Ryan Wallace moved in to the house on Pine Grove during Christmas break. Zack watched the moving trucks head up the gravel driveway followed by an old Jeep from the living room window.
“Someone’s moving in,” he said and his dad nodded.
“They built a new house up there,” Zack’s dad told him. He looked up from the newspaper. “I saw a wooden jungle gym,” he said. “They’ve got kids. Maybe your age.”
Zack stood up and walked to the kitchen so he could keep watched the moving trucks. “They’ll probably be in school,” he said.
“Probably,” his dad agreed.
They didn’t drive down to Santa Rosa that year for Christmas like they usually did. Zack’s mom had to work at the hospital. His dad let him stay up late watching Star Wars video tapes until Zack fell asleep on the floor halfway through The Empire Strikes Back.
He woke up in his bedroom and could hear them arguing. He stayed in bed, perfectly still, trying to breathe quietly so they wouldn’t know and when his mom came to check on him, he pretended he was still asleep. She walked close to him and lingered for a moment without saying a word or doing anything until she finally turned around and left, closing the door behind her.
Zack saw Ryan for the first time riding his bike back and forth down the gravel driveway while Zack was walking through the yard looking for lost GI Joes. Zack eyed him skeptically and then crouched down, picking through a half-frozen mud clod. Ryan was wearing a new coat and big waterproof boots. He had short dark hair and a scar on his chin. They were about the same age.
Ryan rode his bike a little way out of the driveway and then back and repeated it again, getting closer and closer to Zack’s side of the street. Zack kicked at a tuft of grass and kept moving through the yard, pretending for some reason he hadn’t really noticed his new neighbor.
Ryan finally rode his bike over and stopped at the fence around Zack’s house. “What are you looking for?” He asked.
“Nothing,” Zack told him and then looked up at Ryan. “GI Joe men,” he amended.
“Oh,” Ryan said. “I have some. At my house.”
“I’m looking for mine,” Zack explained.
Ryan nodded and circled his bike around in the road in front of Zack’s house. Zack picked up a rock and threw it to the side. He frowned and wiped his hands off on his jeans.
“What’s your name?” Zack finally asked.
Ryan nodded. He stood up on the pedals of his bike and tried to balance on the wheels, motionless. His feet slipped finally and he dropped his feet to the asphalt to catch himself.
“Do you go to school?” Zack asked Ryan.
“I will,” Ryan said.
“4th,” Ryan said.
“Me too,” Zack said. “Do you know which teacher you have?”
“Abromitis is better” Zack told him. “Darling is okay but Miss Abro is in the basement by the library and cafeteria.”
“Okay,” Ryan said.
Zack looked at Ryan’s bike. It still had stickers on it from the store. “Did you get it for Christmas?” He asked.
“No,” Ryan said and then shrugged. “Well, I guess so. I got it because we moved. It wasn’t wrapped or anything.”
Across the street, Ryan’s Mom, a thin woman with short hair came out of the front door. “Ryan!” She called out when she didn’t seem to see him.
“I’m not supposed to leave the driveway,” Ryan told Zack.
“Oh,” Zack said.
Ryan hesitated, then got up on his pedals and rode back to the driveway toward the house.
Zack jammed his hands in his pockets to warm them up and then tromped back inside.
A few days before school was going to start up again, Zack’s mom woke him up early in the morning. “Get dressed,” she told him.
It was still dark and it was barely six in the morning. “It’s early,” he said.
“Come on,” she said. “You can have a Pop-Tart in the car.”
Zack got dressed quickly and walked out into the living room. His dad was sitting on the couch smoking a cigarette. He looked tired, like he hadn’t slept in a few days.
“Put on your coat and gloves,” Zack’s mom told him. “We’re going to go see the caves.”
Zack took his coat and gloves from the hook. His Mom already had her jacket on. “Is Dad coming?” Zack asked.
“Just you and me, kiddo,” his mom said and offered a weary smile.
They went out to the car and got in. Zack’s mom gave him a Pop-Tart, hot and wrapped in a paper towel. The car started up and backed out the gravel driveway onto Pine Grove. They headed up the hill and turned left on West Evans.
“How come we’re going to caves?” Zack asked.
“I have the day off,” Zack’s mom said. “And you’ve been talking about going for months. You’re going back to school soon. Don’t you want to go?”
Zack shrugged. “How come Dad isn’t coming?”
“He’s not feeling well, sweetheart,” his mom told him.
“Can I turn on the radio?” Zack asked.
Zack turned it on and moved through the dial until he found a station that was still playing Christmas music. It was full of static and the signal got worse as they went through the curves but it got stronger the closer to town they got.
They drove out to Cave Junction without talking much. They stopped at a market just inside the city and Zack got a 7-Up from a clerk that looked surprised to see them.
When they got to the Oregon Caves, the parking lot was empty and it was barely daylight.
“I don’t think it’s open, Mom,” Zack said.
“We just beat the rush,” his mom told him.
They got out of the car and walked up to the visitor’s station.
“It says cave tours are closed for winter,” Zack told her.
“There are hiking trails,” his mom said. “Come on.”
There was snow on the ground and in the trees. It was quiet and Zack could see his breath hanging in the air. He had to rush to keep up with his mom.
They hiked through the snow along a trail he could barely see for what could have been hours. Zack’s Mom finally stopped in the trail and looked around.
“It’s beautiful,” she said.
“I guess,” Zack told her. He looked out at the trees and empty snowy forest. It just seemed lonely.
They went a little further on the trail and then turned around and headed back to the car. The parking lot was still empty.
“Are you hungry?” Zack’s mom asked him.
“Yeah,” Zack said.
They drove forty-five minutes to the city and to a Denny’s. Zack ordered a cheeseburger and hot chocolate. While they waited for the food, Zack’s mom told him that his dad was moving out.
“You’ll see him all the time,” Zack’s mom assured him.
“Are you getting a divorce?” Zack asked her.
“No, honey,” she said. “No. I don’t think so.”
On the ride back home, Zack didn’t turn on the radio.
“I heard that you met the boy across the street,” Zack’s mom said on the freeway.
“What do you mean?” Zack asked her.
“Ryan,” Zack’s mom said. “I met his mom, Jill.”
“Oh,” Zack said. “Yeah, I met him I guess.”
“He’s your age, right?”
“Jill is going to help us sometimes,” Zack’s mom told him. “When I have to work late. You’ll stay over there.”
“He’s weird,” Zack said.
“Ryan? Why would you say he’s weird?””
Zack shrugged. “He just is.”
“You’re neighbors, Zack.”
“So?” Zack asked.
“So, don’t call him weird.”
Zack looked out the window. He wondered what his dad’s apartment would look like. “I could stay with Dad instead,” Zack suggested. “When you have to work.”
“Sometimes,” his mom said.
“What did he do wrong?” Zack asked.
“What?” His mom looked over at him.
“Nothing,” Zack told her.
Ryan was waiting on the street the first day of school for the bus already when Zack came out. Zack walked over to Ryan with his head down.
“You’re early,” Zack told Ryan. “The bus doesn’t get here until 7:20.”
“I know,” Ryan said. “My mom didn’t want me to miss it.”
Zack looked at Ryan’s new backpack and clothes like it was the first day of fall. “Did you go to school before?”
“Yeah,” Ryan said.
The bus came down the hill slowly toward them.
“Don’t sit next to me on the bus,” Zack said.
“Because you’re weird,” Zack told him.
“Okay,” Ryan said.
The bus stopped and the doors opened with a hiss.
“See?” Zack said and shook his head. He got onto the bus first and walked to the first empty seat and immediately looked out the window.
Ryan followed onto the bus but sat in a seat across the aisle. That early, there were only a handful of other kids on the bus. They wouldn’t get to school for a half hour.
Bailey Tripp got in when the bus turned onto Minthorne and sat down next to Zack right away.
“I got new comics from my brother,” Bailey said with a smile. “X-Men and Punisher.” Bailey took off his black hand-me-down backpack with only one strap held on with Sharpee colored duct tape. Behind his math book and lunch box, Bailey pulled out a stack of comic books. “Check it out,” Bailey said. “Which one do you want to read?”
“X-Men,” Zack told him.
“You can read Punisher,” Bailey said and handed Zack Punisher: War Journal.
“I have that X-Men,” Ryan said from across the aisle. “I have a subscription to a lot of them actually.”
Bailey looked up from his comic at Ryan and then over at Zack questioningly.
“I just moved here,” Ryan said, answering the unasked question.
“Bring your comics tomorrow,” Bailey told him.
“Okay,” Ryan agreed.
Bailey looked over at Zack and shrugged. Zack pretended he hadn’t noticed any of it.
“Be careful!” Bailey told Zack as he turned the pages of the comic. “You’ll crease it and Todd will murder me.”
Ryan was in Miss Abromitis’s class. He was assigned the empty desk at the front of the class. When Miss Abro introduced him, Ryan told everyone he was from Montana.
“What do your parents do?” Bailey asked Ryan at recess while Zack punched the tether ball.
“My mom does taxes,” Ryan said. “Things like that.”
“What about your dad?”
“He’s in the Army,” Ryan said. “Not here. He’s in Japan.”
“That’s awesome,” Bailey said.
Zack was called to the office for a phone call during math that afternoon. It was his mom on the phone.
“I have to stay late at the hospital tonight, honey,” she told Zack. “I won’t be home until late.”
“Past your bedtime. I talked to Mrs. Wallace. You can have dinner over there and stay until I get home.”
“What about Dad?”
“We talked about this.”
“Did you even call him?”
“I need to go, Zack.”
“Fine,’’ Zack told her and hung up the phone.
He hardly spoke to anyone the rest of the afternoon. They were working in their fraction workbooks but Zack didn’t make any progress. He looked out the windows and wondered if it would snow. If it snowed real bad school would be canceled and maybe the roads would be too bad for his mom to make it to the hospital.
On the bus ride home that day Ryan showed Bailey and Corey Appleton his Timex while Zack read through Bailey’s brother’s X-Men. It had a space invaders game and he could set six alarms.
“What do you need six alarms for?” Corey asked.
“Lunch and stuff,” Bailey suggested.
“The school bells ring for lunch though.”
“Shut up, Corey,” Bailey told him.
In the comic Wolverine was running from these cyborgs in the Australian Outback. Jim Lee did the cover with Lady Deathstrike and cyborg wolves. Jim Lee was Zack’s all-time favorite.
“Bring your comics tomorrow!” Bailey told Ryan as he got off the bus.
“I will!” Ryan told him.
In the last few stops before they were home, Ryan came over and sat next to Zack.
“I have lots of comics,” Ryan told Zack. “I have GI Joe comics. Have you read the GI Joe ones?”
“Yeah,” Zack lied. He looked over at Ryan and glared. “I told you not to sit next to me.”
“Sorry,” Ryan said and moved to the other seat.
At their stop, Ryan’s mom was waiting for them. Ryan got up and went for the door with Zack staying back, reluctant.
“Are you coming?” Ryan asked.
“Yeah,” Zack said and got up and followed.
Ryan’s mom was younger than Zack’s or at least she looked young. She was thin and blonde and looked nothing like Ryan at all. She was pacing around at the stop when they got off the bus.
“It’s cold!” She said. “Let’s go!”
Ryan turned and looked back at Zack.
“Zack is having dinner with us tonight,” Ryan’s mom said. “Your mom called you, right? She said she was going to call.”
“She called, Mrs. Wallace,” Zack told her. The bus rumbled past behind them.
“Call me, Jill,” she said. “Do you need to stop by your house?”
“No,” Zack said. “I’m okay.”
Jill looked from Zack to Ryan. “Ryan has a Nintendo,” she said. “Did he tell you?”
“No,” Zack said.
“I have loads of games,” Ryan said.
“Do you have Contra?” Zack asked.
“I don’t think so,” Ryan told him.
“Alright boys, I’m turning into an icicle,” Jill said. “Ondelay!”
They rushed across the street and to the driveway to Ryan’s house. Like all the houses on the road, this one was set back from the road quite a bit and mostly concealed from view by trees. Most people out here wanted privacy. Zack had noticed trucks when they were building it but hadn’t really paid much attention to it.
“There was another house here,” Zack told Ryan when they got to the front door. “Before.”
Ryan’s house looked like Ryan’s jacket; new and hardly worn. Zack imagined he could still smell the paint, a vibrant bluish gray that stood out in the washed out January day.
“No shoes on the new carpet!” Jill said and kicked off her shoes and rushed over to a heating vent. She danced in place and rubbed her hands together to warm up. She laughed at Zack and Ryan. “Aren’t your freezing?”
“Not really,” Zack said. “Isn’t it colder in Montana?”
Jill shrugged. “Probably,” she said. “An hour of Nintendo and then homework and dinner, okay?”
“Okay,” Ryan said. “Nintendo’s in my room,” he told Zack and led him through the house.
Ryan’s room was big and covered in different posters. Star Wars and dirt bikes and jet fighters.
“That one’s the SR-71,” Ryan said, pointing to one of the posters.
Ryan had bunk beds and two bean bag chairs. He walked over to a chest and opened it. It was full of GI Joes and vehicles. Some of the figures were still in the packaging. “Do you want to open one of them?” He asked.
“No,” Zack told him.
“Do you want to read comics?”
Zack ignored the question. “What games do you have?”
Ryan opened up a little cabinet beneath a TV in the corner of his room. There were a dozen games stacked on a shelf in their black plastic sleeves. “Mario is pretty good,” Ryan said. “”Do you want to play?”
“Okay,” Zack agreed.
They sat cross-legged in front of the television playing alternating games without talking to each other. Jill came in with two plates that had celery and peanut butter and sliced up apples.
“Thanks, Mrs. Wallace,” Zack said.
“Please call me, Jill, Zack,” she insisted.
“Do you like teriyaki?” She asked. “For dinner.”
“I don’t know what that is,” Zack told her.
“It’s really good,” Ryan said.
“I’ll try it,” Zack said.
“I think you’ll like it.” Jill grinned. “There’s pineapple.”
Zack nodded and Jill left the bedroom.
“Why do you think I’m weird?” Ryan asked Zack.
“Because you are,” Zack told him.
“No one else says so.”
Zack shrugged. “I guess they don’t notice.”
Before dinner another car pulled up to the house.
“Angela,” Ryan said simply.
Jill called them to the table.
Angela wore a heavy work jacket, muddy boots and glasses. She had long dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. She was much taller than Jill and almost twice her size. She was at the table when Ryan and Zack sat down.
“Zack, this is Ryan’s aunt Angela,” Jill introduced him and then turned to Angela. “Zack is the boy across the street I told you about.”
“Oh yeah,” Angela said. “Your mom is a nurse at the hospital in Medford, right?”
“Yeah,” Zack said.
“She’s working a little late tonight so I invited Zack to join us,” Jill explained.
“Are you two in the same class?” Angela asked.
“Yeah,” Ryan said.
“Well, that’s pretty cool,” Angela said. She took a bite of chicken and focused on Ryan. “How was your first day?”
“It was okay,” Zack said.
“Any crushes yet?” Angela asked and winked at him.
“No,” Ryan said and blushed. Zack smiled.
Zack ate politely and watched Jill. She had a glass of wine in a long stemmed glass with dinner and she kept smiling at Ryan for no reason.
“Can you do dishes, Zack?” Angela asked when dinner was finished.
“Yes,” Zack said.
“Clear the table, Ryan,” Angela told Ryan and motioned for Zack to come with her. “Zack will help me fill the dishwasher.”
Zack passed dirty dishes to Angela and she quickly scrubbed them and handed them back to Zack to load into the dishwasher.
“We’ve got a pretty good system,” Angela said after a few dishes.
“I guess so,” Zack replied.
“Are you from here? Originally?” Angela asked him.
Zack wasn’t used to adults talking to him like he was a grownup. It felt strange. “Um, I was born in California.”
“I’ve been there,” Angela said. “I grew up in Hawaii though. Have you ever been there?”
“It’s pretty,” she said. “Beaches and palm trees. I moved there with my Mom after she split with my dad.”
Zack felt suddenly sick. She knew. Did everyone know? Did Ryan?
“It was tough,” Angela said. She looked down at Zack. His cheeks felt hot and numb. “Do you know what I mean?”
“No,” Zack said.
Ryan came in with a load of dishes and put them on the counter.
“Is that all of them?” Angela asked.
“Yep,” Ryan said.
“Okay,” Angela said. “I’ve got the rest of this.”
Zack dried his hands quickly on a towel and moved to leave the kitchen.
“Hey, Zack,” Angela said before he was out of the kitchen. “It’s good for Ryan to have friends over. You’re welcome here. Any time.”
Zack didn’t reply. He rushed after Ryan back to the bedroom.
“Did you two have any homework?” Jill asked after they’d played a few more silent rounds of Mario.
“No,” Zack said.
“A little,” Ryan told her.
“Finish up your game and then homework, okay?” Jill said.
“I have to use the bathroom,” Zack said and abruptly paused his game. He got up and went briskly past Jill and into the hall. He went into the bathroom and closed the door. He sat on the edge of the bathtub and watched a digital clock change numbers for a little while and then turned on the faucet and washed his hands.
Zack joined Ryan in doing homework after he came back from the bathroom.
“I picked out some of Ryan’s sweats and a shirt that should fit you, Zack,” Jill told him.
“Why?” Zack asked her.
“For when you go to bed.”
“I can wait for my mom,” Zack told her.
“I don’t think so,” Jill said. “The bed’s made up. When your mom comes by, we’ll wake you up.”’
“I won’t be able to sleep,” Zack insisted.
“Well, you can lie there and count sheep then,” Jill suggested.
“Fine,” Zack said, angrily.
After homework they read comics for a while and then Jill came through to tell them it was time for bed. Zack got changed in the bathroom and then came back and got into the top bunk.
“Good night, boys,” Jill told them. “I love you, Ryan.”
“I love you too,” Ryan said.
Jill turned the light out and left.
“Is your dad really in Japan?” Zack asked Ryan after Jill was gone.
“Yes,” Ryan said.
“You’re a liar,” Zack told him.
“Where’s your dad?” Ryan asked.
Angela came by and opened the door a crack to look in on them. “Goodnight,” Angela said. “We’ll come by and check that you’re not reading comics under the covers.”
“You’ll wake me when my mom gets here?” Zack asked.
“Yeah,” Angela said. “It will be a few more hours. Get some rest.”
Zack didn’t close his eyes. He stared at Ryan’s ceiling. He didn’t talk any more. He was awake when his mom got to the house and her headlights shone through Ryan’s windows. Zack was out of bed and dressed before she came to get him.
“Come on, kiddo,” Zack’s mom said and led him out of the bedroom to the front door. Angela and Jill were in the living room smiling. “You’re a lifesaver, Jill,” Zack’s mom told them.
“Not a problem, Mary,” Jill said. “Any time you need, just call me, okay?”
“Two boys aren’t much different than one,” Angela said. “They keep each other occupied at least.”
“Thank you so much,” Zack’s mom said. “Tell Ryan thank you too.”
“We will,” Jill said.
“See you around,” Angela told Zack.
Zack went out the front door to his mom’s car. He got in quickly. His mom followed.
“That was really rude, Zack,” his mom told him. “You should say goodnight at least.”
“Why?” Zack asked.
“Because I said you should.”
Zack’s mom started the car and drove down the driveway to their house. She parked. “I need your help right now, Zack. Can you help me?”
“I don’t want to go back over there,” Zack said.
“Because I don’t like Ryan and I don’t like his house and I don’t like his mom.”
Zack’s mom shook her head. “Get in and go right to bed.”
Zack got out of the car and stormed inside. He got undressed and got right into bed. When his mom came to check on him, he rolled so he was facing away from the door.
Ryan brought his comics for Bailey and the next day he brought GI Joes. He swapped Nintendo games with Brett White. He never sat next to Zack again.
Zack went to the movies with his dad the second weekend after school started. They got ice cream afterward.
“You need to listen to your mom, Zack,” his dad told him.
“I do listen.”
“Don’t argue with me,” his dad told him.
Angela came to the school and talked to the kids during an assembly. She was in the Forest Service and talked about fighting fires and maintaining hiking trails. She said she gets to drive big off-road trucks that are like tanks.
“Your aunt is awesome,” Bailey told Ryan on the bus.
“I know,” Ryan agreed.
The same week that some of Bailey’s comics disappeared Ryan was sent to the principal’s office for fighting with Seth Blakesly and Danny Hansen. Ryan watched the whole thing from the tether ball court. Seth and Danny walked up to Ryan and Bailey at the picnic table where they were reading comics and said something to Ryan and Ryan stood up and socked Seth in the nose. Seth’s nose split and bled all over. Bailey protected the comics and the recess monitors ran over to break it up. Zack punched the tether ball over and over again until it wrapped around the poll.
Zack saw Jill’s Jeep pull up when she picked up Ryan. Ryan was crying as he walked out from the school.
On the bus trip home Zack sat next to Bailey. “What happened with Ryan and Seth?” He asked.
“Seth deserved it,” Bailey said. “He was talking about Ryan’s mom. He’s a jerk. I wish I hit him too.”
“What did he say?”
“Have you seen the New Mutants?” Bailey said, shuffling through his comics. “I can’t find it.”
“No,” Zack told him.
“Todd’s gonna kill me,” Bailey said.
That night at dinner Zack looked across the dinner table that seemed far too big at his mom. “Ryan got sent home for fighting today,” he told her.
“What happened?” Zack’s mom asked.
Zack shrugged. “He just hit Seth Blakesly. Gave him a bloody nose and everything. He was sent home.”
Zack’s mom didn’t seem to react to the news.
“So, I probably shouldn’t go over there for a while,” Zack suggested.
“Finish your dinner,” his mom told him. She was angry but Zack didn’t understand why. He shook his head and looked down at his plate.
“I’m not hungry,” Zack said.
“Finish what’s on your plate or go right to bed, Zack.”
Zack dropped his silverware onto the plate. “Ok,” he said and got up and walked to his bedroom.
“Lights out, Zack!” His mom called after him.
“I’ll turn them out!” Zack yelled back at her and dropped onto the bed. He clicked the light off and lied there, stubbornly with his arms crossed until he finally fell asleep.
Ryan wasn’t back at school the next day and Bailey was even more frantic about the New Mutants. “There’s a Fantastic Four I can’t find either,” Bailey told Zack on the bus. “Todd is super pissed.”
“Maybe Ryan took them home by accident,” Zack suggested.
“I called his house,” Bailey said. “He’s grounded and out of school for the rest of the week. Seth’s nose is fractured.”
During recess that day, Ryan was the most popular topic. Bailey wouldn’t tell anyone what Seth had said that made Ryan lose it. He just said that Seth was a jerk.
By the end of that day other kids noticed that they were missing things. Megan Rose was missing a pair of scissors and Andrew Dubner couldn’t find his favorite mechanical pencil. By the time they were lined up for buses to take them home the idea had taken hold: someone was stealing things. Danny was the first to suggest it was Ryan.
“Get out of here,” Bailey told him. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Think about it, genius,” Danny said. “Things just start to disappear when Ryan shows up? Come on.”
Bailey punched Danny in the shoulder. “It’s not Ryan,” he said but he didn’t sound convinced.
The next day on the way to school in the morning Bailey looked concerned. “I talked to Ryan last night.”
“Does he have the comics?” Zack asked him.
“He said he doesn’t. He said he checked.”
“So it’s the thief,” Zack said.
“What am I supposed to tell Todd?” Bailey asked. “He’ll seriously freak out.”
“I don’t know,” Zack said. “Maybe he won’t notice?”
“He’s already noticed.”
“Can you get new ones?”
Bailey shook his head. “Maybe if I got to a comic book store but the closest one is Medford. I can’t get there and get the comics before Todd finds out I lost them.”
“Do you think it’s Ryan?” Zack asked.
Bailey shook his head again but exhaled and didn’t seem certain at all. “Maybe,” he said. “I mean. Do you think it’s possible?”
“He’s the only new kid at school,” Zack offered. “Who else would it be?”
By lunchtime Bailey and the others talked to Miss Abromitis about the things that were missing and told them they thought it was Ryan. After lunch she made all of the students clean out their desks to make sure things were really missing (or weren’t in some other kid’s desk). Nothing turned up. Miss Abro went upstairs to the principal’s office that afternoon and the librarian, Mrs. James, watched the class while they worked on their fraction workbooks.
On the bus home Bailey told Zack what Seth had called Ryan’s mom. “He called her a fucking lezzie,” Bailey said in a whisper. “Seth says his older sister saw her.”
“That’s not true,” Zack said.
“That’s what Seth’s sister said,” Bailey said and shrugged. “I thought you hated Ryan.”
“I don’t hate him,” Zack insisted.
“Seemed like you do,” Bailey said. “Mr. Blue said he’s coming in tomorrow with his lezzie moms.”
“Don’t say that,” Zack told Bailey.
“He’s a thief, Zack.”
Zack got home that day and his mom was still at work. The car was gone and there was a note on the table. “Microwave burritos for dinner,” it said, “in bed by 9.” Zack crumpled up the note and tossed it into the trash. He went to the kitchen window and looked out at Ryan’s house. He started crying but then he wiped his eyes with the heels of his hands.
Zack put his coat back on and went across the street to Ryan’s house and knocked on the door. Jill answered and she looked thinner than before. She looked like Zack remembered his dad the morning before they went to the caves.
“Hi, Zack,” Jill said. “Ryan’s grounded. He can’t play.”
“My mom is working late,” Zack told her. “Could I come over for dinner?”
Jill bit her lower lip. “I don’t think so, Zack.”
“I didn’t tell anybody anything at school,” Zack told her.
Jill smiled weakly. “Do you want me to get Ryan for a few minutes?”
“No,” Zack said. “That’s okay.”
Jill smiled again. “You should get home before dark.”
Zack nodded and turned around. He was a few steps away before he turned back to Jill. “It wasn’t his fault,” Zack said. “The fight,” he explained. “Seth started it.”
Zack walked back toward the house. “Actually, could you give something to Ryan for me?” He asked her.
“Okay,” Jill said.
Zack reached into his coat pocket and took out Ryan’s watch. “He left this at school,” Zack told her.
Jill smiled and took it. “He’s been looking for it.”
“I thought he might be,” Zack said.
“Take care, Zack,” Jill told him.
Zack nodded. He ran home.
The next day Angela and Jill came to the school. Ryan wasn’t with them. Miss Abro cleared all of the last things from Ryan’s desk.
“Where’s Ryan going?” Zack asked.
“I don’t know,” Miss Abromitis said.
“He didn’t do it,” Zack said. “He didn’t steal anything.”
“His mom decided to take him out of school, Zack.”’
“But he didn’t do anything,” Zack insisted. His eyes filled with tears. “He didn’t do anything wrong. It’s not his fault. Seth’s sister is full of shit!”
“Zachary,” Miss Abro said sternly, her face flush with surprise. “Up the stairs to the office. Now.”
Zack wiped his eyes. “Fine,” he said and stomped out of the classroom. He went up the steps and right into the office. Mrs. Finch was on the phone when he walked in. He knew it was Miss Abro telling her what he said. Mrs. Finch pointed to the bench in the office. “Sit,” she told Zack and finished the call. “Mr. Blue will see you when he’s done, Zack,” she said.
Zack felt like throwing up. He felt like screaming. He cried and couldn’t stop it or wipe it away. He was angry and sad and he felt it shaking loose inside of him. He thought about the snow and trees by the Oregon Caves. How lonely it felt. He thought about his dad that morning. He thought about Ryan on his stupid bike and Bailey’s stupid comics and Jill dancing around above the heating vent, trying to get warm.
The door to Mr. Blue’s office finally opened and Jill and Angela came out. Zack stood up when he saw them. Jill had been crying. She wouldn’t look at anyone. Angela held her hand and looked right at Zack and through everything.
“I’m sorry,” he told her.
Angela nodded but didn’t say anything.
Zack watched Jill and Angela leave the office and cried. He dropped his head into his hands and cried. He didn’t say anything to Mr. Blue or Mrs. Finch. He didn’t say anything when they called his mother and when she had to leave work and drive home to get him. He didn’t say anything in the car.
When they got home Zack out of the car and walked toward the house but he stalled in the yard, halfway there. He looked over at his mom. She walked toward him and without saying a thing, wrapped her arms around him and hugged him. Zack closed his eyes and squeezed as tight as he could, balling his hands into fists clutching her winter coat while hot tears streamed down his cheeks.