Read No place Online

Authors: Todd Strasser

No place

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To Fred and Glen, who’ve been there for so long. Thanks, guys.

Acknowledgments

My thanks to Coach Michael Chiapparelli and pitcher Michael Williams for their gracious assistance. And to David Gale, Navah Wolfe, and Dr. Petra Deistler-Kaufmann, for their many insightful and helpful suggestions.

 PART ONE 

PROLOGUE

In the dark I’m jogging quickly across the hospital parking lot toward the emergency room. My cell phone vibrates. Even before I dig it out of my pocket, I know it’s Talia and she’s going to ask why I’m not at the party.

I answer with a lie: “Hey, sorry, the stupid bus hasn’t come yet.”

Silence on the other end. Talia’s pondering this.

“I’ll be there ASAP,” I add as I weave through parked cars.

“You sound like you’re running,” she says.

“Yeah, I’m, uh, running over to the Gerson Street stop so I can get the 104 or the 107. See you soon, okay?” I hate lying, especially to people I care about, but when everything’s going wrong, it’s sometimes hard to do what’s right.

As a damp gust of wind carries the promise of rain, leaves swirl in the heavy moist air. From the distance comes the rumble of thunder. I push through the ER doors and into the stark bright fluorescent world of the hospital.

“May I help you?” asks the nurse behind the desk.

“I’m looking for Aubrey Fine.”

“Family?”

“Yes.”Another lie.

She points toward a pair of double doors. “Through there. Number three.”

A sign on the wall says:

PLEASE TURN OFF

YOUR CELL PHONE

Mine’s vibrating again. It’s Talia, and I don’t answer. I feel like a juggler with one too many balls in the air. Inside the ER the beds are hidden by blue privacy curtains and the air smells antiseptic. Through a part in some curtains I glimpse a wrinkled white-haired old lady with her eyes closed and a greenish clear mask on her face. Then I’m outside the curtain of number three. From within comes a hushed female voice: “It’s too soon to tell. We have to get him stabilized first.”

I part the curtains just enough to see the doctor in a white medical jacket. She has straight blond hair, wears dark-rimmed glasses, and holds a clipboard. Meg is leaning overthe hospital bed, her face partly obscured by her thick, curly, reddish brown hair, the sleeves of her too-long plaid shirt hanging over the bars.

There’s someone in the bed and my stomach knots when I realize it’s Aubrey. Nearly unrecognizable, his head is bandaged, chin scraped and scabbed, nose bent, bloody, and twice its normal size, one eye dark and swollen shut. Clear plastic tubes snake into his nose and have been forced between his split and swollen lips. His left arm is bandaged in a way that makes me think it’s broken.

What did they do to him?

The doctor sees me. “Can I help you?”

Meg looks up, eyes red-rimmed and bloodshot, cheeks streaked with tears, surprised. “Dan!”

“Yeah, I—”

“You know him?” the doctor asks. She’s clearly a by-the-rulebook type.

“Yes.” Meg’s still staring at me. “How did you . . . ?”

“It was on the news.” It’s strange to hear myself say that. A few months ago I barely knew the news existed. Well, I knew, but I hardly cared. Now, not only do I care, but it feels like half the time I’m part of it.

Meg looks pale and scared. I’m glad I came; she shouldn’t have to go through this alone. Her mom must be back at Dignityville looking after her father. The curtain slides open and two guys in blue scrubs come in and start to fiddle with the machines and tubes.

“We’re taking him to the ICU now,” the doctor says, gently, to Meg.

My guts twist when the guys in the scrubs arrange Aubrey’s limp right arm and bandaged left. You can tell he’s out cold. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a beating victim—the swollen dark bruises and patches of dried blood . . .

“Can I come?” Meg asks.

“Not yet,” the doctor answers. Then to me: “Why don’t you take her to the waiting room?” It may be posed as a question, but the firm look in her eyes implies that this is an order.

I take Meg’s hand and lead her through the double doors. In the waiting room my phone vibrates again, and again I ignore it. In a red plastic chair, Meg falls apart, burying her face in my shoulder and shaking with sobs. Some people around the room stare, then turn away as if embarrassed for her.

*  *  *

“Coffee?” I ask a little later. Meg nods, and I head down a polished corridor looking for the hospital cafeteria. When I come back there’s a woman with Meg. She has an iPad on her lap, is wearing a dark blue pants suit, and has kinky hair that starts out black on top and then changes to orange-red as if she dyed it months ago and is now letting it grow out. I hand Meg a coffee, some sugar packets, and a couple of little half-and-halfs.

“Friend?” the woman asks Meg.

Meg nods, sniffs, wipes fresh tears out of her eyes. “Dan, this is Detective . . . uh . . .”

“French.” The woman offers her hand.

“Dan Halprin.” We shake.

“I’m asking Meg some questions,” Detective French says.

Sounds like she doesn’t want me there. “Sure, no prob.” I start to back away.

“Can’t he stay?” Meg blurts anxiously.

Detective French gives me a hard look, as if to let me know this is serious business and she’s only allowing me there for Meg’s sake. I sit, sip some coffee, look around. The waiting room is about a quarter full. A sad-looking little girl with pigtails leans into her mother, who’s busy texting on her phone. A greasy-haired guy with a crutch and a foot wrapped in a dirty bandage stares into space. You get the feeling they’re not emergencies—just people who can’t afford a doctor or have no place else to go.

“Why was Aubrey in the parking lot behind Ruby’s?” Detective French asks Meg.

“He’s a bartender there.”

“Did he have enemies at work? Did he ever mention anyone?”

Meg shakes her head. “No, never.”

“What about robbery?” I ask.

Detective French looks at me with an expression that says I should stay out of this, but answers just the same. “He still had his wallet when the officers arrived. There was money in it.” She swipes the screen of the iPad with her finger. “There was a witness. . . . The person who called 911 . . . she saidshe heard one of them say something about Dignityville?”

Meg looks down at her mud-colored coffee. “That’s . . . where we live.”

“But Ruby’s is all the way on the other side of town.” I can’t help butting in again. “How would anyonethereknow he had anything to do with Dignityville?”

Detective French tilts her head as if to say,Think about it.

They had to know who Aubrey was ahead of time.

Which means the attack wasn’t random.

“Was he in a gang?” Detective French asks Meg.

Meg raises her head, frowns. “What kind of gang?”

“Street gang?”

“No! Never.”

“You’re sure?” Detective French doesn’t sound convinced.

“Yes!” Meg’s eyes start to fill with tears of frustrated indignation. “Why would you . . . ?”

“They used the preferred gangbanger weapon, a baseball bat. And there were green and gold gang beads in the parking lot. The police think they broke during the fight.”

Meg scowls. “Street gangs around here?”

“From Burlington,” Detective French says.

Burlington’s ten miles away.

I feel sick picturing Aubrey on the ground getting bashed with a baseball bat, flailing to protect himself, accidentally catching a strand of the attacker’s beads with his fingers. But wait. “How do you know the beads were from the fight? Maybe someone dropped them weeks ago.”

Detective French gives me an impatient look like she wishes I’d keep my mouth shut. But Meg cocks her head alertly as if she wants to know the answer too. The detective explains: “There was blood in the parking lot. The beads weren’t under it. They were on it.”

“So?” Meg asks with a puzzled expression.

“Like the cherry on top of a sundae?”

Thanks to the graphic description, Meg starts to cry again. I put my arm around her. Detective French closes her iPad, says she’s sorry about what happened to Aubrey, and thanks Meg for her time. She stands up and hands me a card. “In case she thinks of anything, or just wants to talk.”

*  *  *

Meg’s sobs trickle into whimpers. The minutes creep past. A guy staggers in, assisted by a friend, his hand wrapped in a T-shirt bright red with blood. They’re immediately sent through the double doors into the emergency room. Meanwhile the texting mother dispatches her little girl to get a bag of chips from the vending machine.

Finally the blond doctor comes out. Meg and I get to our feet. The doctor looks grim. “His condition is critical. He’s in a coma.”

Meg gasps and grabs my hand for support.

“Everything depends on the next twenty-four hours. If we can get past that, the neurologists can run tests.”

“So you don’t even know if . . . ?” Meg trails off as if she can’t speak the words.

The doctor shakes her head. “We’ll know tomorrow. You should go home now.”

“But . . .”

“There’s nothing you can do here,” the doctor repeats, and gives me the same commanding look as before. This time it says,Take her home.

I lead Meg outside. Rain pours down in a dull roar and we stand under the canopy, chilled by the cold, wet mist. Meg begins to cry again; I just want to get her back to Dignityville before anything else bad happens.

And my stupid phone won’t stop vibrating.

 1 

TWO MONTHS AGO

It was never easy with Talia. The second you said something she didn’t like, she had five different ways of letting you know. Since I knew she wasn’t going to like what I had to say about Thanksgiving, I waited until the last moment—lunch was over and we were leaving the cafeteria.

“You know the Fall Classic Tournament over Thanksgiving?” I said as we walked out into the hall. “I got invited.”

The corners of Talia’s mouth drooped. “You said you’d go away with us.”

“No,yousaid I’d go away with you. I said I wasn’t sure.”

Her eyebrows dipped. “You don’t want to go to Hilton Head?”

“Tal, don’t do this. You know I want to go, but there’ll be pro scouts at the tournament. Guys get drafted straight out of high school all the time.”

Talia stopped in the middle of the hall and widened her eyes. “And not go to Rice?”

“Come on.” I took her hand. My next class was on the other side of the building. Talia allowed herself to be coaxed along, and we passed a bunch of kids at a table who were asking people to sign up for some march on Washington.

“So now you’re saying you’renotgoing to college?” Talia repeated the question she already knew the answer to.

“I didn’t say that. I said—”

“Hey, Dan,” a voice interrupted us. Like a guide giving a college tour, a kid from the sign-up table started walking backward in front of Talia and me. He had long, ratty, brown hair. “How about signing up?”

“For?” I asked.

He pointed at a poster on the wall.

DID YOU KNOW?1% OF THE POPULATION CONTROLS 25% OF ALL THE WEALTH IN AMERICA?THE WEALTHY OFTEN PAY FEWER TAXES THAN THE MIDDLE CLASS?BANKS KEEP PROFITS, WHILE TAXPAYERS PAY FOR THEIR LOSSES?HOMELESSNESS IN THE UNITED STATES IS AT AN ALL-TIME HIGH?UNEMPLOYMENT IS NEAR AN ALL-TIME HIGH?POLITICIANS DEPEND ON WEALTHY INDIVIDUALS AND CORPORATIONS?WANT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE? JOIN THE THANKSGIVING MARCH ON WASHINGTON

Talia pulled my hand. It was her turn to coax me away. “Dan, we were talking.”

“Who do you think politiciansreallyserve?” asked the ratty-haired kid. “The rich people and corporations who pay for their election campaigns, or the rest of us?”

“Dan.”Talia tugged impatiently.

I let myself be pulled away.

“Think about it,Dan,” the kid called behind me.

“Who was that?” Talia asked as we continued down the hall.

“Don’t know.”

“He knew your name.”

“Lots of people know my name.”

“He sounded like he knew you.”

“They do that to get your attention.”

“What do I have to do to get your attention?” she asked.

I squeezed her hand. “Youalwayshave my attention.”

Not that she gave me much choice.

“Then please explain what’s going on. First you say you’re not going to Hilton Head. Now you’re not going to college?”Talia loved to spin everything toward the dramatic.

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