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A Friend at Midnight
by Caroline Cooney
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For miles, nobody spoke. Then the driver stopped right in the road and said, "Get out of the car."

Michael's fingers struggled with the latch of his seat belt. The driver reached over with such irritation Michael expected a slap, but the driver just released Michael's seat belt. It was gray and shiny and slid away like a snake. The car door was heavy. Michael opened it with difficulty and climbed out onto the pavement. The passenger drop-off made a long dark curve under the overhang of the immense airport terminal. Glass doors stretched as far as Michael could see. Men and women pulled suitcases on wheels and struggled with swollen duffel bags. They hefted briefcases and slung the padded straps of laptop carriers over their shoulders. The glass doors opened automatically for them and the airport swallowed them.

"Shut the door, Michael," said the driver.

Michael stared into the car. He could not think very clearly. The person behind the wheel seemed to melt and re-form. "You're not coming?" Michael whispered.

The driver answered, and Michael heard the answer. But he knew right away that he must not think about it. The shape and contour of those syllables were a map of some terrible unknown country. A place he didn't want to go. "Shut the door," repeated the driver. But Michael could neither move nor speak. Again the driver leaned forcefully over the passenger seat where Michael had sat. Michael backed up, the heels of his sneakers hitting the curb. The driver yanked the door shut and the car began leaving before the driver had fully straightened up behind the wheel.

Michael stared at the back of the car, at its trunk and license plate, and immediately his view was blocked by a huge tour bus with a red and gold logo. Passengers poured out of the bus, encircling Michael, talking loudly in a language he did not know.

The bus driver opened low folding doors covering the cargo hatch and flung luggage onto the sidewalk. Bus passengers swarmed around the suitcases. Michael watched as if it were television. When all the luggage had been distributed, the driver folded the doors back, leaped back into his bus and drove off.

Michael could see down the road again, but the car that had dropped him off was long gone.

AIRPORT EXIT, said the sign above the road.

Three cars drove up next to his feet. Families got out. People kissed good-bye. They vanished into the maw of the airport. Another bus arrived, all its passengers either old ladies carrying big purses or old men carrying canes and newspapers.

Michael felt eyes on him. Not bus people eyes, because the bus people were too busy making little cries of pleasure as they spotted their suitcases.

He didn't have to look to know they were police eyes focused on him. He was not going to tell the police. Not now, not ever.

Michael eased into a knot of bus people, resting his hand on the edge of an immense suitcase towed by a fat chatty lady. Another even fatter lady towed an even larger suitcase. Wherever they were going, they could hardly wait to get there. The ladies hauled their suitcases into the terminal. Michael went with them. The women never noticed him, but surged forward into a ladies' room. Michael stood in the midst of a vast open area. Hundreds of passengers hurried by, separating on either side of him as if he were a rock in a river. They gave him no more attention than they would have given to such a rock.

Michael threaded his way down the concourse until he came to flight monitors high on the wall. Michael was not a good reader. Charts, like the departure and arrival lists on these screens, were difficult for him. Craning his neck and squinting, he struggled to interpret the information. There were several flights to LaGuardia. He counted six in the next two hours. He hung on to this information, as if it might be useful.

Michael was wearing new jeans. It was too hot for jeans, but he had been told to put them on. The crisp pant legs were rough against his skin. His T-shirt, though, was old and soft. It had been his sister, Lily's, and he had filched it from her to use as packing around a fragile possession. He had been wearing it lately, even though it came to his knees.

He felt those eyes again. He walked into the men's room to get away from the stare. It was packed. So many men. Fathers, probably, or grandfathers or stepfathers or godfathers. He closed himself in a stall, but the toilet was flushing by itself, over and over, as if it intended to drown him, and he fled from the wet sick smell of the place.

Back in the open space, Michael distracted himself by looking everywhere, even up. The ceilings were very high, with exposed girders in endless triangles that looked like art. He had been in this airport once before and imagined swinging from those girders, leaping from one to the next, sure of his footing. Michael was not sure of anything right now, not even the bottoms of his feet.

He sat on a black bench that had curled edges, like a licorice stick. Ticket counters stretched in both directions: American, Southwest, Continental, Frontier, Delta. People stood in long slow lines that zigzagged back and forth, separated by blue sashes strung between chrome stands.

Maybe I just didn't understand, he thought. Maybe the car just went to park. Maybe if I go back outside . . . He felt better. He went back outside. Taxis and hotel limousines and vans from distant parking lots were driving up. Wheeled suitcases bumped over the tiled sidewalk as loudly as guns shooting. Clumps of people stumbled against him and moved on. New buses took the place of the last set, and their exhausts were black and clotted in his lungs.

The terrible words the driver had flung at Michael had been lying on that sidewalk, waiting for him to come back, and now the words jumped up and began yelling at him. Michael tripped over a suitcase and fell hard on the pavement. The suitcase owner picked Michael up, dusted him off, and examined his bare elbows for scratches. "I'm sorry about that," said the man pleasantly. "You okay?" Michael could hardly hear the speech of the man, banging against those terrible last words from the car. He couldn't answer.

"Where's your mom and dad, kiddo? Who are you with?" asked the man.

Michael recovered. "My grandmother," he said, astonished by how easily the lie came to him. Michael was not much of a fibber. He had always meant to get good at lying, because he was always leaving tracks he'd like to cover, but he never got around to thinking of good lies, and stupid ones were too stupid to bother with, so usually he just admitted whatever he'd done.

Where had that fib come from? Had the bottom of his mind been getting ready to lie?

"Where is your grandmother?" asked the guy, standing tall and scouting out the sidewalks.

"In the bathroom," said Michael. "She has to go a lot. I figured I had time to look around."

The guy laughed. "Better find her before she panics." "Okay," said Michael. "Thanks." He went into the terminal again and did not look back.

This time when he walked past the ticket counters, he saw that they broke in the middle and that beyond them was another huge hallway. Michael entered new territory and slid gratefully into a magazine shop.

There were clerks at three registers and a line at each one. Every passenger at the entire airport was buying a snack before boarding. Michael had not had supper last night, and of course this morning there had been no breakfast, and now it was almost lunchtime. He walked around, staring at the racks of small bags. Honey mustard pretzels and jelly beans. Peanut butter cups and barbecue-flavored potato chips. Sugar-free gum and chocolate bars.

Usually Michael didn't care that much about food. His big sisters, now, Reb and Lily, they loved food. They were always moaning how they couldn't have this or shouldn't have that, because they might gain a pound. Looking at this food, Michael got hungry. But if he stayed, pretty soon the clerks would notice him.

Michael went back into the hallway. The next store sold gifts. Its front display held teddy bears. He studied the one in front, bright red and not half as good a bear as York. Michael had gotten York when he was very small. York was very soft and easily squished, rusty brown the way a bear should be, with a knitted New York Yankees sweater and a tiny New York Yankees baseball cap. York had not washed well. One arm, Michael considered it York's pitching arm, had come off and although Michael carefully kept the arm for months, eventually it got lost. York's fur had acquired lavender streaks, something his mother blamed on bleach.

For years now, Michael had been trying not to sleep with York. He had graduated to keeping York in a cardboard box under the bed. That way, when Michael's friends came over to play, York was hidden. But at night, when he was tucked in, and the lights were off, Michael's hand would sneak out from under the covers and wave into the darkness under the bed until his fingers located the cardboard. Slowly, carefully, he would pull the box out into the room and go to sleep holding on to York's remaining arm.

York had seemed perfectly safe under the new bed. But he hadn't been.

Michael thought about his possessions, still sitting in the new room. What would happen in that new room now? When he was ordered into the car, Michael had not known what the plan was. He hadn't known they were going to the airport. He had brought nothing with him.

Nothing. He had not known the meaning of that word before. He had nothing.

He walked past more stores. His sisters loved shopping even more than food. How many hours had Michael spent with his feet dangling from some bench while his sisters fingered every single sweater in a store the size of a stadium? And when his sisters were finally done shopping, what did they have to show for it? Usually nothing. They never had any money, either.

Michael wanted his sisters so much that for a terrible moment he thought he might cry.

He paused at a restaurant with two hostesses. They weren't busy, the restaurant was almost empty. The women frowned slightly, watching this eight-year-old all by himself. It had been a mistake to stop walking because one hostess opened her mouth to speak. Michael averted his face and yelled down the hall, "Mom! Wait up!" He broke into a run and ran smack into the security gates.

Passengers were hefting bags onto the X-ray conveyor belt and tossing their car keys and shoes and change into little boxes. On the far side, they were being wanded by security people or putting their shoes back on. There were three types of security: people in uniforms like flight attendants wore; people in police uniforms; and people in camo, probably National Guard.

It was a policewoman who spotted him. He didn't move fast enough. The officer was next to him, bending over, smiling, and he couldn't let her ask questions, because he didn't have answers, so he smiled back and said, "I can't find the bathroom. My mom let me go to the bathroom and now I can't find it."

She led him back the way he'd come, to a different break between the ticket counters; another route to the front half of the terminal. "There it is," she said, pointing.

"Thanks!" Michael trotted, as if he were desperate, and he was desperate, just not for a bathroom. He killed time in there, seeing which soap spout actually delivered soap, and this time when he went back toward the shops, he found a little-kid playroom behind a stairwell. He joined children playing on toy trucks that doubled as benches for the parents.

On a far wall were pay phones. The phones had no booths and no seats. Not one was in use. Probably most people had cell phones. Michael did not have a cell phone. Mom and Kells and Reb and Lily all had cell phones but Michael was "too young." He had said a hundred times to his mother that nobody was "too young" for a phone.

I could call home, thought Michael. But if Mom or Kells answered, Michael would have to hang up, because he wasn't ever telling the thing that had happened and the thing that had been said, and since he knew already he would just hang up on them, what was the point of calling?

Unless he could be sure of reaching Lily. Somehow, Lily had known he would need to call home. She had been so sure, she'd trained him. What exactly had Lily known that Michael had not known?

Lily was fifteen and difficult. Michael adored her but steered clear if he could manage it. The day before he left, when he was literally hopping with joy, Lily dragged him into her bedroom and slammed the door. "It won't work, Michael," she said, referring to his Plan. "But since you're going anyway, you're going to memorize something."

How Michael was looking forward to a life with no big sisters pushing him around. "No," he told Lily.

"Yes. Or I'll stomp you." Lily stomped him routinely and then said innocently to their mother, "Me? Fighting?"

Oh, well, he had told himself. Tomorrow Lily will be history.

"Fine," he said grumpily to the sister he was sick of. "What do I have to memorize?"

Now in the airport, Michael picked up the phone. His throat was sore. He closed his eyes and saw the memorized number, all those digits. He dialed the phone company's 800 number and then he dialed his own area code and phone number. The phone pinged and told him to dial the number being billed. You always had to think about money, Lily had explained.

Again Michael poked the numbers for his home phone and this time he added Mom's PIN number. For years, her PIN number had been 3000, because she said that three children in the house felt like three thousand, especially when the three children were Rebecca and Lily and Michael. But then Mom got remarried, and a year later, Nathaniel was born. Mom went and got a new PIN number: 4000.

Lily said Mom had no right to get divorced, no right to get remarried, no right to have another kid, and absolutely no right to go and change her PIN number.

Michael, however, thought 4000 was an excellent PIN number because Nathaniel had four thousand toys and had broken four thousand pieces off things (mostly Michael's things) and had definitely worked through four thousand diapers. Every night felt like four thousand nights, too, because Nathaniel could not fall asleep without sobbing for half an hour.

They were all pretty grumpy about Nathaniel. Especially Michael, because he had to share a bedroom with this unwanted half brother. Kells built a double-sided bookcase across the bedroom, which supposedly gave Michael privacy but really just turned Nathaniel's side into an echo chamber. At least Nathaniel was still in a crib. He was old enough to climb out but never had and Michael certainly never demonstrated. Nathaniel belonged in a cage.

When Michael left home, Nathaniel had been twenty-two months old and Michael had figured not to see him again for a year. But his brother would still be twenty-two months old when Michael got back.

The call went through. Michael pictured all the phones and all their ringing: the kitchen phone in the great messy sunny room where everybody was always cooking; the portable phone in Mom and Kells's room; the TV room phone.

He hung up in the middle of the second ring. It was too early to call. Things might change.

Lily was putting Nathaniel down for his nap. When the phone rang, she was delighted, because Nate, like some little trained dog, honored the ring of a phone. Reb and Lily often called each other on their cell phones just to shut Nate up for a minute.

"I'll be right back, Nate," Lily told him. "I have to answer the phone. You put your head down and close your eyes. Before you know it, my phone call will be over and I'll be back."

Nate was still pretty easy to dupe. He said, "Okie, Wiwwy," which was how he said "Okay, Lily," and even though Lily tried to harden her heart against Nate, she adored him when he put his head down and murmured, "Okie, Wiwwy."

Lily whipped out of the room without looking into Michael's half. Michael's three quarters, actually. Nate had exactly enough space for his crib and one person to stand next to it.

Michael had stripped his side of every possession, taking every baseball card and toy truck and Lego and book and video game and CD and of course York. He had even taken the sheets off his bed, Michael!, who believed that laundry belonged on the floor and changing sheets was for sissies. After Michael threw his used sheets in the laundry room that day, he came back to admire the bare mattress: Proof. He was leaving. For good.

Lily understood Michael's decision to go. They all wanted to storm away when Mom remarried and they all wanted to storm away again when Nathaniel was born. But when Michael really did storm away, Lily knew in her heart why she and Reb had not. They knew better.

It gave Lily a bit of peace to know that Michael had York the Bear with him. York would never let Michael down. The second ring was cut short. There was not a third one. Lily pounded down the stairs to look at the caller ID on the kitchen phone and see who had hung up. Probably some solicitor who had managed to avoid the Do Not Call list. Lily adored the telephone. She loved e-mail and text messaging, because she loved every variation on communicating, but mostly Lily loved the sound of her own voice. Just since yesterday's phone calls, she had a hundred new things to tell every friend she had. If she got lucky, Nathaniel would fall asleep and give her two fine nap hours for phone calls.

Mom and Kells would not be back till after midnight. They had driven Reb to college. It was the first semester of Reb's freshman year, and Lily had been counting the days right along with her sister, excited about seeing the campus and the dorm, meeting the roommates, helping unpack, hanging clothes and posters. But when the last box and suitcase had been wedged into the car, there was no room for Nate's car seat and no room for Lily.

"That works!" cried her sister brightly. "You guys stay here."

Lily was crushed. "Let's divide everything in two cars," she offered quickly. "Mom drives one car, Kells drives one. No fair leaving me and Nate behind."

How pleadingly her older sister looked at her. Reb, like Michael, wanted to enter a new world. She didn't even intend to use her nickname from now on. Michael had left forever, and now Reb would turn into some college woman named Rebecca, while Lily would be abandoned in a swamp of dirty diapers and educational toys.

Their house was chaotic in the best of circumstances, because not only did Mom drop everything everywhere, using the dining room table to match socks and the living room rug for stacking catalogs, but she piled her concert band's music on the stairs and left broken school instruments she needed to repair on the kitchen counter and lost whole series of CDs under the sofa. Lily even saw a cell phone peeking out from under a sloppy heap of paper napkins. Had to be Mom's, everybody else held tightly to essentials, or they would vanish forever in Mom's chaos. It was hard to believe that their messy mother easily controlled a four-hundred-student band program. Today the house was strewn with stuff Reb wasn't taking after all. Styrofoam packing peanuts lay like snow, and under all this was the debris of a toddler.

Lily had only one gift for a sister who wanted out. She managed a smooth smile for Reb and Mom. "Nate and I will be fine on our own. You guys drive safely."

Mom was anxious. "It's such a long time, though. It's a six-hour drive, more if there's traffic. We can't be back till after midnight. What if something happens?"

"Then I'll handle it," said Lily. She decided not to tell Mom about the cell phone under the paper napkins. A phone in her purse would mean Mom calling twenty-five times to check up on Lily. What could possibly happen that Lily couldn't handle?

Yet the sight of her family driving away had been awful, as if they were being sucked down a tube, never to return. Then of course Nathaniel wanted to play Jump Off the Back Step, a game that involved jumping off the back step. Lily's job was to applaud and cry, "Wow!" with lots of emphasis on the ws, and Nate would whisper "Wow", a good word for him, since he had w nailed. They played Jump Off the Back Step until Lily figured that even losing Reb and Michael wasn't as bad as playing Jump Off the Back Step one more time, so she coaxed Nate in for a very early lunch of tuna salad. Nate loved tuna salad. He always had cat breath because he did not love having his teeth brushed. Now he was down for his afternoon nap way too early because she was the one ready for a nap.

Lily reached the kitchen. The stingy tart smell of the Magic Marker with which Reb labeled her boxes mixed with the fishy scent of tuna salad she'd forgotten to refrigerate. On the kitchen phone, the caller ID showed some out- of-state number. Undoubtedly a sales call. Kells was polite to telephone salespeople. "I'm so sorry," he would say, "we don't purchase items over the phone, but thank you anyway." Mom handled it differently.

"Stop phoning me!" she would shout. "I'm never going to want it, whatever it is! Hang up! You hang up first, do you hear me?"

Neither approach worked. Neither, apparently, did signing up for Do Not Call.

Lily deleted the number.

Michael continued to hold the receiver. Even though he was connected to nothing, he felt safer hanging on. A shadow fell across him. He looked up to see a uniformed officer standing over him. Michael was not allowed to watch shows like COPS  because of the violence, but of course he watched them all the time anyway, and he knew what police did in situations like this. They went after the dad.

"Hi," said Michael. "Is that a real gun?" Michael knew perfectly well it was a real gun. This was a cop. What would he have—a cardboard gun?

"Have you ever used it?" said Michael. "My mom doesn't like guns. She won't let one in the house."

The officer smiled. "It is real and your mom is making a good decision."

Michael turned to the phone, hoping the officer would leave.

No such luck. "Where are your folks?" said the cop. His voice was pleasant and warm.

Michael gestured vaguely. "I just called my sister," he said. "She's leaving for college." He was seized by horror. When was Reb leaving? What if they had already left? All of them? What if his house was empty? What if he called and the phone rang and rang and rang and rang—and nobody came? What was he going to do?

"Well, it was nice to talk to you," he said to the cop, letting go of the comforting phone. It was like letting go of York in the dark.

"Bye." He was only steps from the parents on toy wagons. He needed parents so the cop would forget about him. But all the parents were paying close attention to their children and would speak up if he tried to look like theirs.

There was one couple kissing and smooching over by the windows. They looked as if they had no children; as if they never planned to have children. Michael flopped down at their feet, flat on his face, and hoped for the best. He felt sick from not eating and his head whirled. Under the seats lay used coffee cups and discarded magazines. He could see the feet of the officer, who was moving on, satisfied.

How silent the house was. Lily put the tuna salad into the refrigerator. It was quiet times that bothered her most these days.

Michael had been a nonquiet brother.

Michael was a very busy kid, and most of all, he was busy talking: he talked all the time to everybody. He was busy with sports: hitting balls, kicking balls, pitching balls, dunking balls. He was busy going places: on foot, on bike, on skateboard. He was busy with projects and friends, busy in the cellar, busy in the attic, busy in the yard.

He was a dirty noisy nosy little eight-year-old. One thing that kept him busy was making lists of everything he planned to do next. "I want to learn how to fish," he would say. "I want to scuba dive." He loved equipment. You could never have enough equipment.

Lily remembered Michael sitting by the road with all his equipment, waiting. Silent, because in all those hours, nobody, including Michael, knew what to say.

And then once Michael was gone, Nathaniel too got quieter, now that he didn't have to drown out his big brother. Lily almost wanted to wake Nathaniel up just to have company. Then she came to her senses and turned on the television.

She was setting down the remote when her thumb slid across the number pad, and other numbers filtered through her mind and she recognized the area code of that phone number on the caller ID.

She clicked off the television. A little prickle of fear entered her heart.

She had deleted the number from the kitchen phone but Mom's bedroom phone had a memory bank. Lily never went in there because she didn't like thinking about Mom and Kells sharing a room. She went upstairs on tiptoe so Nathaniel wouldn't sense her presence. She crept into the master bedroom and lifted the portable phone from its cradle to take back downstairs.

She peeked in on Nate. He was asleep in the flung out way of toddlers, arms and legs all over the place.

Michael followed a small girl into a big yellow and blue play plane. Inside were little seats. He squashed himself beneath one. I could hide here for a long time, he thought. And then what?

He decided to check the sidewalk one more time. Just in case. He didn't see any of the people who'd shown interest in him before. He passed the ticket counters safely and walked out next to a janitor pushing a cleanup cart. Outside, he pressed against a cement pillar to avoid being mowed down by crossing guards and airplane crews, by suitcases and dogs in cages, sidewalk check-in staff and overflowing luggage trolleys.

A long thin blue bus arrived.  AIRPORT PARKING, said the sign in its front window.

A woman next to Michael on the sidewalk called anxiously to the driver, "Do you stop at Parking Lot A?" "We stop at all of 'em, lady. A, B, C, D, whatever letter you want."

The school buses at his new school had been named for letters. Michael had gotten on the wrong bus. It had not been his first failure, just one in a string. Michael went back inside so he didn't have to think about A, B, C, D and failure. When he found himself in the playroom again, near the wall phones, the one he had used before was ringing.

"Wiwwy," called Nathaniel. He'd slept fifteen minutes instead of two hours. It was her own fault for putting him down early. He was capable of yelling "Wiwwy" several hundred times before tiring of the syllables.

"I'm on the phone, Nathaniel!" she yelled, and while she was yelling, somebody picked up at the other end. They didn't say anything. They just breathed. Lily got irritated. She was pretty nearly always irritated at how other people conducted their lives. "Who is this?" she demanded.

There was a long jagged intake of air at the other end and then sobs spurted out of the phone. Raw sobs, like cuts, like opening a can and slicing your palm with the lid.

I knew, thought Lily. I knew from the area code. Except her brother Michael didn't ever cry. He didn't cry when a baseball hit him in the face. He didn't cry when he fell off his bike and ripped open his knees. He didn't cry when he got shots. He didn't cry when their parents' marriage ended and he didn't cry when their mother went into a new one. Michael didn't cry.

"Michael?" said Lily. "Yes." "Tell me what's happening. Where are you? What phone number is this? Why didn't you let it ring when you called a minute ago? What's wrong?"

There was another sob, drier this time; shallower. >From his crib, Nathaniel heard her say "Michael?" and since Nate loved Michael, he stopped shouting "Wiwwy" and started shouting "Miikooooo!"

Lily said, "Mom and Kells took Reb to college, Michael, and there wasn't enough room in the car for Nate and me, so we're here by ourselves. There's nobody around to butt in, Michael. Tell me what's happening."

"Lily," he whispered.

Lily waited. But Michael had nothing else to say. "I love you," Lily told him. She never said things like that. Even when he'd left forever, she had not told Michael she loved him.

She could hear the little huffs of his breathing, his effort to still the sobs.

Her heart was crumpled newspaper and kindling. Fear for her brother was the match. Flame charred a corner of Lily's heart.

"I'm here," she said. When he'd left, Michael had done his own packing. Mom had been beside herself about the whole thing because Michael's choice was a personal defeat, an assault. She seemed to think if she didn't pitch in, it wouldn't happen.

Michael didn't care. When Mom wouldn't help, he hiked a mile to the nearest strip of stores, collected cardboard boxes and carried them home, stacked inside each other. He did this five times. He filled them with his belongings and sealed them with strapping tape. He wrote his name and the precious new address in large fat black letters on all four sides, with big arrows pointing up.

On the day Dad was to arrive and take him away for good, Michael was up before dawn. Actually, Lily was pretty sure he'd never gone to bed. By the time the sun was up, Michael had dragged everything he owned to the road. Not the porch, not the back door, not the driveway—but the road. He was literally disowning the rest of them. He propped his fishing poles and baseball bat and bike against the boxes.

He had forgotten to pack clothing. Nothing that sat in a bureau drawer or hung on a hanger mattered to Michael. Mom gave up and dragged out two large suitcases. She folded every shirt carefully. Paired the socks. Replaced a broken lace on a sneaker.

Silently, the family moved through the house, finding things Michael had forgotten. Reb brought his baseball glove.

Mom brought his toothbrush, toothpaste and orthodontic appliance, which he had never worn and never would, but he let her drop the stuff into his duffel along with a book (as if Michael planned to do any reading again in this life) and an apple for a snack (as if he planned to choose apples once Mom wasn't supervising).

York lay in his usual box. The box wasn't marked because Michael could not possibly confuse York's box with ordinary boxes. Lily had a bad feeling about letting their father see York. She got her own backpack and silently transferred both York and box into that. It was the closest she came to telling Michael she loved him. When she slipped her backpack onto her brother's thin little shoulders and adjusted the straps, Michael hugged her, and this was new for both of them and they ended it quickly.

And then the hours passed. Dad did not come. He did not call to say where he was, or when he was coming. Or if.

Mom brought Michael a bagel with cream cheese, but Michael shook his head, eyes fixed on the road.

The morning ended. Michael did not move. Michael who was nothing but movement, an eight-year-old whirlwind. Neighbors phoned, asking for updates. Mom tried to be glad she had concerned friends, but she hated the appearance of this. If Michael himself knew the appearance of this, he didn't say so.

Reb made him a peanut butter and Fluff sandwich for lunch, just the way he liked it, crusts peeled off instead of cut, but Michael didn't glance at it.

Midafternoon, their stepfather sat down on the curb next to him. If you had to have a stepfather, Kells was adequate. That was as far as Lily would go. He was not the sort of stepparent any of them had dreamed of. (If any kid dreams of stepparents.)

"I was thinking—" began Kells. "He'll be here in a minute," said Michael fiercely. 

Nobody had anything to say after that. Lily thought, It will kill Michael if it doesn't happen. She went back in the house and up to her room. She was skeptical of prayer, never paid attention at church and referred to the minister, Dr. Bordon, as Dr. Boring. But into the quiet air of her bedroom, she said, "God?"

He wasn't listening. Lily could tell. She spoke more sharply. "God, Michael needs this. Make it happen. Don't give me that stuff about free will, how people make their own choices, how your choices don't always intersect with the choices of others in a pleasing fashion and how responsibility lies with the individual. Get down here and make this happen."

He was listening now. Lily could tell that too. "Now!" she said fiercely to God.

At exactly that moment, Dad arrived. Even Lily was impressed. Into his end of the telephone, Michael whispered, "I'm at the airport, Lily. Dad drove."

Lily came quickly, easily and often to wrath, so she arrived at smoking fury instantly. In the same car, she thought, that he was driving two and a half weeks ago when he came ten hours late to get his own little boy, the little boy who begged to live with him. A car without room for a bike and fishing poles and ten boxes and two suitcases. "What do I have to do here?" Dad had said irritably. "Pay to ship this stuff? What is this stuff, anyway? Does it matter?"

"No," said Michael quickly. "None of it matters." Kells had said in his bland pudgy way, "I think we can pack most of it if we're careful," and their father said, "Whatever," and Kells got everything except the bike and the fishing poles into the trunk and the backseat, and Michael didn't care; he didn't care about one thing except driving away with Dad. Michael could hardly even be bothered to say good-bye. Who were they, anyway? Sisters, mother, stepfather, half brother—so what?

Dad had come.

"Let me talk to Dad," said Lily.

"He isn't here."

"Where is he?"

"He left."

"What do you mean—left?"

"Don't tell," said Michael.

"Promise you won't tell, Lily."

More of Lily's heart burned. Michael did not have secrets. Michael blatted everything to everybody; he was the sharingest person out there.

Upstairs Nathaniel abandoned saying "Miikoooo" and returned to "Wiwwy." He was sobbing between syllables. "I promise," said Lily. "He was mad at me," said Michael, in a voice too soft and flat to be Michael's.

"But what's going on? Why are you at the airport? Where is Dad? Is he having a hard time parking the car?"

"I don't think he parked."

"Where is he, then?"

"I think he went back to his house."

"But who's with you?"

"Nobody," said Michael.

"You're alone at the airport?" she said, unable to believe it.

"Don't tell, Lily," said her brother. "I don't want anybody to know. Just come and get me."

"You're eight years old and he" Lily didn't finish the sentence out loud—he threw you out on the sidewalk like a paper coffee cup? If she took a deep enough breath, the oxygen in her lungs would ignite. She would go up in smoke. That worthless lowlife pretend father! How dare he! I'll kill him, Lily decided. I'll have him arrested and jailed and tortured to death.

"It was my fault, Lily. Don't tell anybody. Especially Mom or Kells. Promise. You have to promise."

"I promise," she said, although she could not imagine how this could be kept a secret. But to keep it a secret, she couldn't ask a neighbor to drive her to LaGuardia. It wouldn't be too hard to get there by bus. She'd never done it, but people did. She could get the details from LaGuardia's Web site. Nate loved the bus, he'd be good. Driving herself wasn't a choice; Lily wasn't old enough to get a learner's permit, never mind weave her way to LaGuardia.

"You're coming?" said Michael. She could hear the pace of his breathing stepping up again, getting too fast and too shallow and very close to sobbing again.

Okay, she thought, planning hard. Nate and I get the bus, meet the plane, bring Michael home, put sheets on his old bed, get York settled underneath it. When Mom and Kells get here, they'll decide how to kill Dad. "What airline is your ticket?" she asked.

"I don't have a ticket," said Michael.

Meet the author:
Caroline Cooney

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