Sorry, Nora, but there’s nothing here.”
His words ran over me like water.
I have always been without the ability to process things. When I failed some of my exams last semester, I walked around for days eating ice-cream and singing to myself as if nothing happened. It took me about a week before the tears started. So, when Jace said those words, I didn’t surprise me that I felt nothing but numbness.
The frustration in his voice was evident. Jace ran a long hand along his jawline. Paperwork was strewn across my desk and Jace’s invincible computer lay in the centre of it.
“Alex James Carter, born on the 14th September 1998, doesn’t exist anymore,” Jace said quietly.
He began to spin in the swivel chair in front of the desk. Wren and I stood behind him; we shared a puzzle look with one another.
“How is that possible?” I asked. A tightness began to sit in my chest.
My mind jumped to conclusions, as it always did. I thought of the multiple possibilities: death, abduction, imprisonment. Rationalization had never been a strength of mine.
“Jesus, the guy just vanished,” Wren whispered. She had some of the worst reactions on the planet, but even she couldn’t hide her astonishment.
“I’m sorry, Nora. I know how much you wanted to know he was okay,” Jace sighed. He slammed his laptop shut and began to put it in his bag.
“That’s fine,” I said in a quiet voice. It didn’t even feel like mine. “Thank you anyway, Jace.”
Just last week, Jace had found a way to hack into the government’s census material. It was completely illegal, of course, but Jace had convinced me that he wouldn’t get caught. He’d first used the database to spy on an ex-girlfriend, but the project had quickly morphed into a search for Alex James Carter.
Since we’d been friends, I’d barely shut up about the mysterious disappearance of my childhood friend. Sometimes, I think Wren and Jace worried that they were his replacements.
“Your welcome,” Jace gave me a small smile. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more.”
I opened my mouth to reply, but the sound of my ringtone cut me off. It was at this point that Jace and Wren launched into a fit of laughter. My ringtone wasn’t its usual metallic chime; it had been changed to ’Ol MacDonald.
“What the hell is that?!” Jace asked through a string of erratic laughs. They sounded more like hiccups than anything else.
“I’m going to kill Seth,” I muttered as I took the call.
I felt the smile on my face grow limp.
The voice sounded distressed. The last time he’d called me like this was when his dog died. That was the first time I’d ever heard him cry: it was also the last.
“It’s Seth,” I made a motion with my hand, practically pleading for Jace and Wren to be quiet. They must have sensed the desperation in my body language because their laughter began to soften.
I placed my hand over my phone and asked in an anxious voice, “Hey, baby, are you okay?”
“Nora,” Seth’s breathing was jagged. It came out muffled, as if he was in movement. It sounded like heavy gusts of wind from the other side of the line. “I need to you pick me up. Right. Now.”
My first thought was that he was in danger. Seth was always so peaceful and calm. He was like a lazy cat.
After a moment, the background conversation convinced me that Seth was more than likely safe. He was just angry.
“You shut the hell up!” A muffled voice hollered. Seth launched a huge array of swearwords in response, some of which I caught.
An older voice spoke. From the sound of the diction, it was a woman’s. Seth yelled his response to them too, “No. I’m not listening. I’m going home!”
Then there was more movement; the sounds were clipped, as if he was trying to lunge towards someone.
“Screw you dude!” Seth yelled. He swore again, and then shouted out, “Don’t hey me!”
Where had my boyfriend gone? The only time I heard Seth swear was when he was watching the football. He never raised his voice.
My mind worked its way backwards; I tried to remember what Seth was doing tonight. I remembered a conversation about dinners, and birthdays, and…
I knew exactly what had happened.
A.J Lawson had happened.
There had been days when Seth would come into school with that look on his face, as if he was going to bulldoze over anyone who got in his path. I’d seen him punch his locker a few times before first bell. I knew that home life could be taxing, but Seth normally calmed down by second period.
His anger was like that; it was a bundle of bad weather which passed as quickly as it had come.
I began to take control of the situation. I inserted artificial reassurance into my voice. “Seth, calm down. What’s going on?”
I heard a sound of moving objects, maybe it was a chair, or maybe it was cutlery.
“It’s my asshole of a step-brother…” Seth began. He was breathing through his teeth.
“Where are you?” I asked.
My immediate thought was to pick him up. I knew Seth wouldn’t have another way of getting home. Taking the family car didn’t seem like a good idea. In fact, it was probably hazardous to other road users.
I mentally ran my head around the directions to the place. It was a couple miles outside of town.
“I’ll be there in ten.”
I began to search around my room for the keys. I found them where they normally were. Giving Sammy, my turtle, a small tickle, I nudged them from underneath his body. Don’t ask me why, but my turtle had an unhealthy obsession with my keys.
“Hurry, Nora,” Seth said in a distressed voice.
I felt my heart tug.
He needed me. He really, really needed me.
“Just stay calm until I get there,” I said in a stern voice. I grabbed the hoodie off my bed and flung in over my form. “Seth, I mean it. No fighting.”
“No fighting. Got it.” Seth’s voice was tight.
That wasn’t going to cut it. Seth was using his game voice. It was the one where his words felt like heavy boulders, and where every syllable produced the same intonation.
“Seth Lawson. Swear on my life,” I demanded.
“I...I swear,” Seth breathed out. I thought I felt some of the anger leave his voice. He took a deep breath and then said, “Love you.”
“Love you too,” I replied, biting the bottom of my lip as I did so. The words felt so new. They reminded me of Seth himself; of freshly cut grass, and warm Sunday mornings.
I hung up and began to leave my room. I got halfway across the floorboards before I realised that I had guests. Very important guests who’d just heard everything I’d been saying.
Jace and Wren gave little fake coughs, and I could tell that they were demanding I turn back to face them.
“It’s Seth,” I said, shaking a hand through my hair. It was getting frizzy again, I noticed absently. I needed to go back to the hairdressers.
Wren’s eyes narrowed. She searched my face as she said, “I didn’t know you said I love you.”
“We did it today,” I explained. The tugging at my hair became more incessant.
I loved my friends to pieces, but I didn’t think I had been ready to tell them how serious Seth and I were. I knew they judged him harshly for the events of last month.
Wren’s eyes had narrowed to tiny slits, but she didn’t say anything. I knew what she was thinking.
Jace arched an eyebrow. With his elbows placed on the desk, he asked me, “A.J trouble?”
“You bet,” I said. I dug my hands into my hoodie, hoping that no one could see how my fists were clenching. I was in serious danger of punching A.J Lawson in the face right now.
“God, that drama is ridiculous…” Wren said, dismissively rolling her eyes.
We all knew masculine energy wasn’t her thing. Her reaction to football proved that. But it was our school’s thing, and it was our town’s thing.
“I think it’s pretty legendary,” Jace countered. He gave me a sympathetic look as he said, “A.J sounds like an asshole though.”
“Yeah, well, he is,” I muttered.
I made a small motion towards the door and said in a fast voice, “I have to get Seth. You’re welcome to stay. I’m just going to drop him back home.”
“Oh no, you guys have some time to yourselves,” Wren made to stand. She gave me an unsubtle wink. “We’ll get going. Jace, get up!”
As Jace made to stand, I remembered something I had wanted to ask him five minutes ago.
“Can you run Alex’s name through the scanner again, Jace?” I began turning the keys in my hand. “I’m sorry to ask you…”
“Sure, and its fine, Nora.” Jace made a motion with his hand. He urged me to leave. “You’ve got a Prince Charming to save.”
Prince Charming. It was a nickname that Jace and Wren had used since last year. It had a long history. Mainly, it derived from the time Seth asked me to homecoming by decorating the entire gymnasium in white snowflakes.
He’d got the whole football team to help him, but the decorating had still taken most of the night before.
“Thank you,” I sighed in relief.
I ran out of the door and down the stairs.
“Catch you later, dad!” I yelled, waving to his form on the sofa as I left.
If I spent as much time studying as I did searching for Alex Carter, I’d have a 4.0.
My fists clenched and unclenched on the steering wheel. I normally drove with music on, but not today. Today, I had too much rage and I didn’t want the music to calm me down.
What kind of a name was that anyway? It must stand for something. Not that it surprised me. A.J the High-and-Mighty, as per-usual, had to stand out from the crowd. He had to do something that no other person did.
Chill, Nora, my subconscious soothed, it’s just a name…
I pulled up to the diner and tried to park. It took me about three attempts, two parking spaces and a whole lot of swearing for me to eventually get it right. I was a terrible parker.
As I finished parking, my phone rang. The ridiculous jingle played in my back pocket and I took my phone out.
“Seth?” I asked.
“Nora, okay, are you sitting down?”
Why would Jace be phoning me? I’d driven over here in a daze, barely aware of my own surroundings. My only thoughts had been on what it would feel like to smack the smug smile right out from A.J Lawson’s face.
“Yeah, why?” I undid my seatbelt and started to search the diner’s parking lot.
Mr and Mrs Lawson’s car, the black rover, was at the other end of the site. It was pristine; perfect even. Suddenly, I felt quite ashamed in my blue pickup truck.
“Well, I ran Alex Carter’s name through the database again.” Jace’s voice held a level of anticipation in it.
I was beginning to feel nervous.
“I found something.”
I slammed my hands on the steering wheel in shock. The alarm went off accidentally. Outside, a father and his small child looked at me curiously before they scurried off. I raised a hand up to the father to say sorry.
I gushed, “Jace, that’s great! Where is he? Is he okay?”
“Yeah, about that…”
Jace didn’t seem the least bit enthusiastic.
“I ran a different search.”
I was trying my best to pay attention to Jace, but at that moment the diner door opened. A tall form stepped out into outside patio. He shoved his hands into his pockets and raised his head to the stars. His arm muscles were tensed, and they betrayed a high degree of muscular definition.
What was he doing out there? Why didn’t he call?
I was about to move towards him when I realised that something was off.
Seth was a lazy, slow walker, and he was always quick to lean on things whenever he got the chance. This guy was different. His hands twitched from inside of his suit pockets and he began to pace slightly.
It was then that I began to notice his hair. Seth’s was always cut short, so that it didn’t get in his eyes during practice. But this guy’s hair was long. Way too long.
That wasn’t Seth.
It was A.J.
Jace’s voice brought me back to centre. “The reason we couldn’t find him was because Alex changed his name.”
“What?” I couldn’t process it.
Jace continued, “Alex Carter changed his name four years ago when his mother got remarried…”
He paused. It was like he didn’t want to tell me the whole story.
I took another look at the frame ten metres away from me. The carpark was practically empty, and so too was the diner’s entrance. I felt the anger build inside of me.
Surely nobody would see if I just walked up there and kneed him in the balls?
What was his problem anyway?
“What’s more, he and his mom moved back into town three and a half years ago.”
I frowned, trying my best to process just how strange that was.
I felt my breath hitch as I replied, “He’s been here that whole time? Why didn’t he try to contact me?”
Did he live in the same house? Was he getting my letters?
There were two schools in this town. We had one main street. What if I’d seen him before and not realised? What if we’d crossed paths?
Jace made a sound at the back of his throat. I’d heard that noise before – it was the one he made when he was about to correct a teacher. It was a mixture of knowledge and embarrassment.
A.J was moving again. He kicked up a stone and hit a nearby pillar with his hand. If I wasn’t so angry at the way he treated Seth, I would almost feel sorry for him. He seemed genuinely distressed.
“Nora, I don’t know how to say this…”
I clutched the phone. I didn’t like the way that sounded. I fiddled with my hair absently.
“Alex Carter changed his name to Alex James Lawson.” Jace spoke quickly. It was as if the words were contaminated and he wanted to get them as far away from him as possible.
“Alex Carter is A.J.”
I froze. It felt like we were underwater. Jace’s words were hardly audible. It was a gurgle of sound that I couldn’t catch hold of.
“He’s A.J Lawson.”