“His mom’s?” I ask, the memory of my own voice echoing in my ears.
Go home, Joel.
“Yeah. The guys are leaving to go check.”
“Stall them,” I say, already grabbing my keys and heading for the front door of my apartment.
“Because I’m coming.”
It’s my fault that Joel is there, and it’s my responsibility to bring him back. I pull my car into the parking lot of Adam’s apartment complex just as he and the rest of the guys are walking out of the building. I park next to his topless Camaro and hurry out of my car. “I’m coming with you.”
Shawn, who doesn’t look at all surprised to see me, just shakes his head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“It might be . . .” Adam offers. He puts his cigarette out under the toe of his shoe and climbs into the driver’s seat, waiting for Shawn and me to figure out what we’re doing.
I climb into the back with Mike, challenging Shawn to try to remove me.
“Dee,” he sighs, “you don’t know Joel’s mom.”
“I know enough.” I give him a meaningful look, and something passes between us. I’m trying to tell him I know about Joel’s mom. Even if I don’t know her, I know all I need to know. I know we need to bring him home.
Shawn hesitates, hearing my unspoken words, and then climbs into the passenger seat beside Adam.
An hour later, we turn onto the derelict road of Sunny Meadows trailer park.
If I were in my own car, I’d roll up my windows and lock my doors. But Adam rolls onto Dandelion Drive with his roof down and his radio blasting. People on porches turn their heads to follow us as we drive by, and I flip my shades down, sinking lower in my seat.
We park next to Joel’s brown clunker in the stony driveway of a rusted brown trailer with wind chimes hanging on the porch. Tulips hide in a neglected garden, choked out by overgrown grass and weeds.
“How is that dog not dead yet?” Adam asks of a one-eared mutt barking at us from the next yard. He picks a stick off the ground and throws it over the chain-link fence, frowning when the dog doesn’t chase it. I slide out of the car on Mike’s side to stay as far away from the dog as possible.
“Maybe you should wait in the car,” Shawn tells me, and I give him a look that asks if he seriously wants me to get murdered.
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” I say, and he rubs his eyebrow like a serious pain has taken root there. Then, without another word, he climbs the stairs to the trailer’s porch and knocks on the broken screen door. It clangs against the frame as I climb up behind him, each stair creaking under my weight.
He knocks again, and when no one answers, Adam huffs out a breath and opens the door. He disappears inside, and I file in between Shawn and Mike.
“Hey Darlene,” Adam says to the woman on the couch who has just stirred awake. A white cat jumps down from the cushion beside her and rubs against my leg, but my attention is fastened on the woman I can tell is Joel’s mom. She has a certain something about her—a certain beautiful something that I can tell Joel inherited from her—but she doesn’t have his blond hair or blue eyes. Her hair is a washed-out brown with choppy layers and split ends, and her eyes are a murky brown. She has her legs stretched out on the built-in recliner of the sofa and an ashtray sitting on her lap, and she’s pretty like a ruby coated in years of neglect. This is the same woman who sold her son’s birthday presents, the same woman Joel can’t bear to talk about unless it’s quietly in the dark.
“Who are you?” she slurs at me, and I catch myself glaring at her.
“This is a friend of ours,” Adam offers simply, nodding in my direction while I push my sunglasses on top of my head. “Where’s Joel?”
Darlene’s gaze swings back to Adam like she forgot he was standing there. “His bedroom.”
Adam immediately heads down the hallway while Shawn, Mike, and I stand awkwardly on the ragged brown carpet. The entire house smells like vanilla air freshener, and I dread to think of what it would smell like without it. Every available surface seems littered with something—liquor bottles, beer cans, full ashtrays, empty cigarette packs, magazines, old paper plates, old chip bags.
Darlene’s bushy brows pull together as she watches Adam head down the hall, and then she turns her attention on the boys at my sides. “Who let you in?” She has a smoker’s voice and a drunk person’s patience, irritation lacing the confusion in her voice.
“Door was open,” Mike lies, and Darlene lets out a disgruntled breath. She tries to put the footrest down but eventually gives up. I doubt she could walk a straight line even if I held a gun to her head, which I kind of want to.
I pry my eyes away from her to stare at the pictures on the walls—angels, Jesus, a wooden cross. Beside them hang pictures of Joel, with his dark blue eyes and innocent little smile. I stand in front of one of him with a head full of spiky blond hair, smiling in a bright orange T-shirt in front of a laser-filled blue background, and then I move to the next, and the next, taking them all in and realizing that he isn’t older than eight or nine in any of them. Maybe they were framed by his grandma before she had a stroke, or maybe by one of the ex-boyfriends Joel told me about. Maybe even the one who bothered to buy him a Hot Wheels track and leave behind a guitar.
My gaze travels back to Darlene to find her tracking me with cold, narrowed eyes. I don’t know why she doesn’t like me, but I know why I don’t like her.