It seems too good to be true when Daniel Tate, missing since he was abducted from one of California’s most elite private enclaves at the age of ten, turns up on a snowy street in Vancouver six years later. At first too traumatized to speak, he is eventually able to tell the authorities who he is and is reunited with his overjoyed family. In time, they tell him, he’ll recover the memories he’s missing; all that matters is that they have him back.
It’s perfect. A miracle. Except for one thing:
That boy isn’t Daniel Tate.
But he wants to be. A young con artist who’s been taking on false identities for years, this impostor has stumbled onto the scam of a lifetime. Daniel has everything he’s ever dreamed of—wealth, privilege, the chance to make a fresh start, and most importantly, a family that loves him. Now that he’s finally found a place to belong, he doesn’t question his luck.
Until he realizes that maybe Daniel isn’t missing at all. Maybe someone knows what really happened to the boy he’s pretending to be...and if he can’t uncover the truth—he could be next the next Daniel Tate to disappear.
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|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.20(d)|
|Age Range:||14 - 18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Here Lies Daniel Tate
“How did people treat you?” she asked.
“A lot of stares, but no one really—”
“They were staring at you?” She threw the decorative dish towel she was trying to use to wipe down the kitchen counter into the sink. “You’re not going back.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “It’ll be okay.”
But Lex was shaking her head. “No. No. I don’t like this.”
“Lex—” Patrick started.
“No, Patrick! It’s too much! I can’t do this!”
Patrick stood and caught her hands as she tried to bat him away. “Look, he’s fine! You’re overreacting.”
Lex got her hands free and shoved him. “Don’t tell me how to react! You have no idea—”
Her mouth snapped closed, and then, to my astonishment, she started to cry. Granted, Lex cried at almost everything, but this seemed particularly irrational. Did she really feel so protective of me now that the mere mention of some teenagers looking at me could unravel her like this?
She crumpled against Patrick’s chest, hiding her face there, and he turned to me as he put his arms around her. “Give us a minute, would you?”
Gladly. I vacated the room, and a half an hour later Patrick came to find me. I was with Mia at her art table in the rec room, sketching a picture of an elephant for her in purple crayon while she colored in a world map for a school assignment.
“Can you give him really big ears?” Mia asked. “Like Dumbo, but even bigger?”
“You bet,” I said, tracing the outline of a giant ear. From the corner of my eye, I saw Patrick enter. When I looked up, he beckoned to me. “I’ll be right back.”
“Hey,” Patrick said in a low voice. “I just wanted to make sure you’re all right after what just happened upstairs.”
“I’m fine,” I said. “Is Lex okay?”
He nodded. “Yeah, yeah, she’s just . . . It’s hard for her, you know. She wishes she could shield you from everything, and this is an emotional time for everyone. Mostly she’s just embarrassed that she melted down like that.”
“She doesn’t need to be,” I said. It was sweet, really. A little unhinged, but sweet.
“Well, she’s gone up to her room to get some rest,” he said. “She probably won’t be back down tonight, so I’m going to stay over. She’ll be good as new tomorrow.”
I nodded. It was only five in the afternoon, but spending most of the day in one’s bedroom must have seemed normal to Lex, given the fact that her mother practically lived in hers. Patrick squeezed my shoulder on his way out, and I returned to Mia and the elephant.
• • •
When I next saw Lex, the following morning at breakfast, she was back to her old self. Smiling and a little overbearing and pretending the previous day hadn’t even happened.
“Scrambled eggs?” she asked when I walked into the kitchen.
“Sure,” I said, and she turned back to the pan she was already stirring. The truth was I didn’t care much for breakfast—my stomach didn’t usually wake up until several hours after the rest of me did—but if I didn’t eat something, she would fuss. And, well, it was nice to be taken care of.
On instinct I hugged her, wrapping my arms around her waist from behind. She froze. She’d hugged me several times, but this was the first time I’d ever hugged her. I didn’t even know why I’d done it and was about to pull away when her hand came to rest over my arm.
“Thanks,” I said. I let her go, pulling my arms back, her hand lingering on my skin as I did.
She cleared her throat. “You’re welcome,” she said without turning around.
I sat down at the breakfast table feeling bewildered with myself and trying to stamp out the warm, queasy sensation deep in the pit of my stomach.
• • •
Nicholas’s phone rang as he was driving us to school. The car’s touchscreen read “Asher.” Nicholas hit the button that hung up the phone.
“What?” he said when he saw me looking at him. “I’m going to see him in like an hour.”
The phone immediately began to ring again. Asher. Nicholas frowned and pressed a different button.
“Hey, don’t hang up on me.” Asher’s voice crackled through the car. “This is important.”
“What is it?” Nicholas asked.
“I just got a text from Vanessa Reyes, you know, the cheerleader who’s been going out with Ben Peznick for a hot minute so now she thinks she’s queen of the social universe?”
“Okay?” Nicholas said.
“There’s—am I on speaker?” Asher asked.
“Well take me off, would you?”
Nicholas grabbed his cell phone out of the cup holder in the center console, pressed a few buttons, and lifted it to his ear. “Okay, so? . . . Shit. Was there— . . . Okay. Okay, see you in a little bit.”
“What is it?” I asked as Nicholas hung up the phone. It had to be about me.
“Someone took a video of you yesterday during lunch and put it on YouTube,” he said. “Apparently it’s spreading everywhere and people are talking. You may get some extra stares today.”
“I can take you home if you want,” he said.
I shook my head. So the whole school would know who I was now. That wasn’t so different from yesterday, when only most of them had known.
“It’s okay,” I said.
What neither of us had anticipated was the half a dozen news vans parked outside the school.
“Jesus Christ,” Nicholas said, pulling off the road to idle on the shoulder across the street so we could survey the scene.
“What are they doing here?” I asked. I didn’t have to fake the wild edge to my voice. I was already counting the number of people who would be able to recognize a photo or video of me, who could testify that I sure as shit wasn’t some California kid named Daniel Tate. It wasn’t many, but I could see this life slipping away from me before my eyes, could feel the cold bite of the handcuffs around my wrists.
Nicholas shrugged. “We were getting a lot of calls from the press, interview requests and stuff. It started with this stupid article that came out last month, but then it went crazy when you came back. Lex finally canceled the landline at the house, but if they’ve gotten wind you’re back at school because of that YouTube thing . . .”
“Dammit,” I said. “Why didn’t Lex or Patrick tell me this was going on?”
“They were trying to protect you.”
“Well that’s just great,” I said. “Now what?”
“I should take you home. That’s what Lex would want.”
I wanted to say yes. I wanted him to take me back to Hidden Hills, where I’d be invisible and safe, wrapped up in its guarded gates.
But then that would be my life. Locked in that house. Like the closet in the bedroom I’d grown up in, where I’d spent so many hours hiding in the dark, hands jammed over my ears, trying to escape whatever was going on outside. I couldn’t do that again. I wouldn’t.
“No,” I said. “I’m going in.”
Getting inside wasn’t a problem. There was a separate parking lot and entrance for students that was well away from the main entrance where the reporters were camped out. Nicholas and I waited in the car until Asher came out to meet us, and I walked into the school flanked by Asher’s bulk and Nicholas’s lethal glare. Heads turned, whispers were exchanged behind hands, but no one approached. The stares still made me itch, but at least the expression in many of the eyes was now one of sympathy instead of naked curiosity. In the movies, people always say they don’t want to be pitied when something bad happens to them, but I’m here to tell you that’s bullshit. Pity can be very nice. It feels a lot like concern or even affection. I could live with pity.
But it didn’t last. When first period began, Principal Clemmons came on over the loudspeaker to address what the whole school was already buzzing about.
“One of our students has had their privacy breached in an inexcusable fashion,” he said. “Until further notice all students will turn over their cell phones and other devices to their first-period teacher to be collected again after the final bell. CHS is a place for learning, not the distractions of texting and social media.”
Mr. Vaughn had a box ready to go. He walked up and down the rows of seats, collecting phones and tablets. I stared down at my desk. I could feel people looking at me, knowing this was because of me, resenting me for it. The silent indignation became audible grumbles when I tried to hand Vaughn my phone and he told me to keep it.
“Cool it, guys,” Vaughn said. “Let’s talk Jane Eyre.”
• • •
Reporters showed up every day for the rest of the week. A couple even tried to get inside. But the school stepped up security, and they lost interest. None of them got my picture and the original video of me put up on YouTube was distant and blurry, so I thought I was safe.
Finding the press camped outside of Calabasas High had been a harsh but necessary wake-up call. I’d gotten too comfortable. Whatever Patrick was doing to keep me from having to go and tell my stories to the cops wouldn’t last forever, and I needed to be ready. I started to go over the story in my head whenever I had a quiet moment, embellishing and fine-tuning it based on what I was learning, trying to prepare myself.
It was sunny overcast 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 big brother because he would know. Dad Patrick 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 darkness. 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 cloudy street in a safe gated neighborhood.
Hopefully, I would be ready.
• • •
On Tuesday someone came to the door of my art class with a note for me. Everyone stared at me while I read it. It was from Nicholas; he was going to be late to lunch. Luckily, I’d been living on the streets on my own for years, so I was pretty confident in my ability to make it to the cafeteria without his assistance. I was less sure, though, of what I’d do when I got there.
After class I headed toward the cafeteria and spotted Dr. Singh at the other end of the hallway, headed right for me.
“Danny,” she said with a nod as she passed me. I was relieved that she hadn’t wanted to talk to me, but then I turned and watched her enter Ms. Scofield’s classroom.
She was checking up on me.
People were not forgetting about me as quickly as I’d thought they would. I guess I should have said good-bye to that naive hope when I got everyone’s phones confiscated for the foreseeable future. Now Singh was asking my teachers about me, and everywhere I went the looks and whispers and abruptly halted conversations followed. I was not blending in, and that was the one thing I’d always been able to do, the one ability I’d depended on more than any other.
I bought a sandwich and a piece of pizza because dammit I could and hurried outside. The table Nicholas and I usually sat at was empty; I had hoped Asher would be there already. I noticed the movie girl at her usual table, eating alone once more. I wondered again how in the hell she managed to look like she didn’t care—if it was for real or just a front so convincing even I couldn’t see through it. I could feel eyes lingering on me already and imagined how much worse it would get if I sat at my usual table eating by myself, and suddenly I was bombarded with memories of all the meals I’d ever eaten alone, sitting on the floor with a microwave dinner watching Frosty the Snowman as a kid or scarfing a package of chips and a candy bar on a bus stop bench. I kept walking past the empty table, out of the courtyard, and around the side of one of the buildings. I sat down with my back against the bricks and looked out over the empty athletic fields.
I instantly felt better. And worse at the same time. The whole point of being Danny Tate was the chance for a new life, a real one, not just a repeat of my shitty old one.
Something had to change.
• • •
The next day I told Nicholas I didn’t need him to escort me to my classes anymore. I could tell he hated it, and it was only drawing more attention to me. He agreed.
I beat him and Asher to lunch again, and this time I walked up to the table where the movie girl was sitting alone. I’d been thinking about this all morning. This was how I was going to change things.
“Mind if I sit?” I asked when she looked up from her book. I was new Danny. Cool, collected, above it.
“Oh sure, if you can find some space,” she said, gesturing to the empty table. “I’m Ren.”
“Yeah,” she said with a half smile. “I’d picked up on that.”
We were silent for a long time. Maybe this was a terrible mistake.
“So, if you don’t mind my asking,” she finally said, “why are you sitting with me?”
It was a good question. This was how I was going to change things, but why had I picked her? She always sat alone, which made her a low risk target, and I’d talked to her once before, but it was more than that. Most people I could figure out with one look, but she was hard to read. She was either an actor like me, or she was something else entirely that I didn’t understand. She was interesting to me.
I lifted one shoulder in a weak shrug. “My brother’s not here yet. I thought we could keep each other company.”
She smiled, but I couldn’t tell if it was from gratitude or amusement or embarrassment.
“Okay,” she said, folding down the page in her book and setting it aside. “How do you like Scofield’s class?”
“It’s okay,” I said. “You?”
“I hate it. I’m hopeless at drawing,” she said. “I never would have signed up, but it was one of the only classes with any space left when I transferred.”
“When was that?” I asked.
“Last month,” she said. “Hence my wild popularity. I probably could have scored a seat at one of the lower-tier tables by now, but I’d rather let the people come to me.”
“How’s that working out so far?”
“Not bad. I mean, I did just reel in the school’s biggest celebrity.” I grimaced, and she smiled. “Sorry, maybe that wasn’t funny.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “It was kind of funny.”
She leaned toward me. “Seriously, how surreal is your life right now?”
There was warmth and sympathy in the question but not the least bit of hesitation. I’d picked well; she might be the one person at Calabasas who didn’t have any previous connection to Danny and didn’t seem fazed by my notoriety.
But, at the same time, she was completely focused on me. I had the sudden strange feeling that she was seeing me and not the cloud of Danny Tate around me. Her gaze was so direct that the feel of her felty brown eyes on mine was almost disconcerting.
“I . . . uh.” I cleared my throat. “It’s pretty surreal. I’m like this thing now—”
“Instead of a real person?”
I blinked. “Yeah.”
She saw my surprise and explained, “The way people talk about you. It’s like you’re a character on TV or something to them. It’s freaky.”
“What do they say about me?” I asked.
She shook her head. “You don’t want to know that.”
“Actually, I kind of do,” I said. It had become clear to me since I’d gotten here just how many of these kids had known Danny. This might not be the tiny community I came from where everyone went to school together their entire lives, but it was almost as insular. If they weren’t buying my act, I needed to know it.
“Well, okay, but it’s not very nice,” she said. I nodded at her to continue. “The general conversation is that you were kidnapped as a little kid and, like, brainwashed and sold into slavery or something until you staged a daring, Jason Bourne–esque escape. And now you’re this delicate creature who might snap at any moment and either kill us all or turn feral and start living in a hut in the woods somewhere like the Unabomber. Just bullshit like that.”
But no mention of me being an impostor. I had to believe that a girl who would compare me to the Unabomber ten seconds after meeting me wouldn’t be too tactful to leave that part out if people were saying it.
“That’s actually pretty accurate,” I said. “Except for the hut in the woods part.”
“Oh. Well.” She made this face that was part horrified, part comical. “Shit.”
I laughed, and it surprised me. I wasn’t often surprised.
“I was ten when it happened,” I said. I told myself I needed to test run this story on someone low risk as part of my effort to get ready for my police interview, but I think I just wanted to keep talking to her. Keep trying to home in on what made her tick. “It was right around this time of year, and I was out riding my bike. My mom told me not to because it looked like it was going to rain, but I did anyway.”
The faintest lines of a frown started to form between her eyebrows.
“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 big brother, because he would know. I was worried that it would start raining before he could get the chain back on, and then my mom wouldn’t let me ride over to my friend Andrew’s house like I was supposed to.” The lies tumbled from my lips, gaining life and detail as the story unfurled in my mind. Like a real memory. A couple of kids at the next table over were looking now. But instead of making me shrink, their gazes sent a strange shiver through me. It wasn’t me they were looking at, I realized. It was Danny Tate. They could stare all they wanted, and as long as I was him on the outside, I would be safe and invisible on the inside.
“I was jogging up this steep hill near my house, and it took everything I had just to keep my legs moving. I guess that’s why I didn’t notice the van pulling up beside me,” I continued. “Plus, what little kid around here worries about strange vans?”
Ren had noticed the eavesdropping table too.
“This is a bad idea,” she said.
But I couldn’t stop the momentum of the story. The next table was openly listening now, and it gave me this feeling I couldn’t identify but wanted more of.
“I vaguely remember the van stopping beside me and hearing the door slide open,” I said. “And then there were arms around me, hauling me inside. I tried to scream but they covered my mouth. It was dark in the back of the van, so all I really knew was that there were three other men back there with me. I could only make out the shapes of them, not what they looked like. They spoke to each other in a language I didn’t recognize. They barely even looked at me after they had me tied up and gagged. Like I wasn’t even there.”
The group gathering around me had started to draw attention, and my audience was growing. A dozen students, then twenty, and then twenty-five hung on my every word as I spun the story of Danny Tate’s abduction. The race to the border along with another boy who was taken the day after I was, the two of us smuggled into Canada in the hidden compartment of an eighteen-wheeler along with three other children. Ren’s frown grew deeper and deeper, and I couldn’t tell if it was because of the increasing darkness of the story or the growing crowd of listeners.
Then I realized what was happening.
All my life I’d tried to be invisible, and that gave the power to everyone else. To notice me stripped away my one protection. But they couldn’t take anything from me if I was giving it away willingly. The power had shifted into my hands. That’s what the crackle of electricity I felt along my spine was. The power to make them look and listen on my own terms.
For the first time in my life it felt good to have so many eyes on me. These kids weren’t looking for ways to tear me down. Their eyes were full of sympathy and fascination, and that felt almost like admiration. Or even affection. Everyone leaned in, wanting to get closer to me. That’s all they’d wanted since I’d arrived here, stealing glances and surreptitious pictures. To be close to me. I understood that now, and it made me feel invincible.
“What the hell?” The sound of Nicholas’s voice was like cold water down my back. He pushed his way through the crowd to my side. “Danny, come on.”
Nicholas grabbed my wrist and yanked me up from the table, hauling me back toward the school building. I still felt everyone watching me.
“You people are sick,” I heard Asher say behind us. “Disperse!”
“What the hell are you doing?” Nicholas asked after he’d pulled me inside the building.
“I . . . they asked me what happened,” I said. “I thought I should try to get to know some people, you know. Make friends.”
“They’re not friends, Danny, they’re rubberneckers,” he said. “They just want to gawk at the tragedy. That’s all you are to them.”
I could feel the rage and hurt radiating off him but didn’t share it. What did it matter if they were only interested in my story? They wanted it, and I wanted to give it to them.
But I couldn’t risk alienating Nicholas, not when I was already on such shaky ground with him. I scrubbed a hand through my hair, and when I spoke, I made sure that my voice came out sounding small and weak.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I wasn’t thinking. I just wanted . . . I wanted them to like me and . . .”
He sighed, but it wasn’t the soft sound the word implies. It was a hard one, like he was trying to expel all of his anger on that exhalation.
“It’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong.” He turned and looked out over the courtyard. “You know what, fuck this place. Let’s get out of here.”
• • •
Nicholas took me to a diner a few kilometers from the school, and we ordered burgers and milk shakes.
“Why did you want to go back to school so bad?” he asked. “You had a free pass to stay out of that place.”
This was a prime bonding opportunity, and I was going to make the most of it by pulling out all my tricks. I shrugged and curled my shoulders in toward myself until I looked like Nicholas and tried to summon his sharp, cynical attitude. “It’s better than staying home all day.”
One corner of his mouth tugged up. “Lex driving you crazy?”
I smiled too. “A little.”
“She means well, but—”
“But she’s a pain in the ass sometimes, yeah,” I said. “Anyway, no one expects me to do anything at school but show up, so it’s not exactly taxing.”
Nicholas snorted. “Like being a football player. Asher says as long as he puts in an appearance, no one cares what he does. That place is such a joke. It doesn’t bother you though?” he asked. “Having everybody whisper and stare?”
“A little,” I said, “but I’ve survived worse.”
“Fuck,” he said, dropping a French fry loaded with ketchup back to the plate. “Right. Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “You don’t have to be so careful around me, you know. I won’t break. Is that why you’ve been avoiding me?”
I gave him a look. “Nicky. Come on.”
A flicker of . . . something . . . went through his expression. Was it doubt? If he did suspect I wasn’t his brother, he was either biding his time until he could prove it or had convinced himself he was being paranoid. That must make him feel pretty guilty, the distrust in his gut when his brain and everyone around him was telling him Danny was back.
I could use that.
“It’s hard for me to feel like I’m entirely home,” I said, “because . . . I still miss you. Even though we’re in the same house, it feels like we’re still so far apart.”
Nicholas looked down at the table and sighed long and slow.
“Okay,” he said. “Maybe I have been avoiding you a little. But it’s probably just because I avoid the family in general these days.”
“And?” I said, daring him to say he didn’t believe in me after that.
“And . . . I don’t always know how to act around you,” he said. He folded his hands in front of him on the table. “It’s weird. Things are different. You’re different.”
I bit back my smile and folded my hands the same way he had. “You’re different too.”
“Well, I can’t argue with that.”
“Maybe we can just . . . get to know each other as the people we are now,” I said.
He nodded, and this time when he looked at me, he actually looked at me. “Yeah. That sounds good.”
“Good,” I said. Very good. Now whenever Nicholas felt unsure about me, he would remember this conversation and feel so bad, he’d argue himself out of any doubts. “It’s nice to be able to talk to you again.”
His brow crinkled. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I missed you so much.”
He looked out the window suddenly, not because there was anything to look at out there, but because he didn’t want to look at me. “Really?”
“Of course,” I said. There was a softness around his mouth that made me think, crazy as it seemed, that he was on the verge of tears. He’d never seemed happy I was back, and I suddenly wanted that so badly. I wanted him to tell me he was happy to have me there. “You’re not just my brother, Nicholas. I know we didn’t always get along as kids, but deep down, you were my best friend.”
His eyebrows twitched closer together, so briefly that most people wouldn’t have noticed. My stomach dropped. He looked down at his watch and said, “We’d better go.”
He slid out of the booth without looking at me and headed for the exit.
• • •
The next day at school an office assistant came to take me out of second period. It was the class I shared with Nicholas, and he and I exchanged a look as I followed the girl from Mrs. Whelan’s health class. She took me to the front office and told me to have a seat.
“Dr. Singh will be with you in just a minute,” she said.
Talking to Singh was the last thing I wanted to do, but I couldn’t create a scene by arguing. It might look suspicious. Instead, I pulled the phone from my back pocket and dashed off a quick text to Lex.
“Put the phone away, please, Mr. Tate,” the secretary said. “You shouldn’t even have that.”
I made a face but slipped the phone into my bag.
I waited there for at least ten minutes before Dr. Singh emerged from her office, still chatting with another student. She sent the girl on her way and waved me over.
“Come on back, Danny,” she said.
I followed her back to her office, where she sat down behind the desk and gestured for me to sit in one of the chairs across from her. I did, and she studied me silently, waiting for me to speak first.
She’d be waiting a long time.
“So, it seems you left school early yesterday,” she finally said. “I just wanted to check in with you and see how you’re doing.”
“I’m fine,” I said.
“I’m told there was some kind of incident at lunch. Would you mind explaining what happened?” she asked.
“It was nothing,” I said. “Someone asked me about the day I was taken, and a couple of kids started listening. My brother didn’t like it.”
“That doesn’t sound like nothing,” she said. “What did you tell those other students?”
“Does my mother know you’re talking to me?” I asked. “She told me I wouldn’t have to be questioned.”
“I’m sorry if you feel like I’m interrogating you, Danny.” Singh leaned back in her chair. Her sharp eyes belied her relaxed posture. The look she gave me cut straight through to my bones. “I’m just trying to make sure you’re readjusting to school life. That’s my job.”
“I’ve got to get back to class,” I said.
“I’ve already spoken to Mrs. Whelan,” she said. “You’ve been excused from the whole period for the day.”
My pulse picked up. I’d known from the moment I laid eyes on this woman that she wasn’t as easy as my usual mark. And now I was stuck in this room with her, which seemed to be getting smaller with each passing second, for another half an hour.
“Do you think you could tell me what you were talking about with the other students during your lunch period yesterday?” she asked.
She was a psychologist; she would expect me to exhibit more signs of trauma than I usually bothered with. I looked back at the door to the office and then down at the ground, tucking my hands between my thighs and the seat of the chair.
“I’d like to call my sister,” I said softly.
“Of course,” Dr. Singh said, “but first, can we talk for a minute? We don’t need to talk about anything you’re not ready to. I just want to make sure you’re adjusting to being back at school all right. How about you tell me how that’s going?”
“It’s okay,” I said.
“How are your classes?”
“Fine.” I bit my lip. “I like my art class.”
“Are you getting along with the other students?”
“I guess,” I said. “Most of them just ignore me.”
“Is that why you told them that story at lunch yesterday?” she asked. “You didn’t want them to ignore you anymore?”
“Danny?” A muffled voice spoke in the hallway. Someone said, “Excuse me!” in a sharp tone, and then the door to Dr. Singh’s office was opening. Lex stood behind it like an avenging angel, beautiful and terrifying.
“What the hell are you doing?” she said to Dr. Singh.
“Ms. McConnell, come in,” Dr. Singh said, rising from her chair. “I was just—”
“You’re not supposed to be talking to my brother,” Lex said. She pulled me up from my chair and away from Dr. Singh. Her hands were shaking. “He’s been abused and traumatized and the last thing he needs is to be questioned about it by—”
“I’m sorry you’re upset, Ms. McConnell,” Dr. Singh said with perfect calmness, “but I’m just trying to do my job, which is to ensure that Danny is reintegrating into the school environment. I assure you, that’s the only subject we were discussing.”
“Our mother was very clear on this subject,” Lex said. “Danny just wants to be treated normally—”
“And he skipped school yesterday,” Singh said. “This is only what I’d do with any other student who’d done the same thing.”
Lex’s shoulders started to slump. She was ill suited to conflict under the best conditions, and now her righteous anger was wilting under Dr. Singh’s patient onslaught of logic.
“I have to be allowed to do my job, Ms. McConnell,” Dr. Singh continued. “Don’t you agree?”
“Well, yes,” Lex said, “but—”
“Please, Ms. McConnell.” Dr. Singh stepped toward us, and although she was several inches shorter than Lex, she seemed to tower over her. “Have a seat, and we’ll speak privately for a moment. Danny, how about you go wait in the outer office with Mrs. Day?”
I shot Lex a look, and she nodded. “I’ll be there in a minute, Danny.”
I wanted to protest, but I didn’t know how without looking suspicious, and then Dr. Singh was closing the door on me and it was too late. What were they going to talk about? Mrs. Day was waiting for me at the end of the hallway, and I wondered how much she’d overheard. I started to walk toward her before I noticed the restroom across from Dr. Singh’s office.
“I’ve got to pee,” I said.
Mrs. Day frowned but nodded. I stood inside the restroom, door cracked, waiting. Less than a minute later I heard the ding that signaled someone entering the outer office, a person Mrs. Day would have to go deal with. I left the restroom, crossed the hall, and pressed my ear against the door of Dr. Singh’s office. The odds of me getting caught were high, but I had to know what was being said in there.
“. . . know this is hard to hear,” Dr. Singh was saying in a low tone, “but I’m very concerned about Danny. He’s not acting the way I would expect someone who’s been through what he has to be acting. I cannot overstate how important I think it is that Danny be seeing someone—a mental health professional—regularly. Daily.”
“I think he’s doing pretty well, considering,” Lex said.
“He’s doing extremely well. That’s what concerns me. I see signs of trauma, but nothing like what I’d expect from someone in his position,” she said. “Either he’s expending a tremendous amount of energy to repress his feelings, which will only cause him more problems down the line, or . . .”
The silence in the office was deafening.
“What are you trying to say?” Lex asked.
“I know it’s not my place,” Dr. Singh said, “but I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t . . .”
The counselor’s voice dropped even further, until I could barely make out the words.
“Are you absolutely sure that boy is your brother?”
• • •
• • •
I jumped back from the door and found the secretary looking at me sternly. Stomach churning, I went to the outer office and took a seat, letting her watch me over her paperwork until Lex returned. Only the watery feeling in my legs kept me from running.
Are you sure that boy is your brother?
For the first time, I really thought about prison, as a reality and not just an abstract threat. The thought of being locked up filled me with horror, but maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. After all, it wasn’t that different from a lot of the care homes I’d jumped through hoops to have the pleasure of staying in, and I’d always held my own against the delinquents and criminals who populated them. There had been entire years of my life where three square meals a day and a roof over my head, even if I was behind bars, would have been welcome. Some part of me had always suspected that’s where I’d end up eventually, if I was lucky. So maybe being caught wouldn’t be that bad.
Except being caught meant the Tates finding out I was a fake, and I was surprised to discover that that thought bothered me the most. I couldn’t stop picturing it. Mia would cry. Patrick would punch me. Nicholas would hate me forever, and Lex would never recover. I didn’t . . . I didn’t want that for them. They didn’t deserve it.
Lex emerged from the hallway. I stood, my pulse pounding hot in my head, waiting for her to look at me in horror or scream or something. But she didn’t. She hardly looked at me at all, and maybe that was worse.
“Come on,” she said to me. She’d only talked with Singh, but it looked like she’d been knocked around. Her face was pale and clammy and her hair was mussed. She struggled to get the strap of her purse back over her shoulder. “We’re going.”
I followed Lex out of the school and toward her car, scrutinizing her every movement for some clue of what she was thinking. She didn’t say anything, just dug into her purse and popped a couple of mints into her mouth from the tin she always carried. We climbed into the car, where the air was as stifling as the silence. Lex let go of a big sigh and melted back into her seat, eyes closed, and stayed that way for a long time. I sat tensely beside her, waiting for her to do . . . something.
Then, with no warning, she sat up, cranked the AC, put on her sunglasses, and said, “What a bitch. Want some ice cream?”
• • •
Lex didn’t say another word about what had happened. I had to assume that meant she hadn’t taken Singh’s concerns to heart. She took me for that ice cream, and we drove back to Hidden Hills with the windows down and the radio cranked up, arriving home in time to watch Sabine shoot her twin sister for poisoning her husband. Lex wasn’t much of an actress; she wore every feeling right on her sleeve. If Dr. Singh had ignited doubts about me inside of her, I felt sure I would have seen it.
But when Patrick came over after work that night—which was unusual for him, since he usually spent weeknights in L.A.—she immediately said to him:
“Will you take a look at my car? It’s making that weird knocking sound again.”
“Sure,” he said, and followed her out to the garage.
I hadn’t noticed any knocking sound.
The back of my neck got hot. They were talking about me; they had to be. Had Lex fooled me? Was she telling Patrick right now that she wasn’t sure I was Danny? I turned and saw that Nicholas had also watched them go. Our eyes met briefly, and he looked back down at his laptop. He hadn’t asked me why I’d left school early. Either he didn’t care or he’d heard from someone else.
Mia flung herself into the seat beside Nicholas and hung her head on his shoulder. “I’m bored. Will you play with me?”
“I’ve got to finish this paper,” he said, carefully edging his shoulder out from under her cheek.
“I’ll play with you,” I said. I couldn’t just sit there staring at the door to the garage, driving myself crazy wondering what was happening behind it. And I felt bad for the kid; she was so often overlooked by the rest of them.
Mia’s eyes lit up. “Really?”
I smiled. It took only the smallest thing to make her happy. “Sure. Want to go swimming?”
“Yeah!” she said. “I’m going to go put on my suit!”
“Mia, Mom doesn’t want you . . .” Nicholas sighed and let the sentence drift away as Mia bolted from the room. “Mom hates it when she swims in the brace. The hinges tear up the towels, and she tracks water everywhere.”
“Well, Mom’s not here,” I said. Jessica’s car was already gone when we left for school this morning, and she still hadn’t come home. It was cruel to let a kid grow up with a swimming pool in their backyard they weren’t allowed to use, and if the cops were going to show up and haul me away from here any minute, I could think of worse things to do with my remaining time than swimming with Mia.
She changed into a ruffly purple swimsuit, and I put on the trunks that had been part of the haul Lex got for me when I first arrived. After glimpsing my bare chest in the mirror in Danny’s bathroom, scarred and maybe a little too developed for a sixteen-year-old, I also pulled on a T-shirt.
Nicholas stopped me on my way out to the pool.
“You’ve got to keep a really close eye on her, okay?” he said.
“I will,” I said.
“Seriously,” he said. “She doesn’t swim very well.”
“Got it,” I said. I didn’t swim too well either, but the pool wasn’t that deep.
Mia ran across the patio and leapt into the pool with a screech. She came up spluttering, and I immediately jumped in after her, catching her under the arms and making a motorboat sound as I pulled her to the shallower water, where she could stand on her toes. My eyes burned from hitting the water with them still open.
“You okay?” I asked.
She nodded and wrapped her wet arms around my neck. “Can we play Washing Machine?”
“We can if you teach me how.”
Mia taught me Washing Machine and Sharks and Minnows and obliterated me in a half a dozen underwater handstand contests. She graciously promised she’d help me get better, for which I thanked her. I stayed within an arm’s length of her, because whenever she struggled, her braced right leg lagging behind the left one, she reached out for me. She was trusting that I’d be there, and the idea of her reaching for help and not finding any made me sick to my stomach. Each time her little hands closed around me, I felt this warm, tight feeling in my throat that I didn’t want to look at too closely.
I looked back toward the house. The light in the garage was still on, and, just like he had been for most of the past hour, Nicholas was still standing in a window, watching us.
• • •
It was starting to get dark by the time Mia’s fingers got pruney enough for her to decide it was time to get out of the pool. I’d been covered in gooseflesh for a while but hadn’t had the heart to bail on her.
I ran into Patrick at the foot of the stairs as I was headed up to my room to change. The light in the garage had gone out only a few minutes earlier.
“Hey, if that school counselor bothers you again,” he said, “you call me, okay? What she did today was unacceptable.”
“Okay,” I said, instantly relieved. That’s what they’d been talking about. How Singh had overstepped her bounds, not how I was a con artist posing as their brother.
“I don’t think she’ll cause problems again though,” he added. He must have laid some lawyerly smack down already, or would be soon. “You have plans this weekend?”
I shook my head.
“Want to go to the Dodgers game with me? The firm has a box.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said. It seemed like a very brotherly thing, going to a baseball game together. I thought of Danny’s room with his baseball posters and the signed ball in the plastic case. Danny loved baseball. I loved baseball. “That would be great.”
“Don’t tell Lex,” Patrick said, leaning close to me, “but I was thinking I might also give you a driving lesson. What do you think?”
“Yeah,” I said. Finally, something I wouldn’t have to pretend about. I couldn’t drive worth a damn. “Can we take the Jag?”
Patrick laughed. “Sure. But only because your dad won’t be out for another year.”
“Cool,” I said. Being rich was fun.
“Okay, go change,” Patrick said. “You must be freezing.”
I remembered that I was. I headed up the stairs, but stopped on the landing when I heard raised voices to my left. My first thought was Jessica; she was the only Tate I’d ever heard yell. But the voices were coming from Lex’s room.
“. . . like some stupid child,” Nicholas said as backed out of the room.
“Then grow the fuck up, Nicky!” Lex replied from inside.
“Bitch!” Nicholas turned to stalk away but froze when he saw me.
“And don’t you—” Lex appeared in the doorway and stopped in her tracks. The scowl instantly disappeared from her expression, and her voice was soft and sweet when she said, “Hey, Danny. Are you hungry?”
Nicholas gave her a look that was part incredulity, part disgust, and then he brushed past me on his way to his own bedroom. The click of the lock was audible in the silent hallway.
• • •
The next day at lunch I sat with Ren again. We talked about art class and A Life of Love, Lex’s favorite soap, which Ren also happened to be a fan of. Nicholas watched me from his table across the courtyard, and Dr. Singh watched me from a window. Neither tried to speak to me.
This is when the old me would have run.
The new me was starting to have too much to lose.
• • •
“Want to come over to my house later?” Ren asked when the bell rang at the end of our lunch period.
I blinked. “Why?”
I’d blurted the word out without thinking and was afraid she might be offended, but Ren just laughed.
“Sorry, did you have other plans?” she asked. Although the mockery was gentle, it was still mockery. Pretty ballsy when you’re talking to a poor, delicate kidnapping victim. “Plus, I don’t totally hate your company.”
“I, uh . . .” I swallowed.
“It’s cool. You don’t have to if you don’t want. Or I could make up a good reason if that helps? Like how I’m really terrible at art, and I’m afraid our stupid class is going to sink my GPA if I can’t learn how to make a bowl of fruit vaguely resemble a bowl of fruit. Actually, that’s not even made up. That’s totally true.”
Ren was not scary. Ren could not expose me. But she made me nervous anyway, in an odd way I couldn’t explain.
When I didn’t answer, she waved a hand. “You’re obviously not into it. No worries.”
“Yeah, okay,” I said quickly. “I’ll come.”
This was the whole point of becoming Danny Tate, wasn’t it? To have the friends and family and opportunities I could never have as myself? Surely that list was supposed to include a pretty girl.
When the final bell rang at the end of the day, Nicholas wasn’t waiting for me at the doors to the student parking lot like usual. He’d barely spoken to me since the day before, but it was hard to believe he’d just leave me to find my own way home. If nothing else, he had to know Lex would kill him for it. He had history last period, so I checked with his teacher, who was packing up to leave when I poked my head into the classroom.
“He was called to the guidance office,” she said. “Check there.”
My stomach dropped. “Okay. Thanks.”
I walked quickly toward the front office. Dr. Singh wasn’t allowed to speak to me, so she was going to interview my relatives instead? She wouldn’t dare say the same thing to Nicholas about my real identity that she’d said to Lex, would she? I walked faster. This was bad. I’d deeply pissed Nicholas off during that lunch at the diner when I’d said that stupid thing about him being my best friend, and he’d never been completely sure about me in the first place, so there was no telling what he might say to Singh.
I reached the front office just as Nicholas emerged with Dr. Singh. The woman nodded to me—“Danny”—and disappeared back inside the office.
“Ready?” Nicholas said as if nothing had happened.
“What were you talking to her for?” I asked.
“It wasn’t nothing,” I said. I’d decided earlier that day that I was going to try harder with Nicholas, be extra nice to him and win him back to my side, but I couldn’t stop the heat rising in my voice. “You’ve been there since the middle of last period. Did she ask about me?”
“Not everything’s about you,” he said. “Are you ready to go home?”
“I just want to know what you were doing in there.” I knew I was losing it but I couldn’t stop. “You know how upset Lex was—”
“Look, this isn’t really any of your business,” he said. “It has nothing to do with you.”
“Just tell me what the fuck she said!” I burst.
For one stunned moment Nicholas just stared at me.
“No,” he finally said, slowly. “I don’t think I will. Now, let’s go, okay?”
I took a deep breath. Shoved everything back down inside. Acting out right now would only make things worse. I shook my head. “I don’t need a ride.”
“What? Don’t be stupid.”
“I’m going to a classmate’s house,” I said.
“Who, that girl you sat with at lunch?” he asked.
“Yeah.” He was looking at me with such confusion that I added, “She needs some help with an assignment.”
He laughed. “You’re helping someone with homework? You just started school again. You’re not even doing homework yet.”
I didn’t understand why he hated me so much. So Danny and Nicholas hadn’t gotten along great as kids, but I was still his loving brother, miraculously returned to him. Shouldn’t that have made up for any childhood issues he had with me?
Unless the real problem was that he suspected I wasn’t his brother at all.
“It’s an art assignment,” I said. “I’m good at art. Besides, she’s new here too.”
Nicholas looked at me closely. “Danny, you’re not new here.”
I swallowed. “You know what I mean. Anyway, tell Lex I’ll be home in a couple of hours.” I started to walk toward the library, where Ren and I had arranged to meet.
“You haven’t talked to her about this yet?” Nicholas called after me. “She’s not going to like it—”
“Just tell her, okay?” I said as I turned the corner and Nicholas disappeared from view. I would start being extra nice to him tomorrow.
• • •
A few minutes later I was climbing into Ren’s car. I surreptitiously scoped it out; any place where a person spent a lot of time could tell you a surprising amount about them if you knew how to look. Like Nicholas’s BMW: It was gray and pristine and he always kept it cold. Ren’s car was chaos. It was messy but not dirty, a blue Mercedes convertible from the ’70s or ’80s that had the right hood ornament to fit into the student parking lot but whose sharp, boxy lines refused to conform. It smelled of old leather and the cucumber hand lotion that lay on the passenger’s seat along with some crumpled papers, a half-empty water bottle, a phone charger, a candy bar wrapper, and a tube of lip gloss. Ren scooped all of this up without apology and tossed it into the backseat with the other teenage detritus that littered the leather seats. Some aggressive, upbeat girl rock blared from the speaker when she turned the car on, and she turned the music down but not off as she drove us to her house in Calabasas. I filed every detail away to analyze later, because despite a couple of days of careful study, I still hadn’t figured Ren out.
Her home was an ultramodern place of glass and steel that wasn’t quite as big or grand as the Tate house, but that was grading it against a brutal curve. It still would have held a dozen copies of the house I grew up in. She parked her car in the driveway and led me in through a side door that connected to the kitchen. She grabbed a couple of sodas from the fridge and handed me one.
“When did you move here?” I asked.
“Six weeks ago,” she said. “It’s my aunt and uncle’s place. My parents are working on this skyscraper in Dubai for the next year, so I’m staying here until they get back.”
“You didn’t want to go with them?” I asked.
She screwed up her face. “Hell no. I mean, I love my parents, but no way was I going to change my entire life to be with them. Transferring schools junior year is bad enough. My aunt and uncle are cool. They’re not around a lot, and they basically let me do whatever I want.”
Ren and I both jumped and turned to look at the guy who had come into the kitchen behind us. He was maybe four or five years older than me and wearing a wrinkled shirt and battered flip-flops that went well with his shaggy hair and vacant expression. Naturally, he reeked of pot.
Ren sighed. “This is my cousin, Kai.”
Kai nodded at me. “Hey.”
“This is Danny,” Ren said.
Kai looked at me blankly, and then his expression slowly—painfully slowly—shifted into realization.
“Oh,” he said. “Shit.”
Ren punched him in the arm. “God, Kai!”
“It’s okay,” I said. “That’s the usual reaction. ”
“Cool,” Kai said. “So, hey, how’s your sister doing? She still hot?”
I blinked. Ren looked like she was considering punching him somewhere other than the arm.
“You know my sister?” I asked.
“Sexy Lexi? Hell yeah!” he said. “We were pretty tight in high school. Me and Patrick, too. He used to get me the best weed.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. I didn’t know what to say about Patrick procuring him drugs, and I definitely wasn’t going to confirm that Lex was, indeed, still hot. So I just said: “Cool.”
“Yeah, dude,” Kai said. He opened the refrigerator and started to gather food in his arms: turkey and cheese slices, a gallon of orange juice, anything he could lay his hands on.
“You’re not supposed to raid the big house fridge, dude,” Ren said.
“Yeah, whatever,” Kai said. “So Lex is good? I always worried about her. I tried to look out for her when I could, but she was—oh, but hey, don’t worry! I never hooked up with her or anything. Not that I would have minded, because damn was she—”
“Jesus, Kai,” Ren said. “That’s his sister!”
Kai started to giggle. “Oh, right! Sorry! That’s some seriously ironic shit.” He opened the door to the pantry and added a box of cookies to the haul in his arms. “I gotta go.”
He drifted out of the kitchen, and Ren shook her head after him.
“How tragic is that?” she said. She turned to me. “Want to go upstairs?”
“Sure,” I said and followed her into the hallway.
“I know he’s family and all,” she said as we climbed to the second story, “but he’s an idiot. Like his parents won’t notice the fridge is empty when they get home. I’m always telling him, just take a little at a time. It’s all about plausible deniability!”
I smiled. She would make a decent scammer.
“He lives here?” I asked.
“Technically, he lives in the pool house,” she said. “He’s supposed to pay rent and buy his own groceries and everything, but as you can see, not so much. He pretty much just gets high and plays video games all day.”
Most of the kids I had gone to school with in my past life were probably living similar existences, albeit in less grand locations. I probably would be too if things had been different. “Not a bad life,” I said.
“Could be worse, I guess,” she said as she opened the door to her bedroom.
I hadn’t been in many girls’ bedrooms. I was suddenly very aware of that fact as I stepped inside. I was interested in what other clues I could gather here about Ren, but I instantly saw that this room wouldn’t be much help. Even if she hadn’t told me earlier than this was her aunt and uncle’s house, I would have been able to tell from a glance that this was actually a guest room. It had that sterile, unlived-in feeling that Danny’s room had, and it was decorated in somber creams and navies while its occupant was currently wearing yellow and electric blue. But scattered over the top of this sedate and antiseptic base was evidence of the same Ren who drove that chaotic Mercedes. Colorful clothing thrown over the backs of chairs, books piled up on a dresser since there was no bookcase, the bottle of that green nail polish on the bedside table. Artifacts of a girl in motion. One who didn’t much care what people thought. A confident girl who didn’t mind showing her room to a near-stranger, even when it was kind of a mess. There was more evidence of Ren imprinted on this room that wasn’t really hers than I’d ever leave on the room that wasn’t really mine back in the Tate house.
She pushed the clothes off the back of the desk chair so I could sit there and then lowered herself cross-legged onto the bed.
“So,” she said. “How’s it going?”
“Okay,” I said.
And then I just stared at her with no idea what to say next, while she just smiled at me. This should have been easy. She was the one person I didn’t have to be careful around, who I could just be myself with, because she’d never known Danny Tate. But being around her turned me into this empty, blank person. Someone dull and mute and fumbling. Was it just nerves? Was this what normal people felt when talking to a pretty girl they actually liked and didn’t just want something from?
“Should we make fun of Kai some more?” she finally said. “That’s endless fodder for conversation. Like, lately he’s been making these halfhearted attempts at becoming a professional surfer, which I’m sure you find shocking—”
“Sorry,” I said. “I know I’m not easy to talk to.”
“It’s not just you,” she said. “My mouth has no filter, which has always been a problem for me, and I don’t want to say something stupid to you, so I’m really overthinking things over here.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m not as fragile as people think.”
She cocked her head at me. “You do seem weirdly well-adjusted, considering.”
I kind of nodded, kind of shrugged. Why had I come here? I couldn’t talk to this girl, not like this, without a crowd to perform for. I often chose not to talk to people, but it wasn’t because I couldn’t. I could always summon the right personality for any situation; it was what had gotten me this far. Why couldn’t I talk to her?
Then I realized.
I couldn’t talk to Ren because I didn’t know who she wanted me to be. She didn’t seem to want me to be anyone but whoever I was, and I wasn’t anyone, not really. I’d spent a lifetime becoming a mirror that just reflected back the person others wanted to see, but she didn’t want anything. So I was nothing.
“Sorry,” I said with rising panic. This was stupid. She was just a girl, I shouldn’t be this scared, but I suddenly felt like I was treading into something dangerous. “I just . . . maybe I should go . . .”
“You’re not going to help me with my drawing?” She reached into her school bag and fished out her sketch pad. “Look, it’s seriously messed up, and I can’t figure out how to fix it. Any ideas?”
She stood and laid the drawing out on the desk where I was sitting, and we both looked at it. It was recognizably a bowl of fruit, but only just. Like someone had passed the drawing through a fun house mirror.
“Oh,” I said. This drawing I understood. This I knew how to fix. The hot, frantic rushing of blood in my veins started to slow. “Yeah. It’s the proportions. See this apple?”
“It’s too small. See how thin it is compared to the orange?”
“But that’s because it’s farther away,” she said. “I was trying to show perspective.”
“You’ve got the right idea,” I said, “but you’ve taken it too far. Do you have any scratch paper?”
She found some blank paper and a couple of pencils and pulled an armchair up to the desk beside me. I quickly sketched a copy of her drawing but with the fruit in better proportion to each other.
“See?” I said.
She leaned over my paper. I could smell her shampoo as her hair fell over her shoulder, a sharp, sweet smell like nothing that existed in nature, and tried to focus on the drawing instead. “Yeah, but how do you do that?”
I’d never had to explain this before, and I struggled. “You just . . . look at the lines of whatever’s in front of you and then copy them,” I said.
She laughed. “No kidding, but how do you make sure it’s right? I can’t translate what I see onto the paper just by looking.”
“You’ve got to . . .” I looked around the room and spotted a vase containing a small, tasteful arrangement of flowers on her bedside table. “Hand me that, would you?”
She grabbed the vase, and I put it on the far end of the desk.
“Okay, so let’s start with the lily on the far left,” I said. “For me, at least, I can’t look at the whole thing at once. There’s too much going on to deal with. So, I break it down. Just look at that one outside petal. Got it?”
Ren frowned in the direction of the flower. “Yeah.”
“Now break it down further,” I said. “Just look at the very tip of the petal.”
“Now look just at the line where the tip of the petal meets the air. Don’t look at the whole petal. Just that line.”
Together, working line by line, petal by petal, we drew the flower.
“This is hard,” she said as we worked. “How do you concentrate on such a small piece?”
I shrugged. “Practice, I guess. Use your hands if you have to.”
“Like . . .” I turned to her and put my hands on either side of her eyes like blinders.
She looked right at me, her eyes closer than I expected them to be. I was suddenly very aware of the places where the skin of my fingers met the skin of her face.
A thought pushed itself to the front of my mind. You could kiss her. That was something people did, normal people.
I dropped my hands and turned back to my drawing.
“I’m going to feel really silly doing this in class,” she said, peering at the vase with her hands cupped around her eyes. “Have you always liked to draw?”
“Yeah, I guess.” I smoothed out a line with the side of my thumb. All I was thinking about was that line, my entire attention focused on it.
“What do you like about it?” she asked. “Maybe it’s just because I’m bad at it, but I don’t get the appeal.”
I shrugged. “I always liked to study things and see how they worked. With drawing I could use that to actually create something.”
“That’s kind of profound,” she said as she erased a line she wasn’t happy with.
I snorted. “I guess. I’ve always liked drawing people the best. I used to draw my mom when she—”
“Yikes,” Ren said. “Did we wade into painful territory?”
“No, I . . . it’s okay.” I hadn’t been thinking Jessica, of course. I’d been thinking about my mother. How I used to sit on the floor and stare at her as she sat in her chair, chain-smoking and arguing with the TV, studying each line and curve of her face. Like understanding the shapes could help me understand her and why she hated me so much. I had a whole notebook full of drawings of her face, which she’d found and thrown out, yelling at me for wasting paper.
I didn’t mean to tell Ren that. I never told anyone anything true about me. It was rule number one, and for good reason.
“I’d better go,” I said.
“Yeah,” I said. “My sister’s going to be pissed.”
Her eyes narrowed a little bit as she looked at me. I couldn’t decipher the expression. It could have been confusion or disappointment or annoyance or a dozen other things. For someone who seemed like such an open book, sometimes I couldn’t read her at all.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll take you home.”
• • •
Lex was pissed.
“I don’t know what you were thinking,” she said as she ushered me into the kitchen. “You couldn’t have even called me first? Who was that?”
“Just a girl I go to school with,” I said. “She’s new.”
Lex looked down at the floor, and when she looked up at me again she was wearing a faint smile. “Well . . . I’m glad you’re making friends.”
But I wasn’t sure I’d be able to talk to Ren again. I was still shaken from what had happened, the way I’d slipped out of Danny’s skin and into my own without even realizing it. I couldn’t let that happen again, ever. I felt the precariousness of my position here in a way I hadn’t before, not even the night I thought Jessica had seen through me.
I went to find Nicholas. I had to fix whatever had gone wrong between us, and I had to do it now. Making sure he believed I was really his brother was the only thing I could think of that would make me feel safe again.
I searched the house but found no sign of him. I knew he had to be here, though, because his car was in the garage, and, as I’d learned, people in California don’t walk anywhere.
“Hey,” I said when I found Mia in the rec room, watching a movie about a talking horse. “Have you seen Nicholas?”
She shook her head. “Sometimes he likes to hide in one of the chairs out by the pool though. Don’t tell him I told you.”
“I won’t. Thanks.”
I stepped out onto the back patio and scanned the pool area for Nicholas. I wasn’t sure how he could hide in one of the lounge chairs until I noticed that one on the far side of the pool was angled away from the house so that only the back was visible. Then, in the faint glow from the underwater lights, I saw a blue trail of smoke rising from the chair. Either it was on fire, or I’d found him.
I walked out to the chair, and Nicholas looked up at me.
“Shit,” he said.
“To be fair, it’s not the best hiding place ever,” I said.
He took a drag off the cigarette between his fingers. “No one’s ever found me here before.”
“They must not look very hard,” I said. True to my word, as I occasionally was, I didn’t give up Mia.
He didn’t respond to that, just blew a lungful of smoke toward the stars.
“Mind if I sit?” I asked.
He didn’t look at me. “Whatever.”
I sank into the cool grass beside the lounge chair. Nicholas went back to smoking and contemplating the sky.
“Sorry I was a jerk this afternoon,” I said.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I’m actually surprised you didn’t go off on me sooner.”
“Yeah, I guess I’ve been a little more stressed out about going back to school than I realized.”
He laughed quietly to himself, some private joke I didn’t understand. I ignored it and moved forward with my extra nice strategy.
“I know this has probably been a lot harder on you than anyone’s realized,” I said. “I feel bad, you know. Everyone’s worried about me, but this happened to all of us. I just want you to know that I’m sorry for disrupting your life again, and I really appreciate everything you’ve done for me. I know it hasn’t been easy for you, but you’ve been great anyway.”
Nicholas looked at me, and I could see in his eyes that there was a war going on inside of him. “I haven’t been great, and you don’t have to apologize,” he said softly.
“But I want to,” I said. “I want to be as good a brother to you as you’ve been to me. I don’t want there to be anything bad between us. Not anymore. Not ever again. I’m sorry, for everything.”
I’d rerun our conversation in the diner a dozen times in my mind. It was clear to me that I’d gone too far in trying to bond with him when I said that thing about him being my best friend. The divide between Nicholas and Danny must have been wider than what I’d assumed from the childish squabbles and distance I’d seen in home movies. This was my attempt to undo that damage, but in a vague enough way not to cause more problems if I was wrong.
As I sat there, waiting for his response, I realized my problem with Nicholas was similar to the one I was having with Ren. I couldn’t get a handle on how he’d seen Danny, so I never knew what act to put on for him. If I could just figure that out, I was sure I could put his suspicions to rest once and for all.
Nicholas’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. He was taking a long time to speak, and I was growing increasingly tense. He scrubbed his free hand through his hair and sighed.
“That sounds pretty good,” he said.
“So we can try to put the past behind us? Start over?”
He nodded. “Yeah. We can try.”
I smiled and lay back in the grass. Nicholas handed me a cushion from the lounge chair to prop under my head, and we looked up at the stars in reasonably comfortable silence.
“So, did Lex freak?” he asked after a minute.
“Totally. I think she would keep me on an actual leash if she could.”
One corner of his mouth turned up. “Like a little kid in the mall.”
“Who’s the girl?”
“Her name’s Ren,” I said. “She’s in my art class.”
He took another drag off his cigarette. “She’s kind of cute.”
“It’s not like that,” I said. “Really. It’s not.”
“Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”
“I was just helping her with an art assignment,” I said, but then I remembered the way she looked at me when I put my hands on her face, the warmth of her skin.
“Sure,” Nicholas said. “Okay.”
We sat there together while he finished his cigarette and started a second. I asked about his classes, and he asked about mine. He told me about a trip to Barcelona he and Asher were planning for the summer. It wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it was still the longest conversation we’d ever had. The night was cool and quiet around us, and even the sharp smell of the smoke seemed oddly pleasant in its familiarity.
“We’d better get inside,” Nicholas finally said. “I’ve got like four hours of homework to do.”
“I don’t have any,” I said, “but Lex will buy that leash if I’m out of her sight too long.”
He smiled, and we stood. He put his cigarette out on the bottom of his shoe and stuck the two butts into the pack, which he shoved in his pocket.
“I didn’t know you smoked,” I said.
“I don’t, usually. Just every once in a while. The family would flip out if they knew.” He looked up at me with something fragile in his expression. “Don’t tell anyone, okay? I’ll owe you one.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I can keep a secret.”
“What, you don’t trust me?”
Nicholas’s expression hardened. “Come on. That’s not funny.”
My skin went cold. I was missing something. Something important.
“Nicky, wait,” I said, trying to catch his arm as he stalked away from me. I only managed to brush his sleeve, but he still turned back to look at me. He stared at me like I was a total stranger, and I just stood there as he backed away from me and then disappeared into the house.
• • •
That night I got out of bed after everyone else had gone to sleep. It had been my worst day since I came here, from letting some of the old me slip through the cracks when talking to Ren to making another misstep I didn’t understand with Nicholas, and there was only one solution I could think of. I needed to learn more—a lot more—about Danny Tate.
There was a reason I hadn’t bothered with this before: It hadn’t mattered. I could see what most of the Tates wanted from me. Lex wanted a little boy to take care of. Patrick wanted someone to teach things to. Mia wanted a playmate. All I needed to do was be those things for them and they’d be happy.
But unless I could figure out what Nicholas expected me to be, I would keep screwing up with him. That wasn’t a risk I could take.
After everyone else went to bed, I snuck down to the basement rec room, to the projector and movie screen where Mia had been watching her horse film earlier. Lex had already shown me several home movies to try to jog my memory, but I’d spent most of that time concentrating on the rest of the family, learning everything I could about them so I would understand who they wanted me to be, who’d they’d seen Danny as. This was the first time I was going to watch for Danny alone, to try to understand who he’d actually been.
The home movies were kept in a cabinet against the wall. I grabbed one labeled CHRISTMAS 2008/KLOSTERS 2009 and put it in the DVD player. I sank into the giant leather sofa across from the screen to watch and turned the volume down low even though the nearest human was two stories away.
The video started with a blur and the focusing of the lens, and then it showed the formal living room upstairs with a giant Christmas tree decorated all in gold and silver in the corner. Underneath was a pile of presents that spilled out from under the tree and across the floor, the room overflowing with ribbon and bows and sparkly paper. Jessica sat in an armchair in her pajamas and a silk robe, massively pregnant, with Nicholas cross-legged at her feet.
“Smile, Mom!” Patrick said from behind the camera.
She grinned and waved, a much different woman from the one I (barely) knew. Nicholas made a funny face at the camera, and Jessica mussed his hair.
It was like a Christmas card, a snapshot of a perfect family. My heart gave a painful lurch inside my chest even though I knew just how little the snapshot captured the full story of the Tates.
The camera swung to the right, and there was Danny. This was shot in 2008, so he was eight years old. In a couple of years he’d be gone. He was sitting by the edge of the present pile, towheaded and dressed in the same matching pajama set Nicholas was wearing, only his were blue instead of green. He had ripped the wrapping paper off the corner of a box and was snooping at what was beneath.
“No peeking, Danny!” said a voice from somewhere off camera. It sounded like Lex.
“Hey, that’s mine!” Nicholas cried.
“I was just looking!” Danny said. “Don’t be such a baby.”
Danny’s father entered the room, carrying a tray filled with steaming mugs. I hadn’t met Robert Tate in person yet, only spoken to him on the phone. No one seemed to be in any hurry to take me to the state penitentiary in Lompoc where he was doing his time, which was just fine by me.
The family drank hot chocolate and started to open the massive pile of presents. Nicholas carefully peeled the tape and paper off his boxes and examined each gift closely, while Danny tore into his in his frenzy to get to the gift beneath. He took one look at the remote controlled car Jessica had given him before putting it aside in favor of the mystery of the next wrapped box. Pretty typical kid behavior, which was only remarkable in how different it was from Nicholas’s. Patrick had Lex sit beside him and unwrap his gifts so he could keep filming, which took a while since Lex kept coming and going from the room. Robert gave Jessica a diamond bracelet he said he’d seen her eyeing in a store window in New York the month before. She stumbled over her thank-you, and when he leaned in to kiss her, she turned her head toward one of the speaking children, and his lips hit her cheek.
It was all here. Everything there was to know about these people, if I could just watch closely enough.
I closed my eyes for a moment and imagined myself in Danny’s place, felt the crinkle of the wrapping paper under my hands, the sweet aftertaste of the hot chocolate on my tongue, the warmth in my body that came from being loved and belonging. I could almost believe it was a real memory.
I watched the entire video of Christmas/Klosters—which turned out to be some fancy ski resort—and another of the grandparents’ wedding anniversary. Mostly, the videos reinforced what I’d already learned about Danny. He was extroverted, funny, and high-spirited, with a tendency to be inconsiderate of others. He worshipped Patrick, but he and Nicholas fought frequently, which had to explain some of Nicholas’s ambivalence to me, although it did seem a bit extreme for him to be holding a grudge against his kidnapped brother over some childhood scraps.
But then, half-asleep and almost ready to throw in the towel for the night, I noticed something I hadn’t before. I couldn’t believe it had escaped my attention for so long.
In one way, if no other, Danny was a lot like me. He was a watcher.
I was well into the anniversary video before I caught it, because he was surprisingly subtle, but when I ran back the DVD, I saw things I’d missed the first time through. Danny eavesdropping on a conversation between his parents, pretending to fill up his drink while Jessica and Robert had a low conversation just a couple of feet away. Peering around Lex’s shoulder to read what she was texting. Even peeking at Nicholas’s present. I’d assumed that Danny’s thoughtlessness was the product of a childlike obliviousness to his surroundings, but now I was thinking that very little escaped Danny’s attention.
For the first time I felt a real kinship with him.
By the end of the anniversary video I could barely keep my eyes open anymore. The rest of my research would have to wait for another night. I shut down the DVD player and replaced the DVDs I’d removed. On my way back to my room I stopped in the kitchen. It had been many hours since dinner, and my stomach was rumbling. I grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge and was rummaging in the pantry for a snack when I heard the front door open. I froze as the beeps of someone entering the security code into the alarm panel echoed off the marble floors of the foyer and into the kitchen. I was stuck with no way to get back upstairs.
I heard the soft tapping of shoes in the hallway, and then, before I could decide what to do, Jessica was standing in front of me.
• • •
She startled when she saw me, and I could tell from the quickness of her reaction that she was actually sober. She reached automatically for the light switch but then dropped her hand without flipping it.
“What are you doing down here?” she asked.
“I was thirsty,” I said.
“Oh,” she said.
“I guess I’ll go back to bed now,” I said.
“How is school?” she asked, the words coming out in a rush.
“Um, it’s okay,” I said.
She nodded. “That’s good.”
She twisted the two rings she wore on her right hand, spinning them around and around. “I’m sorry I haven’t been around much lately. I haven’t been feeling well.”
Rampant alcoholism will do that to you.
“That’s okay,” I said. “I hope you feel better soon.”
“Thanks,” she said.
This was bizarre. I had to get away.
“I’m going to go back to bed,” I said.
“Okay,” she said.
To get to the stairs I had to pass her. Her hands clenched into fists as I got closer to her, like she was afraid they would reach out to me of their own accord.
“Good night, Mom,” I said over my shoulder as I walked away.
She didn’t turn look at me. “Good night.”
• • •
After those first few days in the Tate house, I’d rarely thought about Jessica. Except for the day she resurfaced to enroll me in school, she was such a nonentity that I sometimes forgot she even existed. Aside from Mia, who sometimes asked where she was, no one ever talked about her.
Maybe because of the mother I’d had, it didn’t strike me as particularly strange at the time.
I still can’t believe how blind I was.
• • •
“She hates me,” I told Lex the next morning. “She won’t even look at me.”
“I told you, Danny, she’s sick,” Lex said. She was scrambling eggs while I was keeping watch over the toaster. It was Saturday morning and we had the house to ourselves. Patrick was at work, Mia was at Eleanor’s house, and Nicholas had gone hiking with Asher, which I assumed was a lie, because I couldn’t imagine Nicholas hiking. He had been pointedly ignoring me since whatever happened out at the pool, and he’d even snapped something I couldn’t make out at Lex this morning on his way out the door.
“She keeps all of us at arm’s length, not just you,” Lex continued. “And I think . . . Honestly? I think she’s a little scared of you.”
The toast popped out of the toaster, and I jumped. “What? Why?”
She shrugged. “If she lets herself believe you’re really back, you could disappear again. I know it sounds stupid, but I think she’s just trying to protect herself. Because she loves you so much.”
“Is that Nicholas’s excuse too?” I asked.
Lex’s back was turned to me, but I saw her freeze. “What do you mean?”
“He just seems mad at me all the time,” I said.
She turned and scooped some eggs from the skillet onto my plate, a tight smile on her face. “Well, there’s always been tension between you two, and he’s not great with change. I’m sure he just needs a little more time to adjust to all of this.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“Don’t worry about Mom and Nicky,” she said. “It’ll be okay.”
• • •
That night at dinner Jessica and Nicholas both showed up. I wondered what threats and/or bribes Lex had handed out to make this happen.
Mia was updating us on the progress of The Magical Mermaid, and Jessica was well into her second glass of chardonnay when she suddenly looked up at me and said, “How was your day, Danny?”
Everyone fell silent.
“I . . . fine,” I said.
She nodded, her eyes barely meeting mine. “That’s good. Are you enjoying your classes?”
“I like my art class.”
Nicholas abruptly stood, his chair scraping against the wooden floor, and walked out of the room.
Patrick dropped his fork and grabbed his drinking glass. His face was full of thunder.
“I need more soda,” he said. “Does anyone else want more soda?”
We all shook our heads, and he went after Nicholas in the direction of the kitchen.
“So, Mia,” Lex said as though nothing out of the ordinary was happening. “What happens after the mermaid battles the Octopus King?”
Even Mia, who was usually too young to pick up on the tension in a room, was shaken. She struggled to pick up where she’d left off, and I could see the tears starting to well in her eyes. I felt a powerful rush of heat—like anger, but different—wash over me. Like no one had ever done for me, I reached out and took her hand.
“Hey,” I said, squeezing her fingers. “It’s okay. Remember, the mermaid had frozen four of the Octopus King’s tentacles with her magic powers, but the other four were still free, and he was trying to catch her with them? What did she do next?”
Mia gave me a tremulous smile. “She swam around and around in circles until his tentacles got all tangled up.”
“That was pretty smart of her,” I said, and Mia nodded.
In the other room, we heard the muffled sounds of Nicholas and Patrick arguing and then the slamming of the front door. Patrick came back a minute later with his knuckles white from how hard he was gripping his full glass of soda.
“Pass the green beans,” he said as he sat.
• • •
I didn’t know what to do. The harder I tried to make things work with Nicholas, the worse I made it all. I couldn’t tell if he didn’t believe me or just didn’t like me, but either way he was the thorn in my side, the one thing ruining my perfect scam. At any moment he could convince Lex and Patrick I was a fraud or go to the cops, and there was nothing I could do but wait for it to happen and try to be ready if it did. I kept a packed bag in my closet at home and in my locker at school, and I moved my baseball card—the only truly incriminating item I owned—out of the house and into my locker, where I stuck it in the pages of book. I figured it would be safer there, where it was locked up, than in my room at home, where Nicholas or Lex could easily find it. I had to be extra careful now. Somehow I had gotten everything I’d ever wanted, but whenever I looked at Nicholas, I felt it all slipping away from me.
Luckily, I didn’t have to feel that very often, because Nicholas did everything he could to avoid me. He still had to drive me to and from school, but he ignored me at home and no longer sat beside me in the one class we shared. I sat with Ren at lunch, and he sat with his back to us, while Asher gave me the occasional awkward wave across the courtyard.
“Hi, Danny!” a cheerleader whose name I didn’t know said to me as I walked toward my regular lunch table. The guy with her put out his fist for me to bump as I passed. This was what school was for me now. Ever since that day I’d told a group of students about my abduction and realized the power in choosing to be seen on my own terms, I’d gone from infamous to just famous. Stares and whispers had become waves and fist bumps. Everyone wanted to be my friend, to laugh at my jokes and invite me places after school, and they all acted like it had always been this way. Their transparency would have been gross if it wasn’t so fun.
Ren definitely thought it was gross, but she still let me sit with her at lunch. The day after I’d fled her house like some kind of freak and vowed I’d stay away from her, I found myself watching her across the room during art class again, and whenever her eyes met mine, she smiled. It did something to me. It made me not care that I didn’t know how to act for her, because it wasn’t about me anymore. It was about her. All I wanted from her was to get to know her, if she’d let me, and when I approached her at lunch that day, she called my name and moved her bag aside so that I could sit down next to her. I’d sat with her every day since, and she put up with the circus that followed me now. I think she was even amused by the more desperate bids for my attention.
“What’s that blonde’s name? Taylor?” she said as we walked to the science wing after lunch together.
“I think so, yeah.”
“You mean you don’t remember her from when you two were OMG-best-friends in the second grade?” she said, imitating Taylor’s vocal fry and hair toss. “She totally let you cheat off her math homework all the time!”
“How does it not drive you crazy?” she asked.
I shrugged. “I kind of like it. I’ve never been popular before.”
We stopped in the hallway near her biology class. There were still a couple of minutes until the bell, so I leaned against the wall and she leaned up next to me.
“Don’t take offense at this,” she said, “but you know they’re all fakes, right? Leeches. They only want to be around you because of the reflected fame.”
“I know,” I said, “but they still want to be around me.”
“You can do better than that,” she said.
I looked up, and when my eyes met hers, something felt different about it. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Her eyes were the same as always, pretty but not particularly special. Yet the texture of the gaze felt new and strange. It gave me a weird, hollow kind of feeling in my belly. Was this what normal people felt? Did she feel it too? It drove me crazy that I couldn’t tell.
“You think?” I said, leaning closer to her. I didn’t even mean to; my body just did it.
She nodded. “I do.”
“Listen.” This time she was the one who inched closer to me. “I know we haven’t been hanging out that long, but I want to make sure you know I’m not another Taylor.”
“I do,” I said.
She gave me a mysterious little smile. “Good.”
“Yeah. I’m hoping that means I’ll get to see the guy behind the act sometime.”
My chest hitched. “What act?”
She gave me a look. “Please. You do a good job of faking with the fakers, but I see right through you. You’d better get moving; the bell’s going to ring any second.”
But I didn’t move. I was thinking about her seeing through me and how she actually wanted to and how, maybe, I wanted to let her. Comfortable home, loving family, adoring girlfriend. Everything a person could ever want, right?
“Earth to Danny!” she said.
I shook myself from my thoughts. “Sorry.”
She squinted at me. “No teachers ever write up the miracle boy for being tardy, do they?”
“You’ve got it,” I said.
“You’re shameless and I kind of love it,” she said. “Now get out of here.”
“Hey, you want—” I took a breath. “Want to do something? After school?”
She smiled. “Yeah, okay.”
I nodded, and we went our separate ways.
• • •
At the end of the day I met Nicholas at the glass doors to the student parking lot to tell him I didn’t need a ride, but he forestalled me.
“Lex just texted,” he said, already more words than he’d spoken to me all week. “She wants us to come straight home.”
“Oh,” I said, and there was my old friend Disappointment. “Okay.”
I texted Ren on the way home, said a family thing had come up. She texted me back a picture of a man sticking out his tongue. When Nicholas and I arrived home, I went to look for Lex. She was in the kitchen, making a snack for Mia.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Not sure,” she said. “Patrick’s on his way over.”
My hands suddenly felt cold. If Patrick was leaving work in the middle of the day, something was wrong.
“Sit down, Danny. I’ll make you something to eat while we wait,” Lex said. She handed Mia a plate of apple slices with a spoonful of peanut butter.
Nicholas sat down beside Mia, and I frowned at him. On the rare afternoons he didn’t spend at Asher’s, he usually went straight to his room.
“I’ll take an apple too,” he said. Apparently, he’d decided to wait with us.
Lex had the line between her eyebrows that indicated annoyance but dutifully started to cut up another apple for him. I sat down on the other side of Mia. She was knocking her heel against the chair leg in an erratic pattern that mirrored the beat of my heart, and we waited.
Patrick walked through the front door only a few minutes later. His face was flushed, probably from driving here with the top of his convertible down. His eyes sought out Lex first, and something wordless passed between them.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“It’s no big deal,” Patrick said, which meant that it was. “We knew this was coming. The FBI needs you to come in for an interview.”
Lex closed her eyes. Nicholas looked over at me. My stomach dropped.
“I put them off for as long as I could, Danny,” Patrick continued, “but they won’t let me delay them anymore. I told them that you’re in no state to discuss what happened yet, but they’re insisting. They want you to come in on Thursday.”
“It’s okay,” I said, shoving down the sudden surge of fear that went through me. I could handle this. “I’m ready.”
“No! You shouldn’t have to do this. Not yet,” Lex said. She looked at Patrick with the big eyes that had probably gotten her her way more times than not. “Isn’t there anything else you can do?”
“I’ve done everything I could to get us this much time,” Patrick said.
“Why can’t we just say no?” she pressed.
“You remember Agent Morales. She won’t let anything go, and I don’t think we really want to piss off the FBI.”
“Why not?” Mia asked.
“You’d think you’d want to talk to them,” Nicholas said. “You know. Help them catch the people who did this to you.”
Lex shook her head. “It’s not—”
“Don’t you want that?” Nicholas said. “Danny?”
“Why don’t you want to piss off the FBI?” Mia asked.
“Don’t say ‘piss,’” Nicholas told her.
“Of course,” I said. “It’s okay, Patrick. I want to go.”
“No!” Lex said again.
“Lexi, he’s got to,” Patrick said. “I’ll call in sick tomorrow. Danny, you stay home with me and we’ll prepare for your interview.”
“What’s to prepare?” Nicholas said. He picked up his plate and dropped it in the sink on his way out of the kitchen.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized no one had answered Mia’s question.
• • •
That night, after everyone had gone to bed, I went back down to the basement to watch more home movies. There were still a couple I hadn’t gotten to, and I had to learn as much as I could about Danny and his family before the FBI interview. I had scammed my fair share of law enforcement officials before, and it never used to make me nervous, but the stakes were a lot higher now. If I couldn’t be Danny Tate for them, I’d be trading this mansion for a jail cell.
I found a DVD labeled BARBADOS 2009/AS YOU LIKE IT 2010. After that, the volume of home movies dropped off considerably. Danny had disappeared in the spring of 2010, so I was betting these were the last videos taken of him.
The first half of the DVD was yet another family vacation to a beautiful and exotic location. This time it was New Year’s in the Caribbean, the family surrounded by white sand beaches and glassy turquoise water the likes of which I’d only ever seen as backgrounds on computer desktops.
But this wasn’t the same family I’d watched skiing in the Swiss Alps. Robert Tate’s voice sounded strained as he narrated behind the lens of the camera. Jessica was noticeably distant and was often filmed with a cocktail in her hand. Danny and Nicholas fought constantly, and Lex had dark smudges under her eyes and was shockingly thin in her bikini. Mia wasn’t present, probably left at home with some nanny, and neither was Patrick, whose absence wasn’t commented upon. I could explain some of these things. Jessica’s first husband—Lex and Patrick’s father, Ben McConnell—had recently committed suicide, which explained Lex’s appearance. Robert Tate was probably already getting himself into the financial trouble that the SEC would nail him for in a few years’ time. Mia had been born with a congenital defect of her right leg that had probably been very stressful for her parents. It was not a good time for the Tate family, and things were about to get a lot worse.
I was surprised at how sorry I felt for them.
The second event on the DVD started here at the house. Robert had Nicholas, who was wearing a suit and had his hair slicked back, explain to the camera that they were going to see Lex perform in the school play. The camera panned to Danny, who was sitting on the floor playing blocks with Mia. It was the first time I’d seen a video of Mia when she was little, and I felt myself smile. She had wispy brown curls and incredibly fat cheeks and she shrieked with laughter when Danny knocked over her block tower.
I felt a sudden, sick lurch of jealousy deep in the pit of my stomach.
I wished that were me.
I didn’t know if I was capable of love, but if I was, then Mia was the person I was closest to loving. I liked who I was when she was the one looking at me. I wanted her to be my sister. I wanted to be her brother, and not just because Danny came from a family that lived in a mansion and vacationed in Barbados. Not because he’d never gone to bed hungry or been slapped around or been told he was worthless, but because—
My head snapped up as Patrick—clad in pajama bottoms, his hair rumpled—walked into the rec room.
“Hey,” I said, reaching for the remote and pausing the video. How was I going to explain this? It must look suspicious as hell, especially given the timing.
“Couldn’t sleep?” he asked, sitting down beside me.
I shook my head. “Did I wake you?”
“No, I was just getting a snack and I heard the TV.” He looked at the screen. “Which video is this?”
He didn’t seem to think it was odd that I was watching old home movies in the middle of the night—maybe because he was too sleepy to think too much about it—so my heartbeat started to return to normal.
“Um, Lex’s play,” I said.
“Oh, right.” He smiled, took the remote from me, and started the video again. The screen switched from the parking lot of Calabasas High to a darkened auditorium where the only thing visible was a red curtain illuminated by footlights. Patrick fast-forwarded. “She wasn’t in the first scene. Do you remember any of this?”
“Not really,” I said.
He hit play when the scenery changed. Lex was standing on stage in a white dress, her hair curled around her face, softening the sharpness of her chin and cheekbones. She was still alarmingly thin, so fragile-looking it was hard to believe she could even stand, but when she smiled, it looked real. Her voice was clear and bright when she recited her lines, romping and laughing and flirting her way across the stage, a confident and sassy creature who was entirely unlike the Lex I knew.
“She was good,” I said.
He made a noncommittal sound.
“Did she ever try to pursue it?” I asked.
He shrugged. “When she was younger. She made a couple of commercials.”
So she gave up. I wondered if that was because of Danny. Losing her father and her brother in quick succession must have been devastating for such a sensitive girl. God, how I envied Danny, being loved like that, missed like that. The air conditioner blowing cool air across my skin suddenly felt like the biting wind of a snowstorm many years before, and I shivered. No one was missing the person I had been.
“Hey,” Patrick said softly. “You okay?”
A lump rose in my throat. I didn’t want this all to be taken away from me. Not just because it meant I’d end up back on the street or in a group home or in prison. Not just because this life was easy or because it meant never having to be myself again. But because, improbable as it seemed, I’d actually started to give a shit about these people, and I felt like they gave a shit about me, too. I didn’t want to lose that.
I bit my lip hard.
Patrick put a warm hand on my shoulder, and I couldn’t hold it together anymore.
“I’m scared,” I said softly.
He put his arms around me, hugging me tight, and I unwound a little further.
“I know,” he said. He rubbed his hand up and down across my back. My brother. “I know.”
• • •
Patrick and I sat at the dining room table for most of the next day, going over my story for the FBI. He said he didn’t want there to be any surprises. That it would be easier for me if I knew what to expect and that the clearer my story was, the more likely it was that the FBI would be able to catch the people who’d done this to me.
“I was walking beside my bike, because the chain had come off, and I didn’t know how to fix it,” I said. “I was taking it home to my brother Patrick, because he would know. A white van—”
“I’m going to stop you there, Danny,” Patrick said. “This sounds really similar to when you first told Lex and me what happened. I’m sure you’ve gone over those events in your head a million times and that’s why, but the FBI is going to ask you to tell your story more than once. I worry they might start going down the wrong track if you sound at all rehearsed.”
“Right,” I said, heart jumping into my throat. Dammit. How had I not thought of that? “I, uh, I guess I use the same words because it’s easier, you know? I don’t have to think about . . . what they did to me . . . as much.”
“I totally get it,” he hastened to reassure me.
Patrick and I continued to work through my story, and I made an effort to switch up the way I told it from the way I’d rehearsed it in my head. Patrick offered comments and asked questions along the way, and though I was sure it wasn’t his intention, he helped me flesh out the story, find and plug the holes in it.
Jessica emerged from her room sometime before midday. I saw her walk past the dining room on her way to the kitchen while Patrick and I were going over how the men who kidnapped me smuggled me and the others kids across the Canadian border. As the lies grew inside of me, they became more and more real to me. This always happened whenever I spoke a lie out loud; it gained its own life and energy. I began to feel like I was breathing in the stale air of the hidden compartment in the eighteen-wheeler, listening to the muffled whimpers of the other children packed in there with me as I tried to free my hands of their bindings and my mouth of its duct tape gag.
But some part of me was still in the dining room, monitoring Patrick’s reactions, and that part of me noticed when Jessica appeared in the dining room doorway with a bottle of the fancy French water the Tates bought by the case. She hovered there, clutching the bottle instead of opening it. Patrick’s eyes flickered over to her once, then twice, as if he didn’t really believe she was there. Which was understandable.
“Sorry, Danny,” he said, stopping me. “Do you need something, Mom?”
She shook her head. “I’m fine.”
He frowned. “Well then, maybe you should . . .”
Jessica just stood there, unmoving, and Patrick finally turned back to me.
“Okay, Danny,” he said. “Then what happened?”
“We drove for a long time,” I said. “It was hard to tell inside the compartment, but I think it was at least a day.”
“They kept you in there the whole time?” Patrick asked. “What about food or water?”
I shook my head. “They didn’t give us any food. Didn’t even take our gags off. I got so nauseous from fear and hunger and the bumping in the compartment that I threw up, but I had to just swallow it back down again.”
Jessica abruptly turned and walked out of the room. A moment later, we heard the front door close behind her.
“I didn’t want her to hear any of this,” Patrick said. “It’s too hard for her. She thinks it’s her fault.”
“What? Why?” I asked. I’d researched Danny’s disappearance. There had been surprisingly little news coverage outside of the immediate area—the effect of the Hidden Hills bubble, I’d guessed, although it seemed pretty strange—but the story was clear. It had just been one of those freak things, the kind of random tragedy that fueled suburban nightmares and the Lifetime original movies Lex liked to watch.
Patrick shrugged. “For not being a better mother. For drinking too much and letting you ride your bike in the neighborhood. For not noticing you were gone sooner. Anything and everything a person could blame themselves for.”
“It wasn’t her fault,” I said.
He looked down at his watch, twisting it around his wrist so that he could check the time. “No. It wasn’t.”
When he didn’t look back up, I said, “Patrick?”
He said, “What happened next?”
• • •
We spent the rest of the day going over my story. Whatever Patrick felt at what he heard, much of which I’d never told him before, he hid it behind his lawyer’s mask. It was a good mask. Almost as good as mine.
Lex was less adept at hiding her feelings. Although she avoided the dining room, she was agitated all day, constantly keeping herself busy and snapping at everyone over tiny things. When we were set to leave the next morning, she was pale and her hands were visibly trembling.
“It’s so unfair you have to go through this,” she said as she forced me to take another pancake from the mountain she’d made before I came down to breakfast. “Being interrogated, like you’re some kind of criminal.”
“They just want my help,” I said. I was more anxious than I’d ever been in my life, but I was Zen compared to her.
“Danny’s right,” Patrick said. “Maybe you should stay here. You don’t look too good.”
“No way,” she said. “I’m going.”
Patrick gave her a look, and they engaged in the kind of wordless conversation I’d seen pass between them a hundred times. Whatever was said, Lex came out the victor.
Out in the foyer, the front door opened.
“Mom?” Lex called.
Jessica appeared in the kitchen. She was wearing shapeless clothing and no makeup, which made her look like a ghost of herself.
“Why aren’t you ready?” Lex asked. “We’re leaving soon.”
“I’m not going,” Jessica said in a voice so subdued it sounded like she barely had the energy to get the words out. “You don’t need me there, do you, Patrick?”
Patrick turned his head toward her, but not enough to actually look at her. “No. The power of attorney you signed is still in effect, so we’re good.”
“Mom,” Lex said. “I really think Danny could use your support—”
Jessica suddenly came alive, like she’d grabbed a live wire.
“I won’t play this game with you, Alexis!” she snapped.
Lex looked stricken, like she’d been slapped. Patrick jumped to his feet.
“That’s fine, Mom,” he said. “We’re okay. How about you go on upstairs?”
Jessica walked away, and Lex turned to the sink and started vigorously washing the dishes inside. I looked at Patrick.
“Want another pancake?” he asked.
Ten minutes later the three of us were walking out to Patrick’s car. On the way we passed Jessica’s rental, which was parked haphazardly in the driveway as usual. It was covered with a thin film of orange dust up to the windows, and I wondered where she’d been.
My interview was set to take place at the FBI’s Los Angeles field office. The building seemed to loom over me, taller than the buildings I was used to, and I wondered if it had been designed to be intimidating. My pulse kicked up, and I tried to tell myself that it was just a bigger version of the Collingwood Police Station. I’d been scamming cops for years now. Nothing to it.
As we walked inside, Patrick filled the air between us with last minute reminders and assurances.
“Just tell the same story you told me,” he said, “and if you start to feel uncomfortable, let me know and we’ll put a stop to it.”
“It’s going to be fine,” I said.
“Of course it is,” he said. “Morales will try to put you on the defensive, make you feel like you’ve done something wrong. Don’t let that fluster you. It’s just her strategy for getting the most information.”
“I hate that bitch,” Lex said.
I’d done my research on Agent Morales, the FBI’s lead investigator on the case from the beginning. She never gave anything but the most perfunctory statements to the press, so it was hard to judge her personality, but she was always insistent that the investigation was active and ongoing, even years after the fact. She’d been interviewed in the wake of the LA Magazine article—which mentioned rumors of tension between her and the Tates, including one that they’d tried to have her removed from the case—and had intimated that there was a recent development in the investigation, although she’d declined to elaborate. Was that true or just something to cover her ass since she still hadn’t solved the case six years later? It made my feet itch to run thinking that the FBI might have some mystery piece of evidence I couldn’t be prepared for.
When Agent Morales came to meet us in the waiting room, I was surprised by her appearance. The picture I’d built in my head was of an older woman with a severe haircut and ill-fitting clothes. In reality, she was young, maybe thirty-five, and pretty. She had curly, dark hair that she wore in a half ponytail and full, pink lips with a shine of gloss on them, just like Lex. But she had a slightly masculine way of walking, probably the result of time spent in the military, and an air of seriousness that was more what I expected from a Fed.
“Mr. McConnell,” she said, shaking Patrick’s hand. There was something in her expression I couldn’t quite read, a tightening at the corner of her eyes so subtle it was hardly noticeable. She nodded at Lex. “Ms. McConnell. Thank you for coming in.”
Lex’s smile was more like bared teeth. “It seems we didn’t have much of a choice.”
Morales stood with her hands clasped lightly behind her back. Definitely a military background.
“And you must be Danny,” she said. “It’s good to meet you after all these years.”
She reached out to shake my hand as well, but I shied a little closer to Lex. I’d let the traumatized routine lapse in the past few weeks, and I needed to bring it back now. Danny wouldn’t be eager to touch strangers after what he’d been through, and this bit of acting now would reinforce my story later.
Morales withdrew her hand. “How about we head back?”
She led us into the building, past cubicles and offices, like any insurance or accounting company in the world. As we walked, Patrick exchanged a small nod with a young man bent over a computer screen behind Morales’s back. I curled my hands into the sleeves of my hoodie. This was part of the traumatized act too, with the added bonus that it would keep me from accidentally touching anything.
“There’s no need to be nervous, Danny,” she said with that overly gentle tone that people use with small children or the mentally disabled. “We just want to hear your story to help us as we look for the people who did this to you, okay?”
“Here’s the interview room we’ll be using,” she said as we approached an office with closed blinds over the windows. Interview room, not interrogation room. She opened the door to reveal someone already inside, a man with a weak chin and premature bald spot that contrasted oddly with the thick arms and chest visible under his button-down. A bullied loser who’d decided to get tough and go into the FBI so he could finally be the one in control. He was fiddling with an electronic recorder. “This is my partner, Timothy Lynch. I don’t think you’ve met before.”
Lynch shook everyone’s hand and offered us coffee and soda, which we declined. Everyone was smiling, and I wasn’t sure if the undercurrent of tension in the room was real or just the product of my own nerves.
“Okay,” Morales said, clapping her hands together. “We’ll make you two comfortable outside while we have a chat with Danny.”
Any pretense of friendliness evaporated.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Lex said.
Patrick gave her a warning touch on the wrist. “I’ll be staying with my brother, Agent.”
“Mr. McConnell, there’s no reason—”
“Excuse me,” Patrick interrupted, “but I’m Danny’s lawyer and his legal guardian, so how about we cut through the bullshit?”
Morales’s smile was tight but not displeased. “You’re right. Mr. McConnell, of course you may stay. Miss McConnell, we’ll make you comfortable in the waiting room.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Lex said.
“I’m afraid I have to insist.”
“Lexi.” Patrick caught Lex’s fingers in his own and drew her to the corner of the room, where they exchanged a few low words. Whatever he said subdued her. She drew her hand out of his, kissed my head, and walked out of the office.
The rest of us sat down at the table—Patrick and me on one side, Morales and Lynch on the other—and Lynch started the recording. He began with a few simple, establishing questions to ease me into the interview. My name, age, that sort of thing. At first I was surprised he was the one questioning me, since it was obvious Morales was the one in charge here, but I quickly understood. Morales wanted him to ask the questions so she could focus on watching. She was leaned back in her chair in a way that was designed to look relaxed, but her eyes betrayed her. They saw everything, moving back and forth between Patrick and me as I answered Agent Lynch’s questions, and I wondered what she saw.
“So if you’re ready, Danny,” Lynch said, “I’d like to move on to the day you were abducted.”
I took a deep breath and looked at Patrick. He nodded and squeezed my shoulder. Morales watched us.
“I’m ready,” I said.
“Great,” Lynch said. “Just tell us what you remember. Take your time.”
I swallowed once, then twice, then cleared my throat. I added a small waver to my voice when I said, “I was out riding my bike . . .”
I started the story I’d worked on with Patrick the day before, making sure to switch up my language as I went. I told them about the white van that came out of nowhere, the hidden compartment in the eighteen-wheeler, the tense ride over the border into Canada. Everyone was silent as I spoke. The lies started to gain momentum as they tumbled out of my mouth, and I found myself leaning in toward the recorder. As soon as I noticed, I slowly drew back and curled my shoulders in on myself instead.
“We drove for a long time,” I said. “Every once in a while, they’d stop the truck in some empty place and drag us out to let us pee or give us something to drink. Then they’d shove us back inside, and we’d start to drive again.”
“Any idea how long this lasted?” Lynch asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Maybe two or three days.”
I sank into the lie. Never enough to lose sight of my surroundings, keeping an eye on Lynch’s and Morales’s reactions so I could adjust if necessary, but enough that I saw the lies superimposed over the present, like film that’s been double exposed. A dark road lit only by the headlights of the truck, which made my eyes—so used to the darkness of the hidden compartment now—contract painfully as someone with rough hands and a bandanna over the lower half of their face pushed me toward the trees so I could piss. Barely able to stand because my legs were so weak beneath me from fear, hunger, and lack of use. The stench inside the compartment as I was shoved back in, not even resisting anymore, knowing that it was pointless to fight. One glimpse into the eyes of the terrified girl with the freckles and strawberry blonde hair whose body warmth would be my only comfort once we started driving again before the door clanged close and took all the light away.
Lynch was blinking a lot. Patrick was rigid beside me. Morales was watching Patrick.
It began to feel like the driving would never end. Like the rest of the world had disappeared, and there was nothing and no one outside of this truck and this road. We never stopped during the day, so the day had ceased to exist too. I began to think the whole world was dark.
Then we stopped again, and something felt different. I don’t know why, but we all felt it. I could tell by the way the other little bodies in the compartment tensed, the way they started to breathe differently. There were voices outside, muffled through the layers of metal separating us, but definitely raised. My heart started to pound wildly. I was convinced it was the police, that someone was about to save us. But when the doors opened again, it was one of the same bandanna men, the one with the scar through his right eyebrow. And that was it, the moment that I realized that hope was more dangerous to me than anything else.
Lynch had his head turned now, looking at the wall. I had upset him. He recovered quickly and put on his brave boy face, but my story had gotten to him. Morales wasn’t similarly moved. Her expression hadn’t changed the entire time I’d been speaking.
The man with the bandanna blindfolded me again before hauling me out of the truck. I felt warmth on my face and realized it was sunlight just as he led me back into shadows. My feet were on a solid surface; I was inside a building. We went down a flight of stairs, and it grew colder around me. The smell of moisture and moldering surrounded me, like rotting leaves, brown decaying things. I imagined the walls dripping with fetid water, moss creeping across the floor, slime oozing up between the cracks. He put me in a small room, more like a cell, with no window, no light, nothing but a thin foam mattress on the floor, a blanket balled up on top of it, and a bucket in the corner. He locked me in there, and he didn’t come back. I curled up on the mattress, pulled the blanket over my head to hide my face, and prayed to God with all the words I could barely remember from infrequent visits to Sunday school to wake up back at home in my own bed, with my own family.
Patrick shifted beside me. I turned to glance at him, realizing that between visualizing my lies and keeping an eye on Lynch and Morales, I hadn’t been paying him any attention. He was staring down at the surface of the table, blinking his eyes rapidly. I felt a sudden, sick twist of guilt in my gut. I hadn’t even considered what it would be like for him to hear these things. We’d gone over the story a hundred times yesterday, but I’d been embroidering it as I went along, and each new detail must have been like another blow to him.
“Are you all right, Mr. McConnell?” Agent Lynch asked.
“Perhaps you’d like to step outside for a moment,” Morales added.
Patrick shook his head and took a sip from the glass of water Agent Lynch poured for him. “I’m fine. We can continue.”
“Are you sure?” Morales asked. “It’s no problem—”
Patrick’s expression was carved from marble. “I’m fine.”
“Okay,” Morales said at length. “Danny, whenever you’re ready.”
I stuck to the story. No more embellishments. I told them how they left me alone in that room for many days, the door occasionally opening to admit some food or water or to take the bucket for emptying. Sometimes a man would come in and ask me my name. When I said, “Danny,” he would hit me. What did I say my name was again? he would ask. “Danny,” I would say. Defiant. Lower lip wobbling but chin raised. Then I would be beaten and left with no food for days. This happened again and again until every inch of my skin had been broken and reknitted a half a dozen times. After the third beating I stopped telling him my name. After the twentieth I genuinely didn’t remember it anymore.
Once they had broken me, well. That’s when things really began.
Morales leaned forward in her chair, clasping her hands together on the table in front of her.
“One day the man who always came to ask my name showed up with another guy,” I said. “He was different. Cleaner. He seemed like someone important. He asked my name, and I told him I didn’t know what it was, which was true. He told me they were going to call me ‘J’ from then on. We all had names like that, just letters of the alphabet. He asked where I was from, and I told him I was from that room. I could barely remember anything else. I think . . . I think it was probably too painful for me to remember, you know? So I just forgot. It was easier for me to think I’d been born there in that room and never known anything different. I remember the man smiled at that.”
Agent Lynch glanced over at Morales. She gave a nod so small that it seemed to come more from her eyes than anything.
“We’ll come back to that man, Danny,” Lynch said. “For now, just tell us what happened next if you can. Unless you need a break first?”
I shook my head. “I’d rather just get through this,” I said, and it was true. Telling the lies, making myself believe them as much as possible so I would sound convincing to the people listening, took its toll.
“Of course. Go on.”
“They took me out of my room and gave me a shower,” I said. “It was only the second or third one I’d gotten since I’d been there. They dressed me in new clothes and then the clean man put me in a car and drove me somewhere. He didn’t bother blindfolding me or trying to tie me up or anything. I guess he knew I wouldn’t run.” I faked a crack in my voice, but it wasn’t hard. All good lies contained some truth, and I knew what it was like to be young and scared and feel beyond saving. “He took me to another house in the middle of nowhere. There were other children there too. That’s where we lived when we weren’t . . . being used somewhere else.”
My stomach started to feel unsettled as I continued the story. What they told me I’d have to do. What they did to me when I refused. How bad it got before I finally agreed, and how much worse it got after that.
“This one guy, he was always smoking. If I made him mad, he would burn me.” I pulled down the neck of my shirt, showing them a circular cigarette burn just under my collarbone. Might as well put my real scars and the healed breaks any X-ray would detect to use. “They broke my ribs a couple of times. My arm, too.”
“Did they take you to the hospital or a doctor?” Lynch asked.
I shook my head and rubbed my arm where the phantom pain of bones grinding together still lived. “No, they just made me a splint. Couldn’t risk anything else.”
The more truth I wove into my lies, the more the constructed memories blurred with my real ones. The dark room where I slept on a mattress on the floor was no longer in some human trafficker’s safe house but in a trailer home in Saskatchewan, the screaming voice suddenly a familiar one, the close walls those of the closet where I tried to hide. The metallic tang of fear in the back of my throat as I heard footsteps in the hallway at night was as vivid now as it had been then, and soon tears I had never cried for myself were building up in my throat for my invented Danny Tate, so thick it was hard to breathe.
Patrick reached out and slowly, carefully touched my shoulder. That did it. I broke down. “Crying” is too delicate a word for what it was. Patrick put his arm around me, but I flinched away violently, because I wasn’t in that room anymore, with the man who’d been nothing but the perfect big brother to me. I was back there, in the dark and the cold with her and with them.
“Danny,” Patrick said. “It’s okay. You’re okay.”
I looked up at him, remembering where I was. Patrick looked bewildered and worried, and I let him squeeze my shoulder.
“Okay?” he said.
I took a deep breath and nodded. I was safe now. I was okay. And that very rare, very real display of emotion surely wouldn’t have hurt my cause here.
“I know this can’t be easy for you, Danny,” Morales said. “We really appreciate your bravery in telling us all of this. Take a minute if you need to.”
I shook my head and swiped at my eyes. “I just want to get this over with. I just want you to stop them.”
Morales nodded at Lynch, who asked, “Can you tell us how you got away?”
“They accidentally left a door unlocked,” I said. “I made a run for it.”
“How long ago was that?”
“About a year.”
“Why did you never seek anyone out?” Morales said, asking her first question of the day. “Go to the police?”
“You make that sound like an accusation, Agent,” Patrick said. “My brother is the victim in all of this. He’s not here to defend his actions.”
“I did go to the police,” I said. “That’s why I’m here now.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound accusatory,” Morales said. “I’m just wondering why you didn’t reach out for help in the year before you arrived at the juvenile facility in Vancouver.”
“I was scared,” I said, thinking about that first time I ran away and the look on my mother’s face when she had to come get me and take me back. “To me, the men who had taken me were like gods. All powerful. I was sure if I told anyone who I was, they’d find me and take me back.”
“Even the police?” she asked.
“Especially the police. I’d been abused for years, and the police had never done anything about it,” I said. I tasted bile at the back of my throat and tried to swallow it down. “They never found us kids and saved us the way I thought they would for so long. Never investigated any of the houses where we were kept or any of the men who did this to us. I thought the only way that could be was if the police were a part of it.”
Morales sighed, and her eyes were a little softer when she looked at me. “I’m sorry we never found you, Danny.”
“Me too,” I said.
“So what changed when you got to Short Term 8?” she asked. “Why did you decide to come forward then?”
“I started to remember who I was.” I looked at Patrick. “I started to remember my family.”
Patrick met my eyes for a half a second before looking down at his watch abruptly. “I think that’s enough for today.”
Morales frowned. “Actually, I still have some—”
Patrick stood. “He’s told you everything you need to know about his kidnapping and imprisonment. Nothing else is relevant to finding the people who did this to him. Are we free to go?”
Morales stood as well, buttoning her jacket. “Mr. McConnell, if you could just—”
“Agent, we’ve been very cooperative,” he said, “and we’ve also been here for hours. My brother’s still in a delicate state, and I can see that he’s exhausted. I don’t want to overtax him.”
“I think Danny’s been clear that he wants to do everything he can to help.” Morales turned her sharp eyes on me. “Right, Danny?”
“Thank you, agents,” Patrick said, without waiting for my answer. “Come on, Danny. Let’s go.”
I got up and followed Patrick from the room. I was holding up and would have been happy to stay if it meant getting this part of the process over with, but I suspected Patrick needed a break more than I did. His face looked drawn and clammy, and the least I could do was let him use me as an out.
Lex tossed aside a magazine and jumped to her feet when we entered the lobby. “Finally! How did it go? Are you okay, Danny?”
“I’m fine,” I said. “Tired.”
“It was fine,” Patrick said. “Let’s get out of here.”
I glanced back at the building as we reached the car. Morales was standing just outside the door watching us, and the sight of her gave me a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach I couldn’t explain.
• • •
Lex climbed into the backseat with me and wrapped her arms around me while Patrick drove home. I gave in and leaned against her. It was starting to hit me now. I had expected the nerves and fatigue from so many hours of thinking through every word I said, but the grief that had bubbled up from inside of me had caught me off guard, and Lex was surprisingly solid for such a wispy, dandelion person. Maybe she treated me like a little kid, but at this moment it felt nice to be held, surrounded by her softness and the smell of the lavender hand lotion she kept in her purse. Made me understand why normal people sought this out.
“Was it awful?” she asked. “I can’t imagine how awful it must have been.”
“It . . . it was okay,” I said.
“He did great,” Patrick said, glancing at us in the rearview mirror.
“Well, we’re not going to make you do that again. Right, Patrick?” she said. “They got everything they need, right?”
“We’ll see,” he said. “I doubt it.”
“It’s just going to have to be enough.” Lex leaned her cheek against the top of my head. “They’re not making you relive all of that again. It’s all over now.”
And I realized, slowly, that she was right. The cold, lonely boy I’d once been was gone. I had a home now, people who loved me. People I was starting to love back, as impossible as that seemed. Maybe I didn’t deserve it, but Danny Tate did, and I was him now.
I wondered if this was what happiness felt like.
• • •
A few hours later I was lying in the sun out by the pool, watching Patrick try to teach Mia how to do the front crawl. Lex was sitting in the lounge chair next to mine working on her second glass of wine. My phone buzzed in my pocket. It had taken a while to get used to, but I actually kept it turned on and with me now.
“Who’s that?” Lex asked as I pulled the phone out to check it.
It was a text from Ren. You okay? Didn’t see you around today.
“Just that girl from school,” I said.
I’m fine, I texted back. Had things to do. Be back tomorrow.
Good, because the leeches were very disappointed at your absence and lunch is booooring without you.
“I think Danny’s got a girl-friend,” Lex crooned.
“Shut up,” I said.
“Ooh, he does!”
“Is she cute?” Patrick asked.
“I’m not talking to either of you,” I said.
“Danny and his girlfriend, sitting in a tree . . . ,” Mia sang.
“Not you too!” I said while Patrick and Lex laughed.
Doing anything right now? Ren asked.
Not really, I said.
Want to come over?
I thought of a dozen things simultaneously. Ren’s eyes on mine and her laugh and the feel of her skin against my hands and the pleasant queasiness I felt when I was talking to her.
“Hey, Patrick, can you drive me somewhere?” I asked.
“What, now?” he said. “She must be really cute.”
“Wouldn’t you rather stay home tonight?” Lex asked. “Take it easy?”
“Actually, I think I’d rather do something normal for a little while,” I said.
Lex’s lips were pinched together. “I don’t think—”
“It’s fine,” Patrick interrupted. “Whatever you want, Danny. Just let me go change.”
A few minutes later Patrick and I were getting into his car.
“We should get you enrolled in a driver’s ed course this summer so you can get your license,” he said. “Technically, Nicholas isn’t allowed to drive with another minor, so the sooner we can get you your own car, the better.”
I smiled, imagining myself in my own car, the smell of new leather and music blasting from the speakers. A convertible like Patrick’s so I could have the sun on my shoulders, but black or maybe red.
It wasn’t until we were nearly to Ren’s house in Calabasas that I realized I hadn’t considered how useful a car would be to me if I needed to run. How far I could get in it, how much I could sell it for. It gave me a strange twinge in my stomach, because not that long ago it would have been the first thing I thought of.
But things were different now, and I knew it.
I wasn’t going to leave. Not ever.
• • •
I stayed at Ren’s house for a couple of hours. I met her aunt and uncle, who were nice and kept offering me things to drink, and then we watched a movie in her media room. Kai, baked out of his mind, came in when it was almost over and announced that he needed some marshmallows immediately, but there weren’t any in the house and his license was suspended for another week. Ren told him that was too damn bad, but after a few minutes of negotiations, we took Kai to the store and ended up sitting with him at the fire pit in the Himuras’ backyard roasting marshmallows. Kai wandered off, but Ren and I kept sitting there in the dim glow, talking about nothing in particular.
“How can you eat that?” I asked as Ren pulled a blackened marshmallow out of the fire.
“This is how I like them,” she said, pulling the sticky thing apart with her fingers. “Don’t judge.”
“I would never.”
“Good, because I think accepting someone’s personal weirdnesses is the foundation for all good relationships,” she said. “I believe in unconditional love, you know?”
Unconditional. It was a nice thought, if it really existed. Maybe it could.
“Now what are you thinking when you make that face?” she asked.
I smiled and looked down at the fire.
“Mystery man,” she said with a sigh. “It’s okay. Someday you’ll tell me.”
It was nice, all of this. And it was mine now. Home, family, pretty girl. Everything a person could ever want.
• • •
I didn’t know it then, but it was probably the happiest night of my life.
Ren drove me home, and after I’d watched her headlights disappear around the curve in the driveway, I went inside, following the voices back to the kitchen. Mia was eating grapes from the stem at the kitchen island, Patrick was working at his laptop at the breakfast table, and Lex was wiping down the spotlessly clean counters. They didn’t notice me immediately, and I spent a moment just looking at them. Drinking them in. Loving them.
For a second I wondered where the real Danny was, if he would understand that it was better for us all, including them, that I was here.
Mia spotted me. “Danny!” She hopped off her stool and flung herself at me. I caught her and spun her in circles until she shrieked.
“Careful!” Lex said.
“Are you going to pass out?” I asked when I lowered Mia back to her feet.
She grinned and swayed drunkenly. “Maybe.”
“Then my work here is done.”
“Time for bed, Mimi,” Lex said. “Go brush your teeth and get changed. I’ll be up to adjust your brace in a minute.”
Mia kissed us all and headed upstairs. Patrick looked at Lex. Lex swiped at more invisible crumbs.
“What is it?” I said.
“The FBI called,” Patrick said. “They want to schedule another interview.”
I felt a hot flush pass over me. “So soon?”
“Why?” I asked. “I told them everything.”
The FBI didn’t buy my story. They wanted to prove I was a liar. I felt suddenly nauseous, the sickly sweet aftertaste of marshmallow sugar in my mouth turning my stomach. Lex was scouring a plate, even though she was standing right beside the dishwasher.
“I don’t want you to worry about this, okay?” Patrick said. “I’m sure it’s no big deal, just a routine follow-up. I know it’s going to suck having to go through it all again, but you did great today and you can do it again. After this you’ll be done for a while. I’ll make sure of it.”
I took a deep breath. I was sure Patrick was right. I still felt uneasy about Morales, but there had been no concrete signals that they didn’t believe me—hell, Lynch had practically wept—so this was probably just routine.
It was just that now I felt like I had things to lose.
“Do you want something to eat?” Lex asked. “I can make you something.”
“I’m okay,” I said. “I think . . . I think I’m just going to go to bed. I’m wiped.”
She nodded. “Whatever you need. We’re here.”
Despite my exhaustion, sleep wouldn’t come. I lay in bed, staring at the faded stars on the ceiling, buried deep under the covers to stay warm in the air-conditioning. I eventually got up to block the air vent and open a window to let the balmy night air in, but it didn’t help. The cold had settled into my bones.
My stomach rumbled. I hadn’t eaten anything for dinner but marshmallows, and there was an ache inside of me that was something like hunger but different. It was a lack. A want. One too complex for me to label. I threw off the covers and got up. I would wake up Lex and ask her to make me something to eat after all. She’d told me to wake her if I ever needed anything, and she was always trying to feed me. Take care of me. It would help.
I walked toward her bedroom and was a little surprised to see a dim light showing through the crack at the bottom of her door. It looked like I wouldn’t be waking her after all. I raised my hand to knock when I heard her voice, hushed but agitated.
“How are you so calm about this?” she said. I could tell from the way her voice moved that she was pacing the room. I dropped my hand and moved my ear closer to the door.
“Freaking out about it isn’t going to help anything.” Patrick was inside as well. “It’s probably nothing.”
“I hate this,” she said. “We never should have done this. We never should have brought him here!”
I frowned. What was she—
“Maybe you’re right, but it’s too late to second-guess things,” Patrick said. “He’s here now, and we just have to make it work. We have so far.”
“God, what were we thinking?”
“We had no choice and you know it. She was getting too close. It’s all going to be okay.”
“You don’t know that!”
“I’ll make it okay if I have to,” he said. “Come here.”
Lex made a soft sound, and the room went silent.
Or maybe I just couldn’t hear them anymore over the rushing of blood in my ears. Tiny black dots had taken over my vision, and I was nothing but a silent, blind, breathless gasp in the dark.
They were talking about me.
I backed away from the door, numb and plodding, almost tripping over myself in my effort to get away.
We never should have brought him here.
How could she say that about me? Her own brother?
• • •
She knew. They both did.
Lex and Patrick knew I wasn’t Danny.
• • •
When I came back to myself, I was . . . well, I didn’t know where I was. I was in my pajamas, barefoot, sitting on the grass of someone else’s lawn. I must have run from the house. I had no idea how far I’d gone or how much time had passed, and I didn’t care.
Because Lex and Patrick knew.
They knew I wasn’t their brother.
No. No, no, no. I pressed my fists against my forehead like I could jam the word into my brain and force myself to believe it. I didn’t know what they knew. The snippet of conversation I’d overheard could be anything. I tried to remember every word. Lex was freaking out, Patrick was telling her it would be okay . . .
We never should have brought him here.
I could hear her saying that in my head, and I dug my fingers into the grass. I tried to think of anyone else, no matter how far-fetched, that she could have been talking about, but there was no one. I couldn’t explain it away.
It was suddenly so obvious. Pieces that had never quite fit before began sliding into place. All this time I thought they’d been fooling themselves, willfully missing the clues because they wanted to believe so badly, but it was just the opposite. I was the one who had been deluded.
They had instantly accepted me—a stranger with a Canadian accent living thousands of kilometers away who was several years older than their brother—without any kind of proof that I was Danny. They had refused to let my DNA be tested. They had never once questioned the fact that I couldn’t remember my life before my kidnapping and had never pressed me for information about what had happened to me.
I was such an idiot.
I thought back to our first meeting at the Collingwood Police Station, trying to remember the exact look in their eyes when they saw me, the exact words that were said. Lex should have pursued acting the way she’d dreamed, because she was good. The way she’d smiled at me when . . .
“Oh my God,” I whispered as another piece slotted into place.
That time we spent alone together, when Lex and Patrick showed me pictures of the family on her phone—they hadn’t been trying to bond with me or reassure me about my loving family waiting at home. They were prepping me for the test they knew the immigration official Patrick had contacted would give me. They were making sure I would pass.
Then there was the way Lex had watched me so closely in my first weeks here. Not because she was worried about me, but because I was a stranger she couldn’t trust. Lex telling Mia to lock her door at night. Patrick not blinking when he discovered me studying video of the real Danny and coaching me on how to get through my FBI interview without sounding rehearsed. The signs kept piling up in my head.
My stomach roiled, and I lay back in the grass, the dew cool through my thin T-shirt. Every outburst or whispered conversation I had overlooked or explained away suddenly made sense. And every affectionate look and touch and encouraging word had been a lie.
Who else knew what I really was? Mia couldn’t, and I held tightly to that fact, one little piece of stillness in a world that was suddenly spinning around me. She was too young for such a complex deception or to recognize that I wasn’t the brother she’d never really known.
Nicholas had been openly suspicious of and even hostile toward me, which was harder to parse. Was he angry because he knew I wasn’t his brother, or because he suspected I wasn’t even when everyone else told him I was?
I had fewer doubts about Jessica. She had to know. I’d always doubted a mother would mistake a stranger for her own child, but I had assumed her alcoholism and disconnection from the family kept her from seeing through my deception. But now that disconnection seemed less selfish—and, frankly, convenient for me—and more sinister. Maybe she wasn’t just a self-involved alcoholic who never should have had children. Maybe she had a very big secret to hide, and the only way she could do it was to hide herself. If I hadn’t been so determined to believe I’d found a home here, I would have realized what was really going on the night she crashed her car and started screaming that I wasn’t her son. But I’d wanted to believe so badly that I’d swallowed every half-baked excuse I’d been given.
This family, this home that I thought was becoming mine, it was all lies. Nothing here had ever been real.
I’d never felt as alone as I did in that moment. Not when I was a little boy hiding in the back of a closet from the raging monster outside or when I was hungry and cold and spending the night walking empty streets so I wouldn’t freeze. It was one thing not to be loved, but it was another thing entirely to believe that people loved you and then learn all at once that they didn’t. It crushed the air from my lungs.
I lay there, struggling to breathe, for a long time. I searched all of my memories, looking for more clues I had missed and any hint that there’d been something real. Goose bumps rose on my skin, but I didn’t sit up, didn’t try to warm myself.
I was dimly aware of a thought trying to make its way through all the noise in my head, like a snake through tall grass. It had a long way to travel, but eventually it reached me.
The question was soft at first, but persistent.
Why would they lie? Why would they accept a boy they knew to be an impostor into their home and family? Why play such a risky game?
Because they had to, Patrick had said.
There was only one reason, and I tried to push it away. To focus only on my own tragedy, my own anger that they’d played me at the game I’d thought I invented, the death of my own hopes. But I couldn’t escape it. My skin had been covered in goose bumps from the cold only moments ago, but now it flushed hot, my forehead prickling with sweat, the heat building in my gut until I rolled over and vomited bile from my empty stomach onto the neighbor’s lush lawn.
There was only one reason the Tates would let me pretend to be Danny when they knew I wasn’t. Only one reason they would have to.
Because my presence hid their crime.
Because one of them had killed him.
• • •
Fuck this. Fuck them and all of this. I was gone.
I stood up on wobbly legs and headed in the direction I thought the house was. I would’ve taken off right then except I didn’t have any shoes. I had to go back into the Tate house one last time, but then I would disappear for good.
It took me fifteen minutes to figure out where I was and make my way back. Patrick’s car was still in the driveway, and the lights were off in all the windows, so he must have been spending the night. I slipped in through the front door and then stood in the foyer, listening for sounds of movement anywhere, but the house was silent and still. I took the stairs up to the second floor two at a time. I opened the door to my bedroom—Danny’s bedroom—and saw it fresh. This was a dead boy’s room. I had always known Danny was probably dead, but I suddenly felt it. The chill wasn’t just from the air-conditioning. Danny Tate—the boy who’d stuck those stars to the ceiling, who had loved baseball and the color blue—was dead, and one of the people under this roof had killed him.
I dug my old backpack out of the corner of the closet. It was already packed with some spare clothes. I grabbed the laptop Lex had bought me, the stash of cash I’d been collecting bit by bit for weeks just in case, and the credit card with Danny’s name on it. I would make one last cash withdrawal tonight and then toss it.
I looked around the room. There was nothing of my own to take with me. The one possession that was really mine—the baseball card with the smiling boy—was in my locker at school where I’d hidden it. I’d always wanted to get rid of that boy, and now that I had to leave him behind, I felt a pang that was akin to a knife in the belly. But there was nothing I could do for him now.
I walked out of the room and out of the house. I paused only once, outside of Mia’s door. I pressed my palm against it. She was my one consolation in all of this, the one memory that wouldn’t feel poisonous when I was gone.
Then I left the Tate house, and I didn’t let myself look back.
• • •
Once I was outside of Hidden Hills, I caught a bus to Calabasas and walked a couple of kilometers to Ren’s house. By the time I got there, the moon was so high in the sky that it cast no shadows.
I’m not entirely sure why I felt like I had to go there. I’d never said good-byes before when it was time for me to leave a place. Leaving was what I knew best, and I knew it was best to do it clean.
But Ren made me feel messy.
I stood outside the gate that protected her aunt and uncle’s house and watched her windows as I called her. After the seventh ring, she picked up.
“Hello?” she mumbled.
“I’m sorry to wake you,” I said.
“That’s okay. What’s up?”
“O-kay,” she said. “That’s a little creepy.”
“I need to talk to you,” I said. “Can you come down? It’s important.”
She sounded awake now. “You all right?”
“I’ll explain everything,” I said, which was a lie. I wouldn’t explain anything. I didn’t want to disappear with her hating me. There’d be plenty of time for that later.
“I’ll be right down,” she said.
A couple of minutes later the gate slid open and Ren stepped out wearing a robe tied over ice cream cone pajamas. Her hair was up in a loose ponytail, and she was wearing glasses and a bewildered expression, but still she was incredibly pretty to me in that moment. People are always their most beautiful when you know you’re never going to see them again.
“What’s going on?” she said.
“I just . . . wanted to see you,” I said. Which, weirdly, was the truth. She’d never cared that I was Danny Tate, so our relationship was one of the only things I had that hadn’t just been tainted forever. Maybe that’s why I’d needed to come here.
She looked at the backpack slung over my shoulder. “What’s going on? Are you going somewhere?”
“No,” I said.
“How about you come inside?” she said. “It seems like you’re wigging out a little—which is cool, we’ve all been there—but I think you should call your sister.”
“No,” I said.
“Then, I can call her and—”
She started at the sharpness of my tone, and then she was looking at me in that way that so many people did but that she never had. Like I wasn’t quite human. Like I was an animal or a thing, something fundamentally different from her. It was the last thing I needed, and she might as well have punched me. I sank down onto the curb and buried my head in my hands. After a moment, she sat down beside me. We were both silent.
“You said you wanted to get to know the real me,” I finally said. “Did you mean it?”
“Yeah,” she said softly, and when I looked up at her, that look in her eyes was gone, and I was a real person again.
“It’s hard for me,” I said. “To be honest with people.”
“Makes sense,” she said. It was true, too, just not for the reasons she thought. It wasn’t because I was some traumatized kidnapping victim, but because I had learned to be a con artist at the feet of my mother and the parade of losers she brought into our house. Saying just what I had to to keep someone from raising their voice or raising their hand. Being whatever they wanted me to be in that moment. Increasingly, saying and being nothing at all, because nothing made them happy. Ren bumped my knee with hers. “But hey, no rush. We’ve got time.”
Except we didn’t.
“I had—” I swallowed and tried again. “There was . . . this bat.”
She cocked her head at me in confusion.
“When I was in Canada,” I said. “I’d never had any pets, and I didn’t really have any friends or even a stuffed animal, but there was a hole in the screen over the window in the room where I slept, and there was a little silver-winged bat that would crawl in and sleep between the window and the screen during the day. And I . . .”
“What?” she asked.
“God, I don’t even know why I’m telling you this story. It’s stupid.”
“Well, I . . . I sort of made that bat my friend,” I said. “I called him Grey Wing because of this comic book I once read, and I’d make myself wake up before the sun every morning so that I could wait for him to come back after hunting all night. Sometimes I felt like . . . as long as he came back, I could keep going, you know?”
“I was so scared that someday he wouldn’t, so I waited,” I said. The words had taken control now, and I watched as though outside of myself as I told her this story. This ridiculous but entirely true story. Something that was completely me and no one else and which I had never told another soul. I wasn’t even sure why I’d started, except that I wanted to tell her something true before I was gone from here and she discovered how much of me had been lies. “I would talk to him. I’d ask him how his night had been and imagine the story he was telling me in response about flying through the night, hunting moths, hiding from owls. Then I’d tell him about my day. I’d tell him everything that was bothering me, things I never told anyone else. That bat . . . he knew me better than anyone else in my life ever has. Maybe better than anyone ever will.”
“What happened to him?” she asked.
I tried to shrug. “One morning he didn’t come back.”
“Danny . . . ,” she said.
I couldn’t stand the sound of that name in her mouth. Not after the truth. I stood up.
“I have to go,” I said.
She got up too. “Are you sure? Want me to drive you home?”
I shook my head. “I’ll be okay.”
She frowned. “Okay.”
I looked at her for a second, thinking about what I should say, what I should do, what someone other than me would say or do right now.
And then I thought, fuck it. I was already gone. No reason not to do exactly what I wanted.
I pulled her to me and kissed her. My bottom two fingers curled into the top of her pajama bottoms, which were cool and fuzzy-soft, and my top two fingers curled into her flesh, which was sleep-warm and smooth. She was startled, but she didn’t pull away, and, slowly, she raised one hand to touch my jaw with her fingertips.
I’d never kissed anyone like that before.
She pushed me back, not entirely, just enough for me to see the worry in her eyes.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I don’t want to go,” I said.
“Then don’t,” she said. “You’re really freaking me out here.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, backing away from her. “I have to leave.”
“Danny, wait,” she said.
But I couldn’t say any of the things I wanted to, and I couldn’t stand to hear her call me that name again. I started to walk away.
“I’m sorry,” I said over my shoulder, and then I turned a corner and she was gone.
• • •
That should have been the end of it. I should have disappeared after that. But I didn’t. If I had, I wouldn’t be here telling you this story, would I?
• • •
I called a cab to take me to the airport. With the stack of cash I’d been building up over the weeks, I bought a ticket to Toronto on the first flight in the morning and then sat in a chair under a flickering fluorescent light to wait.
For a long time I just stared blankly out of a window, watching lights coming and going outside. Then, slowly, the numbness started to ebb. I began to think. The question got louder and louder in my head until I couldn’t ignore it anymore.
Did I really need to leave?
Did anything have to change just because I knew the truth now?
As fucked up as it was, the Tates and I had the perfect symbiotic relationship. They needed me to deflect suspicion away from them, and I needed them to live something resembling a real life. If I left, it meant living on the run again, alone and on edge. If I stayed, knowing what I knew now, I’d actually be more secure than before. Lex and Patrick knew I wasn’t Danny, which meant I no longer had to fear exposing myself. I would not only have a roof over my head, and a damn nice one at that, but I would have a new kind of freedom. And I’d have Mia, and Ren, which was already a lot more than I’d ever had before.
Over the loudspeaker, a voice announced that my flight to Toronto was starting its preboarding.
As much of a sham as continuing to live as Danny Tate would be, if I was honest with myself, which I sometimes was, it was still better than any of the alternatives. The Tates and I would all be better off if we kept living with our lies.
I stood, looking down at my ticket. To my left, the line was forming to board the plane. To my right, the airport exit. I took a deep breath, then another, and then I threw my ticket into the trash, walked out of the terminal, and caught a cab back to Hidden Hills.
• • •
Slipping under the covers of Danny’s bed after sneaking back into the house as the sun rose made me feel like some kind of grave robber, and it was hard to sleep.
But when I woke up, I smelled pancakes and Lex smiled at me when I entered the kitchen and handed me a plate and it didn’t feel that different.
• • •
Nicholas drove me to school as usual, and as usual we didn’t speak. We went our separate ways as soon as we were inside. Him toward the library, where I knew he met Asher before classes. Me to Mrs. Deckard’s classroom, where Ren had French first period.
She arrived a minute or two before the bell was due to ring. I saw her footsteps slow down as she spotted me waiting for her at the other end of the hall, but there was also a tentative kind of smile on her face.
“Hey,” I said when she reached me.
“Hey, you’re here,” she replied. “I thought maybe I wouldn’t see you today.”
We hugged the wall, staying out of the traffic of kids heading toward their first class.
“Yeah, I was being crazy last night,” I said. “Things just kind of . . . got to me, all at once, and I lost it a little bit. I’m sorry.”
“Are you feeling better now?” she asked.
I nodded, even though it wasn’t entirely true.
She frowned. “Are you getting help, Danny? I think you need to be talking to someone. Someone qualified, I mean.”
I kept my face perfectly still even though it felt like my heart was now somewhere in the vicinity of my stomach. I’d scared her. She thought I was crazy. She didn’t want me talking to her anymore.
“I . . . yeah, maybe you’re right,” I said.
“What you’ve been through, it’s too much for anyone to go through alone,” she said. “I want to be here for you, but last night . . . You know you can always talk to me, but . . .”
You scared me. I can’t handle this. I don’t want this.
“I get it,” I said, backing away from her.
She caught the bottom of my shirt between her fingers and pulled me closer, lowering her voice. “Wait. I like you and I think you like me, too. But . . .” She sighed. “I just don’t think you’re ready—”
The bell rang above us.
“I’ve got to get to class,” I said, pulling away from her. I didn’t need to hear the rest. I’d heard it enough times from enough people to get the gist.
I don’t want you.
She tried to grab my wrist. “Danny—”
“See you later,” I said, and joined the flow of students in the hallway.
Normally, that’s when I would have disappeared. Become another face in the crowd, one so unremarkable that it just melted away.
But now I was Danny Tate, and the crowd parted around me like the Red Sea before Moses, faces turning toward me, people saying my name, offering me fist bumps and invitations and all the attention I’d soaked up just one day before. Now that I knew Danny had died at the hands of one of the people who was supposed to love him the most, that he was probably nothing more than bones now, it all felt suddenly gross and ghoulish. I spotted a restroom up ahead and ducked into it, closing a stall door behind me and locking it. I sat cross-legged on top of the toilet seat and held my head in my hands, taking deep breaths.
I ignored the squeak of the door opening until a voice said, “Danny?”
There was a knock at the stall door. “Hey, man, it’s just me. Asher.”
I reluctantly stood and unlocked the stall. “Hi.”
The door to the restroom started to open.
“Out of order, try the next one!” Asher said, pushing a wide-eyed freshman back into the hall. He closed the door behind the kid and jammed the stop into the crack at the bottom of the door so no one else could enter. Then he turned to me. “You didn’t hear me saying your name in the hall just now?”
“No, sorry,” I said.
“I guess a lot of people were trying to talk to you all at once,” he said with a knowing look.
“Did you want something?” I asked. Asher had barely spoken to me since Nicholas started giving me the silent treatment, so I didn’t see why he’d bother now unless he was here on some mission from his boyfriend, which I had less than zero interest in.
“You don’t look so hot, man,” he said. “Are you feeling okay? Do you want me to get Nicholas?”
I laughed. “Nicholas doesn’t give a shit if I’m feeling okay.”
“I know it may seem that way, but you’re wrong,” he said. “He’s really struggling right now, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t—”
Whatever Asher was selling, I wasn’t buying.
“Look, thanks for the concern, but I’m fine,” I said. “I should get going.”
I kicked the stop out from under the door and got out of there.
• • •
Just a few minutes into second period, an office assistant came to get me out of class. She told me to bring my stuff. I glanced over at Nicholas. His frown of confusion was the same as mine.
When I approached the office, I spotted Lex waiting for me in the hall. My steps slowed. In the early morning bustle of getting everyone ready for work and school, I’d managed to avoid saying much to her and Patrick. I wasn’t sure how to now that I knew the truth.
When she looked up from her phone and saw me, she beckoned me toward her.
“Come on,” she said. “We’re leaving.”
She hooked her arm into mine and led me outside. I was caught.
“Why?” I asked. The bright glare of the sun hurt my eyes. She was acting normal, but I knew now how little that meant, and my mind jumped to worst-case scenarios. The FBI wanted to see me again right then. Lex and Patrick were tired of this game and had decided to turn me over. They knew I knew and were going to make me disappear the same way Danny had.
“You tell me,” she said as she slid into the driver’s seat of her car, which she’d left idling by the curb.
If I started running, now, how far could I get before she caught me?
The passenger’s window came rolling down, and Lex peered at me from behind the steering wheel.
“What are you doing?” she said. “Get in the car.”
If I did get away, how far could I get?
“Danny!” She laughed. “Get in the car!”
It’s not like I had a real choice. I opened the passenger’s door and climbed inside. Lex started to drive.
“Nicholas’s mystery boyfriend called me,” she said as we pulled out of the CHS parking lot. “Seems like a nice kid. He said it looked like you could use a personal day.”
I was relieved, and annoyed. “I told him I was fine.”
“Well then I sprang you for nothing,” she said with a shrug. “But at least you can keep me company today. It gets so boring when you guys are all at school. We’ll have fun.”
“Okay,” I said. I’d have to figure out how to be around Lex at some point anyway, and at least this way I wouldn’t have to figure out where to sit at lunch today.
She turned and smiled at me, and it turned out that Lex was ten times the liar I was, because if I didn’t know better, I would have sworn it was real.
• • •
She took me to lunch, where we talked about my school and Mia’s upcoming surgery to have her brace removed and a hundred little mundanities. Truthfully, once I relaxed a little, it wasn’t that different from before. We were both still lying. The only difference was I now knew it, just like she always had. Well, that and the sour, queasy feeling I got in my gut whenever she gave me one of her loving smiles or asked with apparent interest how I was doing, not because she actually gave a shit about me, but because it was her job to manage the impostor and make sure nothing went wrong with the scheme. I couldn’t believe what an idiot I was for not seeing it before. Me, of all people.
We returned home to find Jessica’s car—the now repaired SUV she’d crashed the night I should have realized the truth—parked in the driveway, that mysterious orange dust lining the treads of the tires. We didn’t see her, though, and Lex and I ended up in the rec room, sprawled out on the couch, watching her soaps on the big screen.
“Wait, Savannah is with Gage now?” I asked as the two characters kissed passionately.
Lex nodded and popped back a couple of chocolate covered coffee beans from the package she’d grabbed from the kitchen on our way down. Then she passed it to me. “Yeah, his girlfriend—”
“Right. She died in the same plane crash that killed Savannah’s fiancé, so they bonded.”
“Cordelia’s dead?” I asked around a mouthful of coffee beans. “I liked her!”
“Well, they think she’s dead,” Lex said, “but no way they’d kill off such a big character. I’m guessing she’s still alive.”
After the next commercial break the camera zoomed in on Cordelia waking up in the home of the strange mountain man who’d saved her from the wreckage of the plane crash. I laughed, and Lex whooped and turned to me for a high five.
For a second I’d forgotten. And when I remembered, it stung all over again.
It must have shown on my face, because she said, “Hey, you okay?”
“Yeah, I just . . .” I swallowed. “This is nice.”
“Oh, sweetie,” she said. She scooted over until we were right beside each other and wrapped me up in her arms. I let her hold me. Part of me hated her, but it still felt nice. It still, somehow, made me feel better, even though I knew it was a lie.
It had to be a lie. Lex was just that good an actress. I couldn’t let myself start to believe that maybe she’d really come to care about me outside of the con, the way I’d really started to care about her.
That would be incredibly stupid.
“Lex,” I said.
“Hmm?” I felt her response more than heard it, the hum of her voice against me.
“Can we watch one of the home movies?” I asked. “From before everything got so messed up?”
I wanted to see her again with Danny. Maybe it was different from the way she was with me. Maybe it would show me that some of whatever this was between us was real.
She pulled away and looked at me. “Yeah. Sure, we can do that.”
“Thanks,” I said.
She got up and went to the credenza where the DVDs were kept. She read the labels on the spines before grabbing one and putting it into the player, then sat down beside me again as the movie started. The date at the bottom of the screen said it was 2009. On the screen Robert Tate was filming his wife, who had baby Mia, dressed in a pink bathing suit with little blue dolphins printed on it, held in her arms. Jessica kept trying to hide her face from the camera, telling Robert to go film the kids. Instead, he zoomed in close, until her face—ocean blue eyes, her cheeks pink from the sun, an American sweetheart face—took up the entire frame. Jessica batted him away, and Mia started to cry. Jessica gave Robert an exasperated look, and retreated to the cabin of the boat with the baby.
Robert turned the camera on himself and made a grimace. An I’m-in-trouble face. Then he turned the camera toward the kids who were swimming off the back of the boat.
“Oh, I remember this. It was the Fourth of July,” Lex said. “It was so hot it felt like we would die if we got out of the water for even a second.”
Danny climbed back onto the boat. He ran, dripping, up the stairs to the wheelhouse and climbed over the barrier until he was standing on a tiny perch, only his grip on a metal railing holding him there. A teenaged Lex yelled at him to be careful. He grinned and let go, cannonballing into the water below. My eyes went back and forth between the video and Lex as she watched it.
“You never had any fear,” Lex said with a sad smile.
The picture suddenly grew dark, cutting from the kids horsing around in the water to the family huddled together under blankets after the sun had gone down.
“Remember the fireworks?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“Oh, Danny.” She put a hand on my leg. “I’m sorry.”
On the screen the fireworks began. Robert panned between the colors and the family. Jessica had her arms around Nicholas, Lex and Patrick were smooshed together under one big blanket, and Danny was lying on the deck, looking straight up at the sky.
“Stay still,” I heard Jessica say while Robert was filming the fireworks above.
Nicholas said, “Danny pinched me—”
“I did not,” Danny said. “Don’t be such a girl.”
“Boys!” Robert barked.
Lex grabbed the remote. “You know I love your dad, but he was obsessed with that camera. Who wants to watch a video of fireworks?”
She fast-forwarded until the picture changed from the darkness of the fireworks to another sunny day on a beach somewhere. Nicholas was the one filming this time. First, he captured Robert, Patrick, and Danny throwing a football back and forth, then panned to Jessica talking on her cell phone farther down the beach, then Lex holding Mia in her lap while she stuck her chubby little hands into the sand.
It was easy to forget how young Lex had been when Danny disappeared, just seventeen. Younger than I was and only a year older than Danny would be now. She was such a good sister, singing Mia a little song as they played in the sand together back then and taking care of all of us now.
But she might be a killer.
That was the only reason I was here. Because a crime couldn’t be investigated, its perpetrator put in prison, if the crime had never happened. Someone in this family had killed Danny and was using me to make it all disappear.
Lex and Patrick were my only ironclad suspects, because they were the only ones I knew were aware I wasn’t really Danny. But at this moment it was impossible to imagine Lex had anything to do with Danny’s death, even knowing what a gifted actress she was. She’d obviously had her troubles—I thought of how sickly thin she’d looked in the last home movie I watched and the vague allusions she’d made to problems that kept her from finishing college on time—but her love for her siblings was palpable. She was Mother Lex, the one who’d stepped into the vacuum Jessica had left when she retreated behind her bedroom door, who made us all breakfast every morning and adjusted Mia’s brace four times a day and was comforting me now, when she didn’t have to, even though she knew I was a liar. I couldn’t believe she could hurt Danny.
I could believe her love for her family would make her play along in order to protect someone else.
I watched the rest of the video closely, taking in every detail I could and turning my eyes as often as I could to Lex to see if there were any clues I could glean from her face as she watched her old family on the screen. I didn’t know what exactly I was looking for, since it was unlikely that one of the Tates, in the midst of frolicking on an exotic beach or attending some family function, would threaten to kill Danny while the camera was rolling. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that people are bad at keeping secrets, and eventually everything shows. You can learn all there is to know by watching someone hard enough, long enough.
Slowly, as we watched the movie, it dawned on me what I was doing.
I was investigating Danny Tate’s death.
• • •
For weeks I’d been living in Danny’s skin. Sleeping in his bed, sitting in his chair at the table, answering to his name. I had mingled his pain with my own in that FBI interrogation room, and I had smothered myself so that he could live inside of me. I was Danny Tate, and he was me. I felt a strange loyalty to him, maybe even an affection for him, and I couldn’t let what had really happened to him stay buried. When someone hurts a child, that person should pay. I was a liar and a con artist and probably a terrible person, but I still believed that.
I would find out the truth, because Danny deserved it. And because Mia, who was the only person I knew to be innocent in all of this, deserved it. I could get them that justice.
. . . or, because I was a terrible person, I could use the truth for myself, as leverage whenever I needed to.
I hadn’t decided yet.
• • •
That weekend I made a password protected folder on my laptop to hold all of my research on Danny’s disappearance. When I was supposed to be sleeping, I spent hours scouring the Internet, adding to it. There was a lot less information online than I’d hoped to find. A photogenic young white boy had gone missing from one of America’s safest and wealthiest communities. The story was a cable news producer’s dream. It should have been everywhere, but it had barely made a blip on the radar.
It seemed the rarefied nature of Hidden Hills, the very exclusivity that made Danny’s kidnapping such a shocking story, also helped keep it from becoming a widely known one. The gates around Hidden Hills slammed shut after Danny disappeared, the community withdrawing to protect its people and its way of life. The Tate family did the same thing. Other than one televised appeal given by Robert with the rest of the family in the background and the occasional comment from the family’s spokesperson and lawyer, the Tates never spoke publicly about Danny. When I’d first found out about this, I’d chalked it up to a weird rich people thing I couldn’t understand. Like seeking out publicity in the midst of their personal tragedy would seem common and crass to them. But it made more sense once I realized someone in the family had something to hide.
There was still some information to be found now that I was really digging, though. The basics were well documented in the recent LA Magazine article and elsewhere. Jessica had called the police at eight in the evening on a Saturday to report Danny missing. The last time he’d been seen was at breakfast that morning, when he’d told the family he was going to ride his bike to his friend Andrew’s house. When Jessica got home at six and Danny still wasn’t back, she and the kids—Robert was out of town on business—called Danny’s friends and drove around the neighborhood looking for him. When she got ahold of Andrew’s parents and learned that Danny had never been to their house that day, Jessica phoned the police.
The cops immediately issued an AMBER Alert. A house-to-house search was conducted in Hidden Hills, and the security tapes and logs from the community’s gates were examined. Nothing suspicious was found. It was like Danny had disappeared into thin air. More likely, of course, was that he had left the community in the trunk of a car or the back of one of the dozens of authorized work vans that had passed through the gates that day.
The press that was following the case—mostly the local paper and news stations—was focused on the idea of an outside threat. Hidden Hills was home to wealthy CEOs and movie stars; what better place to scoop up a kid who could be ransomed for millions?
But from the start law enforcement seemed to have a different view. Judging by the number of times he was reportedly brought in for questioning, it was clear to me who the FBI’s main suspect was.
• • •
Patrick found me out by the pool, where I was keeping an eye on Mia as she swam.
“Hey,” he said as he sat down in the lounge chair next to mine.
“Patrick!” Mia said. “Look how fast I am!”
She dog-paddled with little grace but great enthusiasm across the shallow end of the pool. Ever since the weather had turned warmer, she’d been practically living in the water, only emerging for school and meals, her fingers permanently puckered.
“That’s great, Mia,” Patrick said with a wide, white toothed smile. For a second I imagined him with blood spattered across his face, and I had to shake my head to lose the image. His smile was gone when he turned to me. “I need to talk to you.”
“Sure,” I said. I had a handful of quarters that I’d been throwing one at a time for Mia to dive for. I grabbed them all and chucked them into the pool at once. Mia shrieked and dove. “What’s up?”
“It’s the FBI,” Patrick said. “I’ve put them off as long as I can. We need to go in again tomorrow.”
I swallowed. “Okay. At least I had a little time off, right?”
He put his hand on my shoulder, and I wondered why the FBI had suspected him. Was it just demographics, the fact that most killers are young men, and Patrick was the only one who fit the bill? Or was there some evidence against him I didn’t know about?
“I’m sorry, D,” he said, “but after this we’ll both be done with them.”
Mia swam up to the edge of the pool closest to us and dropped another quarter onto the small, wet pile on the concrete. “I’m rich!” she said.
• • •
Lex was not pleased.
“No way!” she said, slamming the cabinet door shut after pulling out a stack of plates for the takeout she’d ordered for dinner. “He’s not doing it!”
“Lexi, you knew this was coming,” Patrick said.
“It’s too much to ask of him,” she said, tearing up. I knew now that she was only scared for herself and whomever she was protecting, but for a moment it felt like it was me she was protecting again. “He’s only been home a few months. He needs time to heal, not all this constant questioning.”
“I wish there was something I could do, but—”
“Well try harder!” Lex snapped.
She fled the room, throwing off Patrick’s hand when he tried to catch her, and didn’t come out of her room for the rest of the night.
• • •
Patrick and I went back to the L.A. field office alone. Lex pulled a Jessica and disappeared after spending the night locked in her room. Maybe if I spent more time locked in my room, any suspicions Morales might have that I wasn’t really a Tate would be laid to rest.
Morales greeted us coolly when we met in the lobby. I understood now why just the sight of her made Patrick and Lex so tense and angry. Her cool professionalism, brisk walk, and smartly pressed slacks felt like a slap in the face when she was trying so hard to ruin my life. It made me want to shake her until she was as much of a mess as the rest of us.
“How’s school, Danny?” Morales asked as she walked us back into the office.
“Fine,” I said.
“Are you catching up okay?”
I could feel Patrick’s eyes on me. I just shrugged. “It’s a lot to catch up on.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll get there,” she said.
She took the two of us back to the same interview room we’d used last time. Lynch came in a minute later with a laptop under one arm and a couple of bottles of water cradled in the other. He put the water on the table in front of us while he got the laptop up and running. Neither Patrick nor I took one.
Morales and Lynch showed me dozens and dozens of mug shots, asking if anyone looked familiar. I told them no a hundred times, that I had been blindfolded for most of my abduction, but pointed out a couple of men who I said looked a little like the men who’d held me captive over the years. I picked them out of the sea of faces at random. Hopefully that would keep them busy for a little while.
“Thank you, Danny. This is helpful,” Morales said. “Now my colleague Margaret Hamilton is going to come in here and talk to you. I’d like you to tell her your story, and Mr. McConnell, while that’s happening, I’d like to speak with you privately, if you don’t mind.”
Patrick’s hands curled into loose fists on the table. “Actually, I do. I wasn’t aware I was here to be questioned. I came as Danny’s lawyer, and I need to be present during his questioning.”
“It’s not questioning, Mr. McConnell,” Morales said. “Danny’s not in trouble. We just want to see if there’s any other information he may have that can help us catch whoever did this to him.”
“Regardless, I won’t—”
“It’s okay,” I interjected.
“No, Danny, it isn’t,” Patrick said.
“Really, it is,” I said. Hopefully, cooperating with Morales would earn me some goodwill, and I could lie just as easily—if not more so—without Patrick hovering over my shoulder.
Plus, there was a chance that being questioned by Morales would knock Patrick enough off-balance that I might be able to learn something from him.
“I’ll be fine,” I told Patrick when he continued to protest. “Let’s just get this over with.”
Patrick’s jaw strained against his skin, but he had to know that if he continued to argue, he risked making himself look more suspicious to a woman who already had her doubts about him. He looked at me and I looked right back at him, and something like honesty passed between us. I wasn’t his traumatized kid brother; I was a practiced con artist, and he knew it. I could handle this, and he knew that, too.
“Fine,” he said. “But if you start to feel uncomfortable, you tell them you want to see me, and you don’t say another word until I get here, got it?”
I nodded, and Patrick left the room with Morales while Margaret Hamilton came in and took Morales’s vacated chair. She was older than Morales and not as put together—wavy blonde hair that was graying at the roots, like she hadn’t had time to dye it in a while, a suit with a button coming undone, glasses instead of contact lenses—and she was wearing a wedding ring and another band with three small stones, the kind husbands bought for their wives to represent their children.
I wasn’t worried.
Agent Hamilton settled herself in the interview room and offered me a soda. I said no thanks. No playing fast and loose with my DNA inside the FBI field office.
“Good choice,” the agent said. “I always tell my kids that stuff will rot your teeth right out of your head.”
She was trying to make an emotional connection with me, to put me at ease. It was such a transparent tactic that I felt compelled to use one of my own.
“It tastes too sweet to me,” I said with a shy little shrug. “I guess I’m just . . . not used to it.”
The smile melted off her face, and I knew I had her.
Agent Hamilton had me tell her my entire story again. The abduction, the weeks of torture, the places they took me and the things they made me do with the men there. She tried hard to maintain her professionalism, but I saw the sheen in her eyes when I told her some particularly gruesome detail, and it spurred me on. Most of my story was pre-scripted with Patrick, but I also made up a few flourishes as I went along, because all great artists follow their intuition sometimes. I focused on things that I thought would really get to someone like her, like how I would comfort myself at night by quietly humming the tune of a lullaby my mother used to sing to me long after I forgot the words. She actually teared up when I said that.
It took more than an hour for Hamilton to finish with me, and then I was passed off to another agent. It was clear to me now what they were doing—testing to see if my story would change at all as I told it over and over again. They were probably doing the same thing with Patrick, making sure our stories aligned with each other’s as well.
Agent Willis took me to his office for our interview. He was in his sixties, a gruff and grizzled man who walked with a limp I was willing to bet was the result of an injury on the job, either with the FBI or in the military. I took a quick look at the two framed photos on his desk that were angled enough for me to glimpse them. A staged family photo with a couple of kids and a couple of grandkids, and three men in camouflage in a deer stand. Vulnerable and emotional wouldn’t work with Willis the way it had with Hamilton. It would make him uncomfortable, and he’d start looking for holes in my story as a way to keep his distance from it. So with Willis I went tough. Danny Tate was defiant in the face of what had been done to him, angry and ashamed of his victimization.
When Willis asked, “What can we do for you, Danny?” I looked him in the eye and said, “You can find those bastards and kill them.” And Willis nodded.
When Willis was done with me, he clapped his hand on my shoulder and said I was a damn brave kid and those sons of bitches wouldn’t get away with this. Then he passed me on to the next person.
Interviewer number three introduced himself to me as Sean Graves, and I knew even before he told me—from the way he shook my hand and the soothing tone of his voice as he asked me to call him Sean—that he was a psychologist.
This one was going to be a little bit trickier.
Sean took me to a different kind of room, one with a leather couch and armchair and a ficus that needed dusting.
“So, Danny—do you mind if I call you Danny?” he said.
“Everyone does,” I said.
His grin was sharp around the edges. “That’s not what I asked.”
“Danny’s fine,” I said.
“Okay then, that’s what I’ll call you,” he said. “First, I just want to make it clear that I’m not here in any law enforcement capacity. The agents just wanted me to talk to you and see how you’re doing.”
“You’re not FBI?” I asked.
“I’m a consultant,” he said. “Do you want to tell me a little bit about how things have been since you returned home?”
Sean was hard for me to nail down. He was a young guy, probably early thirties. He wore no wedding ring. His suit was nicer than the ones worn by most of the agents—the result of not being on a federal salary—but it wasn’t particularly nice either. His expression was pleasant but bland, and it never wavered. It was a mask as unmoving as the plastic ones kids wore at Halloween and only slightly more lifelike. He was smart and observant, but beyond that he was a cipher. Without knowing who he was, I didn’t know who I needed to be for him, and that made me uneasy.
“Things have been okay,” I said. Without knowing what role to play, I decided not to play one. Something told me Sean would see through theatrics anyway. “It’s been hard, but it’s good to be with my family.”
Sean just nodded. “How has it been hard?”
“Well, it’s a lot of adjustment,” I said. “Even normal things, you know, seem new to me.”
“What about your relationships with your family members?” he asked.
I thought of Mia throwing herself into my arms, trusting completely that I would catch her. Nicholas watching me across a crowded courtyard. Lex trying to get me to take second helpings of food and ruffling my hair as she passed my chair. Jessica haltingly asking me about school and Patrick laughing at my terrible attempts to shift gears in the Jag when he took me to drive in an abandoned parking lot. They were the best family I’d ever had, and it was all total, total bullshit.
“They’re good,” I said. “Everyone’s been so supportive, and—”
“I’m going to stop you right there, Danny,” Sean said. “Let’s try that answer again, but this time, tell me what you really feel instead of what you feel like you should.”
Shit shit shit.
This guy was good. I had no choice but to be as honest as possible if I wanted to get out of this interview without arousing any more suspicion than I already had.
“I . . . it’s hard,” I said. “They are supportive, but I know I’m not the same boy I was when I was little. It’s like . . . it’s almost like we’re strangers sometimes.”
“That does sound difficult,” Sean said.
“It is . . . ,” I said.
“But?” he prodded. “It sounded like there was something else you wanted to say there.”
I swallowed around the sudden, very real lump in my throat. “But . . . I love them. And I want them to love me, not wish I was the boy who disappeared six years ago. I want them to know the me I am now.”
“You’ve changed,” Sean said.
“Yeah.” I rubbed a hand across my forehead. “Yeah, I have.”
It was the best damn performance of my life, because for once I was telling the truth.
• • •
Morales came to collect me from my meeting with Dr. Sean. She told me they were done. Patrick was waiting for me in the lobby, and we could go. She escorted me back to the front of the building.
“I’m sorry we had to bring you in again,” Morales said. “I know it can’t be easy for you to relive.”
“I would have thought that was the point,” I said.
She looked taken aback, which was pretty satisfying. “Excuse me?”
“Well, the reason you brought me back is you wanted to see how I’d respond to the stress, right?” I asked. “If my story would change at all?”
She smiled slowly. “Well, you never know what pressures or different approaches might cause a breakthrough, and that’s all we’re after here.”
“I understand,” I said.
“I thought you would,” she said. “You’re a very clever young man. Very perceptive.”
Morales opened the door to the lobby for me. Patrick was waiting.
“I had to be,” I said, and Patrick and I left.
• • •
Patrick drove me home. When I asked him on the way what Morales questioned him about, he dodged.
“Just the usual stuff,” he said. “You hungry?”
• • •
I said no, and Patrick dropped me off at home. He said he had an early deposition in the morning that he had to get ready for and I should give everyone his love. His headlights were gone before I’d even gotten to the front door.
Once I was alone, I took a deep breath and allowed myself to smile. I’d done it. Morales might be suspicious, but I’d gone through four FBI interviews and they had nothing on me. Maybe now I was out of the woods with them, and that meant I was as safe here as I could ever be.
I went inside the house and found Nicholas and Mia in the den, him on his laptop and her watching a movie. I sat down next to Mia, who put a pillow in my lap and laid her head down.
“Where is everyone?” I asked.
“Out,” Nicholas said without looking up from his screen.
“Where?” It wasn’t strange for Jessica to be gone, but it was weird for Lex not to be here. I would have thought she’d be waiting at the door for me, probably with food in her arms.
Nicholas shrugged. He obviously didn’t find it as strange as I did. He closed his laptop and left the room.
For the next couple of hours I hung out with Mia, serving as her human pillow while she finished her movie and then playing game after game of Spit, her new obsession.
“I’m hungry,” she finally said, and I checked the clock on the cable box. It was after seven, and still neither Jessica nor Lex was home.
“Me too,” I said. “Let’s see what there is to eat.”
We went to the refrigerator and peered inside.
“Oh,” I said. “Nothing.”
“Can we order a pizza?” Mia asked.
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “Go ask Nicholas what he wants.”
Mia ran upstairs and came back with Nicholas in tow.
“Lex isn’t home yet?” he asked when he came into the kitchen.
I shook my head. “I’m going to call her.”
While Nicholas called to order two large pizzas—“And mozzarella sticks!” Mia said—I dialed Lex’s number. It went to voice mail, so I tried texting her. Where are you? Everything okay?
A half an hour later, the gate buzzer went off.
“I’ll get it,” I said. Mia followed me into the foyer, singing, “Mozzarella sticks, mozzarella sticks!”
I hit the button that would automatically open the gate, and opened the front door to wait for the pizza guy to drive up. But he was already there, climbing out of his car. Behind him Jessica was pulling up.
“Evening,” the delivery guy said.
“Hey, how’s it going?” I said, but I wasn’t really paying attention. I was watching Jessica climb out of her car. She seemed more or less sober, which was good. Her windshield was coated in dust. She didn’t wobble on her high heels as she walked up behind the delivery guy and swept into the house.
“Want some pizza, Mom?” I asked her retreating form.
“Or some mozzarella sticks?” Mia added.
Jessica didn’t say anything, just disappeared up the stairs. I was probably imagining it, but I swear I could hear the click of the lock as she hid herself behind the door to her bedroom.
“She never wants to eat with us anymore,” Mia said.
I signed the delivery guy’s receipt while Mia took the boxes he handed her. “Did she use to?” I asked. “Before I got back?”
Mia shrugged. “I usually ate with Magda, but sometimes Mom would eat too. More than she does now.”
So Jessica was avoiding me. Mia and I took the pizza to the kitchen, where Nicholas was setting cold sodas and a roll of paper towels on the kitchen table.
“Mom’s home,” Mia said as we came in.
“She went upstairs,” I added. “She . . . wasn’t hungry.”
Nicholas smiled grimly. “Of course not.”
“Why doesn’t she eat with us anymore?” Mia asked.
Nicholas’s eyes flickered up to me and then away again. “I don’t know, Mimi. I guess she’s just tired.”
The three of us ate and cleaned up and watched another movie and Mia went to bed, and still Lex wasn’t home. I sent her another text and left another voice mail. Nicholas called Patrick, but he didn’t answer either, which was not unusual if he was working like he said he would be. He often turned off his phone whenever he went to the law library.
“This is weird,” Nicholas said. “Something’s wrong.”
If he was worried enough to be voluntarily speaking to me in more than monosyllables, it had to be.
“What should we do?” I asked.
Nicholas fished his keys out of his school bag. “I’m going to find her.”
“I’m coming with.”
He shook his head. “Someone’s got to stay here with Mia.”
“Mom’s upstairs,” I said.
“Whatever,” he said, and didn’t protest when I followed him to the garage and climbed into the passenger’s seat of his car.
“Where do you think she is?” I said as we left the gates of Hidden Hills behind.
“Her house,” Nicholas said. “Maybe one of her friends’. I have no idea. Try calling again.”
I called for the fourth time, and this time it went straight to voice mail without any rings. “Her phone is off,” I said.
Nicholas drove to Lex’s house, which I had never seen before. It was a small Craftsman in Century City on a street full of small, pretty houses. From the light of the streetlamp, I could see that Lex’s place had an air of neglect that none of the other homes had. The lawn had patches of dead, brown grass, and the paint was beginning to peel. Maybe it was because Lex wasn’t here very often, or maybe it didn’t occur to her to take care of a place that was already so much less grand than the home she had come from. Her car was parked at the curb, but Nicholas didn’t seem relieved, so I didn’t feel relieved either.
Nicholas knocked on the front door, but at the same time he tried the knob and found it unlocked. Without waiting for Lex to answer, he walked inside and I followed him.
“Lex?” he called. I spotted a switch on the wall and flipped on the lights. The place was a wreck. Unopened mail was piled up by the door. Clothes were strewn across the floor. Empty bottles lined the countertops. It was hard to reconcile this place with the Lex who was always cleaning at home.
“Lex?” Nicholas called again. There was no answer, and he started walking through rooms. I followed behind.