Page 2 of The Stranger


Tick, tick, tick . . . ka-boom. “What?”

“I have no evidence on that, but when a woman is willing to lie about something like this, well, it’s a pretty good bet it isn’t her first time.”

And then, with Adam dazed anew by this final accusation, the stranger hurried out the door.

Chapter 2

When Adam managed to get his legs back, he ran after the stranger.

Too late.

The stranger was sliding into the passenger seat of a gray Honda Accord. The car pulled out. Adam ran to get a closer look, maybe see the license plate, but he could tell only that it was from his home state of New Jersey. As the car made the turn toward the exit, he noticed something else.

There was a woman driving the car.

She was young, with long blond hair. When the streetlight hit her face, he could see that she was looking at him. Their eyes met for a brief moment. There was a look of concern on her face, of pity.

For him.

The car roared away. Someone called his name. Adam turned around and headed back inside.

• • •

They started with house team drafts.

Adam tried to pay attention, but it was like all sound was traveling through the auditory equivalent of a blurry shower door. Corinne had made Adam’s job simple. She had ranked every boy who had tried out for the sixth-grade team, so he could simply select based on who was left. The real key—the real reason he was here—was to ensure that Ryan, their sixth grader, made the all-star travel team. Their older son, Thomas, who was now a sophomore in high school, had been shut out from the all-stars when he was Ryan’s age because, at least Corinne thought and Adam tended to agree, his parents weren’t involved enough. Too many of the fathers were here tonight not so much out of love of the game as to protect their own kids’ interests.

Including Adam. Pathetic, but there you go.

Adam tried to push past what he just heard—who the hell was that guy anyway?—but that wasn’t happening. His vision blurred as he stared down at Corinne’s “scouting reports.” His wife was so orderly, almost anal, listing the boys in order from best to worst. When one of the boys was drafted, Adam numbly crossed out his name. He studied his wife’s perfect cursive, practically the template for those sample letter examples your third-grade teacher pinned atop the blackboard. That was Corinne. She was that girl who came into class, complained that she was going to fail, finished the test first, and got an A. She was smart, driven, beautiful, and . . .

A liar?

“Let’s break it down to the travel teams, fellas,” Tripp said.

The sound of scraping chairs again echoed through the hall. Still in a fog, Adam joined the circle of four men who would round out the A and B travel teams. This was where it really counted. The house league stayed in town. The best players made A and B and got to travel to play in tournaments across the state.

Novelty Funsy. Why did that name ring a bell?

The grade’s head coach was named Bob Baime, but Adam always thought of him as Gaston, the animated character from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast movie. Bob was a big puff pastry of a man with the kind of bright smile you find only on the dim. He was loud and proud and stupid and mean, and whenever he strutted by, chest out, arms swaying, it was as though he was accompanied by a sound track singing, “No one’s slick/fights/shoots like Gaston . . .”

Push it away, Adam told himself. The stranger was just playing with you. . . .

Picking the teams should take seconds. Each kid was scored between one and ten in various categories—stick handling, speed, strength, passing, stuff like that. The numbers were totaled and an average was determined. In theory, you should just go down the list, put the top eighteen boys on A, the next eighteen boys on B, and the rest don’t make it. Simple. But first, everyone had to be assured that their own sons were on the teams that they were coaching.

Okay, fine, done.

Then you start down those rankings. Things were moving along swiftly until they got down to the very last pick for the B team.

“Jimmy Hoch should be on it,” Gaston pronounced. Bob Baime rarely just spoke. He mostly made pronouncements.

One of his mousy assistant coaches—Adam didn’t know his name—said, “But Jack and Logan are both ranked ahead of him.”

“Yes, true,” Gaston pronounced. “But I know this boy. Jimmy Hoch. He’s a better player than those two. He just had a bad tryout.” He coughed into his fist before continuing. “Jimmy’s also had a tough year. His parents got divorced. We should give him a break and put him on the team. So if no one has a problem with that . . .”

He started to write down Jimmy’s name.

Adam heard himself say, “I do.”

All eyes turned toward him.

Gaston pointed his dimpled chin toward Adam. “Sorry?”

“I have a problem with it,” Adam said. “Jack and Logan have higher scores. Who has the higher score of the two?”

“Logan,” one of the assistants said.

Adam skimmed down the list and saw the scores. “Right, okay, so Logan should be on the team. He’s the kid with the better evaluation and higher ranking.”

The assistants didn’t gasp out loud, but they might as well have. Gaston was unused to being questioned. He leaned forward, baring his big teeth. “No offense, but you’re just here to sit in for your wife.”

He said the word wife with a little attitude, as though having to sit in for one meant you weren’t a real man.

“You’re not even an assistant coach,” Gaston continued.

“True,” Adam said. “But I can read numbers, Bob. Logan’s overall score was a six-point-seven. Jimmy only has a score of six-point-four. Even with today’s new math, six-point-seven is greater than six-point-four. I can show you with a graph if that would help.”

Gaston was not digging the sarcasm. “But as I just explained, there are extenuating circumstances.”

“The divorce?”

“Exactly.”

Adam looked to the assistant coaches. The assistant coaches suddenly found something fascinating on the ground in front of them. “Well, then, do you know what Jack’s or Logan’s home situations are?”

“I know their parents are together.”

“So that’s now our deciding factor?” Adam asked. “You have a really good marriage, don’t you, Ga—” He had almost called him Gaston. “Bob?”

“What?”

“You and Melanie. You guys are the happiest couple I know, right?”

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