She taps on his door with one nail: “It’s that time.”
No springs squeak, no sheets rustle. Knocking with her knuckles, “Your muffin and apple are waiting downstairs.”
Because Will has to take the SAT in an hour, she violates his privacy by opening the door, just an inch. Soft, unexpected light greets her. The bed is made, the blinds are raised, and the gray corduroys he wore last night straddle the back of his desk chair. Dried mud streaks the pants; his sneakers, also muddy, lie on their sides next to the stacked CDs, just beyond the tassels of the rug.
Her first thought is that the innocent explanations will prove wrong. He didn’t just wake up early and go out for coffee. She knows this because he has never made his bed without prompting, not once in his life. No, this bed wasn’t slept in last night.
Her face cold, she reconstructs. He left the block party with Shakti. Wherever they went, he got muddy. (The reservation?) He came home to change. And then?
In January, Shakti almost convinced him to run away with her, to some kind of abandoned building. She may have pressured him again.
There’s no mud on the carpet, and none in the hallway. He took off his sneakers downstairs and carried them up. Considerate even when turning their lives upside down.
Did she feed him a drug? The witch.
On his wall, the president in his flight suit squints amid the young airmen on that carrier, all grinning like a bunch of drunken frat boys. Underneath, in Will’s awkward handwriting, Mission Accomplished!
The adolescent scorn makes her uneasy. The word comeuppance occurs to her: a habit of thought learned from her mother, beginning in infancy.
Today is MayFest. She needs to be at the VIPS table by ten—it’s the biggest recruiting day of the year. Will, Will, what did you do?
Downstairs, in the kitchen, she dials his cell phone number. Above her, his ring tone plays in his room, an electric guitar solo.
To head off panic, she wakes Clark.
He snickers, dreaming.
“Did you see Will come in last night?”
He sits halfway up, leaning on two elbows. “What’s the rascal done now?”
“He didn’t sleep in his bed. I have no idea where he is.”
Clark pries sand from the corner of his eye. “He has to be with either Katrina or Shakti. Let’s hope it’s Katrina.”
Katrina’s mother replies brightly to Adrienne’s question, showing that the question doesn’t offend her. “No, he’s not here. We’re eating breakfast.”
He may have stayed up late talking to Shakti, Clark thinks. Maybe they fell asleep on her living room couch, with their clothes on. Teenagers can surprise you, between the crises, with moments of unexpected innocence.
“He’s supposed to be at the school in forty minutes,” Adrienne says.
They don’t have Shakti’s phone number, and it’s not listed. Clark volunteers to go over and see what’s what. It’s not a scene he looks forward to—his son will resent him for this forever, he’ll assume that his father stupidly failed to consider the humiliation—but a certain amusement is operating here, too, as he clomps down the hill in his sneakers, because how often does a father catch his son in bed with a girl?
At the Asshole’s house (or, the late Asshole’s house), the new owner is cutting a handful of daffodils while her baby totters around on the dewy grass. “Morning,” he says.
She raises the pruner with a skin-and-bone arm. “Hey.”
Shakti and her mother live on the third floor of the Zitos’ house, at the bottom of the block. Joey Zito stands on the porch, as always—the Sentry, feet wide apart, baggy shorts pressed against the wrought-iron porchrail, keeping watch over the empty street. The stub of a cigarette protrudes from his fist like an obscene Italian gesture. Clark turns in at the driveway without acknowledging him, because Joey shoved Will at the block party the night before—and then Clark rushed over, and they had that back and forth, and now here he is, on enemy property, trespassing.
A snap of Joey’s fingers sends ash flurrying down on the white azalea below.
The scents of cantaloupe and old incense accompany Shakti’s mother. There’s no landing at the top of these stairs; Clark stays two steps down, and she towers over him, barefoot in Indian-print drawstring pants. Vertical lines connect the corners of her mouth to her jaw, as on a ventriloquist’s dummy. When they first moved in, ten or fifteen years ago, she had the delicate features and flawless skin of a young model.
Patiently, placidly, with the smallest condescending smile, she waits for him to explain his business. He hasn’t been sized up and dismissed this quickly since high school.
“My son didn’t come home last night,” he says, more wry than accusing.
“My daughter didn’t either.”
Her expression remains the same, imperturbable. If Will isn’t here, where could he be? A motel? No, he didn’t take the car. In some park—on the morning of the SAT? There is no innocent explanation.
Behind her in the dark hallway, a folding bicycle leans against the wall. He’s seen her riding it around town, tall and erect, with a rolled-up yoga mat slung across her back in a sack. He’s also seen her behind the circulation desk at the library. In the past, she struck him as idiosyncratic and appealing; now she just seems irresponsible.
“Was she supposed to take the SAT today?” he asks.
“I don’t know.”
In his gut, something slides sideways.
A window scrapes open above them. Chris Zito’s head appears, a cuckoo popping out of a clock. Her hair, an unnatural auburn this year, hangs around her face, dead as straw, unbrushed. She shouts at her brother, “Joey, get in here, you left your damn paint and rollers in the bathtub, I have to take a shower. You’re making me late!”
Seeing Clark on the steps below, she turns her head away. Clark averts his eyes too, and watches the flag hang limply on the Zitos’ tall pole. Chris ducks back inside.
“Do you have any idea where they might be?” he asks Shakti’s mother.
She says it calmly, gloating over her superior power of acceptance.
“Has she stayed out all night before?”
“A few times. I wish she wouldn’t. But that doesn’t matter to her.”
He can’t understand why Will spent any time at all with Shakti, who has nothing to offer but sullen anger and overdone eye-shadow. He wishes, fervently, that his son had more sense.
“Sooner or later,” the mother says, “they leave our sphere of control. It’s hard to adjust.”
Right, Clark thinks: you made every possible mistake, you never paid attention, you raised a dangerous kid who goes around fucking up other people’s lives, and now you call it Inevitable Fate. I read you, yoga woman.
“If they come back here, please tell us,” he says.
When my wife and I first moved from Manhattan to Montclair, New Jersey, just before our first child was born, I felt as if I’d fallen out of my densely fascinating, beloved world, into a charming but empty suburban Siberia. (The massive snowfalls of that February contributed to the impression.) It took about seven years for me to grow accustomed to our new home, i.e., not to feel as if I were in exile. The dual experiences of parenthood and suburban life came together in the stew that became Hidden Away.
But before I decided to tell the story of a teen who disappeared, I wanted to write a book called Three Houses, about a social microcosm on one short, hilly block: a wealthy family in a Tudor mansion at the top of the hill, new arrivals from the city renovating an old Victorian next door, and a blue-collar family at the bottom of the hill, in a house with aluminum siding. (That, too, reflects the impression Montclair made on me when we first arrived.)
The book needed a plot, though, and I found it in the nightmare fantasy of a new parent.
A note about history: When I began this book, I thought I was writing news. Readers will notice many references to President Bush, Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and so on. Part of my aim was to report on a liberal town’s response to living under a conservative president. I write very slowly, though, and by the time I finished, Bush was no longer in the White House. My up-to-the-minute reflections have now become a record of a moment in history.
Trivia: On the Garden State Parkway, you’ll find my protagonist’s father’s name on signs announcing Exit 135: Clark Westfield. Even though the name came from the sign, I still get a kick out of it every time I drive by.