"Did they block off all the roads to the mall or what?" grunted Tomek Wlodarski, lowering himself on to the edge of a huge flower container. "Where's everybody?"
He pulled up the end of his T-shirt. The frayed fabric ripped at the seams, but Tomek just stretched it more, up to his sweaty face. The shirt was so old and washed-out that another tear was not going to make it look any worse. He pressed the thin cotton to his forehead to blot the rivulets of sweat that tickled his skin. Darn weather! It must have been well up to 100º F. The air was hot and sticky, and as merciless as a plastic bag wrapped over his head. It wafted and twitched, creating elusive mirages on the almost empty parking lot that looked like an asphalt desert.
It was probably the worst day to be outside, but Mrs. Giniger had her root canal appointment and it gave him a chance to bum a ride downtown. And such chances didn't come around too often.
"Five years! Man, five more years," Tomek chanted through his clenched teeth as if it were some sort of a spell, which could bring him closer to adulthood. Once he turned eighteen he wouldn't have to beg anyone for rides. And he would be the one to decide who should be part of his life, too!
Tomek already lost count of all the foster families he had to share his life with. Some were better, some were worse. But the Ginigers, his newest foster parents of just two weeks, definitely didn't make his Top Ten list. They were two cold and reserved people wrapped around their own problems. There were days Tomek felt so miserably lonely he just buried his head under the pillows and hummed Mister Rogers' tune "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood" while choking on tears.
Actually, Tomek had been miserably lonely until the last month, or to be more precise, until July 21. On the day of his thirteenth birthday his whole life turned topsy-turvy. It was his last week at the Children's Home. The social worker, Mrs. Sweeney, must have decided that being thirteen was old enough to handle the story of death and an unsolved crime. She greeted him with a baseball mitt, still squeaking with newness, and with a birthday card that said 'To someone special". Tomek had never felt being 'someone special' so he opened the card with distrust.
Inside were a smiley face and an old newspaper article. Tomek quickly glanced through the text, gliding over the words 'accident', 'injuries', 'death', and 'abduction'. Why would Mrs. Sweeney give it to him? Tomek grimaced and put the paper away. But she put her firm hand over his shoulder and said, "Read it carefully. It will answer a lot of your questions."
Hesitantly, he picked up the paper again. He read the title: 'Chicago woman killed in hit-and-run accident'. Below was a subtitle: 'Police look for missing toddler'. Tomek shrugged and scanned the article again. It was very long and could take more than ten minutes to read. And Mitch was already waiting for him to go skateboarding.
"Later?" he begged. But Mrs. Sweeney pressed the paper back in his hand.
"I'll be in my office. Come and see me after you finish," she said.
Tomek sighed and checked the date printed on the bottom of the page. The article was over eleven years old. Why was he expected to read it? He didn't care about some old hit-and-run accident! He skimmed over the first sentence and felt a sudden chill rush up his spine. The woman who died in the accident was named Wanda Wlodarski. His mother's name was Wanda! He saw it in his file. His gaze jumped to the second sentence. He read: "The twenty-seven-year old mother was walking with her sons, Tomek..." The letters danced in front of his eyes, the paper in his hands shook so much he could hardly see the words. Tomek? It was his name! Tomek Wlodarski, walking with a woman named Wanda Wlodarski? Oh, God! It was about his Mother! About her accident! Momma! He heaved and brought the article closer to his eyes. He started the paragraph from the beginning until he came again to the word 'sons'. Sons? His mother had more than one son! He read on. Right next to his name there was another one. 'Marek'. The paper fell out of his fingers. It had to be a mistake! Or did he really have a brother? Why wasn't he in the Home with Tomek? Why were they separated? He was sure the next paragraph would answer this question. But the thought of having a sibling was just mind-blowing. He wasn't as alone as he had always thought! The smiley face on his birthday card suddenly seemed to shine brighter than the spanking-new Honda in the Ginigers' driveway. He had a real brother!
His heart pounded as he rushed through the next paragraph. But soon his excitement died out. The glowing smile fell off his face. "No!" he moaned as he started to understand the horrible message. He didn't have a brother anymore! Because Marek was the missing toddler! Marek disappeared on that very same day their mother died! He was kidnapped. Gone without a trace. Tomek burst through Mrs. Sweeney's door and screamed, "So where's he now?"
Mrs. Sweeney tenderly ran her hand over his hair. "I knew you'd be back. I am sorry but I don't know any more than you've just read. Your brother was never found. The police gave up on their search because they ran out of leads to go on with their investigation. The case was closed. You can only hope Marek is still alive. Maybe you'll find him one day."
On that very day, Tomek decided that he would search for his long-lost brother even if it took him the rest of his life. And that was the reason why he was standing now with his poster board, right under the scorching August sun, in front of the biggest mall in Chicago.
Tomek reached for the can of soda and chugged a generous swallow. Yuck! It was flat and soupy-warm. He mumbled a bad curse he had learned from Short Alfred, a seventeen-year-old troublemaker at the Children's Home, and tossed the can toward the trash bin. He missed it by a good foot, but didn't bother to pick it up. Instead, he fished a CD from his knapsack, one of a dozen generic disks he had burned from the Internet downloads, and popped it into his walkman.
A white van slowly cruised through the parking lot. Tomek quickly moved his board to give the driver a chance to see the large banner and the photo he had pasted on it. The van pulled into the 'Handicapped' parking spot, right near Tomek.
"Yesss!" He pulled a small counting device from one of the many pockets of his baggy pants.
An elderly man slowly got out of the van. He took a cane from the rear seat and hobbled to the passenger side to help a small girl about six or seven years old out.
Tomek clicked the counter. "42...43....," he read out the numbers as they appeared on the screen with each click.
The girl skipped by the man, pulling him by the hand and urging him to walk faster.
"I'm trying, I'm trying." The mumbled grunt mixed into the raspy croon rattling inside Tomek's earphones.
The girl broke away from the man's grip and darted towards the entrance. Suddenly, she stopped in front of the poster board. She studied the banner, the picture, and then Tomek.
"Whatcha doin' with this thing-y?" She shot her finger at the counter in his hand.
"Counting people." Tomek lifted the earphone off his left ear.
"To see how many came in."
"But why?" she insisted.
"To see how many of these who come in bother to read this board." He rubbed his finger over the corner of the photo where he must have dripped some glue, thinking: uh-huh, it's not going to take me any closer to Marek.
"Oh." She scratched the skin that was peeling off her suntanned nose. "How many?"
"You'll be the second one today...if you read it."
"Oh," she muttered again as she stuck her finger inside her mouth. She skipped closer to the board. "'Have you seen this boy?'" she read out slowly, gliding her wet index finger over the banner. The board rocked and fell.
"Oopsie-daisie," she giggled.
"Watch it! I worked hard enough on it!"
"I didn't mean to!" She heaved like she was going to cry. "What does that mean, anyways?"
"He's missing." Tomek tried very hard to smooth harsh edges out of his voice. He stopped his CD player and slid the earphones down his head, draping them around his nape.
"Oh!" she said for the third time and then stuck her finger back into her mouth.
"Margo! Come here! Christ, I can't let you out of my sight for a second without you getting in trouble!" The old man finally conquered the curb and limped up to the girl. "Who are you talking to?"
"Nobody, Grampa." Margo nodded at Tomek and whispered as if telling him a secret, "He's my great-grandpa, but I call him Grampa. And I'm Margo. What's your name?"
"Tomek Wlodarski," he carefully pronounced his full name, hoping that she would remember it. People had to start recognizing his name if he wanted to find Marek.
"To-mek Wlo...Wlo... Are you sure?"
"No, I just made it up! I'm really Brad Pitt's kid brother, but keep it to yourself."
"No, you aren't!"
"Bonehead," Tomek whispered under his breath.
"Margo!" The man tugged her by her scabbed elbow. "Let's go in. This hellish weather's killing me."
"Wait, Grampa!" She easily wiggled out of his grip again. "This boy in the picture is missing."
"That's a shame," the man said colorlessly. "Now, in we go."
But the girl firmly parked herself in front of the poster on her widespread legs. She tilted her head to one side, keeping her eyes on the picture. "But that's you on the picture! Are you missing?"
"No, silly! My brother is."
"He looks like you."
"He's my twin."
Margo's great-grandfather showed the first sign of interest. "Did he run away?"
"Uh-hum," Tomek shook his head. "Kidnapped."
"Christ, what's this world coming to!" The man shoved one fist in his pocket and started to jiggle loose change inside. "This won't work, my boy. This poster, I mean. You need to call police. That's a serious matter."
"My brother was kidnapped very long ago, when he was a little tot. They were looking back then, but couldn't find him. Not even a trace. So they gave up. Just wrote him off. You can't write someone off only because it happened long time ago!" He angrily wiped a drop of sweat off his forehead. His dirty hand left a brownish smudge above his eyebrow. "I used my own picture for this board. I don't remember him at all, but I'm sure we must look alike."
"Is he still your twin?" Margo asked. "Because if not, then you can't be sure--."
Kid, hit the road, Tomek felt like saying. He pulled the neck of his shirt and blew at his clammy chest. It didn't help much but at least he could hide the frown that had sneaked to his face.
"I still say this won't work. The photo has to be posted all over." The man lifted his cane and drew a wide circle in the air. "Not just in one mall, in one town. I bet he isn't in Chicago anymore. Your parents should have this picture sent to every state."
Tomek started to draw zigzags on the sidewalk with his worn-out shoe. "Nobody bothers to look at my picture." He shrugged, ignoring the part about his parents. "Last week I took it to Wal-Mart. They have that bulletin board where people pin up pictures of the missing kids. I stood there for over three hours, counted some three-hundred-and-fifty people, and only five looked. And out of these five only two asked me questions. People just don't care."
"That's not it, I'm sure. It's just...this...information overflow, compassion fatigue, call it whatever you want. These photos come at us from every which way." The man started to tick off on his fingers. "Mail, newspapers, milk cartons, grocery stores, community boards, highway booths. Even the Internet, I hear." He sighed. "Well, I wish you luck, young fella. By the way, what's your brother's name?"
"Marek. Marek Wlodarski."
"It sounds Polish. Are you a Polish-American?"
"I guess," Tomek grimaced. He knew very little of his family background. Mrs. Sweeney once mentioned that his mother had been an immigrant. Then she showed him that old newspaper article about his mother's death and his brother's kidnapping. The article was too short to tell him much about either of them. However, he learned that his mother had been a widow at the time of her accident. After her death and Marek's disappearance, Tomek was left alone. Today, he had no recollection of any familiar face from the past. The only people in his life were the social workers and a long chain of foster families. "I really want to find him..." He thought that he sounded lame, so he quickly turned his head away.
"I'll keep my eyes peeled." The man awkwardly rubbed his nose. "And... God bless you." He grabbed Margo's hand, waved at Tomek, and hobbled into the mall.
As soon as the door closed behind them, Tomek started folding his board and packing up his CDs into his knapsack. "Internet, eh?" he murmured to himself. "That's the coolest idea yet! Thanks, Grampa!"