My son and the money were missing.
Not knowing where to start, I burst into barely lit November drizzle and slammed but didn’t lock our front door. After all, what if Joezy had simply gone biking? Biking with a thousand bucks? Money meant for 9/11 victims’ families. And it was all — my boot heels clicked — my fault, my fault. I marched down our rain-glazed brick walk, my heels rat-tatting like shots. And I found myself picturing that strange house on the river. The house my husband and son had taken to calling, since September, our neighborhood’s Terrorist Cell.
Home of the boys we all had called, since Halloween, the Terrorist Trick-or-Treaters.
I winced as I slammed my car door, not used to a hangover headache, my first in years. My frozen fingers, still bright with last night’s coppery nail polish, fumbled with my keys. Beside me on the seat, my box of bamboo rhythm sticks thwocked. My car lurched down Riverview Road, past the other brick houses, all Sunday silenced.
No one up but us. My husband was still trapped far away in Penn Station, his train delayed due to bomb threats. I switched on my wipers too high, my windshield smearing. Everything in my life spectacularly smearing together, blurring big-time, since September.
Did my good-boy son really steal all the 9/11 Fundraiser money from the Fairwell School PTA? Of course he didn’t, I thought at the bottom of the hill, at the same time that I knew: Yes, he did.
And yes, I further sensed, squinting through my wipers across Mystic Avenue. Yes: Joezy’s blue bike glinted in the rain in the hydrangea bushes fronting that house. My pulse thumped with the wipers. Joezy’s bike leaned in those bushes, half-assedly hidden, like he’d wanted to be found. Good God.
Somehow at 7AM on this chill Sunday morning, my son was visiting the riverfront home where — for these past two fear-ridden fall months—Arabic graffiti regularly appeared and disappeared on the garage doors. Gracefully slashed lettering, unreadable to us.
But that doesn’t make the house a terrorist cell, I told myself as sternly as I’d been telling my husband and son all fall. I punched the gas and cut across Mystic, its Sunday morning traffic blessedly light.
I pulled onto the once-luxurious ranch house’s ordinary asphalt driveway; I marched up to its ordinary if fadedly painted front door. Shakily, I tried to smooth down my unbrushed rain-frizzed hair.
Then I hammered the new-looking brass knocker, my pulse hammering too. Rap rap rap. A demanding policeman beat.
Anything to find Joezy, I thought, pulling my raincoat close over my FAIRWELL SCHOOL: LOVING LEARNING sweatshirt.
Can we please do something else? I found myself thinking as helplessly as I’d done in June in the breast center waiting area, wearing that same sweatshirt, standing because I couldn’t stand sitting, bracing for my biopsy. Can I please be anywhere but here?
Then shuffling sounds near the door to 22 Mystic Avenue, and it opened a crack. Inside, I faced the oldest tallest boy, the one whom I’d last faced when he was dressed as, he’d told us flatly, a terrorist.
With his head uncovered this morning, with his black hair mussed as if he’d just woken, with old-fashioned dark- rimmed glasses on, he looked younger and less threatening than on Halloween.
He was, I judged as if he were a new student, sixteen or seventeen, his glasses and manly black brows both oversized for his lean light-brown face.
“Excuse me, sorry to disturb you so early but — I see my son’s bike in your bushes and he, he’s — missing.”
“Missing, Missus?” this boy repeated, not impolite, slow-voiced. Unshaven beard bristle shadowed his chin, a beard-to-be.
“Yes, and I — I just have a feeling he may be — here.” At here, behind lenses, the boy’s sleepy eyes began to light. He licked his lips, swallowed. He straightened so we stood eye to eye. “He might be with one of the other boys, your brothers?
If I could just have a look.”
“Here?” This boy still blocked the doorway. “A look in — here?” I steadied my voice. I tried a brisk nod and a quick tight smile. “Yes. I’m—well—your neighbor from Riverview. Mrs. — Simon.”
“Rakeen Jiluwi,” this boy announced, pronouncing his grand-sounding name with grown-up poise. He stuck his man-sized hand out the door. I took cautious hold, gave a slight shake, pulled back. His hand felt cool and dry, startlingly strong.
“I believe,” Rakeen told me, “I do know where your son may be. Downstairs with One. With, I mean to say, our — servant.”
One? I thought dazedly. He’d said this in a slow voice, as if still sleepy. But his keen dark gaze was fully awake, looking me over. My own mussed hair: my no doubt panicky pale eyes, my hastily pulled on clothes. I found myself wondering if I had my cell phone in my raincoat pocket.
Nevertheless, as Rakeen stepped back, I stepped in.
I had hold of One. I was kissing One, I was all over One when Rakeen and my mom busted into her basement room. I mean, the room where she was being held.
The girl named One.
The girl I was trying to save. Trying to do lots of other things too. Our first kisses, my first ever; she was even starting to kiss me back. Soft but chapped lips, big teeth, taste of mango and smoke.
Then the tall Jiluwi boy stood in her doorway, glasses flashing, and head high like he really was son of some Saudi prince.
“Pig-boy,” Rakeen Jiluwi pronounced from the doorway, real loud. “Look at your greedy Piggy Boy now — ”
I stumbled back, zipping my jeans. One, in her too- small bra and too-big sweatpants, sank to her knees on her mattress on the floor. She bowed her head so her bangs shielded her face. Would he try to hurt her, us? I glared up at Rakeen, braced to — jump him.
And I froze too. “God, Mom.”
My freaking pop-eyed mom had poked her head around the door. She squeezed in the doorway beside Rakeen.
My mom — hair wild, face wild — pushed past Rakeen. She rushed in and grabbed hold of me. God, could she feel my still-half-hard hard-on? Suddenly I was holding my mom as hard as I’d held One.
“What’re you doing here?” I muttered, wrenching back from her. And what the fuck would Rakeen do? Were we all trapped, maybe, inside Le Ti One’s basement room? In the house I’d been watching; the house of the supposedly “royal” Jiluwi family; the house I’d called the Terrorist Cell. But I’d never thought there was a real “cell” there, underground.
“I’m here to take you home,” Mom whispered. Then she spun on her heel, like the dancer she used to be. She faced the so-called-prince Jiluwi boy in his Clark Kent glasses.
His bony broad shoulders filled the doorway. He stood planted there like a guard.
“I brought you your mommy, Pig-Boy,” he informed me, formal and even freaking polite — except for the Pig part.
Rakeen nodded at me, then at silent Le Ti One. She still knelt, head still bowed. Was she hiding, praying? Or just scared shitless, like me? Beside One on the mattress lay my denim jacket. Bulging in its pocket was the money I’d borrowed. No: stolen.
“What’s going on here?” Mom was demanding. God, had I really stolen that money, kissed this soft-lipped cigarette-breathed girl? Did the Jiluwis, like One claimed, really keep a “military gun” in their safe? I was breathing hard with Mom, the air tasting damp, disinfected. Were Mom and I both going to — like mother, like son — hyperventilate?
“How you two look at me.” Rakeen shook his head at Mom, ignoring her question. He straightened his glasses. About to whip them off, morph into Superman. “So easy to scare, so quick to fear my brothers and myself. Just like on Halloween.” Rakeen gave Mom a close-lipped smile. “I know you do not want to see me again. But I must make you see what your Pig Boy has been up to, Missus.”