Brendan Lynaugh
Brendan Lynaugh

Family Detective

James Jonathan Poe knew he wasn’t a detective like the ones he watched on Law & Order every night of the week and three to five times on weekends depending on his schedule. But today, in his new tan trench coat, complete with collared shirt and tie, he felt positively hardboiled. Driving from his Queens apartment, to his childhood house in North Jersey where his sister lived, he let himself imagine he was one of those wisecracking, genial detectives on the show. At 15 Sycamore Street, the second one from the corner, with pink shutters and a lawn still green beneath a layer of frost, he pretended to see a fade-out and white letters: Maloney Residence, Glenwood, New Jersey, March 20th 2PM and the comforting bump-bum-ban-ahp-ban-ahp-ban music and montage signaling the start of a new case.

He needed to treat his sister’s house like a crime scene. He needed to pretend for a long moment that his nephew John hadn’t been found four Fridays before, splayed out on the black concrete of the schoolyard. That a pool of blood hadn’t spread from his body like a Rorschach inkblot. The police had declared the case closed: suicide. But John had been a success. John had been destined for great things. John’s decision to sneak out of the house must have been a cry for help. He must have slipped off the roof or been the victim of foul play.

Alice’s hair stuck static-cling sideways. “Why are you here?” she asked, half hidden behind the front door. James stood in his best detective pose, calm and collected, trying to make his eyes show confidence and compassion, and stared at her maroon Glenwood High School sweatshirt, the same school she, James, and John had attended. Instead of a partner, Bradley, his pit-lab mix, wagged his entire body in excitement. As a child, James had begged for a dog, but their mother said he couldn’t handle the responsibility.

“I’ve come to investigate.” His efforts to calm Bradley by scratching behind his ears failed.

“Investigate what?”

“What happened to John.”

“I knew you weren’t okay,” she said. “You shouldn’t have gone back to work.”

“So I can come in?” Bradley stained against his leash, nose twitching. James felt equally eager to begin.

Sighing, she let the door swing all the way open. “I’m sorry Bill didn’t make you feel more welcome.”

The house looked immaculate, but empty. James decided to pretend he hadn’t spent three straight days enduring awkward and painful hours in this living room. He scanned the downstairs like a detective taking his first glance at the victim’s home.

“Can I look at John’s room?” he asked.

“Why don’t we sit and talk,” she said. “In the kitchen.”

“Chocolate milk would be nice,” he said. Alice smiled and walked toward the kitchen. “But I’ll just look quick first.” Before she could protest, he bounded away, trench coat flapping. A few days before, engrossed in a Law & Order marathon, he realized he needed to solve John’s case. The next evening he scoured Queen’s thrift shops for the perfect detective outfit.

At the top of the stairs, he paused and looked at John’s door. If he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine ducking beneath yellow police tape. He could pretend this hadn’t been his own childhood room, forget the afternoons he’d hid his notebook filled with hundreds of figure eights here from his mother in grade school. Stepping inside, he let his eyes pan like a camera, revealing walls covered with pages from photography magazines. Two giant CD towers book-ended a fashionable black record player. A faux leather chair, well worn and seeming to carry the imprint of his nephew’s body, lay in the corner. Everything in a suspended state of teenage existence. Bed sheets hastily tucked in. Dog-eared books on the night stand. A backpack, half-filled with spiral notebooks, leaning against a chair.

The room looked ready to welcome John home from school. Alice must not have moved a thing. He knew, from episodes of Law & Order SVU, that the parents of missing children often leave the rooms untouched. But John was dead. He couldn’t think of an episode when this had happened. His breathing started to speed up.

To steady himself he swallowed hard and put on a pair of latex gloves to feel more official and to avoid contaminating the crime scene. If only he had a partner to crack a joke or make a bad pun, something to relieve the tension. He laughed at the thought there was only Bradley still downstairs bounding around on the hardwood floors, fifty pounds of locomotive energy, forever slipping off the tracks.

Buried in the closet, he found a cardboard box full of photographs. Seven years earlier, he’d bought John a camera for his tenth birthday and began taking him once a month on photography trips. Alice had made him promise to be responsible. “It wasn’t easy to convince Bill,” she had said. “If anything happens….” She’d left the words hanging. He knew she was worried that he’d leave John somewhere, like when he forgot his first dog Honey at the beach on Coney Island, but he’d been drinking in those days.

“I’ll be careful,” he’d promised her and he had been. At first, she only let him take John to the local park, the duck pond and other nearby sites. But by the time John was twelve, James had gotten permission to bring him into the city and show him Ground Zero, the West Village, Central Park and even Harlem. As he explained to John, the world is a confusing place, with so many people wanting so many things. How can you know where you stand, when everything is always changing? But in pictures, everything slows down. You can make sense of what you’ve experienced.

He’d never taken anyone else on his photography trips. He hardly talked about it, except with other enthusiasts he met online. Even the women he met on Internet dating sites and occasionally had coffee with, rarely got more than a sentence out of him. But John had been eager to learn about photography and other stuff too, and asked all sorts of questions. James told him about some of the famous figures he’d met at the National Association of Photographer’s annual spring conference in San Francisco seven years earlier. He had saved all year to afford the flight and three nights at a hotel. And John was the first person he told when his photograph, a shot of John crawling out of a hollow playground tube made to look like a log, back-dropped by a real forest, was published in a small, but selective journal. He’d gotten several published since, and was starting to put together a portfolio.

The cardboard box was filled with new photographs, not the landscapes or found objects John had been into when he was younger. The two of them hadn’t been on a trip together for almost a year now, not since John had emailed to say he was too busy with school and college prep. Their trips had grown more infrequent when John began high school, but James had been sure it was only a matter of time before they started going every month again. He tried not to remember how sad losing John as a partner had made him.

These more recent pictures were all of one girl, posing in various stages of undress, though never naked. They looked professional, glossy and signed by the model in thick black ink. But he couldn’t make out the name.

Alice and Bradley came thudding up the stairs. Bradley flew past the open door, claws scraping, just as James put the photos back in the box and stood. Viewed from the perspective of his detective self, his sister became only a victim. Having changed into a nice sweater she looked dignified, but weary, her now brushed blond hair cut short in a suburban housewife style. Each year Alice looked more and more like their mother. James wished their mom had been as kind to him as Alice had been to John.

To better make sense of the crime, he imagined what the morning John died must have been like. He let his mind conceive a flashback, like on CSI, which he watched when he couldn’t find Law & Order. Images with hazy backdrops appeared—Alice, eating breakfast, perhaps wondering why John had left so early for school, or perhaps not realizing he hadn’t left a half-eaten bowl of cereal in the sink that morning. And the phone call from the police—her gasping, holding the phone far from her ear. The drive to the station. Clinging to the possibility it might be a mistake, but all the while knowing. James felt himself getting sad. This was harder than on TV.

“I hope Bradley isn’t too much trouble,” he said. There was a slurping sound from the bathroom down the hall.

“Your chocolate milk is on the kitchen table.”

“I’ll be right down, I promise.”

“James!” A hand on each hip, she took shallow breaths like runners in Central Park. “Just do what you have to do.” She closed the door behind her. She’d probably used a similar tone when John was running late for school. No. John wouldn’t have needed help. He did well at everything, unlike James, who’d always struggled. James’ mother claimed she’d spent hours in counseling sessions, learning coping strategies. He couldn’t remember his mother doing anything but yelling.

“I just want to help,” he told his sister, but if she heard him through the door she didn’t respond.

He sat on the bed and turned his attention back to the case. From newspaper coverage he knew the details. John Maloney, 17, Honors student at Glenwood High School died in a suicide. Three girls, his closest friends, reported receiving text messages at exactly 3:13 AM. All three had been asleep and only found the messages upon waking. John’s body had been discovered by students arriving early to work out in the gym. The police cancelled school. The incident had shaken the idyllic bedroom community. Top counselors were brought in for students. A scholarship was established in John’s name.

James put his gloves back on and re-examined every corner of his nephew’s room. He took pictures on his digital camera, labeling each one in his notebook, and selected a few of John’s photographs. The girl, the model, had glasses and blond hair. She could be the key. Perhaps they had gone to a midnight shoot on the school roof—it was possible John could have opened his shutter wide enough to use the moonlight—and something had gone wrong.

He took more pictures and tried to visualize John in the frame: imagined him studying at his desk, lying secure in bed, or organizing his photos. He marked each in his notebook. He’d always been meticulous.

Alice was washing dishes when he came downstairs. He watched her scrub the same bowl over and over. Bradley curled nearby, scrunching a couch blanket he had wrestled to the floor. James touched his sister on the shoulder. She jumped.

“I know you want to talk,” he said, eying the chocolate milk on the table. “But it’s important for me to continue my investigation. Can we have dinner together? I’ll pick up pizza.”

“Investigation?”

“I have some ideas.”

“Is this like when we were kids?” When Mr. Winkles, the neighborhood cat, had died, James tried to solve the case. His probing questions of Alice’s friends, asking if they fantasized about killing pets or family members had led to outraged parents and his first visit to Dr. Hiller. “There’s nothing wrong with James,” the doctor had said. “He just deals differently with things.”

“I know what I’m doing,” James told his sister. “I’m forty-four.”

“Bill will be back tonight,” she said. “What do you want me to tell him?”

“I’m sorry.” He tried to think what else to say. “I’ll be careful. I promise.”

In his car, he examined the pictures more closely. At her most revealing, the girl wore a thin white shirt and lace panties. She wore jeans in most photographs, sometimes a half-zipped hoodie. He never imagined John would take pictures like these; he’d never fully admitted how appealing he found the idea of a girl modeling for him.

He took out his spiral notebook, where he’d organized all his notes about the case, and checked the names and addresses of the three girls who’d received John’s last words, his final text messages. They were his closest friends in the world. He spent all his time with them. James didn’t want to admit he was jealous not to have received a text. Of course John was closer to his peers. Especially girls. One of these three must be the model. Was it Sophie Rosaeur? Ellen Wrigby. Or Tess McAdams. “What do you think, boy?” Bradley grinned. He’d be happy with any of them. She looked like a Sophie, James decided, and punched her address into his GPS.

*   *   *

Rosaeur Residence, Glenwood, New Jersey, March 20th 2:45PM. Bump-bum. No one answered when he rang the doorbell. This never happened to the detectives on Law & Order. Bradley tilted his head as if to ask why they weren’t driving to one of the other girl’s houses.

*   *   *

Wrigby Residence, Glenwood, New Jersey, March 20th 3PM. Bump-bum. A tall woman in fashionable workout clothes answered the door a bit out of breath. He counted four Nike swooshes on her outfit.

“I’m here to talk to Ellen Wrigby,” he said, glancing down at his notebook. “About John Maloney. I’m his uncle. James.”

She raised an eyebrow and kept the door only partially open. James wondered if he should have a business card or a badge like a real detective. “Please,” he said. “It would mean a lot to us.” He was counting on her compassion. A Law & Order detective used a similar technique in Season 5.

“She’s upstairs doing homework.”

James followed her to the living room and took a seat, flipping through his notebook, mouthing the questions he would soon ask. When he looked up, he saw a teenage girl, the one from the photographs, paused at the top of the spiral staircase. She moved down the stairs with a model’s grace, her blond hair tied in a messy bun, her body hidden behind sweatpants and a half-zipped hoodie.

He asked all the basic questions, trying to win her trust. Then he went for it. “Were you familiar with John’s interest in photography?”

She said she was and her face revealed nothing. She could be a detective herself. He tried to stare her down. He asked again and thought her eyes flashed to the left as if making up an answer, but he couldn’t be sure. He decided to move on.

“What can you tell me about the text message?” he asked.

“I told the police all about that.”

He had his next line ready and rehearsed before she finished. “Please, ma’am, I’m not the police. I’m family.”

Ellen looked at her mother and swallowed. “‘I’m sorry guys. Please know you were my best friends.’ That’s what it said. I think he sent it just before….” She paused. “I don’t know why I think that.”

“It’s okay,” he said in his most comforting voice. This was new information. “But you think he did commit suicide?”

“Yeah. I mean. Doesn’t everyone?” She rubbed her eyes.

“I want to know what you think, Ellen. Were there any signs?”

She looked at her mother. “I had no idea. But now. He spent so much time alone, editing and photo-shopping his pictures. And a week before it happened, he found out he was only going to be salutatorian of our high school. He was crushed. Abby McLean was going to beat him by three tenths of a point. He kept saying it was his A- in freshman English that did him in.”

James scribbled it all down. Alice had been so proud of John’s academic achievement. Just like their mother, between Christmas and New Years, Alice would send a card with a picture of her family, and on the back, a long paragraph about John’s latest mention on the honor roll or standardized-test score. The most recent had named the Ivy-league schools he was considering. But James didn’t believe this explained his death. No way being second in his class could warrant suicide.

“You think that was part of it?” he asked.

James’ and Alice’s mother had never written more than a line about James in her holiday card, usually his newest obsession; chess, then solitaire, and finally photography. The bulk of the card had been devoted to Alice’s achievements, her grades, her Harvard acceptance and later, Harvard husband.

“I don’t know,” she said, rubbing her eyes again. “Maybe. He had this plan. Be Valedictorian of Glenwood. Get into Princeton. I don’t know why he thought not being Valedictorian meant he had no chance at Princeton, but he was convinced.”

“Not Columbia?” he said. “Or Harvard?” James had no idea his nephew had been set on Princeton.

“He didn’t like Harvard,” Ellen said in almost a whisper.

In middle school, John been excited about Columbia after they went on a campus tour. They’d taken pictures of the students. John had noticed the contrast between the ornate buildings and the students’ sloppy clothing. “I’ll dress nice when I go to class,” John had said. Now, he would never go to class, never go to college. About twenty years earlier, lonely and miserable, James had dropped out of Brooklyn College after three semesters. But John would have had friends, made Dean’s list, and had a great time.

James shook his head and pulled himself together like a Law & Order detective did on the rare occasions a case became personal. “Do you mind if I take a few pictures?” He thought he saw a flash of surprise turn to recognition on Ellen’s face as he fumbled his camera from his bag.

“I don’t think that’s appropriate,” her mom said.

“But John. He liked pictures,” James said. “We took pictures together.”

“Ellen should be getting back to her studies.”

James couldn’t think of anything to say, so he put his camera back, scribbled his number on a piece of paper and handed it to Ellen. “Call if you think of anything. Anything at all.” He gave her his best reassuring detective smile and walked to his car.

*   *   *

McAdams Residence, Glenwood, New Jersey, March 20th 4PM. Bump-bum. Tess McAdams, tall and skinny, answered the door, bouncing her head to the music from her iPod. He introduced himself. Tess reluctantly removed her white ear buds and called for her mom.

James repeated his technique from earlier. Mrs. McAdams was sympathetic and hustled him to the living room couch. She offered him tea and coffee.

“Chocolate milk,” James said, but instantly regretted his choice as not something any serious detective would ask for. Tess’ mom didn’t seem to notice and walked toward the kitchen.

“One for me too, Mom,” Tess said. Even sitting she looked tall. She must be almost six feet, a few inches taller than him, but didn’t look like she weighed anything. Her brown hair was up in a bun, and as they waited for her mom to return she kept brushing stray hairs out of her face. She seemed like the kind of girl John would be into. Pretty, but self-conscious, and with glasses. The kind of girl James had liked when he was a teenager.

He began his questions after her mom had returned. It was easier this time and Tess gave almost identical answers. Along with Sophie, the three of them had hung out a lot after school. Sometimes doing homework in the library or going out for ice cream. She said they hardly went anymore, now that John was gone. It wasn’t that they only went to be with him, he just made things more fun. And it was hard, seeing the other girls; they would remind her of him. The others felt the same.

These girls had really cared for John. Nobody had felt that way about James growing up. His sister’s friends were the only ones who talked to him and he knew they were just being nice. Back then he had wanted to have friends and to do things like go to movies or dinner. Now that he was older, he didn’t mind spending weekend nights watching a TV marathon. Nobody would ask him if he went out or what he did on Saturday night. It was just another day. He and Bradley could do whatever they wanted.

“So you think he committed suicide too?” he asked.

She looked around. Her mom was starting to frown. “Doesn’t everyone?” Everyone did, James realized. But that didn’t mean it was true. It didn’t make sense. John had close friends that cared for him. He was one of the best, one of the smartest students; he was going to get into a great school. He was going to do all these things James had never been able to do.

“Can you think of any other explanation?” he asked.

She looked at her mom, then back to him. “I don’t think.”

“We don’t have to keep talking about this,” her mom said. “Right, Mr. Poe?”

James didn’t know what to say. He felt ambushed, like the ground had slipped away from his feet. “Pictures?” he said, holding his camera. She hustled him out of the house. Bradley looked happy when he got into his car. “This is hard,” he told Bradley. “Really hard.”

*   *   *

Glenwood High School, Glenwood, New Jersey, March 20th 4:30PM. He could hear the heavy Law & Order music playing in his head as he walked from his car. The school was desolate. He tried to picture where the yellow police tape had been. He held up newspaper clippings, pictures of the school and pretended they were actual crime scene photos. He snapped pictures, labeled them in his notebook. Making his way into the courtyard, James located the roof, fifty feet up, where John had jumped, and tried to imagine exactly where he’d landed.

There had been debate over whether a memorial should be placed where he’d died. Students had started leaving test results, both good and bad, under heavy rocks where his body had been found to commemorate his death and to protest how the school pressured students to get into the best colleges. The principal decided the display was in bad taste, and reflected poorly on the town, so she forbade it at an assembly under threat of suspension. A Facebook group appeared the next day and accepted hundreds of virtual test scores. In a matter of days, the comments section erupted as students argued over John’s death. Some defended the right of students to protest the academic pressures facing them. Others saw the protests as indulgent and selfishly grandstanding. James had struggled to read the comments. The idea that so many people knew about his nephew’s death disturbed him. It didn’t seem right.

He squinted through the sun and glared at the rooftop trying to imagine where his nephew had stood. Where had John taken out his cell phone and typed a message to his friends? Had he used T-9, predictive text messaging or punched in one letter at a time, his fingers moving teenage fast? If he hadn’t meant to die, why had he sent that text? I’m sorry guys. Please know you were my best friends. It didn’t make sense. But there had to be a reason. If he could just clear his mind of all the distracting details and focus he would find the answer. The text could have been a cry for help. There must have been a girl. Maybe one of the three had rejected him. Killing yourself over love made some sense. He took more pictures of the school, students’ footprints in the snow, the building’s shadows on the ground.

James had fallen in love for the first time his freshman year of college. Marie Li had been small with round glasses and long black hair that got in the way when they kissed in his dorm room. After two weeks, her parents found she was dating a white boy and forbade her to see him. The following year, when he’d dropped out, he saw her holding hands with a skinny red-haired guy on the subway. He stayed in his apartment for three days. There hadn’t seemed any reason to keep living. He wished he’d known his nephew had felt the same way. He could have shared that story. He could have been a friend and an uncle to him.

Only when he got back in his car, did he notice the text message from an unknown number. He shivered at first, not used to receiving messages from strangers. But the area code looked familiar. It was this area code. John’s area code. He clicked the message open. Hi its Ellen. You can come over if you want to talk more. My mom is gone. She must have new information about the case, James thought. He hurriedly typed a reply, saying he’d be there as soon as he could. k, she wrote back.

*   *   *

Wrigby Residence, Glenwood, New Jersey, March 20th 5PM. Bump-bum. Ellen had changed into tight jeans and a black tank top, but kept her white hoodie zipped halfway. He stood awkwardly in the living room, unsure of what to do.

“John used to come over when my mom was out,” she said.

“You guys were…” he started to say, not sure what word would be appropriate. “Dating?”

She blushed and lowered her eyes. “No. We were just friends. But my mom didn’t like the idea of me being alone with boys.” She paused. “Even if they were as harmless as John.” Was this okay? Her being alone with him? “He told me about your photography trips, how much they meant to you.”

Surprised and pleased that John had talked about their trips to her, he felt a connection and asked again, “Did he take photographs of you?”

She looked away. “I knew he liked me, but I only thought of him as a friend. I don’t know why I let him. It’s so embarrassing. I guess, I didn’t want to disappoint him.”

“You don’t have to be embarrassed,” James said. “They’re nice photographs. You look very pretty.” She paused, about to speak, and he realized his mistake. He’d revealed that he’d already seen the pictures of her he’d been asking about. The whole case; the hours spent planning and preparing in New York City, his interviews, all the photos he’d taken, all gone because of this one misstep. His whole life was like that. People, out of the blue, getting mad for one little slip-up.

But she thanked him like nothing was wrong. “We hung out a lot.” She wiped her eyes. “You said you wanted to take pictures earlier?”

He followed her up the stairs to her room. Rows of slumped teddy bears rested above paperback books on her shelves. She closed the door. “He always sat there,” she said, pointing at her wooden desk chair.

James put his bag down and sat. He’d never been in a teenage girl’s room before. Not in high school, certainly not since. She flicked keys on her computer and the Beatles came on. He nodded along to the beat. Picks up the rice at the church where a wedding has been. He remembered listening to this album alone in his bedroom, just a few blocks away. Such a sad song, but he’d always liked it. She smoothed out a rumple on her bed before sitting. “I’m basically named after this song,” she said. “My dad didn’t realize. He just really liked the name Ellen.” Had John liked the Beatles? James was embarrassed not to know and couldn’t bring himself to ask. “You have your camera, right? John said you always brought it with you.” Father McKenzie writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear. He took the camera out of his bag as if it were a present.

“You have his nose.” She let her hair fall past her shoulders. “Or, I guess he had yours. When I first saw you from the top of the stairs, I thought for a second, because you were slouched a little, just like him, that he’d returned, faked his death somehow.” She shook her head and closed her eyes. “Will you take a picture of me?”

James felt strange, but didn’t see what was wrong with taking a picture. Maybe John would want him to. She arranged herself into a model’s pose, lips pursed. After the camera clicked, she adjusted her position, turning her chin the other way. “Take another,” she whispered. Her eyes stared off toward an unknown place above and beyond him. “And another.” She took off her hoodie and started talking between poses. “We talked about suicide. He promised me he wouldn’t.” Click. “I’d told him I thought about it in middle school.” Click. “I had acne all over my face back then, I thought boys would never talk to me.” Click. “I swallowed a whole lot of mouthwash once.” Click. “Stupid, huh? I threw up all over my unicorn sheets.” Click.

“You’re so lonely,” she told him. Blinking, he lowered his camera, no longer willing to look through the lense. “Just like John. I knew that even before you showed up. The way he talked about you. He loved you, but he had like this blind spot? He couldn’t see how much you depended on him. Don’t you think that’s so sad?”

“He was lonely too?” James realized he should have known. They’d had a connection.

“Everyone wanted to be his friend,” she said. “But he couldn’t handle it. He said he had only a finite amount of love to give.”

James tried looking through the camera again. Knees drawn to her chest, she looked like a very young girl, nothing like the model in John’s photographs. He placed the camera on the comforter.

“I did want him to love me more,” he said. “Just like my mom. She never seemed to care.”

“John hated his,” she said. “He felt so bad about it. Told me it was probably just a teenage phase, but he couldn’t stand her doting, how proud she was of everything he did. He said he wanted to fuck-up just once, but he couldn’t.”

“She loved him.”

Ellen put her hoodie back on. Paul McCartney’s voice faded away. No new song came on.

James put the camera away. “I guess I was mad he didn’t want to take pictures with me,” he said, as much to himself as her. “Maybe if I’d been there. Been a better uncle.” He looked around the room. Everything lay neat and tidy.

*   *   *

He didn’t want to imagine any music playing when he arrived back at Alice’s. Not even warm pizza in his arms made him feel better. How could John have done this? James had screwed up all the time. But he hadn’t killed himself. And John was going to do so many great things. There had been no accident. No slip on an icy roof. No call for help. John had stepped off of his own volition and died. James opened the door and wondered what he could say.

Alice had her hands on her hips, but when he walked in, head low like Bradley’s after peeing in the kitchen, she asked what was wrong.

“I couldn’t figure it out,” he said.

She took the pizza and led him to the kitchen. “There was nothing to figure out.”

“I know, but I miss him,” James said. “I wanted to do something.”

She wrapped her arms around him. He let her hug him for a long time, long enough to see the microwave clock blink away another minute. “We should eat,” she said and explained Bill wouldn’t be back for another hour, but they could save him a couple slices.

They ate mechanically. His first slice was hot and he let it burn the top of his mouth. He smiled sadly when he realized Law & Order never showed this part of the case. The ending scene was often attorneys in their high-rise New York offices enjoying a glass of whiskey.

“Bill’s not mad,” she said. “In fact, he said he was looking forward to seeing you.”

James told her that was nice and kept eating. When he finished, he stared at his pizza crusts, and asked to be excused. He went to the living room and took out his camera. John might be dead, but he had to finish. He had to face this. He watched Alice eating and started taking pictures. She looked lonely. He took pictures of her wrapping the leftover slices in tinfoil. He took pictures of her rinsing the plates. He took pictures of the empty spaces—places where John might have been. Maybe sitting at the kitchen table, writing a paper. He might have been helping her clean. He might have been showing her photos he’d taken with James. When James returned to his apartment he’d spend hours studying these pictures. He’d try to find a way to bridge the gap between his loneliness and what could have been.

Alice was staring at her pizza crust when James returned. “I used to eat his,” she said. “He never finished them.

“You were a better mom than Mom,” he said. “I’ll come for Easter. If that’s okay?”

She sniffed, took a moment to compose herself. “Dad’s flying in.” She wiped her eyes with the paper towel napkin, avoiding pizza grease. “And Eddie and Marge, with the cousins. A lot of people.”

“I’ll be okay.”

When Bill came home, both Alice and James sat while he ate reheated pizza. No one brought up John, or commented on the fact that James was sitting in his old place at the kitchen table. After dessert and TV shows, Alice fixed the pullout sofa and everyone said good night.

Before falling asleep, James scrolled through his most recent photos, the ones of Alice alone. He could put his own version of John into the empty spaces. Not the version too pressured to succeed. Not the one with a limited amount of love, or the one resentful of his caring, doting mother—the very thing James wished for his whole life. John’s face could remain young and pure, could smile at his mother and reveal the same visage from the playground log, everything in front of him, no end in sight.