Something was wrong.
It was rush hour, literally freezing and snow was piling up all over the front range.Most sensible Coloradoans were driving carefully home from work and huddling in for the night. Or at least driving to the grocery store, and stocking up before they huddled in.
Yet the same street lamp, which illuminated blowing snow and cast eerie shadows off the leafless trees in front of the recreation center, clearly showed a large crowd milling on the sidewalk under the trees in spite of the cold.
Something was definitely wrong. And my fourteen-year-old son, RJ, was here.
Hurriedly, I steered my car into the parking lot of the suburban Denver recreation center and pulled up to the curb, ignoring the parking slots. Then I jumped out, not even bothering to close the car door.
Teens with basketballs stood silently, their faces sullen. Little kids, who shouldn't have been out in the darkness of the early November evening snowstorm, leaned on their bikes watching. Parents come to pick up their own kids, obvious in their suits topped by heavy coats, rimmed the crowd, faces set in a universal frown of disapproval. A couple of red-jacketed Rec center employees stood toward the crowd's middle.
I bolted through the blowing snow toward them, unable to see anything over the heads of the silent crowd.
"Where is she?" A woman's voice, angry and loud.
A male voice answered, but it was so muffled I couldn't make it out.
"You know. I know you do," the woman screeched. "If you don't tell me, I'll...."
"You're losing it. What's your problem?" The second voice was loud now and made no attempt to hide its owner's disgust.
"If we could just settle this inside, quietly." One of the rec. center clerks gestured to the glass doors of the gym.
"No!" the woman in the center of it all blared.
What was going on? I moved closer, standing on tiptoe to see over the heads of the crowd. Who was talking to RJ that way? And why?
The woman, her dark curls mussed, her face streaked with tears, lunged toward RJ, grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him.
That was all I needed to see. I pushed my way in, yelling, "Stop that."
I was so intent on RJ and the woman that without meaning to, I bumped into a little blond boy--no more than eight--on his bike.
"Ooh," he said, bike teetering precariously.
I steadied the bike and looked at the boy quickly to make sure he was okay. Then my own son claimed my attention with another shout, and I pushed deeper into the crowd.
I ploughed past a glowering basketball player, his sweatshirt stained with perspiration. From there, I had a clear view, although I was still not free of the crowd.
RJ braced himself against the woman's grasp, making his six-foot tall, skinny body rigid under her onslaught. His loose black jeans, T-shirt, and his short dark hair flopped in time to her jolting. He had no way to defend himself. I'd taught him never to hit a woman.
I had no such inhibitions. If I got my hands on her, I'd deck her for messing with my kid. I could, too, even though she looked to be at least five foot seven and I was only five two. She was probably younger, too. But she was model thin and I had taken up kickboxing for my fortieth birthday.
I pushed my way past the last kid, and plunged in between the woman and RJ.Only when I had actually grabbed her by her navy, cashmere blazer and hauled her physically off my son, did I realize that the woman attacking RJ was a friend - Thea Pappas.
"Kaye," she gasped and then burst out crying, leaning on my shoulder as though she were the one who'd been attacked and I was her savior.
This woman had been our neighbor for twenty years. Our kids had grown up together, and I'd never seen her even yell at one of my kids before. I'd never seen her yell period, let alone physically assault someone.
The urge to avenge my son leaked out of me. I put a protective arm around her sobbing form. "What is going on?" Bewildered, I looked from my son to the crowd.
"Don't ask me, Mom," RJ said, picking up a black hooded sweatshirt from where it had dropped on the ground, and pulling it over his head. "She just went off on me."
One of the clerks stepped forward. She was a mousy little thing, probably not much past high school, wearing khakis that might have been maternity slacks. "We were called out here because of the disturbance. We thought it was a family thing-- but you're his mother?"
I could understand why she would question it. RJ got his height, his blue eyes and his always-neat dark hair from his dad.I hastily combed through my own short brown curls with my fingers, before I realized my other arm still held a weeping Thea, her tears soaking through my sweater.
I spared a rueful thought for my dry cleaning bill. "Yes, RJ is my son," I said to the clerk. "I'm Kaye Berreano."
Thea straightened and stepped back from me. "You're not Atchinson anymore?"
I shook my head. "I took back my maiden name with the divorce."
The clerk hugged herself, shivering against the wind that blew stinging blasts of snow. "Ladies, can we go in and straighten this out?"
I nodded and, lock-stepped by necessity with Thea who kept a tight grasp on me, I moved toward the glass doors. RJ and the clerks trailed. The teenaged crowd fell back before the adults, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw a couple of boys step forward to give RJ a comforting punch on the arm before he went in.
When we got inside, the clerks took the lead, the older one showing us a door in the short green corridor that lead toward an office off the gym. The glare of fluorescent lights bounced off three gray metal desks.
Pulling a couple of wheeled secretarial chairs out into a circle, the young, mousy clerk looked indecisively at the older one who cleared her throat and shook her head.
"As long as there will be no further problems, we'll leave you alone to solve this," said the mouse.
I nodded. "Don't worry. I'm sure this is all a misunderstanding." I shot a meaningful look at Thea and then my son.
Thea stared vacantly at an announcement of upcoming classes posted on the lime colored wall. She was obviously consumed by her own thoughts. I guided her to a chair and, when she got to it, she looked at it as though she didn't know what it was.Then, slowly, she lowered herself into it.
All of this was too strange. First she attacked my son and now she seemed almost withdrawn into herself. Waiting only for the clerks to shut the door, I said, "Will one of you please tell me what is going on?"
RJ shrugged his skinny shoulders. "I told you, she went off on me. I don't know why."
She continued looking off, but her voice showed the emotion her blank face didn't. "I have to find out what happened to Elissa. RJ knows that."
"What about Elissa?"
Thea wouldn't look at me. RJ did, and raised his brows as if to say, see what I mean. I could question RJ later--when he couldn't escape. But even though he was the one Thea had been shaking out in the parking lot, I doubted she'd tell me much in front of him-or anyone else. I watched her quietly and made up my mind. To RJ, I said, "Why don't you go find wherever it is you left your backpack and wait for me out at the car?"
He glanced down at his hands as though expecting to find the backpack dangling off them, then he looked up at me and Thea. His mouth curved up in a quick nervous smile, which was replaced by lowered brows and a pursed look around the mouth, also quickly wiped from his face. "I, uh, must have left it at Zack's."
I knew from his face that he hadn't, of course, but it was just another thing to deal with later. "Okay, go ask Zack about it, if he's still here. Maybe we can swing by later. Then just wait for me in the car."
The door banged shut behind him. I sat slowly down on the edge of my chair.
"Thea," I said quietly, "do you want to tell me what this is all about?"
She turned toward me, her huge dark eyes confused now. "Have you seen Elissa?She said she was meeting Hannah down here."
The anger and confusion seemed so odd. It was almost as though Thea were in a state of shock. "No.... I'm here to pick up RJ. Hannah's choral group is on a trip to Pueblo today. I didn't think the girls saw much of each other anymore."
Thea's face tightened. "I should have known. Elissa said Hannah didn't have any time for her since you and Roger divorced.But I'm sure Hannah told you."
"Hannah said that she and Elissa didn't hang out with the same crowd now." I shrugged and smiled. "I figured, maybe it was the age difference.You know, a year's a lot at their ages and Hannah is fifteen now."
"You mean Hannah said she didn't like the kids Elissa hangs out with."
Actually Hannah had been much more graphic, complaining about the skaters and Goths that Elissa hung out with. I didn't want to meet Thea's eyes. "Pretty much."
Thea shook her head. "One of the ladies in the office thinks she saw Elissa about two hours ago with a couple of kids, but she's gone."
"Was RJ one of the kids?"
Thea shrugged, and slumped back against her chair, her voice husky with unshed tears.
"Thea, why did you shake RJ?"
"The thing is Elissa has been doing this kind of thing lately."
Why wouldn't she just answer me? "What kind of thing has Elissa been doing? You mean not showing up where she tells you she's going to be?"
Thea's mouth twisted. Tears trickled unchecked down her cheeks. "That and running away. This summer she'd only come home to sleep a couple of days and pick up some clean clothes then she'd be off again."
Elissa?She was so young. But I knew from looking at Thea that it was true. I'd seen enough of this kind of thing and not just in the course of my counseling career. It meant drugs, usually. Even Arvada, a Denver suburb, wasn't immune anymore. Still Thea and her husband were pretty savvy; they had probably thought of that. "Does she say why?"
"She's gotten into a crowd that does that. Most of them are older--eighteen, or nineteen I'd guess. They stay away for days, and party--you know--drugs and alcohol. Then when they need to come down, they go home to sleep it off--until the next party."
Even though the answer was no more than I expected, I felt shocked and saddened. "Have you talked to her about it?"
"Oh, yes." Thea's tired voice told its own story. "She says, 'Mom, I'm not your little girl anymore. I'm going out, and I'm going to have fun, and there's nothing you can do about it.'"
"Do you call her in as a runaway when she goes off like that?"
"For all the good that does."
The police did what they could but there were only so many cops. I nodded. "How about a drug program? There's an excellent..."
Thea shook her head. "The court put her in one a few months back. They kept her in-house for three weeks, and then she had six weeks outpatient. If you ask me, she just learned more about where to get drugs and how to hide them.As soon as she got out, she left.We didn't see her again for weeks."
The court--that meant Elissa had been arrested, and they wouldn't do that just for running away. I kept my face straight, something I'd learned how to do on my job at the battered women's shelter. I could understand why Thea was upset, if she thought Elissa was off to another drug party.
I felt pretty bad myself. This girl had been my daughter's best friend. I'd fed her cookies and milk after school, had her over for sleepovers, and birthday parties. "What can I do for you?"
Thea twisted her mouth into a smile and shook her head, blinking back her tears. "Nothing, Kaye. She's probably just run away again. I'm sorry for crying on your shoulder. But I don't think there's anything you can do."
RJ and I sat silently in the car, not talking much at first, mostly because RJ didn't talk unless I asked him something directly.
I felt too distracted by what had happened with Thea to make my usual inquiries about school. I'd driven halfway home before I even realized that Thea had never really told me why she was shaking RJ. What did she think RJ knew about Elissa?
I looked over at RJ. "What went on back there?"
RJ's figure appeared collapsed inside his black sweatshirt and jeans. He was so skinny that with his head fallen forward on his chest like that he looked like nothing more than a pile of clothes in the seat next to me. "I told you. I don't know."
When had this sulky teenager replaced my son? He used to be so sweet. Hormones!I tightened my mouth, and glared sideways at him.
He watched me silently, apparently sizing up my reaction correctly because he abruptly sat up. "'Lissa's mom thought I knew where 'Lissa was. But I don't know why. I kept saying I wasn't hanging out with her today."
I turned onto Kipling Street to find a sea of headlights. I barely cleared the intersection before I had to stop.Luckily we had only a couple of blocks to go before home. "Do you hang out with her a lot?"
He hunched a shoulder.
I took that as a yes. "You never said anything."
"It was no big deal. I see her around sometimes." RJ's voice revealed that the subject bored him, but he was still carefully friendly.
"RJ, where did she go?"
"I wasn't hanging around with her today, Mom. We were playing basketball."
The traffic situation could have been annoying, but it worked to my advantage just then. I could afford to swing around and face him. I took his chin in my hand so I could watch his eyes. "I didn't ask if you hung with her. I asked if you knew where she went," I said softly.
RJ didn't allow me to touch him in public and everything outside of his goodnight kiss had been declared public. So I fully expected he would shrug out from under my hand. Instead he shook his head at me, wide-eyed. What was going on?
Behind me, sirens blared. I groaned.That must be the problem. An accident up ahead. There was nowhere I could go to move over for the approaching ambulance.
The ambulance went briefly up the wrong side of the road, prompting visions of a head-on collision, before it swerved onto the median strip. Then at the top, where the grass ended for a center turn lane, the ambulance swung over and disappeared from my view.
I let out a sigh of relief. At least the rescue crew wasn't going to be cremated in my sight. I turned back to RJ.
"If you saw Elissa, why didn't you tell Thea?"
RJ's neck was still craned for a glimpse of the ambulance even though he couldn't possibly see it anymore. He broke out of his trance reluctantly. "She already knew Elissa left."
"Elissa left when?"
"I don't know, Mom." The sulk was back in his voice. "I wasn't keeping track. I saw her when we started, but when we were working on our hook shots, she was gone."
"Did you see who she went with?" I could still hear the sirens. The accident must be just up the hill.Traffic started to inch forward though, and I needed to keep my eyes on the road now. So I wasn't looking when RJ replied.
"Just some people--nobody you know."
The mother part of me filed the fact that he knew these people, and didn't want me to know. His voice told me that much. And that scared me--considering what Thea had just said about Elissa's friends. But it was time for me to get off his back. I'd learn more if I waited and kept my eyes open.
Besides traffic picked up. I passed the spot where the ambulance had parked opposite us on the grassy side of the road. Though I squinted hard as I went by, I couldn't see any cars. Dark as it was out there, that didn't surprise me.Someone must have slid off the side of the road and crashed.