Pop’s drinking a beer and watching the Sixers game. “How’s Erin?”
“She refused to see us,” Dad says.
“We sent a yellow rose in to her with a note,” I say. “I told her the flower was from you, Pop, and that you wanted to play her in War.”
“It’s a lot to take in, a loss like that. She’ll come around,” Pop says. “Here’s some strange news for you. Russ is up in your bedroom, Finley.”
“What? Why?” I ask.
“Something about stars,” Pop says, and turns his attention back to the TV.
Dad and I exchange a confused glance before I jog up the steps and into my room.
When I open my bedroom door, Russ is standing on my desk chair, with his hand in the air like the Statue of Liberty.
It takes a second to register, but then I realize he’s in the process of turning my bedroom ceiling into a galaxy. He’s already covered two-thirds of it with glow-in-the-dark stars.
“Surprise?” Russ says halfheartedly when he sees me.
“What are you doing?”
“I wanted to do something nice for you,” Russ says. “So I bought you your own cosmos.”
In spite of all that has happened, I smile. No one has ever purchased and arranged a galaxy for me before.
“Wanna help me finish?” Russ says.
I nod, and then we’re taking turns standing on my chair, arranging constellations. It feels good just to have something to concentrate on. And when we’ve covered the entire ceiling, Russ shuts off the lights. We stretch out on the floor and bask in the weird green glow.
“So how’s Erin?” Russ says.
“Not good,” I say. “She wouldn’t see me.”
“Give her a few days. Sometimes people need time and space.”
For a few minutes, we just look at the weird constellations we made.
“Coach says you come to practice tomorrow, all will be forgiven,” Russ says. “No questions asked. No punishment for missing today’s practice or for leaving the game.”
“Is that why you came tonight? To deliver Coach’s message?”
“No,” Russ says. “I came to put up the stars. I came to make you feel better.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I mean, thanks. I appreciate the kind words. But I feel like Erin needs me now. I wish there was something I could do for her.”
“When I was in the group home a woman used to read to us at night. I would just sit and listen. I couldn’t even tell you the names of the books, but it helped. I never told that woman I liked it when she read to us, but I did. Maybe you could read Harry Potter to Erin? Maybe she’d like to escape to Hogwarts?”
“Maybe,” I say.
It feels nice to hang out with Russ—especially after all that’s happened. It’s almost like we can pretend we’re still kids or something—and I wonder if that’s also why we like reading kids’ books like Harry Potter. I don’t know.
I’m glad Russ came to my house.
I’m glad he made me a galaxy.
EVERY DAY DAD DRIVES ME to the hospital and I walk up to the desk with the first Harry Potter book in my hand, ready to take my girlfriend to Hogwarts. And every day the nurse says Erin doesn’t want to see me. So I sit in the waiting room, frustrated and angry.
Mr. Gore says that if I keep going faithfully, eventually Erin will let me in. When I ask how he knows, he says, “True love always wins,” which sounds corny, but I hope he’s right.
I don’t go to basketball practice, which means that I officially quit the team.
Coach doesn’t come see me, nor does he send any messages through Russ, and I wonder if he’s mad at me. Or maybe he’s just happy to have Russ playing for him. Maybe in his eyes I already served my purpose. It’s funny how one violent event can make you see the world so differently. When a mobster runs down your girlfriend with a car, basketball just doesn’t seem so important anymore. And Coach’s talks about figuring out life on the court sound like so much bullshit now. Or maybe I did figure out life through basketball—people care about you if you can help them win, and they don’t care about you if you can’t.
After a week or so, the nurse says Erin has been moved to a different building for rehab. “What building? Where?” I ask. But they tell me it’s confidential, which makes me mad enough to sprint back into the ward to see if they’re lying to me.
“Erin?” I yell when I reach her old room, but there’s an old lady sleeping in the bed where my girlfriend should be.
A huge security guard grabs me by the arm and says, “I suggest you exit the premises quietly and without incident.” He escorts me to the door, saying, “Don’t come back.”
Because I have no cell phone, I walk across the street to the pay phone outside the Wawa, but of course someone has pulled the phone part off, so I have to wait outside the hospital in the freezing cold until Dad returns to pick me up.
I start hanging out across the street from the Quinns’ house. I just stand on the sidewalk all afternoon, waiting for Mr. or Mrs. Quinn to come home, so that I can ask them where Erin is, but I don’t see them for days. I even get up in the middle of the night and walk down the street just to see if their car is in the driveway. It isn’t.
A week or so later, a FOR SALE sign pops up in front of their row home, and shortly after, large angry men start transporting the Quinns’ furniture into a huge moving truck.
“Where are you taking all this stuff?” I ask the men.
“Can’t say,” says a guy with a spiderweb tattoo on his cheek.
Another guy with a thick red scar across his neck says, “You best move along. Now.”
Pop and Dad say that Erin is obviously being relocated, but by whom and why, no one knows.
I ask Mr. Gore if he’s heard anything. He checks the computer system at school, which states that Erin is being taught by home tutors. He doesn’t know anything else.
I go to the gym one day and confront Coach before practice is supposed to begin. “What do you know about Erin?” I say, because he knows almost everyone in the neighborhood and he hears things. “Do you know where she is?”
“How would I know anything?” Coach shakes his head, and then says, “I told you not to ask too many questions. Be careful, Finley. And I’m sorry things worked out the way they did, but you made your choice.”
He turns his back on me, which lets me know he doesn’t want any part of the Irish mob and won’t be getting involved. He’s done with me. After all I’ve done for Russ, I have to fight the urge to shove Coach. I feel so betrayed, even though I realize there’s not much Coach could do to help me, even if he were willing to take the risk.
One night at four in the morning, when the neighborhood is asleep, I break into the Quinns’ row home. There’s no moon; I can’t really see. They used to leave a key under the third brick in the garden, so I fumble around on my hands and knees, counting bricks and sifting dirt until I find that key.
All the blinds are pulled, so once I’m inside I can use a flashlight without being seen.
But there’s nothing left—not even a piece of trash.
I shine the light on every inch of floor in every single room; I check every closet; I even look in the attic and basement.
No trace of the Quinns remains.
It’s like they vanished.
I start to feel like I might puke again.
I stand in Erin’s room, and it still smells like her. Peach shampoo. Her vanishing seems impossible. She would have contacted me if she were allowed, which means she probably couldn’t contact me. I sit down on the pea-green carpet in the middle of four indented circles where the bedposts used to be. I hold my head in my hands.
Where could Erin be?
How did I lose the best part of my life?
I feel alone in the world.
When I leave, I keep the key, although I’m not sure why. Maybe just to have some part of Erin with me.
I walk around in a daze for a few days, not answering anyone’s questions about how I’m holding up.
I can’t think about anything but Erin.
I get so nervous about her whereabouts that I lose my head and barge into the Irish Pride Pub one afternoon after school. I don’t consider the consequences; I just stride in. It’s a last resort, and the only place I can think of where I might find Rod Quinn.
A half-dozen men in black leather jackets are sitting at the bar drinking beer.
I walk around the pool tables toward the men, and the bartender sees me first. He’s got gray hair and a crooked nose. But he has kind blue eyes that seem to be telling me to turn around and leave before the men on the stools see me.
“Excuse me,” I say.
Everyone turns around. No one smiles.
“May I please speak to Rod Quinn? It’s important.”
The men squint at one another in a way that lets me know I shouldn’t have mentioned that name.
The bartender says, “Hey, kid. Time to go.”
“I’m looking for Rod’s sister, Erin,” I say. “She’s my girlfriend.”
“You shouldn’t have come in here,” one of the men says.
“Know your place, McManus. Don’t be like your grandfather. Be like your dad.”
“I just want to know where Erin is.” I’m sweating now and my hands are shaking, but I don’t care about what might happen to me. I need to find Erin.
One of the thinner and clean-shaven men grabs the back of my neck, marches me over to the pay phone on the wall, drops two quarters into the machine, and says, “Call your father and tell him where you are.”
“Where’s Erin?” I say.
“This isn’t a game, kid.”
“Where is she?”
He squeezes the back of my neck so hard that my knees buckle. “Call your father. I’m the nice one here. If those boys at the bar become interested in you, you’ll be very sorry.”
I punch in the number for my home and Pop answers.
“Pop, I need Dad to pick me up.”
“Where are you?” Pop says.
When I hesitate, the man says, “Tell the old legless man where you are.”
“I’m at the Irish Pride Pub.”
“What the hell have you done, Finley?” Pop says.
“Can Dad come pick me up?”
The man takes the phone from me and says, “Come pick the kid up, and don’t let this happen again.” He hangs up and then pushes me outside, where he lights up a cigarette.
We stand on the sidewalk for a few minutes before I say, “Where is she?”
“You really got a thing for Rod’s sister, huh?”
“I love her. She’s my best friend.”
“That’s cute,” he says. He flicks his butt into the street and lights up another cigarette. “If you want to see her again, I suggest you let things quiet down. Talk to your grandfather. He understands how these things work.”
“Can I just talk to Rod? Please.”
“You really don’t quit, do you?” he says. “You have no idea how lucky you are that I was sitting at that bar today.”