I flipped open my phone when it rang, and it was Alex calling. “I’m on the way,” he said when I answered. “Wait outside for me.”
“Okay,” I said. I pulled down my mask and looked in the mirror. I made a pretty poor imitation of Dracula, but I liked the costume just the same. The mask covered down to my nose, and my red lips and fake fangs weren’t very convincing, but I liked it anyhow.
I picked up my trick-or-treat bag and posed for my dad to take my picture. He was dressed like a pirate, complete with a dagger in his sash and an eye patch. My mother was dressed as Betsy Ross, although I don’t know how anyone was supposed to figure that one out. She wasn’t sewing a flag, which would have been a nice hint. She did look like a lady from colonial times, though, and I liked that my parents liked Halloween.
“You’re leaving now?” my father asked.
“Yeah, Alex just called. He’ll be here in a second.”
“Got your whistle?” he asked.
I pulled it out to show him. The whistle was to use if older kids bothered us, which had never happened, but it could.
“Okay, have fun then,” Dad said with a cheerful smile. I stepped outside, only to see the first group of trick-or-treaters coming up our walk, an adult watching from the sidewalk.
I bared my fangs as I passed them, and giggled when a little girl squealed. It sounded more like delight than horror, but it was a squeal just the same. I got out to the sidewalk and looked for Alex, but he wasn’t in sight yet, so I just looked around. I liked what I saw, too. Porch lights were on, and pole lamps decorated with bits of straw, so the neighborhood was brighter than normal, and the cars going by were moving slowly. Kids were out in little groups, and you could hear ‘trick-or-treat’ from all directions. Porches had pumpkins on them, some carved into Jack-o-Lanterns, and a few homes had scarecrows. Others had cardboard skeletons, witches and ghosts dangling from porches and trees. It was probably as typical a Halloween as you could find in an American suburb. It’s not a Jewish celebration, but our little family always played along.
I looked down the street again, and there was still no Alex, so I started walking toward his house, which wasn’t far. Then I thought better of it, because he often cut through yards to come over, so I went back to our house and walked around to the back. He wasn’t there either. I called him, and got his voice mail. I flipped my phone closed. Voice mail usually meant his battery was dead, and that was just like Alex. He had a real air space between his ears when it came to things like that.
The phone said it was six-fifteen, and he’d called me at six. His house was only a couple of minutes away, so I went inside and told my parents I was going to walk over there, and to tell Alex to wait if he showed up while I was gone.
I didn’t put it past him to do a little trick-or-treating on his way over, so he’d have something to ruin his teeth with while we went around.
I got all the way to his house, and there were some kids on his porch getting candy, so the door was open. I hurried up and asked Mr. McKenna if Alex was still there, and he seemed surprised. “No, Sandy.” I could see concern spread across his face. “Honey,” he called inside, and his wife appeared there. “Alex didn’t come back, did he?”
Alex’s mother looked alarmed right away. “No,” she said nervously, and looked at me, “He left a good twenty minutes ago.” Her hands went to the sides of her face, and she said, “Oh, Lord!”
Mr. McKenna said, “Don’t get all panicky. Stay here, and I’ll go with Sandy to find him.”
“Should I call the police?” she asked.
Mr. McKenna looked at her and took a deep breath. “Yeah, call them. Just in case.” He gave her a hug and said, “I’ll be right on this block. He’s probably bending someone’s ear.” He touched my shoulder and said, “Come on, Sandy.”
When we got to the sidewalk he said, “Take off your mask so people can see who you are. Then you can ask if anyone has seen Alex.”
I did that, and took out my vampire teeth, and people immediately began saying hi to me, and I asked after Alex. Mr. McKenna recruited some neighborhood men, and they walked up the street on both sides bellowing Alex’s name, but there was no response. We soon saw a police car go by, and chased it to the McKenna’s house, and Mr. McKenna accosted the officer before he was halfway up the walk.
“Officer, my name is Scott McKenna. This is my house, and my wife called.” He was scared and out of breath, and gulping air to get words out. “Our son left to go trick-or-treating right about six, and he was supposed to go with Sandy here.” He pulled me close, “This is Sandy Cohen. He lives right around the corner. It’s not a two minute walk, and Alex never got there.”
The officer processed all that, looking a bit confused by Mr. McKenna’s heavy Irish accent, and asked, “Okay, so the boy is missing?”
Boy, I could see that Mr. McKenna didn’t like that word, and his lower lip started quivering. “We can’t find him. Sandy said his cell phone is off, and I made sure he had a hot battery before he left. He called Sandy on it, then fifteen minutes later it was dead.”
The officer said, “I hate to ask you this, but has your boy ever run away?”
“No,” Mr. McKenna said. “Why would he?”
A small, concerned, crowd had gathered, and the officer said, “I think we should go inside.” He looked at me and said, “You too, Sandy,” then he turned to the people gathered there and said, “The best thing you can do right now is turn on all your outside lights and look around. Call out!”
Mrs. Fournier, who lived in the corner house, said loudly, “Sir, I saw Alex go by my house right around six. He said hello when I was getting my mail.”
The officer looked at the people there and asked, “Anyone else see him?” He looked at Alex’s dad and asked, “Was he in costume? What was he wearing?”
His father shook his head as if to clear it, and said, “A bum … a hobo. Tan pants, a torn up white shirt, an old knit ski cap. He had black blotches on his face and a corncob pipe.” He looked at the officer, then added quickly, “And red sneakers. Painted red, not red from the store.”
Another man said, “I saw him, then. I remember those shoes. I live right across from the Fourniers, and I saw him stop at their mailbox.”
At that point, the policeman led us inside, and he asked to use the phone.
At least he didn’t think it was a joke, because he was suggesting an Amber alert, and he got it. He was excited when he hung up, and said, “I need a recent picture, a description, anything at all that’s outstanding. Everything is important now, so lets get to it. Others will be here momentarily, and we’ll start with a search of the neighborhood.” He looked at me and Alex’s parents standing there, and asked bluntly, “Are there any suspicious people in this neighborhood? Anyone at all?”
Mr. and Mrs. McKenna looked at each other, then back at the officer, and they both shook their heads, but without a lot of conviction. I honestly thought they were going to fall apart, so I called my own parents.
My father answered, and I whispered, “Dad, can you come down to Alex’s house? He’s gone, and I think his parents need help.”
My dad’s voice sounded suddenly like death itself. “Gone? What? Uh, okay. We’ll be right there.” I could hear him talking anxiously to my mother before he hung up the phone, and they were knocking on the front door in about three minutes.
They still had their costumes on, but they didn’t look ridiculous. My dad went right to Mr. McKenna, and my mother went to his wife, and within a minute the neighborhood lit up with flashing lights. More police came to the house, and they introduced each other in turn, and a state officer showed up and announced that he’d be in charge.
I was scared out of my mind, but I have to say I was impressed. It wasn’t seven-thirty yet, and all those people were there, and they seemed to know what they were doing. They even brought their own phone system.
I had to sit out of the way in the McKenna’s den, but the door was open and I could overhear some things, and it was all encouraging. I turned on the television and started going through channels, and it wasn’t long before I saw the face of my friend, and backed up to see what it was. It said Amber Alert over the top, and there was a lady’s voice giving out information about Alex.
It scared me, because she said he was missing, and the circumstances were unknown. The screen was covered with phone numbers, but one was prominent, and had apparently been set up just for Alex. I sank into my seat and worried, wishing my mother or father would come to tell me they found Alex, but that didn’t happen. There was a lot of activity, but nothing happened; nothing at all.
Alex McKenna always made me feel good about myself, and I guess I did the same for him. He was my first friend when we moved to the neighborhood, and we became good friends in no time at all. We just clicked, and there was nothing more to it. Whatever we did was fun and funny, and as long as we did it together, we kept each other laughing, even when we got in trouble for it.
We even looked alike, at least a little, and Alex changed my name, which is Sam, into Sandy because of the color of my hair. Alex has the same color hair, and we both have freckles, but he has a million more than me. I only have some little ones around my nose and cheeks, but Alex has them all over, and on his shoulders, and halfway down his back.
We had other friends, together and separately. We had common interests, but not everything. My big thing was making models, and I caught that bug from my father. We have a huge and elaborate train set in the basement that we work on all the time. Alex liked to watch it run, but he’d also lay a pretzel across the tracks to derail me. He wasn’t very interested otherwise, but he did like to watch the trains run, and he’d run them himself. He never helped with our work expanding the set.
Alex liked art, and he was okay at it. My first ever out-loud swear was to call him Picasshole when he tried to pass off a two-headed lady with five tits as art. Draw me a lady, draw me a cow, but get the boobies right!
We did get along better with each other than anyone else, and when we got mad, we never stayed that way for long, because we would both come out from the other end of the anger thinking it was funny to begin with.
We could talk forever about nothing much, and sometimes we became serious. I remember watching that movie, “Holes”, at his house once. I liked it a lot, and Alex only liked it at the end, but his past was different than mine. I thought the first part was too unlikely, not that it bothered me. Alex thought it was all too true, and he turned away a lot of times. But we both also laughed lot watching it.
We were friends, and I didn’t have a better friend than Alex. We were connected, solidly, if not at the hip like my mother often suggested. Friends.
I never expected Alex to disappear, but that’s exactly what he did.
On Halloween night, Alex vanished, and neither all the king’s horses and men, nor the Amber alert, nor a town full of hopeful people, could turn up a trace of him. He left his house to walk to mine, a two minute walk, was seen at the corner, then he went poof.
It was Halloween, so there were people out everywhere, and lots of parents taking their kids around for trick-or-treat. The neighborhood was lit more than usual too, just because it was Halloween, but Alex McKenna simply disappeared somewhere between his house and mine, and after a long time, he appeared to be gone for good.
His story was on television several times, and on different programs. Nothing worked.
I knew from listening that there was little hope that I’d see Alex again, and that was a gut-wrenching idea to face. The reality was that I had other friends, so my life went on, even though I felt an empty spot where Alex belonged. I never once thought he was dead, but most people did after so much time went by. I didn’t understand that really, because I thought that surely, if he’d died, I would have known it. I just pictured Alex trapped somewhere that I couldn’t know about, and felt that when he got out, I’d be the first person to know.
Far too frequently, I’d hear of other disappearances, and as I got older I started following the stories. It was usually a sad thing to do, because it seemed that most kids abducted by strangers didn’t live out the first day; and their fates were brutal. There were barely enough successes to keep a little hope alive, and I stayed close with The McKennas. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, we all talked about a living Alex.
Today, Alex wouldn’t even merit an Amber alert, because there was nothing to indicate an abduction. The system was brand new, in its first few weeks actually, when he disappeared, and the authorities wanted to test it. Alex McKenna has the distinction of being the state’s first Amber.
When Alex first disappeared I was afraid for him; a fear that turned to despair over time, and my feelings had numbed over the years. I thought of Alex often, but never as a dead person, even though I understood that was the most likely thing. My thoughts of him were fleeting, more like recalled snippets of a different life. I wasn’t twelve anymore; I was fifteen and looking forward to being sixteen. I didn’t do much of what I used to do with Alex anymore either, but when I first went paint-balling I thought of Alex a lot, just because I knew he would have been thrilled at the fun of it, like I was.
Still, there were times when his absence created a palpable shift in my reality. Certain music, certain weather, certain scents; they could all put Alex at my side, even if just for a moment in time. I’d sense him in the shadows then; silent and weightless in the dark. Those were the times I really missed him, and I’d find myself wondering about life and death, about God and Heaven.
When that first fall turned to winter, and there was still no Alex, that was the hardest. No Alex for backyard football, no Alex to be all excited about Christmas, or my Hanukah.
I started to lose my faith, and it was ironically Father Andrews from Alex’s Catholic church who prodded me into talking to Rabbi Schwartz. Peter Schwartz was a young-looking guy with a lot of nervous habits and a loud voice, and I was afraid of him at first. Over time, though, he helped me make sense of faith, and belief. He also helped me big time through the Torah, because a lot of it scared me. My own religion frightened me!
The Jewish concept of afterlife isn’t nearly as simple as Heaven and Hell; more like the next world, with still another World to Come. As a Jew, I could be a good person; a wonderful person who never once did an evil thing, but I could still end up in Gehenom if I wasn’t pure enough to sit with God in Gan Eden. Gehenom, as I had it figured, wasn’t exactly a punishment like Hell, but it wasn’t a reward either. It’s where you get a look at yourself for the first time, and spend the afterlife facing what you find. Gan Eden and Gehenom are kind of like holding stations where we await the World to Come.
To Jews, the Afterlife is more-or-less a personal belief, for these things aren’t stated explicitly in the Torah, yet the Afterlife seems as real as our hands. And our souls are God’s very essence. I could read that over and over, but it took Rabbi Schwartz to help me understand.
“Sammy,” he said one day, talking about Torah, “These words were put down by the ancients in languages long dead. What we get to read are translations of translations of translations, and the words frighten because they are the words of frightened men. God was new then; a new concept.” He chuckled, “Like never before seen, just like that snake lady at the fair.”
I laughed. Peter said, “Keep that fear in mind when you read these passages. Those men saw God as a thunderbolt in the sky, aimed at them. I think we know better these days, so look behind the words for meaning. Don’t let it frighten you so much.”
I said, “It’s still hateful sounding.”
“I know,” Peter said. “I know. That’s where you have to think of the translations and how inaccurate they may be, and look at different texts, because they do contradict, and they don’t always portray a loving God.”
I looked at him and asked, “Is there a loving God?”
Peter lifted his glasses and said, “Oh, yes. Of course.”
Somehow, those few words made me feel better, and I studied, and had my bar-mitzvah celebration on my thirteenth birthday. I would have invited Alex that day, but it was a great day without him. In the eyes of my parents, I was a man, although still suspiciously subject to bedtimes, report card reviews, and fingernail checks.
After that, Alex was mostly a memory. I really did think of him at times, but no longer in terms of alive or dead, just in terms of Alex and me. I’ve already said that certain things could evoke a memory, and in those moments Alex was still there with me, but he was gone most of the time, and I had a busy life.
The school door hadn’t closed behind me when my phone vibrated. I thought that it would be Liz, who I was taking to the block party that night, but when I looked it was a number I didn’t recognize, and from a florist business.
I didn’t answer, thinking someone dialed wrong, but after I thought about it, I called back just in case. I got an answer before I even heard it ring, and a voice said softly, “I can’t talk. Don’t turn your phone off.”
His voice had changed, but not the accent. I began to tremble and said, “Alex?” but to dead space. I looked at my phone, and looked again at where the call came from. I stood there looking at the phone in my hand, shaking from the shock of hearing Alex. I was absolutely, totally confused, and whatever I called my thought process had completely vacated my head.
I had just heard Alex McKenna’s voice after three years, and I couldn’t get that thought all the way through my mind to do something about it. It took a slap on my shoulder from Greg Simonds, who said, “Hey, Cohen. Going to the block party tonight?”
I looked at him, my phone in my hand, and pointed at the phone, and I must have been a sight. Greg is a good guy, but hardly what anyone would call a tender person. Usually. Right then, he seemed to see the same ghost I did. His eyes went wide and he said, “Jeez, Sandy. Are you okay?”
My mouth opened and I nodded, still pointing at the phone, and I finally managed to gulp and say, “Alex. Alex called.”
Greg looked at me like I’d lost my mind, which wasn’t far from the truth, then his eyes went even wider. “McKenna? Alex called? He’s alive?”
I nodded, and Greg said, sounding suddenly as nervous as me, “Call the police, man. What’d he say?”
I found my tongue. “He said he can’t talk, and leave my phone on. Wait a second.” I still had the Amber number programmed into the phone, and thought if it was still good, I should call there first, but I didn’t want to use my phone. “Let me use your phone,” I said to Greg. “I don’t want mine tied up if he tries to call again.”
“What’s the number?” Greg asked, and he dialed as I read it off to him. Then he handed me the phone. I had no idea if that number was still valid, but it rang in a few seconds, and was picked up right away.
“Amber line for Alex McKenna. Do you have information?”
I almost choked on the words, but I said, “Yes. This is Sam Cohen, and I just had a call from Alex.”
“McKenna? Alex McKenna? “ I could tell that she was reading. “Cohen. Sandy Cohen?”
“Yes,” I said. “I have this phone number. Alex just called me. I’m sure of it.”
“Where are you, Sandy?”
“I’m at Rockville High, right on the front steps.”
She said, “Stay right there. I have an officer enroute. Tell me what you know in the meantime.”
“Well, my cell rang, and it was a call from some florist. I decided to call back in case it wasn’t just a mistake, and Alex answered.”
“You know it was Alex?”
“It was him,” I said emphatically. “Nobody talks like Alex.”
I was concentrating on talking to the lady, and it took when Greg nearly tore my arm off to make me realize that three police cars had pulled up to the school plaza, and a bunch of cops were headed right to me, walking quickly. I said, “The police are here,” into the phone, and she said to hang up and talk to them.
The first cop took a look at Greg with his dark hair, and turned to me. “Sandy?”
I nodded. He asked, “You heard from Alex McKenna?” His voice was full of dubious-sounding surprise.
“It was Alex,” I said simply.
“You could recognize the voice?”
“No, not really.” I shrugged, “My voice changed, his voice changed, but nobody talks like Alex. Not around here anyhow.”
One of the other officers spoke up, and said, “I worked on the case back when Alex disappeared.” He smiled a little my way, then said, “The McKennas came from Northern Ireland, and you really do have to get used to that accent.” He looked back at me and asked, “Can you come to the station with us? I’m sure a whole lot of people will want to talk to you.”
I looked at Greg, who hadn’t been invited, but he held his phone out to me and said, “Call home.” Then he smiled and said, “I mean phone home, E.T.”
“Yeah,” I thought, and called my mother at work. I got her voice mail, left a message, and knew she’d be at the police station before me if the connections were right.
I got to ride in the front seat of one of the cruisers, and actually took a few seconds to appreciate the equipment in there before I read the information from Alex’s call off, and the officer relayed it on to someone over the radio.
When we got to the police station, and went in through the back, I realized that my excitement had its usual effect on me, and asked for a boy’s room in a hurry. That wasn’t a problem, and I was shown the door to a lavatory and told to wait right there in the hall when I was done.
When I came back into the hall, there were other officers there, and a few I remembered from three years before. One of them, Detective Armack, said, “Hi, Sandy. Remember me?”
I said, “Yes, sir.”
He tugged my shoulder and said, “No need for formality. Let’s go talk.”
He led me down the hall, then turned down another one, and we went into a room with a long table and not much else in it. He said, “Sit where you like. Want a soda or something?”
I said, “Water?” as I sat, and other people filed in, and I knew some of their faces from the original investigation. I was nervous. A lady came in with a bottle of water for me, and the men had anxious faces.
Detective Armack looked around, then smiled at me. “Okay, let’s get started.” He looked at me, “Sandy, we just want to hear, in your own words, about the call you got.” His eyes focused on me, “Are you sure it was Alex McKenna, or could someone have been playing a joke on you.”
I said, “I’m sure. People always tried to copy Alex’s accent, and it’s not possible.” I thought, and added, “It’s not just the pronunciation, it’s everything.” I looked around and said, “Alex is alive.” I added quickly, “And he has a phone now.”
I saw skepticism on about half the faces there, but the detective leaned toward me and asked, “What were his exact words, Sandy?”
I said, “When he called, I didn’t answer. I thought it was just a wrong number, then I remembered that people borrow phones sometimes, so I called back. I didn’t get to say anything, but Alex said, ‘I can’t talk. Don’t turn your phone off,’ and then he was gone.”
The detective had a pen in his hand, and he tapped it absently on the table before asking, “Was it a good connection? Was there noise in the background? Anything?”
I looked at him. “All I heard was Alex, and that’s all I heard.”
The man smiled at me. “I understand. It must have been quite a shock.”
I smiled back. “It sure was. I’d probably still be staring at my phone if my friend didn’t smack me.”
Everyone chuckled, and an officer came in the room and touched the detective’s shoulder to get his attention. Detective Armack turned to him and asked, “Anything?”
The cop seemed nervous, and he looked around. “We got the phone and the florist. The phone goes with a delivery truck, and he’s still on the road. Guess what?”
He said that in a way that drew the attention of everyone in the room. “The delivery guy. He’s been there a long time, but he has a longer record.” He eyed me before continuing, “All molestations. All young boys.”
I stared at him, but he didn’t look back at me, and the room was full of murmurs. “Where is he now?” the detective asked.
“Under surveillance. There are units all over him, but nobody’s seen a kid yet.”
The detective tapped his pen some more, then looked at the officer. “Good going. Tell them that if they don’t see that boy before dark to nail him anyhow.” He looked at the cop, “What’s his name?”
“Wayne Bach: b-a-c-h, like the composer.”
The officer seated right next to me pushed his hair back with his hand and leaned back in his chair. “Wayne. What is it with that name? I swear, half the baby rapers on this planet are named Wayne or Dwayne.”
The other guys looked around, mildly surprised, and seemed to agree.
I was just disturbed. Molester; baby raper.
I think I’d always known in the darker reaches of my mind that boys like Alex weren’t kidnapped to become family members of the kidnapper, but I’d always blocked out the thought of actual sexual abuse. When Alex disappeared, we didn’t know squat anyhow, at least not more than the difference between boys and girls. And Alex thought girls had two red faces and five blue boobs. We were innocents; mere children in a clean, suburban world.
I knew more now. I knew about sex, and I had a profound interest in learning a lot more. I knew about gays, too, and thought I probably already knew one. What I didn’t understand were predators, nor could I fathom the motives that could lead them to rape, and particularly to kill afterward.
I hadn’t been tested, but I thought I could defend myself or a friend, but I would only hurt an attacker enough to stop the attack. I knew anger, but not anger that would lead me to violence.
So I was more worried about Alex than I had been since he disappeared. I don’t think he would have given in easily to any kind of sexual assault, but he was twelve when he vanished, and not a big boy by any stretch. He was active, and strong for his size, but he could have been easily overpowered. Now the police made it seem like he’d be found shortly, and I frankly worried about what he’d be like when they found him.
When we left that room, my folks were in the station lobby with the McKennas, and by then they knew what I knew, so it was all hugs and tears, and I did start crying when Alex’s father picked me off the floor with his hug.
“Oh, boy,” he said. “Have we been waitin’ on this day or what?” He put me down and danced a little Irish thing, and when he stopped he grinned, “Who’d a thunk it? Right in the middle of another day, and Alex calls, straight out the blue!” His eyebrows were bouncing with glee, and he said, “Try this, Sandy,” and started dancing again.
I just grinned and backed off, bumping into my own father. He put a hand on each of my shoulders and said, “If you don’t dance, I will.”
I glanced at him, and he had a huge smile. “It’s a happy day, son. Let’s all dance!”
So we did, and Mr. McKenna’s jig blended pretty well with our Hora. I caught the happiness fever soon enough, and danced with abandon. I was happy all over, and for a few minutes, shaking all over.
Alex’s mother and mine were sitting side-by-side, both with tears running down their faces. It was my mother, but even I thought it was cute when they dabbed at each other’s eyes with tissues. I could see that they were happy, but unable to rein in their emotions. I suppose I was doing the same thing in a different way with my dancing, and we only danced for a couple of minutes.
Then we all sat down, and didn’t have a lot to say.
The police kept us busy for a little while. They had called my cell phone company to make my number also ring on one of their lines, and we had to test that. There were occasional new questions, but no new information reached us, so we mostly sat there. I decided I should block all my friends from calling, and that took a few minutes.
We all got up and walked around, independently of each other. There were things on the walls; workplace rules, wanted posters, things for sale. They were all mildly distracting for a couple of minutes, but to be honest, I was bored.
I was about ready to take a walk outside when an officer hurried in to tell another, “He’s on the run. Let’s go!”
I had no reason to believe that was about Alex, but that’s exactly what I believed. I thought the florist driver had noticed that he was being watched, and he took off. Or worse, he realized his cell phone was missing, so he was hurrying back to where Alex was hidden. I panicked and stood up, “What’s happening?”
One cop looked at me, rolled his eyes, and came over. “The florist truck just left at high speed. Don’t worry. He’s covered, and they’re not chasing him.”
Just then my phone vibrated, and I flipped it open so fast that it bounced closed again. “Damn!” I said, and opened it instantly, but I’d lost the call. Or not. Suddenly, the name of the florist was back, and when I put the phone to my ear I heard Alex talking for the second time that day.
“I don’t know exactly where I am on the property,” Alex said, “but this phone has GPS for the truck.”
I knew it was important, but I butted in anyhow, quickly, to say, “I’m here, Alex. Keep talking.”
To my surprise, he said, “Hi, Sandy! You okay?”
“Me?” I asked. “I’m fine. It’s you we …”
The officer in the other room said firmly, “Please, guys. Let’s end this situation first, then you can talk all night.”
“Sorry,” Alex said.
“Sorry,” I said. Then I listened while Alex went back to telling the policeman how to get to where he was, and that there were false entrances and booby traps.
I felt like an idiot for butting in on that, but I still smiled, and I said to our parents, “He sounds just like Alex,” and thought to put the mute on, then the speaker phone, and we all listened.
It was mundane, but it was Alex speaking, and his parent’s faces took on a dreamlike quality. I think mine did, too.
Alex! The more I heard him talk, the more I believed he was back, and whatever had happened to him, he sounded just like Alex. It sounded like even three years hadn’t dimmed his cheerfulness, and his parents were alternately laughing and wiping away tears.
Suddenly, there was action in the police station, and the conversation ended, so I picked up my phone while I watched.
“Alex?” I whispered, not sure if he was still there.
“Hi,” came his reply. “What’s going on?”
“I can’t tell,” I said honestly. “There’s a lot going on, but nobody’s calling the plays. It just got busy here. Are you okay?”
Alex snickered, “Where’d you get a deep voice? Are you like ten feet tall now?”
“I asked if you’re okay,” I said, trying not to sound like his father.
He didn’t say anything. “Alex?”
“I’m okay,” he said softly. “Scared now, I guess.”
“The good guys are coming,” I said. “You’ll be fine.”
“I know they are,” Alex said. “I’m not afraid of that. Only how much I missed. How far back I’ll be in school, what people will think of me.”
My tears formed again. “Alex,” I said. “Don’t worry ahead, that’s too Jewish for you. That’s my job.”
Alex said quietly, “I think I lost religion.” When I didn’t respond, he said, “I do think it.” Then his tone changed, and he said, “It sounds like you found it.”
I started to answer, and Alex gasped, “He’s back! I’m dead, man. Tell my folks I love them.”
“I will,” I said, then I heard a horrendous noise followed by other loud sounds, and finally Alex’s voice crying, “Don’t shoot me!” in a high, frightened voice.
I didn’t hear anything else, but the connection stayed live, so I hung on. There were noises, and a murmur like voices, but I couldn’t make out a thing, then the line went dead. I just held the phone like I was still talking, and looked at our parents, who were looking at me. One thing I didn’t want to do was repeat the last words I heard, so I turned my head away, my skin crawling with fear.
As nervous as I was, I managed to hold onto the phone, and when it vibrated a minute later, I answered right away. “Hello?”
A man’s voice said, “Don’t be alarmed. Is this Sandy?”
His breathing sounded irregular. “I’m sorry we lost the connection. We have to take this phone as evidence.”
“Who is this?” I asked, my heart in my stomach. “What happened to Alex?”
The man sounded agitated, but not angry. “Forgive me again. This is officer Charpentier from the Barstow police.” He paused, “They’re putting Alex in an ambulance as we speak.”
“What?” I cried.
“Let me calm down here, Sandy,” the voice said breathlessly. I could hear him breathing deeply for a moment before he said, “We just pulled off a perfect rescue, and I’m so pumped that it’s hard to talk about, and I’m screwing up. Alex isn’t hurt, so get that out of your mind. He’s been a prisoner here for years, and they’re bringing him to a hospital to judge his condition.”
“His condition?” I asked, noticing that I had an audience now. I made an ‘OK’ sign with my free hand, and my parents and the McKennas all exhaled at once, which wasn’t funny under the circumstances. “How is he?”
The officer sounded calmer. “He seems to be okay, good even. He has color, looks well-fed, and seems to have had exercise.” I heard him talking to someone else, and he said, “I have to get out of here now so forensics can do their thing, and they’ll want this phone. You’ll have everything explained in just a minute or two.”
I said, “Wait! Alex really looks good?”
“Yeah, honestly. I have to go.”
“Bye,” I said, and he hung up. I looked at the four anxious faces in front of me and said, “That was a cop in Barstow. He said Alex looks good, but they’re taking him to a hospital, and he said we should know everything in a couple of minutes.”
We sat there expressing disbelief and relief that things had happened so quickly, and they continued to. In a few minutes, Detective Armack and his team came in, all smiling. The McKennas stood and hugged the men, tears in their eyes, and some of the police officers turned to reveal their own tears, and I got all teary-eyed myself. Alex was all I could think of, and I had so many questions that, when I got him to myself, we could grow old together before he could answer them all.
We were invited to the chief’s office for what they called a debriefing, and we were introduced to the chief himself; Chief Carter. He was a small man; handsome with sharp, dark features, and he looked younger than he must have been. He was cordial, and a good enough talker that he probably could have subbed for Leno.
From him, we learned what had happened that afternoon.
The man, Bach, had somehow become aware of the police following him, and led them on a chase in his van. They didn’t pursue at high speed, but he kept going off on tangents, scared, and he ended up hitting a curb and a parked car. He left his van and was pursued by officers through back yards and some woods, where he disappeared briefly. From his concealed position, he started firing on the officers, clipping one of them. “At that point, he’d sealed his fate,” the chief said. “Officers could see him then, and ordered him to put his gun down, but he swung around and fired again, so they took him out.” His eyes looked sad when he said, “Bach is dead; his own judge and jury.”
Then he told us what he knew of the separate rescue in Barstow, two towns away. Wayne Bach lived in a small, separate house on his parent’s farm, on the outskirts of Barstow, which wasn’t a city to begin with. It was a rural area full of truck farms and dairy farms. The local police had obtained a warrant easily when Bach became their suspect, and visited with his elderly parents, who gave them blanket permission to do what they wanted. The chief didn’t think they were exactly fans of their son.
In a search of Bach’s house, they found a crude map, with lines emanating out from a large, six-car garage on the property, with what appeared to be several small structures. A search of the garage revealed a concealed door, which led to a ladder down into the ground beneath. There, twelve feet down, were a series of narrow tunnels, hand-dug, and cleverly laid out to confuse intruders, except there was a clear path of footprints that led only one way.
The police followed that tunnel to where it ended at a metal door. It was the door being pulled out into the tunnel by a rig made just for the purpose that caused the loud sound I’d heard, and the panic in Alex’s voice was when an officer in full combat gear came up to him, a shotgun pointed forward. “I can see why the boy would faint,” the chief said. “I’d faint too, if my heart held out long enough to let me.” He smiled around, “Alex probably thought it was an alien invasion, what with the gas mask, the body armor, and the riot gun.”
He saw us gaping at him and said gently, “Sorry.” He looked down, then back at us. “We can’t be like Wyatt Earp these days,” he smiled sadly. “Nobody knew what was on the other side of that door, and when they saw a tall young man they took no chances.” He looked right at the McKennas. “There was no damage done to your son, folks, but in a situation like that, our officers take every precaution.” He looked at me and smiled, “What’s a little fright on Halloween?”
I thought that was corny to say, but it loosened up the McKennas and my parents. The chief said, “They’re bringing Alex here to Rockville Memorial, so I suppose that’s where you want to be right now. Given the circumstances, why don’t you give us a call when you think Alex is ready to talk with us? It’s not urgent at this point.”
The McKenna’s nodded and backed out of the room. I started to follow, but my dad held me back. “Not now, Sandy. You’ll see Alex, but let them have their time.”
I stared at first, then nodded, knowing an argument would get me nowhere. I was tired anyhow, and hungry. It wasn’t late, only six-thirty, so I figured I’d eat, change, and go to the block party like I’d planned all along.
I decided on our way out to the car that I was more dizzy than tired; astounded that the world around me could spin as fast as it did that day. Alex was alive! And safe. After that. After all that, Alex was rescued only hours after he found his way to a phone.
I wondered what he was like now, what had happened to him for all that time, but the thought forefront in m mind was that Alex had called me.
I had to smile at that. He’d called me, his friend, and not his house, or the police, or 9-1-1, or anywhere else.
I knew I’d learn everything later, and I hoped it wouldn’t be too long before Alex came home. We had a block party instead of trick-or-treating now, and that was because of Alex. It was safer, and after a weak first attempt, it was fun the next time. More people went. The night Alex disappeared would probably have been our last trick-or-treat together anyhow, because we’d be teenagers the next year, and it would be more appropriate to throw toilet paper into trees than ask people for candy.
I ate dinner with my parents at a local place, and went home to change, where I called Liz to tell her what was going on. I said I’d just meet her at the party. She didn’t live in our neighborhood, and didn’t know Alex anyhow, although everyone seemed to know about him.
Alex called from the hospital, which surprised me. “You’re okay?” I asked before anything else.
Alex said kind of flatly, “Yeah, you?”
I said, “I’m so happy I could …” then laughed, because Alex and I had always started our happy sentences with that phrase. “I’m so happy I could eat an egg with a beak in it!” I giggled, and I heard Alex snort, so I knew he really was alright.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
I said, “Be serious. We’re having this giant party to celebrate. You’re a free man, Alex! Tell that hospital to cut you loose.”
He said, chuckling, “You talk to my dad. I’ll have a party when I get there.”
I sobered and asked, “You’re okay?”
He said, “I’m okay.” I could hear him doing something, then he said in a whisper, “I don’t want to say in front of my mom, okay? I’ll talk to you.” Then he added, “I really am okay.”
I said, “Just in case something happens between here and there, I love you, Alex. I really do, and I missed you.”
His answer sounded choked, but he said quietly, “Me, too. I mean, I do too. Love you.”
I thought for a long moment, and said, “Thanks for saying that,” then I snickered, and I had a sudden panic because I almost made a gay comment. I gasped instead, and said, “Alex, get better. Call me when I can come see you.” I snickered, “Call later if you want to join the party.”
“Be like that,” he said, sounding stern, then he laughed, “Have fun. I’ll see you when I can.”
I had a bizarre thought while I walked over to the party. There is a here and there is a there, and every place and every person occupies one or the other. I’d just talked to Alex for the first, second and third times in three years, and all through the middle of it he was just gone. I was here and he was there, wherever that was. Now he was safe in a hospital, but he was still there, and I was still where I was, on the sidewalk.
It occurred to me that with all that here and there between us, I fell into easy conversations with Alex each time we’d talked, and just that thought had me smiling when I got to the party, which was the biggest attendance yet.
The event was held in the town square, which was actually a full downtown block. It was all paved with tiles, had a fountain near the middle, and the space was made smaller by having lots of levels which were divided by planters and walls, and of course, steps up and down.
It was well-lit that night, and decorated with scarecrows, haystacks and pumpkins mostly, with some flimsy ghosts in trees and cardboard skeletons here and there. Different civic groups and merchants had food booths and game booths set up, and almost everything was free. There were surprises in places, too: things that would suddenly light up and make a noise, like a coffin lid popping open and a skeleton jerking upright from within. There was a DJ getting started on the highest level of the plaza, and the older kids, like me, would end up over there after checking everything else out.
My phone vibrated, and it was Liz. “I’m here, I said. Where are you?”
She said, “I’m sitting at the fountain staring straight at the Midland Bank.”
I thought about that, and gauged my position. Then I laughed and turned around, because I was right in her line of fire. I grinned, put my phone back in my pocket, and hurried over to the laughing girl.
Liz wasn’t any classic beauty, but neither was I exactly a leading man. Still, she had a nice shape, a big smile, and a nice, simple look about her that I liked. We hadn’t met at school, but at a wedding back in June. We’d been the only people our age, so were natural dance partners, and we had a nice time. We’d had good times since then, too, and I really liked being with her.
“You could have tapped me on the shoulder, you know!” I said.
She smiled smugly and said, “I like the view from here.” She lifted her eyes to mine and added, “You really do have a nice fanny.”
I grumbled, “I’m glad you like it,” then parked my nice fanny right beside hers. “I talked to Alex again,” I said.
She became serious right away. “Tell me,” she said somberly. “Is he alright?”
“He’s alive,” I said. “That’s the big thing, and I have to say he sounds okay.”
Liz sighed, and we sat there for a minute before she said, “You know? I think you should tell that disc jockey to say something. I wasn’t here to know Alex, but most people knew him.”
I stared at her. “I don’t know if that’s my place.”
She poked my ribs and grinned while I squirmed, “Of course it’s your place. You were best friends. Who should be happier than you?”
I snickered, “Oh, I’m happy alright. I just don’t know if I should say anything.”
Liz tugged my ear and said, “Sandy, you get up there and tell this town Alex is alive, and he’s coming back.”
I looked at her in panic, and she stuck her tongue out. “It’s your birthright, Sandy. Go do it!”
I started to stand and held out my hand, “You come with me.”
If she didn’t, I wouldn’t, but she did take my hand, and I led her hesitantly toward the man with the microphone. He saw us coming, and I think he thought we were coming to make a request. He smiled, “Hi.”
“Hi,” I said. “Do you know about Alex McKenna?”
The man stared blankly at me. “Should I?”
“Yes!” Liz announced. “He’s your employer here tonight; the reason this town has this party instead of trick-or-treating.”
The guy looked dumbly at Liz, then at me, and he turned his gaze off to a building across the street. Then I learned what it meant when something dawned on someone, because the guy’s face did a transformation, and when he looked back his eyes were wide. “Alex! I remember. He’s the kid who disappeared, right?”
Liz looked smug, which made me smile, and I looked at the DJ. “Yes. Well, today he’s back! Can you announce that?”
The guy’s face was doing acrobatics. “Huh? What do I know? The kid’s back? I’m supposed to take your word for it?”
I said, “Take it easy, okay?” I looked at Liz, and she was looking at the DJ, seeming startled by his remarks on the obvious. I looked back at the guy and asked, “Can I say something, then?” I watched as he eyed me, and added, “It’s really true. I was there at the police station when they rescued him.”
He finally said, “Okay, I’ll give you a minute. Let this song play out, and think of how to say what you want.” He smiled nervously, “No swearing, okay?”
It was my turn to be nervous. I was nervous speaking up in class, and I’d never done anything in public before. I looked at Liz, feeling panic, and she smiled at me. “I’ll do it if you want.”
The DJ said impatiently, “Make up your mind. I’ll announce you, but who’s it gonna be?”
I took a deep breath. “Me. Sandy Cohen.”
The guy brought the microphone to his mouth and talked over the fading song. “All right, people! We have the beginning to a great Halloween here, complete with ghouls, ghosts, and goodies for all. Before we get into it, I have Mr. Sandy Cohen here, and he has a real Halloween surprise for everyone. Listen carefully.”
He handed me the mike, and it was heavier than I expected, so I nearly dropped it. “Hi,” I squeaked, and some people yelled and applauded; my friends, no doubt. “I know a lot of you remember this. Three years ago, on this night, my friend, Alex McKenna, vanished. Without a trace. Right from this town. Right from his own neighborhood at six PM. There were people all over the place trick-or-treating, and he just disappeared.” People were murmuring, so I got right to it.
“They found Alex today. He’s alive! I talked to him a few times, and he says he’s okay. They started having this party because of Alex, so I want to dedicate tonight to him!” People cheered, which made me smile. “So, let’s get this party going!”
People clapped, the DJ started a song going, and I pulled Liz under some lights where we started dancing. People joined us dancing, and the volume of the whole event shot up. I’m glad I danced then, because it didn’t look like I’d get another chance. My friends, Alex’s friends, teachers from the middle school, even the head custodian; they all wanted to talk to me, and I obliged them.
I could only tell them what I knew, so any speculation was up to them, but everyone was pumped by the news. Especially Greg Simonds. He ran fast enough that he slid to a breathless stop in front of me, an excited grin on his face. “That was him, then?” he asked. “Oh, man! I can’t believe I was there when it happened!” He grinned, “He’s alright? Where was he?”
I smiled, then frowned. “He said he’s okay.” I shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t know anything, really, but he can’t be that okay.” I looked at Greg, who seemed confused. “Alex has been in a cave or something. He was put there; held prisoner all this time. I just don’t know how okay he can be after that.”
Greg nodded, “Okay, I see.” We both looked around uncomfortably until Greg said gently, “Damn. He might still be twelve!”
I shuddered at that thought, and wondered what it must be like for Alex, and what it would be like for me and his other friends. Greg said, “I think we need a crash course.”
“I’m just thinking. Alex is probably all messed up, right? Well, he was always a good guy, and the absolute last thing he needs is to be a dork, when everybody is concentrating on what happened to him.” I looked right at Greg and smiled, liking what he was thinking. “The way I see it, he needs all new things anyhow, so he needs people who know what to buy to go to the stores with him. I mean, you don’t want him picking out a brick for a cell phone. And we tell him ahead of time that we’re gonna pick on him. Pick, pick pick! Any time he does anything twelve, we jump on it, and we show him how things have … um … evolved! That’s the word.” He grinned, “One weekend, that’s all we need, Cohen. It’ll be fun.”
I looked at Greg, smiling. “You’re pretty smart, you know that?” then added, “Of course you do.”
Greg bowed a little and grinned, asking, “You like it?”
I was laughing at the perfect simplicity of his idea, and said, “It’s great, Greg. If you can put it together, I’ll tell Alex. Honest, this is probably just what he needs.”
Greg nodded to me. “Done deal, then. I’ll think of some people to help, and you tell me when.”
I went back to the party after that, and had a good time for the next hour and a half. I was just saying goodnight to Liz when there was a tap on my shoulder. I turned around, and it was a guidance counselor from school, Mr. Barberino. I had to look before I recognized him, because I knew him in a suit, not jeans and a zippered sweatshirt. He was a kindly looking man; fifty-ish and balding, but he stood tall. I had never had any personal contact with him because he was the disciplinarian for boys, and I had no problems in that area.
“Sir?” I said.
“Sandy, this isn’t the time and place, but come see me tomorrow. I want to talk to you about Alex McKenna, and get your thoughts on several things.”
“Like what?” I asked nervously.
“I’m not sure yet,” he said. “I’ll get my questions together, and hopefully learn more from the McKenna family.” He smiled, “I just want to be sure that we treat Alex appropriately when he comes to school.”
Relieved, I said, “I know. It might be complicated, but I talked to Alex and he sounds good.”
Mr. Barberino smiled at me and said, “Tomorrow, okay?” and he walked off when I nodded.
I finally had time for Liz, but she had to go. She laughed, “You know how to put on a party, Sandy. This was really a good time.” She stood there, and I determined that I should kiss her, which I did. A smooch at first, then we both smiled and took the next step. That was my first real kiss, and it fried my brain, all those feelings at once. I had a wow in mind, but Liz gave me another peck and ran off to catch her ride.
I stood there for a moment, looking after her, and thinking she had a very okay butt herself.
I walked part of the way home with a couple of friends, and after they turned off I walked alone, pleased with the solitude.
Without anything specific being spoken, it was clear to me that Alex had been abused. He’d been deprived for sure, of family and friends, of important years of his life. I had no idea what to expect of him, but I had hope.
“A tall young man” the chief had called Alex, and that meant he’d taken after his mother in that department, not his dad. I felt good, even though I worried what Alex would be like, and how he’d react to his sudden freedom. I still felt good, because Alex said he was alright, and he’d be tall when I saw him.
My parents were watching television when I got home. I’d missed the news, and wasn’t surprised to hear that Alex’s rescue was the top story across the state. They’d had footage from where Alex had been held, though my dad said it was shot in the dark from a distance, and there wasn’t much to see. They re-ran the news of the disappearance, spoke with specialists and psychologists, and did the normal speculative things news people do when they don’t know much.
My mother said the best part was video of some very happy policemen, who were obviously tickled to have a happy ending. My folks didn’t mention it, but I’m sure they also went on and on about Alex’s abductor and his violent end.
I went up to bed tired, and moved my cell phone charger from the dresser to my nightstand just in case Alex called. I drifted off to sleep wondering idly how many holes they’d put into Wayne Bach.
When I went downstairs in the morning, there was a little television on the kitchen counter. I couldn’t really see it from the table, so I watched while I ate my breakfast standing up.
There was a lady standing pretty far from a house, explaining that beneath the ground surrounding that house was a labyrinth of tunnels and rooms, and that is where Alex had been held. I got no clue from looking at that. It looked like a house and a large garage in the middle of a field.
Shortly, they went to where Wayne Bach met his fate, and that was no more enlightening. It was a street, with a patch of vacant land between homes. They showed some video from the night before, and it was from the same perspective, with flashing lights and official-looking people hurrying around. Bach was already dead then, and presumably gone, but they showed it anyhow.
The only thing remotely interesting in the reporting was an explanation of the chase, along with a helicopter view of the route.
I gave up watching when they put up an old picture of Alex, and started retelling his disappearance from the beginning.
The phone rang. I picked it up, and it was Mr. McKenna calling.
“Sandy, I’m glad you answered,” he said. “I wonder if you can stop over after school. We’re bringing Alex home around two.”
My heart sped up. “Really? How is he? Is he …”
Mr. McKenna’s voice sounded choked when he said, “He’s beautiful, Sandy; a beautiful, wonderful son.” He stopped, and it sounded like he was sniffling.
“I’ll be there,” I said. “I can skip school if you want.”
He said, “No, I don’t want you to do that. I want you to be there. I want to know what people are thinking, what they infer from the news, what they’re talking about.”
I thought, and had my mouth open to tell him not to worry, but I stopped myself short. Instead, I said, “I can do that. I think I know what you mean, but we already have some of it figured out.”
“Yeah,” I explained. “We talked about it last night. Since you have to probably get him all new stuff anyhow, we should take him, so he doesn’t come up with anything that says doof, nerd, or dork.”
“Ha ha! That’s brilliant!” He laughed some more. “A shopping committee … I like it!”
I was excited that he liked the idea, and added, “And we can make sure he evolves real fast. I mean, that’s what Greg said. We’ve evolved since he disappeared, so it’s up to us to make sure Alex evolves fast.”
“Heh, that’s more good thinking. We’ll see you this afternoon, then. Alex needs some clothes right now, but we’ll hold off on anything major until your team of experts can go along.”
We made some happy small talk, then hung up.
When I left the house, the morning was gray, and it looked like it might turn dismal. Still, it was my happiest walk to school in a long time; like half the neighborhood was hanging on to see me. I waved to people backing out of their driveways, said hi to people getting their newspapers, and in a short while I had a little entourage of kids who’d known Alex. They were happy rather than inquisitive too, so we talked about funny things from the past, and kept our personal worries quiet.
I was worried, too, somewhere in the back of my mind. It couldn’t be this easy. Alex had to be damaged by his experience. Of that there was no doubt. I was enough of a realist to see that it had been too long, and too weird and frightening, for Alex to just pop up like a Jack-in-the-box. Yet Alex seemed to have good cheer bred into him, like it was his primary trait; the gene in charge of all the others.
I had that in mind all the time, and in English class it came to me again, so since I was writing, that’s what I wrote, and I fell back in time.
“Watch it!” the boy’s voice said. “Coming through!” and a kid on a skateboard whooshed past me, then lost it and fell on a lawn. He came up smiling. “Whoa! Was that a good one?”
I determined that he was talking to me, and asked, “A good what?”
He grinned. “A fall. I fell. I lost it.”
I had to process every word he said, because he had a mumbly-sounding accent like I’d never heard. I looked at him suspiciously, up on his elbow by then, a modest smile looking at me. The kid had more freckles than I’d ever seen, and pronounced freckles, not the little dots that I had on my own face. No. Alex McKenna had freckles that looked like the result of machine-gun fire.
But his smile turned into a toothy grin, and I probably smiled back. By the time he was on his feet again we were friends. At that point in time, the only thing we knew about each other was that we were easy to know, and that’s all it took.
I spent some number of minutes trying to decipher Alex’s accent, and I understood him before we stopped at my house to use the bathroom. I introduced him to my mother, learning his name in the process She obviously didn’t understand a word he said, so I let him say where we were off to next, and we rolled down the sidewalk laughing after my mom said, “That’s nice. Be home for dinner.”
Alex took me to his house. His folks weren’t there at the time, but he showed me his room, then filled his pocket with candies and we went out again, but not far. The neighborhood was fairly new then, and largely treeless, but the developer had left a nice, mature maple tree at the corner between our houses. It was in someone else’s yard, but we sat there and ate candy and talked anyhow.
That’s where I learned about Derry, Northern Ireland, where Alex was from. I had a vague awareness of the problems there, but being so far away, and Jewish, I honestly paid scant attention when news from there came on.
Alex had lived it for his first eight years, and was as eager as his parents to relocate to the New World when his father’s computer company needed his particular skills here. They’d been in the country for two years, and the neighborhood for three months, so Alex had the territory figured out.
Alex told me gory stories from his past, the way ten year-olds tell stories. He seemed more excited than sad when he told me about how his own uncle got murdered, even though I could tell he actually was sad and angry about it.
I told him about my own old town, but my story was far less exotic than his. Still, he seemed interested, then took me around to show me things I hadn’t already discovered on my own.
By the time we said goodbye that day, we were friends, and I really liked Alex.
After that, we did things together. His game was soccer, which he called football, and he taught me to play pretty well. I taught him American football. He didn’t like the violence of it, but he had a strong arm. After he learned to throw the ball, Alex usually played quarterback when we picked up a game.
We had other friends, of course, and did things together, apart, and with other kids. Alex had that accent, and it attracted others to him. Some kids liked the sound of it, and kept asking if he was Australian, even though his accent wasn’t even close. Others wanted to mock him, which Alex took with good cheer, like he did everything.
“How should I say it, then?” Alex would ask, and the question would usually disarm whoever was bothering him.
“Gang bang mother fucker,” a kid would say, and Alex would try. He’d smile in anticipation, and nine times out of ten the kid bothering him would laugh. There would be the one though, who would become indignant and say, “Not fooker. Where’d you get that? It’s fucker! Uh, not oo. Not fook.”
Alex would walk away like he was practicing. “Uh, not oo. Uh, not oo.” Even the wise guys would scratch their heads and smile after him, because that was the charm of Alex McKenna.
I liked Alex just because of that charm, but I was also drawn to him when he exhibited a deeper, more pensive aspect of his personality. I don’t know if he even knew I saw it, because I never said anything, but beneath his jovial surface I often detected a bit of melancholy in Alex McKenna, and I found it appealing in someone so outgoing. It usually showed when Alex was tired, but sometimes when things hadn’t gone well, too. It wasn’t really overt either, since he was usually smiling. He’d just quiet down and start talking about more philosophical things. Not meaning-of-life things, but he’d wonder out loud why people did the things they do, including himself.
I thought Alex was always honest, but he worried that he tried to fool himself at times, which he considered dishonest. He was a gentle boy usually, except on the soccer field, and he worried that he had more than one personality because of his flamboyant playing style. He really felt bad if he ended up hurting someone. It was all very subtle with Alex, though. It was rare when he worried aloud, although that happened sometimes. Usually he became quiet and distant, and it was fifty-fifty that I could get him to talk about what was on his mind.
When he did talk, he wouldn’t look at me, which was unusual in itself. Alex loved to engage people, and if you weren’t in the mood, he’d find some way to get you to look right at him.
When he was down, so was his look. One time, not long before his disappearance, he’d collided with a kid on his soccer team, and the other boy broke his wrist in the fall.
Alex took that to heart. “I shouldn’t play anymore,” he said when we talked afterward. I knew he was in a mood because he wasn’t looking at me. I also knew that of all the people on the planet, Alex was the best one to talk himself out of a situation.
“Look at me,” he said, not looking at me. “Now Ryan can’t play the rest of the season.” He looked up, but not at me. “Is that my fault? I say yes, but it might have been his fault too, or it just happened.” He made fists with his hands and continued, “I just get all intense out there. All I saw was the ball. I never saw him there. Never. I go to kick and there’s another foot there. I just didn’t see him.”
I leaned back and listened. Alex still hadn’t looked directly at me, but he kept talking. “The way I see it, either one of us could have tripped. We both could have fell, but he did and I didn’t, and I could have moved that ball if the whistle didn’t go off.” He smiled at the ground. “Of course it went off! There’s Ryan all crying on the grass, and that’s when I knew what happened, and I went to him, you know. I knelt and said I was sorry, and he said it was his fault, and I said it was mine, and he says no-no, his fault.”
Alex finally looked at me, smiled broadly, and asked, “Who am I to argue?”
“Not worried anymore?” I asked.
“Who said I was worried? It’s you what’s Jewish, not me.”
And we both laughed.
I could only stare for a long moment when I saw Alex. Tall, I was expecting, but he looked built as well. He had broad shoulders, a taper down to his waist, and he looked great. Healthy. He didn’t tower over me, but he had a good two inch advantage, and I didn’t care. He looked healthy and happy, and that’s what mattered.
Alex was there in crispy new sweats; gray bottom and blue top, and he was beautiful, just like his father told me. I might not have recognized him on the street. His freckles had faded to nothingness, and his face had matured toward manhood a lot more than mine had. His eyes were clear and smiling, and I felt weak in the knees when I saw that familiar grin appear.
I took two steps, and we embraced, which was a first for us. I pulled back to look at him, and then we did it again. When we let go I grinned, “You’re all different!”
Alex laughed, “Like you’re not? Still playing with your train set?”
That made me frown. “Sometimes,” I said. “Not a lot.” I didn’t have a comeback question, and I felt tongue-tied for a moment. Then I smiled, “You should see it! We put in this whole downtown thing, with an el and everything.”
When I looked to his parents, they had left us alone, and that gave me a sense of privacy, and relief.
I sat on the sofa and patted the cushion beside me, and Alex McKenna, all smiles and engaging my eyes full-time, sat beside me so we could talk things out like we always did. I knew I should try to be tactful.
I looked Alex in the eye and raised my eyebrows. “How did your cell phone work underground? You really fainted?”
It would be a long conversation.