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Caught

Chapter 4

   



MARCIA AND TED MCWAID ARRIVED at the high school auditorium at six PM. Because the old cliche that "life goes on" could not have been more true, tonight, despite the fact that Haley had now been missing ninety-three days, was opening night of the Kasselton High School production of Les Miserables, featuring their second child, Patricia, in the roles of Onlooker #4, Student #6, and the always-coveted role of Prostitute #2. When Ted first heard about that, in the life they'd known before Haley had vanished, he had made constant jokes about this, how proud he was to tell his friends that his fourteen-year-old daughter would be Prostitute #2. Those days were long gone, a world and time lived by other people in another land.
A hush fell over the auditorium when they entered. No one knew how to act around them. Marcia got it but was beyond caring.
"I need some water," she said.
Ted nodded. "I'll save us seats."
She headed down the corridor, stopped briefly at the fountain, then continued. At the next turn, she made a left. Down the hall, a janitor worked a mop. He wore earphones, his head gently bobbing to a song only he could hear; if he noticed her, nothing on his face showed it.
Marcia started up the stairs to the second floor. The lights were dimmer on this level. Her footsteps clacked and echoed against the stillness of a building that during the day knew so much life and energy. There is no place more surreal, more hollow and empty, than a school corridor at night.
Marcia looked over her shoulder, but she was alone. She hurried her step because she had a destination in mind.
Kasselton High was big, nearly two thousand kids in four grades. The building was on four levels, and like so many high schools from towns with constantly growing populations, it ended up being more a series of pieced-together add-ons than anything resembling a cohesive structure. The later additions to the once-lovely original brick showed that the administrators had been more interested in substance over style. The configuration was a mishmash, looking more like something a child had made by mixing wooden blocks, LEGOs, and Lincoln logs.
Last night, in the scary quiet of the McWaid home, her wonderful husband, Ted, had laughed, really laughed, for the first time in ninety-three days. How obscene the sound was. Ted stopped almost right away, cut himself off in a choking way that became a sob. Marcia wanted to reach out, do something to comfort this tortured man that she so loved. But she simply couldn't.
Her other two children, Patricia and Ryan, were handling Haley's disappearance okay on the outside, but kids adapt more easily than adults. Marcia tried to concentrate on them and shower them with attention and comfort, but again she simply couldn't. Some probably figured that she hurt too much. That was part of it, but there was more. She neglected Patricia and Ryan because all she worried about right now, her sole focus, was on Haley-bringing her back home. Then, after that, she would make it up to her other children.
Marcia's own sister, Merilee, the popular know-it-all from Great Neck, had the nerve to say, "You need to focus on your husband and other children and stop wallowing," and when she said that word-"wallowing"!-Marcia wanted so much to punch Merilee in the face and tell her to worry about her own damn family and that her son Greg was taking drugs and her husband, Hal, was probably having an affair and to shut the hell up. Patricia and Ryan would hopefully get through this, Merilee-and you know what? Their best chance at being okay wouldn't be by having a mother who made sure that Ryan's lacrosse stick pocket was properly broken in or that Patricia's costume was the right shade of gray. No, the thing that would make them fine and whole, the only thing, would be to bring their older sister back home.
When that happened, and only when that happened, would the rest of them have a chance to survive.
But the sad truth was, it wasn't as though Marcia spent all day looking for Haley. She tried, but a horrible exhaustion kept creeping in. Marcia wanted to stay in bed in the morning. Her limbs felt heavy. Even now, making this odd pilgrimage down the corridor was difficult for her.
Ninety-three days.
Up ahead Marcia could start making out Haley's locker. A few days after the disappearance, some friends started decorating the metallic front like one of those curbside shrines you see when someone dies in a car crash. There were photos and wilting flowers and crosses and notes. "Come home, Haley!" "We miss you!" "We will wait for you." "We love you!"
Marcia stopped and stared. She reached out and touched the combination lock, thinking about how many times Haley must have done the same thing, getting her books out, dumping her backpack onto the bottom, hanging up her coat, chatting with a friend, discussing lacrosse or maybe what boy she had a crush on.
A noise came from down the corridor. She turned and saw the principal's office door open. Pete Zecher, the high school principal, stepped out with what Marcia assumed was a set of parents. She didn't know either of them. No one spoke. Pete Zecher stuck out his hand, but neither parent took it. They turned and moved quickly toward the stairs. Pete Zecher watched them disappear, shook his head, and turned toward the locker.
He spotted her. "Marcia?"
"Hi, Pete."
Pete Zecher was a good principal, wonderfully accessible and willing to break the rules or piss off a teacher if it was best for the kid. Pete had grown up here in Kasselton, gone to this very high school, and his lifelong dream had been achieved when he landed the principal's job here.
He started toward her. "Am I intruding?"
"Not at all." Marcia forced up a smile. "I just wanted to escape the stares for a bit."
"I saw the dress rehearsal," Pete said. "Patricia is really great."
"That's nice to hear."
He nodded. They both looked at the locker. Marcia saw a decal with the words "Kasselton Lacrosse" and two crossed sticks. She had one on her car's back window.
"So what was up with those two parents?" she asked.
Pete gave her a small smile. "Confidential."
"Oh."
"But I could tell you a hypothetical."
She waited.
"When you were in high school, did you ever drink alcohol?" he asked.
"I was kind of a good girl," Marcia said, almost adding, "like Haley." "But yes, we used to sneak beers."
"How did you get them?"
"The beers? My neighbor had an uncle who owned a liquor store. How about you?"
"I had a mature-looking friend named Michael Wind," Pete said. "You know the type-shaving when he was in sixth grade. He'd buy the booze. That wouldn't work now. Everyone gets carded."
"So what does that have to do with our hypothetical couple?"
"People think that the way kids get alcohol nowadays is with fake IDs. There are some examples of that, but in my years I've confiscated less than five. And yet drinking is a bigger problem now than ever."
"So how do the kids get it?"
Pete looked toward where the couple had just been standing. "From the parents."
"Kids sneaking into their liquor cabinet?"
"I wish. The couple I was just talking to-hypothetically-were the Milners. Nice people. He sells insurance in the city. She has a boutique in Glen Rock. They have four kids, two in the high school. Their oldest is on the baseball team."
"So?"
"So on Friday night these two nice, caring parents bought a keg and held a party for the baseball team in their basement. Two of the boys got drunk and egged another kid's house. One got so wasted he almost had to have his stomach pumped."
"Wait. The parents bought the keg?"
Pete nodded.
"And that was what you were meeting about?"
"Yes."
"What did they say in their defense?"
"They offered up the most common excuse I get: Hey, kids are going to drink anyway-might as well be sure they do it in a safe environment. The Milners don't want the kids going into New York City or someplace else unsafe, maybe driving after they drink, whatever. So they let the team get bombed in their basement, contained, where they can't get in too much trouble."
"It makes sense on some level."
"Would you do it?" he asked.
Marcia thought about it. "No. But last year we took Haley and a friend of hers to Tuscany. We let them have wine at the vineyards. Was that wrong?"
"It's not against the law in Italy."
"That seems a fine line, Pete."
"So you don't think what these parents did was wrong?"
"I think they were dead wrong," Marcia said. "And their excuse also rings a little hollow-buying kids booze? That's about more than keeping their children safe. That's about wanting to be the cool, hip parents. Wanting to be the kid's friend first and parent second."
"I agree."
"But then again," Marcia said, turning back to the locker, "who am I to be giving parenting advice?"
Silence.
"Pete?"
"Yes?"
"What's the gossip?"
"I'm not sure I know what you mean."
"Yeah, you do. When you guys talk about it-teachers, students, whatever-do they think Haley was abducted or do they think she ran away?"
More silence. She could see he was thinking.
"No filter, Pete. And please don't humor me."
"I won't."
"Well?"
"I have nothing but my gut to go on."
"I understand."
Posters were up in the corridors now. The prom wasn't far away. Graduation too. Pete Zecher's eyes traveled back to Haley's locker. Marcia followed his gaze and spotted a photograph that made her stop. Her whole family minus her-Ted, Haley, Patricia, and Ryan-stood with Mickey Mouse at Disney World. Marcia had taken the photo with Haley's iPhone in its pink case with the purple flower decal. The vacation had taken place three weeks before Haley vanished. The police had given the trip a cursory glance, wondering whether somehow someone she had met on that trip could have followed Haley home, but that thread had gone nowhere. But Marcia remembered how happy Haley was down there, no pressure, every person just a happy kid for a few days. The picture had been a spontaneous thing. The line for Mickey was usually half an hour long, little kids queuing up with "autograph" books for Mickey to stamp, but Haley noticed that there was no line for this particular Mickey in Epcot Center. Her face split into a smile and Haley grabbed her siblings and said, "Come on! Let's do a quick pic!" Marcia insisted on being the photographer, and she remembered the roar of emotion she felt as her entire family, her whole world, gathered around Mickey in happy harmony. She looked at the picture now, remembered that small perfect moment, and stared at Haley's heart-splitting smile.
"You think you know a kid," Pete Zecher said. "But they all have secrets."
"Even Haley?"
Pete spread his hands. "Look down that row of lockers. I know this sounds obvious, but every one belongs to a kid with dreams and expectations, going through a hard, crazy time. Adolescence is a war, filled with pressures both imagined and real. Social, academic, athletic-and all the while you're changing and your hormones are out of whack. All those lockers, all those troubled individuals trapped for seven hours a day in this place. My background is science and whenever I'm here, I imagine those particles from the lab trapped under intense heat. How they need to escape."
"So," Marcia said, "you think Haley ran away?"
Pete Zecher kept his eyes on the photograph from Disney World. He too seemed to focus on that heart-splitting smile. Then he turned away and she saw tears in his eyes.
"No, Marcia, I don't think she ran away. I think something happened to her. Something bad."