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Sunday morning


Jared almost didn’t get out of the house. Dad didn’t like Aaliyah at the best of times. He suspected it was a secret racism his father wouldn’t admit to, maybe even to himself. He certainly wasn’t happy today with Jared “ditching” the family when they were in need.

But Jared had already arranged things, and he’d go crazy if he had to sit around the house waiting for his mother to appear or text or call. He had a bad, bad feeling in the pit of his stomach, a pressure behind his eyes and a tightness in his chest. Aaliyah would take his mind off all that. And she’d help. He had some ideas. She’d for sure tell him if they were stupid.

Instead of honking, which had set his father off the one time she’d done it, Aaliyah texted to let Jared know she was outside in the car. She was a full five months older than Jared and had gotten her learner’s permit before he had, hence the reason she was driving and he wasn’t. He tried not to care. He knew it was sexist, and Aaliyah teased him about the fact, but it still felt wrong that she was doing all the driving.

Dad warned him to be back by dinnertime and glared at his retreating back. Jared could feel it all the way to the door, but he didn’t look back to confirm.

He waved at Aaliyah as soon as he was out, his heart lightening already. He wouldn’t have thought he had any smiles to give, but apparently he was wrong. As soon as he got into the car, she leaned in for a kiss, and he didn’t disappoint her. Aaliyah’s lips were … awesome. The kind of lips women got those injections to puff up, only hers were natural. Firm and soft and hotter than hell, just like her.

When they broke off, the tension behind his eyes was gone.

“I needed that,” he said, drinking her in. He was playing way out of his league, and knew it. Smartest girl in school—one of them, anyway—beautiful, confident. Her dark skin was nearly flawless. Her hair was pulled back into a small ponytail at the nape of her neck, showing off her amazing cheekbones. Her dark-framed glasses emphasized eyes that gleamed with intelligence and amusement, like life was a puzzle she’d already solved. Like she saw more than everyone else.

If so, he had no idea what she was doing with him. He had a mirror. He knew he was no slouch. Track kept him in good shape, and girls loved to run their hands through his thick dark hair and tease him about his golden-green eyes. He got his share of attention. But where Aaliyah had everything figured out, knew what she wanted to do and where she wanted to go in life—and had the drive to get there—Jared had no idea. Not a one.

“There’s more where that came from,” Aaliyah said, drawing his mind back to that kiss.

“Awesome,” he said, but then his gaze wandered back toward his house and the warm feeling vanished. “Do me a favor? Drive. Before Dad thinks up some reason I have to stay.”

Aaliyah didn’t need to be asked twice. She was off like a shot. “My parents are home,” she warned, “but we can go to my place.”

Jared nodded, not untensing until his place disappeared from the rearview mirror.

“What’s up?” Aaliyah asked, taking her attention off the road momentarily to look at him. “You’ve told me hardly anything, and you’re acting like you just escaped from Alcatraz.”

“I feel like it.”

Jared filled her in on everything from seeing his mother on Friday through Aunt Aggie’s call that morning. Well, almost everything.

“You’re leaving something out,” she said.

“What?” Jared asked.

“You tell me. I just know that if you’d told me everything, you’d be relieved at getting it off of your chest, but you’re as tense as a kitten in a dog park.”

Then there was the flipside of having a smart, perceptive girlfriend.

He debated with himself, but if he didn’t tell her, she’d think it was bigger than it was. Maybe she’d tell him he was crazy or … There was no maybe about it. Aaliyah would come up with some logical explanation.

“It’s stupid,” he said.

“Let me be the judge of that.”

“Really, it’s nothing.”

“Who are you trying to convince—me or yourself?”

So he told her. All of it. Not that there was much to tell. He didn’t know what had caused the noise that woke him up. None of the explanations he came up with himself were shiny and happy.

When he finished, she stayed silent, pressing her lips together. “Hmm,” she said.

“Hmm, what?”

Aaliyah reached over to squeeze his knee, but she didn’t look away from the road this time. “That’s weird,” she said when she uncompressed her lips.

It was as if she’d squeezed his heart instead.

“In what way?” he asked. He really hoped she’d put it all into some perfectly normal perspective.

“Did you ask your Dad about it?” she asked instead of answering.

“No,” he admitted. Did not asking make him seem like a coward?

“It could clear things up,” she said, pulling onto her street. “There must be a reason you don’t want to ask. What do you think happened?”

That was the million-dollar question. What did he think? He didn’t even know. Just that it all seemed very suspicious, especially with his mother vanishing the way she had. That text … He wanted it to be comforting, but it wasn’t. Stupid Dugan had once gotten hold of his phone and sent Aaliyah all kinds of crazy texts supposedly from him that luckily she was too smart to believe. Anyone could have texted from Mom’s phone. But if she’d lost it, why hadn’t she come looking? Even if she thought she’d left it somewhere else, it didn’t explain her not finding a way to contact them. When she’d first taken off, left Dad, she’d called every day. This wasn’t like her, but he couldn’t put his worry into words. That would make it too real.

Aaliyah waited for an answer. They’d hit her house and were now sitting in the driveway, but she made no move to open her door and neither did he.

“I don’t know,” Jared said. “But I think we have to find out.”

“You said the sound probably came from the garage. Have you checked it?”

“Dad’s hardly been out of the house.”

“So the next time he is …”

“Yeah,” Jared said, feeling sick about it. What did he expect to find and what would he do if he found it? “In the meantime, I thought you might help me with something.”

“What?” she asked.

“Breaking into Mom’s e-mails.”

Aaliyah blinked at him. “What?”

“So, here’s the thing, she’s not using her phone, right? Maybe she doesn’t know how to turn off the GPS. Maybe she’s afraid we can track her down when it pings off cell towers, and she’s not ready to be found. But what if she’s in trouble? There’s got to be some clue that will help us track her. Maybe in her e-mail. If nothing else, she’ll have given someone her new address, and we can start there.”

“You want to break into her place?”

Heat went through him. He hadn’t thought of it that way. He was just going on instinct. “I didn’t say that. But we could drive there if she doesn’t turn up. Check it out. See if her car’s there, maybe catch her coming and going. If she doesn’t want to see me and Emily—” his breath stopped. He couldn’t say “that’s fine” because it wasn’t. He went with, “That’s her call. But at least I’ll know she’s all right, that she didn’t get into an accident on the way home because she was upset or anything like that.”

“Have you checked accident reports?” Aaliyah asked. “Hospitals?”

“Not yet.”

Aaliyah’s mother pushed a curtain aside in the front window and looked out at them still sitting in the car. Jared’s face went hot, even though they weren’t doing anything.

Aaliyah waved, blew her a kiss, and opened her car door. Jared started to climb out of the car as well.

As they walked toward the house, Aaliyah said, “Mom and Dad are not going to let us retreat to my room, so we’re going to have to do all of this in the dining room or somewhere like that. You’ve got your laptop?”

Jared patted his backpack.

“Good. When we get in, let me talk to Mom, and you set up the laptop so the screen faces the window. That ought to do it. She’s not nosy, only worried about us doing the nasty. She’s not even going to consider a little light hacking.”

Even with everything going on, Jared smiled. Doing the nasty sounded way better than what he had in mind. Way, way better. So far they’d only gotten to a little under the clothes action.

Aaliyah saw the smile and gave him a playful swat to the arm. “Down, boy,” she said.

“Hey, I can dream.”

Her mother answered the door as they reached it, “Hello, Jared. Nice to see you.”

Aaliyah’s parents liked him okay, he thought. But they always watched him like he was out to defile their daughter. Probably Dad would be watching the guys Emily brought home the same way, if and when she ever brought anyone. She hadn’t shown any interest so far … that he knew of.

“Hi, Mrs. Persad. Nice to see you too.”

So polite. Gah, how long would he have to date Aaliyah before they could just smile at each other and he could call her Mrs. P or something like that?

She stood aside to let them pass, her bright orange, red and black patterned dress clashing with his mood. In contrast to Aaliyah’s simple style, her mother had her hair twined in ropes woven into a braid at the back of her head. She was only an inch taller than Aaliyah in flats, but she was almost Jared’s height at the moment, which meant she was wearing heels, which meant she was probably going out. Jared could hope, especially with Aaliyah’s comment still swirling around in his head.

Jared followed Aaliyah into the kitchen, where she asked if she could get him anything.

“Soda would be great,” he said.

She nodded. “Mom, how about you?”

Mrs. P smiled and put a hand to Aaliyah’s cheek. Jared’s heart twisted and he glanced away.

“So sweet,” she said. “I’m meeting friends for brunch. Your father is working in his office if you need anything,” she gave Jared a significant look. Clearly this was meant to remind them they weren’t alone and there should be no funny business.

“Thanks, Mrs. P.” He tried it out. She snorted, and he figured he’d miscalculated. Clearly now was not the time.

“You kids have fun,” she said. “There’s frozen pizza in the icebox if you get hungry.”

“Thanks, Mom,” Aaliyah said this time. “We’ll be fine.”

Mrs. P didn’t look so sure of that, but she grabbed a fringed shawl off the kitchen counter that picked up the red in her dress and was out the door with only one or two backward glances.

“Well, that was easier than I thought,” Aaliyah said. “If Dad’s working on something, we might not see him at all. Unless Mom left instructions to check on us every hour or something … which she probably did.”

Jared’s eyes rolled, as if he never even considered doing anything that needed to be checked up on.

“Gotcha, hands to myself.”

“Well, maybe not entirely.”

He grabbed one of her hands and pulled her to him. She went willingly, and he backed up against the counter, hands on her hips while hers were locked around his neck. She met him halfway when he went in for the kiss, and he just kept himself from groaning. She felt so good pressed up against him. He was pretty sure she could tell how good she felt.

A voice cleared behind them, and they jumped apart, Aaliyah smoothing her hair down as though he’d messed it up. Jared was glad the kitchen island half hid him from Aaliyah’s father. He was in no condition to meet him full on.

“Dad!” Aaliyah said brightly. “Jared’s here.”

“I can see that,” her father answered, eying Jared like he knew what he was hiding.

“I heard the door and wanted to say ‘hello.’”

“Uh, hello,” Jared said. Smooth.

He made himself step forward and reach across the island to shake Mr. Persad’s hand, as he knew was expected.

Aaliyah’s father took the offered hand, slowly enough to let Jared know he could as easily not shake, that the acceptance was a privilege, not a right.

“What do you two have planned today?” he asked pointedly.

“Research,” Jared said, shrugging off his backpack and holding it up as proof. He hoped Aaliyah’s father would assume it was for school and not push for details.

“We figure we’ll set up in the dining room,” Aaliyah said, furthering their innocence. Well trafficked area, no chance for funny business … unless Mr. P remembered that he’d just caught them up against the kitchen counter, so there were no guarantees.

“I’ll be checking in,” he warned with a hard look at Jared.

He only nodded. What else could he do?

Aaliyah waited until her father turned his back to roll her eyes. “Sure you don’t want to take this somewhere else?” she asked Jared softly.

“You mean somewhere public, like the library?” he asked. “No thanks.”

“Okay then, I’ll get you that Coke and we’ll get to it.”

Jared proceeded to the dining room to set up like Aaliyah had suggested, with his back to the wall so his computer screen would be facing that way as well. He booted up his laptop and had his browser open by the time Aaliyah came back. He knew his mother’s e-mail address, of course, but not her password, though he did know the PIN on her phone, because she’d given it to him once so he could answer for her when she was elbow deep in dishes. And it wasn’t hard to remember, since it was the month and date of his birth.

Aaliyah skootched her chair over next to his as he tried his birthday as her Gmail password. No luck. He tried Emily’s birthday. Still nothing. Then he tried his name with his birthday following, Emily’s name and birthday, his parents’ anniversary. Nothing, nothing, nothing.

“You’re going to get locked out,” Aaliyah said helpfully.

“Any ideas?”

“You could reset the password.”

“Except the program would probably ask me a whole bunch of questions I can’t answer or text the code to her cell phone, which I don’t have. And if she has it and I’m worried for nothing, she’ll know someone’s trying to break into her e-mail.”

“Okay then, what does she love?”

“Us, I would have said … up until a few days ago.”

Aaliyah let that go by.

“It could be anything,” she said, “any combination of your names or dates or both. Let’s see if we can think of something else.”

Jared raked his hands through his hair. “I don’t know. She loves food shows. Good Eats, Food Porn, Hell’s Kitchen, all that kind of thing. She likes travel shows too. She’s always dreamed of going places. Dad always promised trips we never got around to taking. Too busy at work or a downturn in the market …”

“Travel?” she asked.

“Don’t get any ideas. Mom doesn’t even have a passport. And she’d never take off on us … Not like that.”

“I’m just thinking about passwords,” Aaliyah said.

But Jared wasn’t so sure. Now that she’d put it into his head, he couldn’t stop thinking about it. Would he know if Mom had gotten a passport? She’d always wanted to see Paris. What if she’d been squirreling away money? What if her fight with Dad was the last straw and she’d had it with all of them and wanted to completely start over somewhere else?

“Wait,” he said. He typed desperately, feeling like this was a last-ditch effort, not only to get the password right, but to prove Mom wouldn’t have taken off. That she loved them.


He hoped she was too lazy a typist to throw in capitals, because he was at the end of his attempts.

He held his breath as he clicked Enter and let it out in a gust as a loading bar appeared instead of a lockout screen.

Aaliyah clapped him on the shoulders. “Good going! What did you type?”

Oh, right, because the screen showed asterisks as he typed, not the keystrokes of the password. He told her.

“How did you know to use Em and not Emily?”

“Mom always shortens it. I figured she’d use the same shortcut in typing.”

“Go, you!”

Yeah, only now that Mom’s e-mails had loaded onto the screen, he felt a little sick. Was he really going to do this, snoop through her messages? He could mark them as unread, so hopefully she’d never know, but … It was still a violation.

He was torn between frustration and relief when what came up was a lot of crap—credit card and insurance offers, special deals, sales fliers.

“No one uses e-mail anymore,” Aaliyah said with a sigh. “It’s all about texting.”

Which gave Jared an idea. Mom had complained that Facebook kept trying to integrate her messages so that her texts and everything went through their Messenger program. He could only hope she hadn’t fixed the problem.

He clicked onto Facebook and logged out from the account he’d created but never used. He tried to log onto his mother’s account, but the password wasn’t the same as for her e-mail. Dammit.

Aaliyah was out of her seat and standing behind him, either for the view or because she couldn’t sit still.

“Reset her password,” she said.

Jared craned his neck to look up at her. “But she’ll know.”

The sad look Aaliyah shot him went straight to his heart. “She’s already gone. Are you more worried about upsetting or finding her?”

He typed in lieu of a response, answering the security questions Facebook threw his way and hoping for the best.

It was the longest half minute of his life waiting for the reset code and instructions to be delivered to Mom’s e-mail, but once he had those, he set a new password, the same as for her e-mail, and was in. He clicked over to her messages, and his heart seized.

There were messages, but not nearly as many as there would have been if Mom’s texts were still integrated. Nothing from him or Emily. However, there were five listed as unread, all from a man he’d never heard of, a man with two first names—Richard Travis. His icon in Messenger was too small to see more than that it was some guy crouched down next to a dog. Jared clicked on the messages, the one at the bottom, the latest, asked, Everything okay? I haven’t heard from you. Worried.

Well, that makes two, Jared thought. He looked back at Aaliyah, who was signing at him to scroll up, but he was only a few messages in when he had to get up and move away from the screen, afraid of what was coming next.

“I can’t read it,” he said, as Aaliyah started to ask. “I just—it sounds—”

“Like they started a friendship,” Aaliyah finished for him. “That’s all. You don’t know that it went anywhere romantic.”

“And I don’t want to find out. If it did … If she left us to go to him—

“Then he wouldn’t be asking whether everything was okay. He’d know, because they’d be together. This message was sent early this morning. The others were Friday and Saturday. So, he hasn’t been in touch with her all weekend.”

Again, that horrible rush of emotion that made Jared feel like he had a fever. If Mom was with this guy, then at least she was okay, but if not … “Would you—” Jared swallowed. He couldn’t ask his girlfriend to read through his mother’s possibly illicit messages to her boyfriend. That was too much. “Never mind.”

He forced himself to sit back down and start skimming. Mom and this Richard guy met at the Italian cooking class Mom had taken in the spring, the one Dad hardly ever let her cook from, because he said his cholesterol would skyrocket. From there, she and Dick became Facebook friends, but from what he could tell, while it got a little flirty, mostly food puns, it didn’t go beyond that. They shared recipes. There’d been a request on Dick’s part for them to get together, but if it happened, they didn’t talk about it on Facebook. Did the fact that they used Messenger at all mean they’d never progressed to the swapping of phone numbers?

“Maybe you should send him a message,” Aaliyah said. “Ask him to let you know if he hears from your mom and to encourage her to call if he does?”

Did he want to do that? His head agreed that it was a good idea, but his heart wanted nothing to do with it.

“Jared?” Aaliyah asked when he didn’t move or respond.

“Just trying to figure out what to say.”

He got as far as, Hi, this is Diane’s son before freezing up. The next logical thing was My mother is missing, but he hadn’t even admitted it to himself. And what if she wasn’t. They had yet to go by her house—Jared didn’t even know her new address. She could be hiding out. Aunt Aggie would surely have checked it, but if Mom was quiet or sleeping or in the shower …

He hit the backspace button to erase his message, but as he did a notification popped up: Richard is typing.…

Damn, had he seen that “Diane Graham” was online? Jared only went on Facebook when something he wanted to see had a Facebook page rather than a normal web address. He hadn’t really thought about that feature, though now that he was aware, he noticed a bar down the right-hand side of the screen with green lights indicating which of his mom’s friends were online.

Then the new message popped up. Diane, I’ve been so worried. You okay? Did he hurt you?

Jared’s blood ran cold. He looked at Aaliyah, to see if she’d seen, and she was staring back at him, her eyes wide. Jared hadn’t told Aaliyah how bad it had gotten. She knew about Mom and Dad’s fights, but not that they’d turned physical. He didn’t want anyone to know, but especially not Aaliyah. What if she worried he’d follow in his father’s footsteps?

What if he was afraid of it sometimes himself? Not that he ever wanted to hurt anyone, but anger seemed to be his default. Like with Mom. So far, he’d only expressed himself with words or silences. Or once throwing a game controller at the wall, but … what if that was how it started? What if he was like Dad?

Then a thought nearly as bad occurred to him. He hadn’t seen anything about Dad being abusive in their messages above, which meant that this Richard guy must communicate with Mom outside of Messenger. Maybe even in person.

Who the hell are you? Jared typed, before he could help himself. Stay out of our business. He jammed his finger on the Send button, instantly regretting it. But it was too late. The message had gone out.

Richard is typing.…

Who is this? he asked.

Jared logged out of Facebook and slammed down the lid of his laptop.

Aaliyah jerked back like he’d thrust it at her. “What was that all about?” she asked, her voice tight.


“That. All of it. Him asking whether your father had hurt your mother. You flying off the handle.”

“Wouldn’t you be upset if someone said that about your family?”

She studied him, her dark eyes hard, not molten or sparkling or any of the ways she usually looked at him. He felt cold in his core. But maybe that had come earlier, when he first saw the five waiting messages to his mother from a man he didn’t know.

“That’s not an answer. It’s deflection.”

“I know,” he said, glancing at her. Maybe the tortured look he was sure he wore would tell her everything he couldn’t put into words. Getting defensive and shutting her out would only drive her away. He couldn’t lose Aaliyah like he’d lost his mother.

“Oh, honey.” Aaliyah opened her arms and Jared leaned into her, his face pressed into her stomach so that his nose filled with her amazing ginger and whatever body wash. She wrapped her arms around him, finger-combing his hair with one hand.

He hugged her back, but far more gently than he wanted, feeling too childlike in that position and worried about seeming too needy.

They heard footsteps coming their way, intentionally heavy-footed, he thought, so that they’d know Mr. Persad was coming and cease whatever it was they were up to. Jared let Aaliyah go, reluctantly, and she sat back down in her seat to stare at the entrance to the dining room where her father appeared.

“Hi, Dad,” she said wryly.

“Hi, kids,” he answered, emphasizing the kids. “How’s the research coming?”

“We’re all done,” Aaliyah said, indicating Jared’s closed computer. “We were just going to put on a movie. Wanna join us?”

Please say no, please say no, Jared chanted in his head.

“Thanks, but I’ve still got a bit of work to do, and I don’t want to cramp your style,” he said, though the last part was clearly a lie. “Have fun.”

Jared tried a smile he was sure failed spectacularly, but Mr. Persad was already turning away and never noticed.

“Assuming you want to watch a movie,” Aaliyah said when he was gone. “I thought maybe something to take your mind off things …”

That sounded awesome, if probably impossible.

“Sure,” Jared answered. “Maybe something stupid funny. Lots of action and no redeeming social value.”



“Let’s raid our collection.”

For the next two hours, they watched Kevin Hart make his “oh crap!” face. Jared surprised himself by mostly forgetting himself and even laughing along.

The police were waiting when he got home.

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