trade a swipe of plastic for anything she wanted.
“We’ll go to the bank on Monday and get you your own card,” she said as we ate a late lunch. “We all have one for the family account. For emergencies.”
I guess our definition of “emergency” was different too. For me it was not having any money for a bus ticket out of town when I needed to disappear. For her it was seeing some shiny thing in a store window that she wanted.
I preferred her definition.
“I’ve always loved this color on you,” Lex said as she brushed the sleeve of the new blue button-down I was wearing. I looked down at the shirt. I had always understood the lack of money; growing up poor etched it into your bones. But in the clothes Lex had pushed into my arms to try on, in this fine cotton shirt, I was getting a glimpse of what life was like with money. It was easy to sit up straight and take up space when everything that touched your skin was clean and soft and expensive. “Makes your eyes look almost green.”
The glow in her face as she smiled at me was so full of warmth and affection that I felt something move inside my chest. The lurch of a dormant heart trying to wake up.
“I’ll be right back,” I said, and headed for the restroom. Somehow I kept finding myself hiding in bathrooms. I washed my hands and then stared in the mirror until my face stopped being something I recognized and morphed into nothing but a collection of shapes and shadows. I blinked at the shapes and took deep breaths until they became a face again.
When I returned to the table, Lex was throwing back a pill with the glass of wine she’d ordered with lunch. When she spotted me, she gave a little shrug.
“Headache,” she said, stuffing the bottle back into her bag. “Are you ready to go?”
I nodded, and with another swipe of her magical plastic, lunch was paid for, and we left the restaurant.
“So,” she said as we climbed back into her car, “I think you have everything you need now, right? I gotta say, I much prefer shopping to class.”
“Is that where you’d usually be?” I asked.
“Yep! I’m the loser who’s still in college at twenty-four.” Her smile was bitter around the edges. “I haven’t exactly been a model student.”
“I guess that’s my fault, huh?” I said, angling an air-conditioning vent away from me.
“Please,” she said. “That was all me. But I’ve been getting it together, and I should graduate next semester. And I’ve got my own place now, out in Century City. It’s a dump, but at least it’s mine.”
“Oh,” I said. “I thought you lived—”
She shook her head. “No, I’m just crashing in my old room for a while. Patrick and I thought it would be better for everyone if I was around while you got settled in.”
I was suddenly nervous. What constituted “settling in”? If Lex left, I’d be stuck practically alone in that house with Jessica and Nicholas, the two members of the family I was on the least stable ground with.
That is, if I decided to stay.
“How long will that be?” I asked.
She glanced over at me and smiled. “Don’t worry, you’re not getting rid of me for a good long time. We even let Mia’s nanny go, since I’m going to be around for a while.”
Slowly, I smiled back.
• • •
On our way back to Hidden Hills, Lex stopped at a Starbucks. The backseat of her car, which was otherwise pretty neat, was littered with discarded coffee cups, and as she parked, she tossed the empty one in her cup holder back onto the pile.
I followed her inside, surprised again at the gust of cold air that hit me as I stepped in. I guess Southern California had to manufacture its own winter. Lex joined the line, drawing her phone out of her bag and immediately typing out a message. I was amazed at how quickly her thumbs moved. I’d never had a smartphone before, just a shitty pay-as-you-go flip phone that quit going pretty quickly since I quit paying.
With Lex occupied, I looked around the coffee shop. This was one thing that wasn’t different from my old life at all. Starbucks was Starbucks whether you were a homeless guy in Canada or a rich teenager in California. It was strangely comforting. And also irritating. Like it was trying to remind me who I really was.
I looked at the array of pastries in the case by the register and then at the customers in the seating area. An old Hispanic man with a paper, probably a widower just trying to fill his day. A bored white woman in yoga pants and expensive sunglasses—a reluctant stay-at-home mom—who talked on the phone while her toddler dismantled a muffin. An Asian girl a little younger than me working at a laptop in one of the leather chairs against the wall, her legs folded underneath her in a way that looked extremely uncomfortable. I watched her a little longer than the others, trying to figure out her deal, like I automatically did with everyone, so of course she looked up and caught me. I immediately looked away.
“Do you want anything, Danny?” Lex asked.
I shook my head, and Lex gave her order and handed over her credit card. I flipped through the CDs at the cash register while Lex waited for her receipt, but I found my gaze drifting to the girl in the chair again.
For the second time she looked up and caught me. Dammit. I turned my head away. But when my eyes slid back to her a third time, she was still looking at me.
She crossed her eyes.
It took me a second to realize that’s what the sound had been. My mouth snapped shut. The girl was grinning.
“What’s funny?” Lex asked as the barista handed her a latte.
“Nothing,” I said.
I looked back as we left the coffee shop, but the girl was concentrating on her laptop again.
• • •
Patrick came over for dinner that night. Jessica wasn’t in the house. No one but Mia seemed worried or curious about her absence, and she still wasn’t home when Lex convinced Patrick to stay the night, and everyone headed to bed. If I’d thought becoming Danny Tate would mean getting a more loving and attentive mother than the one I’d grown up with, I would have been disappointed, but I was relieved. I could play Lex like a fiddle, but Jessica made me uneasy. I didn’t get her, and I wasn’t good with mothers.
I didn’t go to sleep when everyone else did. Instead, I sat on the floor of Danny’s room with everything Lex had bought me that morning spread out in front of me. It was all I needed to make a decent attempt at getting away from here. Clothes, including a new coat that would be warm enough even in Vancouver, and several good pairs of shoes to choose from. A laptop and a smartphone that would get me a nice chunk of cash at any pawn shop. The passport with Danny Tate’s name on it next to my picture. If I moved fast enough, flying back to Canada before the Tates realized I was gone and raised the alarm, I could use it to get across the border if I wanted.
I had everything I needed to go.
But, after more than an hour of staring at the supplies in front of me, I got up and started to put them away. Clothes hung in the closet, laptop plugged in on the desk, new toothbrush dropped into the cup by the sink in Danny’s bathroom. I was going to stay. If I was honest with myself, I had made the decision the night before as I floated in the pool and looked up at the sky. I was going to see the con through, take this chance to have a real life.
I was going to become Danny Tate.
I had a million rationales. Staying was actually, weirdly, the safer choice. Right now they believed I was Danny, with the possible exception of Nicholas. If I ran, they would all know I wasn’t. The power and wealth of the Tates had cut through government bureaucracy like a hot knife through butter to get me out of Canada, and that the same influence would be brought to bear on finding me and putting me in prison for impersonating their son. For years I’d relied on my ability to read people, and I was confident that if they started to suspect me, I would see it coming. There would be time for me to get away if I needed to. And in the meantime I’d live like a king.
Because I’m just as good at lying to myself as lying to other people, I even believed those were my real reasons.
I wasn’t sleepy, so I decided to go through the house again while everyone was asleep. I walked the upstairs halls, quizzing myself on what lay in the room behind each door, and then moved downstairs. I went through each cabinet and drawer in the kitchen, learning where the Tates kept the forks and cookie sheets and what kind of cereal they ate. I was in the fancy living room—the one no one ever seemed to use—going through the drawers in a side table when headlights swept across the windows.
Jessica was home.
Seconds later I jumped at a sudden loud noise from outside. A plastic crunch-pop and the yelp of a car horn.
Shit. As quickly as I could on silent feet, I headed for the stairs. But I was too late. I heard a door open and close and the pounding of footsteps above my head, and I ducked back into the living room as Lex and Patrick came running down the stairs together.
“Son of a bitch,” Patrick was saying as he headed for the front door.
“She’s got to stop this or . . .” Lex’s reply was swallowed up by the night as she followed Patrick out of the house. I followed silently behind them, and, hidden by the shadows of the open doorway, looked out over the driveway. Jessica had driven her SUV up onto the lawn and into a concrete pillar that held a large planter overflowing with flowers. The front end of the vehicle was crumpled and steaming.
“Mom?” Patrick called.
Jessica wobbled out of the SUV.
“I’m fine,” she said.
“You’re not fine!” he snapped. She was obviously wasted.
“Jesus, Mom,” Lex said. “You could have killed yourself!”
Patrick stepped toward his mother, taking her arm as she stumbled. She tottered on sharp heels that sank into the grass, and tried to push him away.
“What’s going on?”
I spun. Nicholas was standing behind me. He was even stealthier than I was.
“I . . .” I didn’t have a lie prepared for this. “I’m not . . .”
He looked past me through the open door and sighed. “Great.”
“I won’t . . . ,” Jessica was saying as Patrick maneuvered her back toward the house, and Lex climbed into the wrecked car to kill the engine. “I won’t go back.”
“You should get upstairs,” Nicholas said to me. Then he stepped outside to help Patrick with their mother. She was crying now, mumbling words I couldn’t make out.
I watched, transfixed, seeing ghosts of my own superimposed onto Jessica’s beauty queen face.
Then I heard her say it.
“He’s not my son,” she said, the words slurred but unmistakable.
• • •
My heart dropped like an anchor to the sea floor. This was it.
• • •
“Mom!” Patrick barked. “Stop it!”
“He’s not my son!” Jessica said to Lex.
Before the last word had died on the warm April air, the crack of Patrick’s hand meeting her face replaced it. Jessica reeled backward. He hadn’t hit her that hard—I could tell—but she took the blow like it was a fatal one and crumpled to the lawn. Lex screamed at Patrick, slamming her hands against his chest, and knelt beside their mother, who was now moaning on the grass. Nicholas turned and looked right at me.
“You shut your mouth,” Patrick said as he towered over his fallen mother.
Jessica looked up at him, then at Nicholas. She followed his gaze to me, standing in the doorway, and Lex and Patrick turned to look at me too. For a moment everything was frozen and silent, me staring at Jessica, them staring at me.
Jessica looked down at the ground, her nails digging into the grass as she struggled to stand.
“You’re not my son,” she said again, but when she raised her head, it wasn’t me she was looking at. She was looking at Patrick. Lex grabbed her arm and tried to help her up, but Jessica pushed her away. “You’re not my daughter. None of you are my children! A mother’s children wouldn’t treat her this way!”
A painful shudder of relief went through me.
“None of you are my children!” she sobbed.
Patrick looked down at her as she struggled. His body cast a shadow over her face, obscuring her expression.
“Don’t you ever say that again,” he said. Then he turned and walked back into the house, brushing past me on his way, leaving me cold in his wake.
“Nicky,” Lex said after he was gone, waving Nicholas over. The two of them managed to get their arms under Jessica’s and helped her to her feet.
“Everything’s okay, Danny,” Lex said brightly, sounding for all the world like she believed it. “Go on back to bed.”
I returned to my room, closed the door behind me, and blocked the air-conditioning vent with a pile of books so I could try to get warm again.
• • •
From my bed I listened as Lex and Nicholas moved Jessica upstairs, and the water somewhere above me began to run. I was finally beginning to drift off, maybe an hour later, when there was a light knock at my door. It was so quiet I thought I had imagined it until the door opened a sliver, and I could see the glint of Mia’s night-light off Lex’s corn silk hair.
“You asleep?” she whispered.
“Can I come in?”
I nodded, and she stepped inside, closing the door behind her so that we were in the dark together. She sat on the edge of the bed while I propped myself up on the pillows.
“I’m sorry you saw that,” she said in a low voice.
“It’s okay,” I said.
“No, it’s not.” She put a hand on my knee, though I could barely feel the touch through the thick comforter. “I hope she didn’t scare you with all that talk. She doesn’t mean it; it’s just what she says when she’s been drinking. You aren’t my kids, this isn’t my home, this isn’t my life. She’s . . . she’s a very unhappy woman sometimes.”
I thought of my mother—the real one—and I nodded.
“I think she’s been a little overwhelmed by everything,” Lex continued with a commendable flair for understatement. “But she’ll be okay. We’ll make sure of it. You don’t have to worry.”
I tried to remember the fear I used to feel as a little boy when my mother disappeared for days at a time. Tried to let that scabbed over old feeling show on my face when I nodded.
“And Patrick.” Lex shifted, uncomfortable. “He’s not . . . I mean, I want you to know that he’s not . . . a violent person. He would never hurt any of us, so you don’t have to be afraid of him. Okay?”
I frowned, because it never would have occurred to me to be afraid of Patrick, as long as he didn’t find out who I really was. Then all bets were off, violent person or no.
“I get it,” I said. “He was just protecting me.”
“Yes.” She seized my words like a struggling swimmer grabs a life ring. “Yes, exactly. He’s not a bad person.”
“Of course not,” I said, bemused.
“Good.” She smiled and reached out to touch my face. At the last moment, though, she changed her mind. I don’t know if it was something I did or something that changed in her thoughts, but she ended up just tracing the air beside my cheek. Air molecules moving against my skin instead of hers.
She drew back her hand and stood, looking down at me. “Good night, Danny,” she said, and left.
• • •
After Lex left, I got out of bed and went to the desk against the window, where I’d left my new laptop. I could tell I wouldn’t be able to sleep, and now was a good time to do something I’d been wanting to do for days.
I opened the browser and did an Internet search for Daniel Tate.
The top result came from the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the place I’d first discovered Daniel. The second result was the news article from two days after his disappearance that I’d printed off that same night and read after sneaking back to bed. Nothing to learn there.
The third result was an AP story about my return, complete with a photograph taken at the airport, which thankfully showed little more than the brim of my hat and part of my jawline. “Missing child Daniel Tate, subject of the recent LA Magazine article that revived public interest in his case, has been reunited with his family . . .”
I typed in a new search.
Daniel Tate LA Magazine
Up came the article—“Two Thousand Days Later: The Disappearance of Daniel Tate”—a detailed examination of the case on the sixth anniversary of the last day Danny was seen. It was published just over three weeks ago.
The door to my room cracked open, and I slammed the laptop shut.
“Danny?” Mia poked her head into my room.
“Hey,” I whispered. “You okay?”
“I’m thirsty,” she said.
“Isn’t there a cup in your bathroom?”
“I don’t like that water,” she said. “Magda used to leave me a glass of water from the kitchen, but Lex forgot. Will you come downstairs with me? It’s dark.”
What I wanted to do was retroactively remember to lock my bedroom door, but then I thought about being a little kid creeping alone through the darkness, not sure what dangers were lurking there, and what a difference having a hand to hold would have made to me. Suddenly, I saw the gap-toothed boy in the T-ball uniform standing in front of me instead of Mia, and I smiled at him.
“Sure,” I said. “Let’s go.”
• • •
The next day, and the next and the next, all passed the same way. Breakfast, shower, fine new clothes on my back that felt too nice for a day of just hanging around the house. I’d watch the others go off to school while I stayed behind with Lex hovering over me all day. I kept waiting for my interview with the police to come, bracing for it every morning when I came downstairs for breakfast, but whatever Patrick was saying or doing to put them off was obviously working. That left me with nothing to do but kill time with Lex. We spent hours together watching TV on the couch in the non-fancy living room. She filled me in on her favorite soaps—Harrison was secretly in love with Savannah, Lucinda was cheating on Jack with Mateo, Clark had been the one to sabotage the breaks on Sabine’s car—and I began to understand why she still hadn’t graduated college. I couldn’t totally blame her though. The soaps were weirdly addictive, and I liked watching them with her, the two of us passing back and forth a bowl of popcorn that Lex had added extra melted butter to.
I read the article in LA Magazine about Danny’s disappearance. It was like a bad pulp novel, the story of senseless tragedy fracturing the glamorous, idyllic façade of Hidden Hills. It was heavy on details like what kind of shoes Jessica had worn for the press conference and light on facts, but judging by the hundreds of comments people had left on it, it had struck a chord. No wonder the paps had shown up to the airport.
I had two phone calls with Robert Tate from the minimum security prison upstate where he was due to spend the next eighteen months. He cried for most of the first one. We were actually able to talk during the second, and he swallowed my story as easily as everyone else had. I promised I would visit soon.
I barely saw Jessica. She rarely left her room, and when she did, it was just to get into her rental and drive away. I had no idea where she went, and no one else seemed to either. Weirder, none of them seemed to care.
One morning after everyone else had left, Lex went down to the basement and came back with the family photo albums and a handful of home videos.
“I don’t want to push you,” she said, “but I thought these might help you start to remember more. Want to have a look?”
I nodded. The amnesia act would deflect suspicion for only so long; I needed to start learning this stuff if I was going to make everyone believe I was truly Danny.
Lex flipped through the book, naming everyone and narrating the events the pictures captured. Every now and then she’d look at me and say, “Ring any bells?” or “Do you recognize this?” I would say something noncommittal, and she never pushed. It was exactly what I needed. The more cousins’ names I could commit to memory, the more birthday parties I witnessed via Sharpie-labeled DVDs, the more I could start to become Daniel Tate. Lex made me a crunchy peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch, and I ate it happily, even though I didn’t care for peanut butter. This had been Danny’s favorite, and now it would be mine. To tell a good lie, part of you has to believe it’s true. With each piece of his past and each day spent under this roof, with this family, I could feel Danny growing inside of me. He was the parasite and I was just the host. Eventually, he would take over until I was only the skin he wore.
It was all I’d ever wanted. To finally bury the boy from Saskatchewan who had mattered to no one and become something else. Something better.
But it was a slow process, and the days were long in that house. I wasn’t used to my every movement being watched, to having to weigh every word and action so carefully. When I was in care, all I had to do was keep my mouth shut and everyone ignored me. It was a totally different story here. Lex never left me alone during the day, Mia clung to me when she got home from school, and I feared making even the smallest misstep in front of Nicholas, who was standoffish, if not downright suspicious of me.
“Adam Sherman messaged me on Facebook to ask about you,” he said one day at lunch. “I can give you his e-mail if you want to talk to him.”
I blinked. “You mean Andrew?” Andrew Sherman, I’d learned from Patrick and Lex, had been Danny’s best friend and had moved away several years ago.
“Oh, right,” he said vaguely. “Want his e-mail?”
It could have been an honest mistake, but I wouldn’t have put money on it. At least if it was a test, I’d passed.
The only time I had to myself was when I went to bed, which I did increasingly early just so I could escape the eyes for a little while. I wasn’t made for this. I was used to being invisible, and I’d never realized before how much freedom there was in that.
On my twelfth day at the Tates’, I finally snapped. Lex had been following me from room to room all morning, never more than five feet away from me, asking every ten minutes if there was anything she could get or do for me. Nicholas looked up at me from his computer every time I moved or breathed. But the last straw was Mia. I usually didn’t mind being around her as much because there was no chance of her doubting me, but she’d developed a habit of climbing up next to me anytime I sat down, her overly warm, sticky hands clinging to me like she was trying to absorb every lost moment with Danny through her skin. It was stifling. Like the walls were closing in on me, the big bright rooms of the Tate mansion getting smaller and darker around me, trapping me in a tiny room, a closet, a coffin.
I disentangled myself from her and got up, intending to go to the bathroom in the hallway to catch my breath. But my feet just kept walking, taking me out the front door, down the driveway, and onto the street. I walked and walked in a kind of frenzy, sweat beading on my forehead and stinging my eyes. My muscles burned from following the swells of the hills, but I could breathe. The walls I’d felt pressing in on me had fallen away. No one was looking at me. No one was expecting anything of me.
At the gate, a security guard asked me if I was Daniel Tate, that my sister had called down and asked them to look out for me. I said no and kept walking.
What I learned pretty quickly was that people in California don’t walk. I wanted to disappear, but instead, everyone was staring at me from their cars.
Why is he walking?
What’s wrong with him?
My God, is that person walking?? I HAVE NEVER SEEN SUCH A THING.
I needed to get off the street.
I crossed a heavily trafficked road and found myself in some kind of outdoor mall. At the far end I spotted a movie theater. Perfect. A place where I could sit in the dark for a couple of hours and not be looked at. With a swipe of my new magical plastic, I bought a ticket for the movie starting the soonest and hoped it would be something dumb and loud enough to drown out the voices in my head for a while.
I got in the concession line to buy a Coke, and that’s when I saw her. At first she was just a curtain of black hair two people ahead of me, but when she turned her head and I saw her profile, I recognized her as the girl from Starbucks.
I’m not sure why I suddenly felt so exposed. Like she might recognize me and ruin my escape, which was ridiculous. Normal people don’t recognize someone they saw for five seconds in a coffee shop two weeks before, and even if she did, what did it matter? There was no reason for her presence to make me nervous.
I watched her order a popcorn, soda, and a box of candy. Holding all three was awkward; she had the drink in one hand, the popcorn in another, and the candy gripped in the crook of her elbow. I had pegged her as a shy loner, the type who would go to coffee shops and movies by herself, but then she said something to the cashier that made him laugh out loud, and I had to rethink my assumptions, which was rare.
She moved off to an area near the concession line where there were straws, napkins, and self-serve butter, and I watched her, trying to figure out her deal, while the cashier got my Coke. She had finished up by the time I had my soda, and she stepped toward the ticket taker just in front of me, attempting to get the ticket out of her pocket with all the snacks in her arms. I was so busy watching her struggle that I didn’t see the ripped piece of carpeting in front of me. I tripped and crashed into her from behind. Her popcorn went flying and her box of Sno-Caps hit the floor and somersaulted to a stop under the ticket taker’s stool.
“Jesus, sorry,” I said. Way to stay invisible. There weren’t many people in the theater lobby, but they were all staring at us.
The girl burst out laughing. Not the reaction I’d been expecting.
“At least I held on to the drink!” she said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Let me buy you another popcorn.”
She smiled. “Thanks.”
We returned to the concession stand, where the kid behind the counter offered to replace her popcorn for free. While he was scooping a new bag, she looked at me, and I looked down at the ground. She was wearing brown sandals and radioactive green polish on her toenails.
I was being weird; I could feel it. I didn’t want to be weird anymore. I summoned the new Danny persona I was creating, one that was friendly and confident and cool, and lifted my chin.
“So, what movie are you seeing?” I asked.
“Oh, The College Try?” she said. “It looks pretty silly, but I just wanted to get out of the house and eat some popcorn. What about you?”
“Same,” I said. My ticket was actually for some action movie sequel. I’m not sure why I lied, other than it being my first instinct in most situations. The cashier handed her the fresh bag of popcorn, and we walked back toward the ticket taker.
“We may be the only people in there,” she said. “Anyway, thanks for the popcorn.”
“I hope it’s everything you wanted it to be,” I said.
She nodded and walked ahead of me. There was a smattering of other people in the theater, and the trailers had started. She took a seat in the center of a row in the middle. I sat a couple of rows behind her and off to the left. I found myself watching her almost as much as the movie. She had a loud laugh, and I tried laughing whenever she did.
It felt kind of nice.
• • •
After the movie was over, I started walking back toward the Tates’ and formulating a plan for getting out of that house on the regular so I wouldn’t lose my mind. The same guard was posted at the Hidden Hills’ gate. When I showed him the credit card with Danny’s name on it as identification so he’d let me inside the closely guarded community, he frowned at me.
“You said you weren’t Daniel Tate,” he said.
I shrugged. “I lied.”
It was getting dark by the time I arrived back at the house. At home, I reminded myself. Jessica’s car was absent from its usual spot in the circular driveway. Lex’s car was inside the open garage. No sign of Patrick’s or Nicholas’s.
I stepped into the house, glad for the blast of cold air against my hot cheeks.
“Hello?” Lex called from the direction of the kitchen. “Danny?”
“It’s me,” I said.
Lex ran into the foyer, her pink flats tapping against the marble, and gathered me up in her arms. I shrank, but she just held on to me harder.
“Oh, thank God,” she said. “Are you okay?”
She pulled away and looked at my face, her eyes moving up and down my body, as if checking me for injuries.
“I’m fine,” I said.
She raised her cell phone to her ear.
“He’s here,” she said. “Yeah . . . I know . . . Thanks.”
She stuck the phone back in her pocket, hugged me again, and then punched me hard in the arm.
“Ow!” I said.
“Daniel Arthur Tate, don’t you ever do that to us again!” she said, and burst into tears.
“I . . . I’m sorry,” I said, bewildered by the emotional whiplash I’d just witnessed.
Lex swiped the tears from her cheeks. “You just can’t leave here without telling anyone, okay? You just can’t.”
Then I got it. It was so obvious in retrospect. Of course she would freak out when her poor kidnapped brother disappeared for a few hours. It was something I would have realized if I’d spent even a second thinking about my decision to get the hell out of the house earlier that day, but I hadn’t. I’d wanted a break, so I’d taken it. I wasn’t used to my actions impacting other people.
“Where’s your phone?” she said. “I called you about a hundred times.”
I pulled the phone out of my back pocket. It wasn’t even on. Had she called the cops? Was that who had been on the phone? The last thing I needed was the authorities on my case when I was still trying to solidify my relationship with the Tates.
This was bad, and it needed a big save. I bit my lower lip and conjured up tears in my eyes. “I’m sorry, Lex. I didn’t mean to scare you. Oh shit, I’m so sorry!”
“I think I just got overwhelmed,” I said, aiming for a rushing stream of words that would disorient and disarm. “I’m not used to all of this, and all of a sudden I couldn’t breathe, and then the next thing I knew I was walking down the street . . .”
She was just staring at me. I increased the tears and started to breathe more heavily, like I was struggling for air.
“I-I looked up and I didn’t know where I was,” I said. “I was so scared, and confused, and I . . . I . . .”
She sighed and closed for eyes for a moment, like she was steeling herself for something, and then she gave me a hug. “It’s okay, Danny. It’s all going to be okay. We were just so worried, you know? Patrick and Nicholas have been driving around the neighborhood for an hour. I was about to call the police.”
The tension between my shoulders eased. She hadn’t called the cops yet. “I won’t let it happen again. I promise.”
“Damn right you won’t,” she said with a gentle smile, “because I’m not letting you out of my sight.”
“You hungry?” she asked. “I can make you a sandwich.”
I wasn’t hungry, but I nodded anyway. Lex liked to take care of me.
As I sat at the kitchen island while Lex made me another peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I thought for a moment about Danny Tate. The real one. A boy who left this house and never came back. It might sound weird, but since that first night when I saw his still-folded clothes in the dresser upstairs, I hadn’t thought much about him outside of my own situation, as a person who existed independent of me. I wondered what had happened to him. He was almost certainly dead and probably had been since the day he went missing. If I were a normal person, I would have felt guilty for what I was doing, taking his identity, fooling his family. Ask anyone and they would tell you I was a monster.
But when Lex smiled at me as she slid the sandwich and a glass of milk toward me—like I was still the little boy she’d once known—I wondered why I should feel guilty for making her so happy.
• • •
“I’m telling you, he should be in therapy,” Nicholas said in a low voice that wasn’t quite a whisper. “At the least.”
I froze in the hallway on my way down for breakfast the next morning. They were talking about me.
“We’ve discussed this. We don’t think he’s ready for that,” Patrick replied. After Lex called him and told him I was home safe, he’d decided to spend the night. He’d spent most of the evening teaching me to play backgammon on a set inlaid with ivory and onyx in the basement’s recreation room. Lex disappeared during that time, and I got the feeling he was watching me so she could take a break.
“Are you kidding?” Nicholas said. “You can’t just keep him cooped up in the house. He’ll lose it again. He needs—”
“He’s fine,” Lex said.
“He’s not! How could he be, after what he’s been through?” Nicholas said. “He needs help. What the hell is wrong with you two?”
There was nothing but silence for a moment. I waited, tense, to see how Patrick and Lex would respond. I’d been waiting for the Tates to send me to therapy ever since I’d arrived almost two weeks ago and had been dreading it just as long. I’d worked over my share of mental health professionals, but it was risky, and I had no idea what a real kidnapped child would act like. I was fucked up, but nowhere near the level the real Danny Tate, abducted and abused for years, would have been.
“When he’s ready for help, we’ll get it for him,” Patrick said. “He’s not ready to talk about what he went through yet.”
“They told us not to push him,” Lex added. “He just needs some time to settle in first. Readjust.”
“You’re both crazy,” Nicholas said. “What does Mom say? And what about the cops? Why are you hiding him here?”
“We’re not hiding him; we’re giving him time to get his feet back under him,” Patrick said.
“And Morales is all right with that?” Nicholas said, sounding dubious.
“I’ve taken care of it, okay?” Patrick said. “If it makes you feel better, I’ll ask him again about therapy. After all, Danny knows better than we do what he’s ready for and what he needs. Then will you lay off, Nicky?”
A chair moved. I took several quick steps backward, so it would look like I was only just entering the hallway when Patrick stepped out of the kitchen.
“Hey, D!” he said. “How’d you sleep?”
“Fine,” I said.
“Want to play some more backgammon after breakfast?” he asked.
Lex made me a bagel and poured me a glass of orange juice, and then I followed Patrick downstairs to the backgammon table. As he set the pieces, he asked me if I wanted to watch a baseball game with him that night and told me about the two teams that would be playing. He advised me on backgammon strategy and told me a story about a disastrous family vacation where the car my dad had rented caught on fire, and by the time we’d played a few games, I’d forgotten all about the conversation upstairs.
• • •
It didn’t take much longer for Nicholas to come home one day and say something else I’d been waiting for.
“Everyone’s asking me when Danny’s coming back to school,” he said.
“Danny’s not ready for that yet,” Lex said immediately.
She’d been true to her word since my little walkabout the week before: She’d barely let me out of her sight except to bathe and sleep, and I was only guessing about the second one. I’d decided on the walk home from the movie theater that Danny needed to go back to school, where I could escape Lex’s constant surveillance and catch my breath. I didn’t want to live inside the walls of this house forever. It was a big house, but it felt smaller every day, and if I was going to be Danny Tate, I needed to be Danny Tate. Start living a real life again.
“Actually,” I said, “I think I am.”
Nicholas stared at me. “Really?”
“Yeah,” I said. I’d been planting seeds that week, asking Nicholas questions about school and making sure Lex saw me reading books on history and science I’d found on a bookshelf in Robert’s library. I’d spent late night hours looking at the website for Calabasas High and the Facebook pages of my future classmates to prepare. For a while, I knew, I would be an object of intense curiosity, which would be hard. But it would pass, and then I’d be able to disappear into the press of bodies and noise just the way I always had. “I should be getting back to normal things, don’t you think?”
“Danny, honey, are you sure?” Lex said. “You’ve only just gotten home. There’s no need to rush this.”
“I don’t even know if they’d let you come back,” Nicholas said. “You’ve been out of school for a long time.”
“I know,” I said. “I’m really far behind, and most things won’t make sense to me, but I just want to be there. I need to start acting like a regular person again or I’m going to go crazy.”
“I don’t know . . . ,” Lex said.
I could see she wasn’t moved, so I reached for her hand. “I want to get on with my life, and . . . I want you to get on with yours, too. You shouldn’t have to spend all day here keeping an eye on me. We’ve both missed enough already.”
She frowned at me, but I could see her starting to waver.
“Please?” I said. “I need this.”
She sighed. I had her. “I’ll talk to Patrick about it.”
• • •
Patrick was harder to convince than Lex had been. When he came over that night, I cornered him alone in the kitchen after dinner to talk about it. Lex had already tried and gotten nowhere, but I was determined. He was a stone wall of prevarication and denial. All of my talk of being ready to reenter society and longing for normality had no effect on him the way it had on her.
“Danny, no,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s a good idea. Not yet.”
I took a hard look at him. He was clever and ambitious, working long hours for a prestigious firm in L.A. He’d been spending a lot of time with the family since I’d arrived, but that didn’t seem to be the norm. He was barely on speaking terms with his mother and didn’t seem particularly close with Nicholas or Mia, either. Sentimentality worked with Lex, but it wasn’t the right tack to take with Patrick. He’d require a different strategy.
I took a step closer to him and lowered my voice. “Please, Patrick. I have to get out of this house.”
He looked up at me, and I felt a little rush down my spine. This was going to work.
“I’m so happy to be home—you can’t even imagine how happy—but being cooped up here all day?” I continued. “It’s starting to make this place feel like just another prison, and I can’t handle that.”
His expression shifted, softening ever so slightly.
“That’s why I ran off the other day,” I said. “I feel too isolated here. Too trapped. Please help me.”
And that’s how I got Patrick.
• • •
“He wants to go back to school,” I heard Lex say. Her voice drifted down the stairs from the door to Jessica’s room to where I stood in the shadows on the second floor landing.
“So I need you to go enroll him,” Lex said. “I’m not actually his parent, you know.”
There was nothing but silence for a long moment. Then the door slammed closed.
• • •
A week and a half later, I started school at Calabasas High. I’d been surprised to learn that Nicholas went to a public school, but then this wasn’t your typical public school. If my own research and the fact that Nicholas went there hadn’t clued me in to that, the percentage of luxury cars in the parking lot would have.
But what really shocked me? Jessica was the one who was taking me to enroll.
I’d come downstairs that morning expecting to find Lex, full of worried looks and questions about whether I really wanted to do this, ready to take me to Calabasas High School. What I found was exactly that . . . plus Jessica in full makeup and hair and a fine silk blouse, the rich white lady’s equivalent of armor. She even looked sober.
While Lex, Mia, and I ate breakfast, Jessica turned to me with a weak smile and said, “How did you sleep?”
I swallowed a dry mouthful of toast. “Fine, thanks.”
“Are you nervous about today?”
“A little,” I said.
“You know, you don’t have to go,” Lex said. “We could put it off another week or call it off entirely if you’re not comfortable—”
“I’ll be okay,” I said.
“He’s fine, Alexis. Nerves are normal.” Jessica turned to me. “I’m sure it will go well.”
Lex’s lips thinned, and she turned back to her breakfast. Jessica sipped her coffee. It was one of the longest conversations we’d ever had.
Mia leaned across the table and handed me a penny.
“I found it on the playground yesterday,” she said. “It’s for good luck on your first day.”
Eleanor’s mom came to take Mia to school, and Lex called upstairs for Nicholas. When he came down, all four of us left for Calabasas High. I had quite the entourage, walking into the front office of the school with Lex and Jessica on either side of me and Nicholas trailing behind. I was pretty sure he’d been instructed to stay with me, to make sure I was okay and to call Lex if I got in over my head. My own personal, if somewhat reluctant, guard dog. And Lex, no doubt, was there to keep an eye on Jessica.
The office secretaries looked up when a bell chimed above Jessica’s head as we entered. I could tell from their wide eyes that they knew exactly who we were.
“Good morning,” Jessica said. “I’m Jessica Calvin Tate. I believe my daughter spoke with one of you on the phone about my son?”
I looked at Jessica in surprise. She was different. Straight backed and clear eyed, speaking in a steady voice above her customary murmur. Her armor was surprisingly effective.
“Oh, uh, yes,” said one of the secretaries. She was pear-shaped and overdressed, a housewife who’d had to get her first job after losing her husband, and she didn’t quite meet Lex’s gaze. She turned to the other woman, who was sitting behind a desk and staring openly at me. “Could you get Dr. Singh, please?”
The bell chimed as a kid walked into the office. “Mrs. Day, I have a note from my mom—” He stopped when he looked up and saw me. “You know what—I’ll come back.”
He hastily retreated from the office, and Nicholas, who was slumped in a chair against the back wall, snorted under his breath. I was suddenly worried. It had been weeks since the photographers at the airport, and I’d just assumed interest in Danny Tate had ebbed, but maybe the protected enclave of Hidden Hills had kept me from realizing how big a deal this all was.
I took a breath and swallowed down my nerves. I could handle a little scrutiny. First you’re an oddity and then you’re furniture. Teenagers are too self-absorbed to care about another person for very long.
The secretary gave Jessica some paperwork she needed to sign, and while she was reading it over, a person I took to be Dr. Singh emerged from a hallway that branched off from the administrative area behind the counter. She was an Indian woman in her fifties or sixties who wore a sharp gray suit that matched her gray hair and sharp eyes. She looked at me without hesitating or staring when she introduced herself as the school’s head guidance counselor.
“Mrs. Tate, Daniel, please follow me, and we’ll get you squared away,” she said.
She led Jessica and me back to her office while Lex and Nicholas waited in the outer office. As we walked, I put my hands in my pockets and felt Mia’s lucky penny. I pinched it between my fingers.
Dr. Singh closed the door to her small office behind us, and we sat down across the large desk that dominated the room.
“So, Daniel,” Dr. Singh said, knitting her fingers on top of a folder of paperwork, “this is a big step for you.”
“I guess so,” I said.
She just looked at me for a long moment before nodding and going on. “And, Mrs. Tate, it’s good to meet you. I’ve spoken at length with your son and daughter about how best to help Daniel reintegrate to the school environment, and Principal Clemmons and I have discussed the situation with his teachers. What I want to be absolutely sure you understand, Daniel, is that we’re here to support you. We know this might not be the easiest transition, so we just want to keep the lines of dialogue open, okay?”
I just wanted to get the hell out of that room. It was small and airless, and I could tell Singh wasn’t stupid. The less time I spent with her, the better. “Yeah, okay.”
She slid a piece of paper across the desk toward me. “This is the schedule we’ve drawn up for you. I’ve put you in ninth-grade classes for your academic subjects, just as a starting place. No one expects you to do any work yet. Just listen and focus on settling in. Nicholas isn’t taking any electives this semester, so the only class of his I was able to put you in was the school’s mandatory health class, but you do share a lunch period. If at any time you feel like you want to alter this schedule in any way, that’s no problem. Nicholas will be walking with you to your classes until you get your bearings, and if it ever becomes too overwhelming, you’re of course welcome to call your mother”—Dr. Singh looked up at Jessica—“or your sister to come and pick you up. There’s no need to jump straight into the deep end.”
“I think I’ll be okay,” I said.
“That’s a great attitude,” Dr. Singh said. “I’d also like you to come meet with me regularly so I can see how you’re getting on. For the next few weeks, I’d like you to come here instead of going to your homeroom class. After that, if things are going well, we can meet perhaps just once a week.”
“No,” I said. I couldn’t spend that kind of time with Singh. She’d be too hard to play, I could tell. If I acted too normal, she’d get suspicious, but if I played my traumatized victim routine, she’d make the Tates put me into therapy or something else that would get me caught. I had to stay away from her. I turned to Jessica. “Please. I just want to be treated normally.”
“Doctor,” Jessica interrupted, “I support my son’s decision. We’ve discussed this step extensively at home, and it’s very important to Danny that he returns to a regular routine. No special treatment that will single him out.”
“I really can’t recommend that, Mrs. Tate,” Singh said. “These are special circumstances, and Daniel will need—”
Jessica didn’t blink. “I’m afraid I have to insist.”
I stared. Who knew this steely woman existed inside Jessica’s dissolute shell?
Dr. Singh opened her mouth to argue, but Jessica stared her down, and, with obvious effort, the doctor nodded instead. “Okay, we can see how things go. We’ll adjust if it becomes necessary. And, Daniel, I want you to know you can always feel free to come and speak to me if you want. Understood?”
“Understood,” I said.
• • •
The paperwork was done, and we left the office. Lex gave me a tight, nervy hug and asked if I was sure I wanted to do this.
“We can just go home,” she said. “Cane is supposed to propose to Brooke today.”
I smiled. “I’m okay. Really.”
She sighed. “Okay, then. Call me if you change your mind. I’ll come right back and get you.”
She fussed over me. Straightened the collar of my shirt and smoothed my hair. I flinched, and she pulled back.
Jessica just stood there.
“Thanks,” I said. And then, because Lex looked so anxious, I added, “I’ll be fine.” I immediately wondered why I felt the need to comfort her.
“Mom?” Lex said. “Is there anything you want to say to Danny?”
Jessica looked up at me, and already the confident creature I’d seen in the office was fading.
“Good luck,” she said softly. “We should go, Alexis.”
Lex squeezed my hand one last time, and the two of them left, disappearing into the flare of sunlight through the front door of the building.
• • •
My first class was English. Nicholas walked me to the other side of the school, and I wondered what Lex had said to him to make him agree to this guard dog duty. He looked like he’d rather be anywhere else.
We arrived a few minutes before the bell, and Nicholas introduced me to the teacher, Mr. Vaughn. He was one of those young guys you could tell was dying to be the Cool Teacher, his tweed jacket with the leather elbow patches tossed over his desk chair and his long hair almost brushing his collar. He’d rolled up his shirtsleeves just enough to show the edge of a tattoo on his forearm so his students would see he was hip, and he probably genuinely believed he could change their lives through the power of Shakespeare.
He shook my hand and showed me to an empty desk in the back row of the classroom. Nicholas told me he’d be back to walk me to my next class and disappeared. I sat down at the desk, and Mr. Vaughn perched on the edge of it.
“I don’t want you to worry, Danny,” he said. “You do prefer ‘Danny,’ right?”
“It’s all going to be cool, okay?” he said. “You just hang back here and watch for a while, and we’ll ease you back in. If you get overwhelmed and need to leave, that’s cool too.”
“Cool,” I said. What an idiot.
The bell rang soon after, and kids started trickling in. I kept my eyes down on the copy of Jane Eyre that Mr. Vaughn had given me and felt each pair of eyes on me like an unwanted touch against my skin. Maybe they knew who I was—had known Danny, even—or maybe I was just the new kid. Either way, I reminded myself, it would pass.
When the bell rang at the end of the period, I nonchalantly fled the stares in the room and the thumbs-up from Mr. Vaughn. As promised, Nicholas was already waiting for me in the hallway.
“You okay?” he asked.
I nodded and hitched my bag up higher on my shoulder.
A girl with a cloud of dark curls passed me. “Welcome home, Danny,” she said. A massive dude in a letter jacket clapped a hand on my shoulder as he followed her and said, “Glad to have you back, man.”
My smile felt more like a grimace. “Thanks.” I turned to Nicholas. “Do you think everyone knows who I am?”
“Pretty much,” he said. “The principal made an announcement yesterday and went to all your classes to warn everyone to act normal.”
“Perfect.” This may have been the stupidest idea I’d ever had. I could feel the eyes on me now like insects scuttling across my skin, and it was way worse than I had braced myself for. I just wanted to disappear, and I knew I could. Lex would swoop in and take me away from here in an instant if I called her, and she would never make me come back.
But if I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity I’d stumbled into—to have a real life as Danny Tate, the kind I’d never been able to have as myself—I had to push through. I could do that. All I had to do was stop being me and start being him, the Danny I had pieced together from photo albums and family stories and my own imagination. The Danny who was cool and confident and rode just a little bit above everything.
“You okay?” Nicholas asked.
I took a breath, raised my chin, and put on my Danny mask. “Yeah, fine. Where to?”
I ignored the looks and the whispers I felt following me as Nicholas led me down the hall, and they didn’t seem to itch as much. My next two classes were the same as the first. A quick talk with the teacher before class where they spoke to me in a low, comforting voice, like I was a rabbit who might spook. Watching quietly from a back seat, pretending not to notice the surreptitious glances and outright stares directed my way. A few words of encouragement from braver classmates and Nicholas waiting to shuffle me to the next classroom.
“Okay.” Nicholas was looking down at my schedule when I came out of biology. Good thing no one actually expected me to do any work, because I hadn’t understood a word of that class. “Next you’ve got beginners’ art with Ms. Scofield.”
Hey, something I might actually be able to do. I’d always liked to draw.
Nicholas silently led me toward the art class, which was on the opposite end of the school. He didn’t look at me or speak to me as we walked, which made it pretty much the same as any other time I spent with Nicholas. I’d made no kind of connection with him yet, and it made him one of the most dangerous people to my goal of becoming Danny Tate for good.
“Sorry you have to lead me everywhere,” I said. “But at least you’re getting out of class early each period, right?”
He tried to smile but didn’t quite succeed. “Yeah, I guess.”
I looked down at my shoes and tried to project the air of vulnerability and guilt that worked so well with Lex. “I’m sorry, you know. For all the trouble I’m causing you.”
He sighed and actually looked me in the eye for a moment. “It’s no trouble. Don’t apologize.”
I lifted one corner of my mouth. “You’re a really good big brother.”
I’d always wanted a big brother.
He didn’t know how to react to that. A half a dozen different expressions passed over his face before it settled into a smile. A small one, but it looked real.
“Thanks,” he said softly. Then cleared his throat. “Here it is. I’ll meet you back here before lunch.”
He walked off quickly, and I watched him go. Maybe we were finally making progress.
Ms. Scofield treated me the same way the other teachers had. She showed me to an easel close to her desk and explained that the class was working on still life drawing. At the front of the room was a stool with a bowl of plastic fruit placed on it. The other easels, arranged in a half circle around the stool, had half-started drawings on them.
“Just do your best,” she said.
I picked up a piece of charcoal from the easel and started sketching the outline of a peach. It was nice in the midst of this giant act to do something that actually felt natural. I used to have a notebook that I carried around with me and sketched in whenever I had a chance. Other than my baseball card, it was the one possession I gave a damn about. Someone swiped it from me at a group home in Edmonton.
With the drawing to focus on, it was easier to tune out the wide-eyed looks and muted whispers of the students entering the room. But when the girl from the movies came in, the part of my brain that never stopped monitoring what was going on around me noticed, and I looked up. She didn’t see me, and I turned back at the bowl of fruit and tried to concentrate on my drawing. But I did note her last name when Ms. Scofield called the roll: Himura.
The class got to work, and Ms. Scofield weaved among the easels, offering critique and guidance. The girl from the movies sat opposite the semicircle from me, so every time I looked from my easel to the bowl, she was there behind it. A flash of dark and shine as she pushed her hair back from her neck. Her bright pink sweater like the sway of a matador’s cape as she leaned over for a better view of the bowl. It was impossible for me not to keep glancing at her. But that was one of those normal things I never did that Danny could, right? Notice a girl?
She looked up and caught me watching her. She raised a couple of fingers in greeting before returning to her drawing.
She remembered me. People didn’t usually do that. I’d spent years learning how to perfectly blend in to my surroundings and be forgotten, but she remembered.
After class Nicholas was waiting to escort me to lunch. California kids don’t eat lunch inside a big cafeteria like we did when I was in school in Canada. The weather is so perpetually perfect that students at Calabasas eat outside at tables spread across a grassy courtyard. Nicholas and I bought slices of pizza and sodas, and I followed him to a table that was obviously his regular spot. His shoulders seemed even tighter than usual, and I wondered if it was all the people looking at us. Looking at me.
“So,” he said after a minute of silence. “How was class?”
“Good, I guess,” I said. “How was yours?”
We went back to silently picking at our food. Maybe I wasn’t making as much progress with him as I thought. Not for the first time, I wondered if it was me he was reacting to this way or if it was Danny. In all the home movies and pictures I’d looked at with Lex, Nicholas seemed to always stand a little apart from the rest of the family. Danny gravitated more toward his much older half siblings than the brother who was just a year older than he was. Maybe he and Nicholas had never gotten along. Maybe Nicholas was still dealing with his guilt over that.
I scanned the tables for the movie girl. Instead, my eye caught Dr. Singh standing under an awning, her arms crossed over her chest as she watched me. She smiled, nodding her head across the distance between us, and I smiled back to show her how fine I was and how much she didn’t need to speak with me. She turned away to talk to a teacher standing near her. When I spotted the girl from the movies, she was sitting at a table by herself near the east wing of the school. I wondered where her friends were, if she had any. She was reading a book and picking French fries off the tray in front of her, managing not to look lonely even though she was alone. A pretty impressive trick it had taken me years to master.
A movement in my peripheral vision caught my attention, and I turned. A giant blond kid with a smile as wide as his broad shoulders was sneaking up on Nicholas from behind. When our eyes met, he grinned and held a finger to his lips. Nicholas took a swig from his soda bottle as the other boy jumped forward, jamming his fingers into Nicholas’s ribs. He cackled as Nicholas went into a full body spasm.
“You asshole!” Nicholas said, slapping his hands away.
“Sorry!” the other boy said with no sincerity whatsoever. He sat down beside Nicholas and laid his fingers against his neck, drawing him in for a brief kiss on the lips. “I couldn’t resist. It’s your fault for being so ticklish.”
“I nearly choked to death,” Nicholas said, and I couldn’t tell if he was amused or annoyed. “At least wait until I’m not drinking next time, you dick.”
“Hey, you must be Danny,” the other boy said, unfazed. He held out a hand to me. “I’m Asher.”
“My boyfriend,” Nicholas added.
Keen observer of human nature that I am, I’d gathered that much. I shook Asher’s hand reluctantly, half-afraid he’d crush mine. “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you, too,” he said. “Nicky won’t introduce me to any of his family. He’s ashamed of me.”
“It’s not you I’m ashamed of,” Nicholas said.
“Nice talk in front of your brother,” Asher said, kneading Nicholas’s tight shoulder with one hand. They were an odd pair. Nicholas was dark and thin, with delicate features that were dominated by his black-rimmed glasses. A complicated sort of handsome that matched his personality. He was the negative image of Asher, who was light and tan and built like a truck with a quick, ready smile.
Nicholas glanced at me. “No offense, Danny. But I don’t always get along with the family.”
Asher said, “Well, just a few months now and—” Nicholas shot him a look. “Uh, I mean, how’s your first day back been, Danny?”
Well. That was interesting. I filed it away for later.
“It’s been okay,” I said.
“Must be pretty intense,” Asher continued. “Especially since you don’t remember anything, right?”
Nicholas stood abruptly. “I’m going to get an ice cream. Anyone want anything?”
Asher and I both shook our heads, and Nicholas walked back toward the building.
“Don’t mind him,” Asher said when he was gone. “He’s been moodier than usual lately. I don’t think he’s figured out how to deal with all of this yet, but he’s really happy you’re home.”
“He hides it pretty well,” I said.
“No kidding,” Asher said. “But, honestly, he cried like a baby when you were found. You know Nicky. The more that’s going on, the quieter and snippier he gets.”
“Then he must be overjoyed that I’m back.”
Asher laughed. “It’s a compliment, trust me.” He glanced around us and said, “Dude, everyone is staring at you. How weird is that?”
I rubbed a hand across my forehead. “Pretty weird.”
“Do you want them to stop?” he asked.
“That would be great, but—”
Asher stood up. He was well over six feet tall and almost half as wide. So when he bellowed, “Mind your own fucking business!” people took notice. All the heads that had been swiveled in our direction snapped back around instantly.
It was effective, if less subtle than I might have hoped.
“Um, thanks,” I said.
He smiled. “You bet.”
• • •
Lex was all over me when I got home. She ushered me into the kitchen where, to my surprise, Patrick was waiting, drinking a cup of coffee.
“So how did it go?” she asked. “Was it overwhelming? I knew it was too soon for this.”
“Let him get a word out, Lexi,” Patrick said.
“It was fine,” I said. Patrick moved his briefcase off the stool beside him and I sat down. Lex started to clean. “I mostly just sat there and listened.”