Rooster and Tad sit at the cluttered dinette table. Heavy feedback
music is in the air and Tad drums along to it.
"So's he gonna be ready?"
Rooster looks at his partner. Tad's recently started smoking meth, and he's on it now. Rooster can tell because Tad has that filthy sheen. It's a dirty drug that opens the pores and seems to suck in airborne dirt and debris. He must've smoked up the last time Rooster was in the room down the hall. Disgusting. "Of course he's gonna be ready, bitch."
"Because it's first thing, like fucking dawn on Thursday, you know, asshole?"
Tad has a wild, risky look in his eyes. Wouldn't be there if not for the meth, Rooster thinks.
"Yeah, I know, douche bag." Rooster flicks a bottle cap at him. Just misses the fat fucker.
"Watch it." Tad moves evasively and too late. "Just so you're sure, dickhead."
"I'm a professional, fuck face." This taunt catches Tad, and he isn't sure where to go next, how to escalate.
"Listen, faggot," he begins, and then there's a click and a knife blade's at his throat. Rooster's pulled the four-inch Spyderco he carries in his back pocket and locked it back. Just like that. Tad feels the pressure of the blade against his Adam's apple, a hard thin line.
"Don't even say another word. Not sorry, not spit. Hear me?" Rooster's face radiates blood.
Tad Ford nods slowly.
Class has just ended at JFK Middle, and kids stream out toward buses and their parents' cars. Carol Gabriel walks opposite the flow toward the low building and wonders why she's done this to herself and not come later in the afternoon. It has been four days. The police have left her house. Every backpack she sees, every jacket, screams Jamie for a moment before dissolving into a different child. Alex Daugherty walks by her and stops.
"Hi, Mrs. G," he says.
She bends down. "Alex. Hi, Alex." The boy seems to know something's going on but not exactly what. "You know that Jamie's been away for a couple days?" she goes on. She can't hold herself back from touching him. Her hands reach out and smooth the boy's sleeves, his hair. Her hands, disconnected from her
mind, need to know that this boy at least is real.
"Do you know if he was . . . upset? Was everything okay at school and stuff?"
"Yeah. Did he run away?" the boy wonders.
"We don't think so." The conversation is already taking a toll on Carol. "He wasn't having any problems that he told you about? He hadn't met anyone? Any secret stuff? Because you should tell me if he did, it's important."
Alex shakes his head and begins digging at the sidewalk with a toe, when a little way off at the curb his mother honks and gets out of her station wagon.
"There's my mom."
Carol straightens up and trades a glance with Kiki Daugherty, who waves. She's told Kiki and Kiki's said all the right things. Carol watches jealously as the other mother collects her child. If there's any accusation in Kiki's stare, any "What kind of a mother lets this happen to her son?," she keeps it to herself so Carol can't see it. Carol hurries toward the school.
Inside Jamie's homeroom, his teacher, Andrea Preston, a twenty-seven-year-old black woman, hands Carol a cup of coffee.
"We have assemblies where we teach the children not to talk to strangers or accept rides. And we had one yesterday to redouble"
"Yes. Yes." Carol's words echo, disembodied, against the linoleum. "Really, Jamie's old enough to know all that. I just wanted to check again and see if everything was all right here. He was doing fine, wasn't he?" There is panic in her voice now. Perhaps nothing was as she thought.
"He was doing fine. Really well," the teacher says slowly, and gives a pained smile, as if to invest the empty words with hidden meaning. "A few problems with fractions, nothing out of the ordinary. I wish there was something more." Preston's face searches hers.
Published by Doubleday. Copyright © 2008 by Levien Works, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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