Ch. 78: Ticket to nowhere
We laughed when we came home and saw that the doorbell was fixed. Then we got surprised to find Rocco sitting on the couch together with Sailor when we came inside, and Martina immediately walked over to give him a hug.
“How are you?” she asked with concern, and I watched while he handed the dog over to her, then got up and tried to smile. But even I saw that it didn’t reach his eyes.
“I’m good. I mean, I’m fine... Considering the circumstances. Cute dog, by the way.”
Martina gave me a worried glance, before she turned all of her attention back to Rocco.
“Are you sure? You don’t sound...”
But she got cut off by another attempt to sound casual.
“Yeah. I’m good. I was just waiting for you to get back so I can say goodbye before I leave. I’ve packed my stuff.”
He nodded toward the main door, where his two bags were neatly stacked together against the wall.
“When does your plane leave?” I asked.
“Uhm... 11:35 pm.”
“That late? I thought you wouldn’t leave until tomorrow?”
Rocco made a half shrug.
“I changed it. No need to stay longer than necessary, right?”
I got a strange feeling that he was holding something back, and I think Martina did too. Rocco didn’t meet our gazes and seemed shut off in a way.
“Is everything fine with you and Hunter?” Martina asked, verbalizing my exact same thoughts.
“Yeah. All good.”
“You’re dating now, right?” she continued, but I wasn’t really sure if that was the question that needed to be answered. Clearly there was something that bothered him.
“Uhm... I guess.”
He hesitated a bit and rubbed his neck, and I caught myself wondering why he didn’t want to spend his last night in San Francisco together with Hunter as planned. Did they have a fight? Or maybe he wanted to stay here, but didn’t dare to ask? But before I got to question him, he gave Martina another hug. One that lasted a bit longer. And when he released her, he smiled vaguely before he came over to give me a hug, too. Also a long one, and I stroked his back and exchanged worried looks with Martina.
We hadn’t told Rocco the news about our engagement yet, but this was not the right time to do it. Even I knew that. Having your entire life crushed, then finding that your ex just got engaged with your own father, wasn’t exactly for the faint-hearted. Rocco was tougher and stronger than anyone I knew, but he’d had enough for a while now. We’d tell him soon anyway. I had to make sure he was alright and that he’d started going to therapy like I told him to, and Martina had a handful of practical issues to deal with. Therefore we would visit him in New York in a couple of weeks.
“I can drive you to the airport,” I offered when we pulled back from the hug, but Rocco immediately shook his head.
“That’s not necessary. I have a friend who is picking me up.”
It was starting to annoy me now. Him dodging all of our attempts to make eye contact, was totally out of character for him. Was he mad for some reason?
“A friend? Not Hunter?” Martina pushed, but that just made Rocco shut down completely.
“Alright, Imma go now. Thanks for everything. Both of you.”
We were about to say something back, but he finally looked at each of us in turn. And what we saw was heartbreaking. Not only were his eyes swollen and red, but the furor of raw emotions in them felt like a punch in the stomach.
“Rocco...” Martina said and tried to grab his hand. But he picked up his bags instead and opened the door.
“Are you sure you have to leave tonight? It’s late and you can just take the first plane tomorrow morning,” I suggested, but he was already on his way out.
Stop him, Aaron. Something isn’t right, and you know it. You can’t let him leave when it’s so clear that he’s miserable. But… What if you’re the one making him miserable? Then again, what did you do to make him feel this shitty? Wasn’t everything okay between you now? Yes, it was. Dammit!
“Thank you, guys,” he said again.
“You’re the best.”
There was nothing about this situation that felt right. The way he avoided eye contact, his vague replies and his just a little too long hugs.
“Rocco, please don’t go,” Martina begged, but he was already at the top of the stairs.
“Love you, Marty! And you too, dad!”
And that was the last thing we heard from him, except for the shuffling footsteps and the door slamming shut behind him.
“This isn’t right,” Martina mumbled. Then she hurried over to the window closest to the parking lot, with me hot on her heels. I could see her trying to squint into the darkness, but the weak streetlights weren’t very helpful. The only thing we saw was a dark car with one broken taillight, that crossed the parking lot and turned out on the main road.
“This isn’t right,” she repeated, and I could hear she was upset.
“Something doesn’t add up. Why didn’t Hunter take him to the airport? Because that wasn’t his car.”
I shrugged. I was just as wise as her.
“Do you have Hunter’s number?”
“Me?” I asked, confused.
“Why should I have it?”
“Because they’ve been friends since childhood, and it’s pretty normal to keep their or their parent’s... Never mind.”
She cut herself off, obviously remembering the terrible family dynamics we’ve always had. Or lack of dynamic at all. Then she picked up her phone from the coffee table and started scrolling.
“What’s her name?” Martina mumbled to herself.
“Dammit! I only know his friends here by first names or nicknames. And I only know where Hunter lives. And if that wasn’t him...”
She rubbed her forehead with her palm and found Rocco’s name on the screen. Then she called him.
“Straight to voicemail,” she whispered, and it kind of sounded like a sob. And the more distressed she looked, the more worried I got. Both of us knew that he wouldn’t turn his phone off unless he was sitting on the plane. And he wasn’t even at the airport.
“Which one?” I asked and grabbed my car keys.
“San Francisco international.”
“Bring the dog.”
I was so relieved that Aaron just had one beer, so he was still good to drive, even though I drove us home from the restaurant. Being a New York girl, I didn’t mind the city traffic, but I wasn’t too familiar with the streets of San Francisco yet. And right now my mind was all over the place, trying to find out why Rocco was acting so strange. It wasn’t helping that he didn’t reply to any of my text messages, and I already quit calling because I got angry at the stupid woman telling me he was out of reach. Poor Sailor noticed that something was bothering me and did his best to cheer me up.
“What about his friends in New York?” Aaron suggested, but I’d already thought about that.
“I only know three of his friends, plus his boss at the theater. But they’re three hours ahead, and it’s already in the middle of the night. Plus it’s a weekday...”
I sighed heavily instead of finishing my sentence. He knew what I meant anyway.
“I texted all of them and told them to call me right away.”
I stared at my phone, but there were no notifications. Then I stared into the streets flashing its fluorescent lights like it was a disco party, and felt provoked in a way. So I looked over at Aaron instead.
He had a look of worry on his face. The frown was wedged deep between his eyebrows, and his lips and jaw were tight and locked. His eyes barely moved from the traffic ahead, and when they did, it was to make sure I was okay. It showed in the transformation from distress to love in his eyes. And just like his subconsciousness picked up on what I was thinking, his hand moved to find mine and squeezed it for comfort. Neither of us said anything, because both of us knew the look in Rocco’s eyes.
We parked right outside the entrance to the airport, totally illegal and with Sailor tucked on my arm. But despite a couple of cab drivers yelling a threat or two, we made it to one of the information centers close by.
“We need help!” I exclaimed, and a uniformed woman behind the counter looked up from her computer.
“Dogs have to be in a cage,” she commented dryly, but directed her attention to me.
“I know, but...”
“Can I see your passports and tickets, please?”
“We don’t have any, because we’re not going on a plane.”
“Then why are you here at the departure? The arrival...”
“We’re searching for my son,” Aaron said sternly behind me. He sounded calmer than he was, but he was hiding it well. I still saw it, though. From the way he was chewing on the inside of his cheeks and his flickering, searching and way too serious eyes, to the constant picking on his nails with his thumb.
“Rocco Cooper. He’s going on the New York departure at 11:35 pm.”
The woman raised her eyebrows and looked quite suspicious.
“Please hurry!” I begged, when she didn’t move. And Aaron spelled Rocco’s full name letter by letter, but she still didn’t do anything.
“I’m sorry, but due to confidentiality I can’t give out information about our passengers. Fortunately, in this case I can inform you that there’s no one with that name on our lists today, because there is no departure for New York at 11:35 pm. The last one was at 9:15 pm, and the next is 5:15 am tomorrow morning.”
Those were the exact words we didn’t want to hear.
“We must have gone to the wrong airport,” Aaron mumbled, but I think he knew it too. SFO was the one closest to where he lived, and the obvious choice the few times Rocco and I had come here. And according to Rocco, it was the only airport he used because he didn’t like the two others.
“Are you absolutely sure?” I asked the lady, praying silently that I was wrong. Because if it was, there would still be ten minutes until the departure, and they could call his name up on the speakers.
“One hundred percent.”
I thanked her and followed Aaron to the car because he literally dragged me there. He wanted to go to the other airports, no matter how many times I tried to tell him that there was no use. Even if Rocco actually happened to be there, the plane would leave any minute now and we wouldn’t reach him. The only thing we could hope for was that he was safe and would call back as soon as he got my text messages.
Suddenly Aaron hit the steering wheel with his hand and let out a frustrated groan. Then he pulled over at a bus stop and picked up his phone.
“Who are you calling?” I asked when he lifted the phone to his ear. But he just mumbled.
“His phone is still off, and...”
“Pick up, Satan!” he shouted into the phone, and I got even more worried than before. Aaron called Bree out of his own free will? Did she do anything to Rocco? Or her family? With a man as evil as her father, who knows what kind of dark secrets they were hiding? And if Aaron was scared enough to call his ex-wife, then he was probably more scared than me. And I was terrified.
“Have you heard anything from Rocco?” Aaron exclaimed the second someone picked up at the other end. But it was a male voice that I recognized as Rocco’s stepdad.
“Shut up and let me talk to Bree!”
I glanced at my own phone and willed it to light up with some kind of knowledge of Rocco’s whereabouts, but it was black as the night sky above us.
“Of course I know what time it is! But do you know where your son is?”
There were some confused interjections at the other end, and Aaron bit her head off promptly. I guess that’s just how they were.
“Yes, your son. I bet you haven’t talked to him since the trial.”
That comment was a mean stab to a mother, even if it was someone like Bree.
“Okay!” Aaron said, suddenly sounding defensive. She probably snapped back enough to make him get to the point. And she actually listened when he told her what happened.
“Well? Aren’t you gonna say anything?” he said eventually, clearly annoyed.
“I’m thinking!” I heard together with a mumbling about how late it was. But there was no doubt that she’d gotten the message. She was probably more annoyed at her sleepy brain than Aaron at the moment. Luckily, she seemed to come up with some sort of plan and promised to call back as soon as she got some information.
In the meantime, I took a couple of phone calls to all the airports nearby just to make sure there really was no flight to New York at 11:35 pm. There was none. But I got another idea.
“I know where Hunter lives. We were there to celebrate New Year’s, remember?”
A smirk appeared on Aaron’s face, and I knew that he was reminiscing about the other part that happened that night. So I slapped his thigh and gave him a somewhat accurate direction, and it didn’t even take twenty minutes until we pulled up in front of Hunter’s parent’s house.
“They’re asleep,” I said, and felt both awkward and bad for waking them up. But the memory of Rocco’s defeated eyes, didn’t give me any choice. We had to find him.
Aaron parked the car, patted Sailor on the head and told him to wait before he joined me on the way to the door. Then he pulled me close to kiss my temple after I’d pushed the doorbell. I had to repeat it four more times until a tall, broad shouldered, yet very slim man opened the door. His hair pointed in all directions and his bathrobe looked like it was thrown on.
“It’s in the middle of the night, for Christ’s sake!” he grumbled, and squinted toward the porch light.
“I know, and I’m terribly sorry sir. But is your son at home?”
The man groaned and rubbed his face.
“What did he do this time?”
“Nothing. But we really need to talk to him about a friend of his. Please, sir.”
He shrugged and told us to wait, and not long after a yawning Hunter appeared in the doorway, looking just as tired as his father.
To say that he sounded confused was an understatement.
“What about him?”
“Is he here?”
Hunter scratched his head.
“No. He left to stay with you before his plane leaves in the morning.”
“I knew it!” Aaron exclaimed and combed his hand through his tousled hair.
“What’s going on?”
“He already left, and we don’t know where he is.”
“Aren’t you the least concerned?” I cut in, and almost stomped the ground in frustration.
“Look, did he say anything out of the ordinary when he left?”
Hunter shook his head while he thought hard. Then he suddenly looked pale as a ghost.
“What did he say?”
“It wasn’t exactly what he said. It was...”
He swallowed, and I could see tears pooling up in his eyes.
“His Celine Dion collection.”
“Excuse me?” I said, knowing that was the Christmas gift from me, and probably the most valuable thing he owned. At least to him it was.
“It’s here. He left it here, but I thought it was just temporary, because there was a note on it.”
He paused and his bottom lip was trembling.
“You have my heart. Take good care of it."
A sob cracked his voice, but he continued.
“I just laughed it off and thought it was one of his sappy revelations. He sometimes does that, especially when he’s drunk. He’s such a softie, and I love that about him, but I’d never believe that he wasn’t coming back for it.”
“Can you please check your phone? Maybe he left a message or something,” I asked and sniffled. Then I turned to Aaron and searched for comfort in his arms. Not only was I a hormonal mess in general, but the sight of someone crying and knowing he felt just as worried as I did, made me give up holding my own tears back.
We were the ones who were closest to him, and neither of us knew where he was or what he was doing. We just knew it wasn’t good. And when the only notification on Hunter’s phone was a black heart, we got our biggest fear confirmed.
He didn’t want to be found.