A Friend at Midnight

chapter
1

F
or 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 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 had 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?”

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