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4

I walked home from my lunch date to savor the summer weather-crisp without being cool, sunny without being blazing, breezy without the lake winds blowing your skirt around your ass. Usually, I would be on my scooter-a silver Vespa-but Q had driven me to lunch. With so much time on my hands and considering the fact that Chicago receives approximately four and a half-perfect weather days like this, I figured I had to make the best of it.

The streets were crowded with people. Everyone had a bustle to their steps, it seemed. Everyone had a purpose. You could tell the lawyer types who were dashing to court or a deposition. You could spot the salespeople pulling product in small wheeled suitcases. When Id been one of those dashing lawyers, I was always jealous of someone like me, someone dressed casually the way I was in flip-flops and a yellow cotton dress, someone who clearly didnt have to rush anywhere. But being on the other side was starting to depress me-knowing that I wasnt just playing hooky for the afternoon or taking a much-needed sabbatical, knowing that I was out of work and out of prospects and almost out of my twenties.

Plus, all those people on the street, and the fact that a crowd made it easy to tail someone, began to make me nervous, made me think about Dez and Michael, and wonder if they knew who I was, if they were looking for me. And of course, thinking about Dez and Michael made me think of that stranger in the stairwell.

It was one night, when I was about five years old, that my father had given me my nickname. Id woken up crying after a sinister dream. He tried to console me, but nothing worked. In the span of six hours, Id grown fearful of the dark. My dad told me then that if you were afraid of something, you should look it straight in the eye. I didnt know what he meant, and he must have seen that.

What are you afraid of in here? He gestured around my bedroom, lit only by the tiny lamp in the shape of a shell that sat on my nightstand.

I looked around. Nothing appeared particularly scary. I dont know.

Ghosts? Youre scared that theyll say, Boo?

I guess.

Well, theres nothing scary about that. Nothing scary about ghosts, either. Theyre just people who arent here anymore, stopping back in to say hi. Except they say boo.

That sounded rather simple. And not at all terrifying.

Okay? Under his round copper glasses, my dads eyes sparkled, as though a laugh was just about to hit him. I loved when he looked like that. It made everything seem fine.

I guess I said again, the fear still lingering a bit the way bad dreams do.

You guess? What kind of answer is that? My father looked at the ceiling and acted as if he was thinking hard. Ill tell you what. Im going to call you Boo. Just for a little while, so that if you ever do see a ghost and they say that to you, you wont be scared. Youll have heard it before. Okay, Boo?

I liked it. Id never had a nickname before. Okay.

It had been a thing between the two of us, just my dad and me. After he died when I was eight years old, my mother picked up the nickname, as if by using it she could keep him a little bit alive. But I had never seen a ghost, never heard one. Until last night in the stairwell.

When I got to the Chicago River, I began to feel I was being watched. I swung my head around, but it didnt appear as if anyone was following me. I kept walking, paying attention to everyone I passed, and it seemed as if a lot of people were looking right at me, expressions of recognition on their faces. It was hard to tell if any of the people were tailing me or if their expressions were simply the type Id witnessed frequently over the last couple of months-looks that said, I saw her on the news, I think. Yeah, she did something wrong.

The fact was, I hadnt done anything wrong, but after my friend died in the spring, the Chicago cops had suspected me of her murder. As a result, my image was flashed across the news stations for a week or so. Thankfully, mine was a flash-in-the-pan story, but I still got those looks with some regularity. I hoped Dez hadnt seen the story, or hadnt remembered it.

I dropped my gaze as I crossed the bridge in front of the Merchandise Mart, not wanting to meet anyones eyes for too long. I reached into my bag for my cell phone.

Hey, Iz. My brother answered on the first ring, which he almost always does. Hes one of the few people I know who actually answers their phone on a consistent basis.

What are you doing? Want to take a walk in the park or something?

Yeah, meet me at Moms. Im over here, using their printer.

Are they home? They was my mother, Victoria McNeil Calloway, and her husband, Spence. The two were mostly joined at the hip, and mostly at home now that Spence had retired from his business-a real estate development company that provided consulting around the country.

I loved being with my mom and Spence, but I wasnt ready to see them now. You couldnt just waltz up to someone on a beautiful Monday afternoon and say, Hey, any chance your husband, who died two decades ago, is alive? I could barely ask myself that question. It was really too ridiculous. But Charlie was hard to fluster.

My mother lived on State Street in an elegant gray-stone house, a few blocks north of Division Street. Charlie was waiting for me on the steps, his tall frame leaning back casually on his elbows. His loose, curly brown hair glinted in the sun with a hint of red Ive always told him he got from me.

He came down the steps and we hugged, then wordlessly started walking down State Street to Lincoln Park. We wandered behind the Chicago History Museum, crossing the street and passing by the entrance to the zoo.

When we reached Caf'e Brauer, we went behind it to the small pond, where paddleboats were rented by tourists or families. Some of the boats were forest-green, others white and shaped like huge swans.

Charlie pointed. Remember when Mom used to take us on those?

I nodded. Mom and I would paddle and let you think you were doing all the work.

Charlie shook his head. Yeah, and being the sucker I am, I believed it. Thought I was the man of the house.

You were the man of the house.

We both laughed. Charlie has always possessed a lazy streak. Its not that hes stupid. Quite the contrary. Charlie is a reader of history, a lover of art and music. And trumping those things, Charlie is a lover of red wine and naps.

In fact, most of his friends-and sometimes even my mom and I-had taken to calling him Sheets because he spent much of his time in bed, a trait that had intensified after college. Charlie had graduated with a degree in English and a desire to do absolutely nothing. A friends father took pity on him and gave him a job driving a dump truck to and from work sites, which Charlie liked just fine because during down times, he was allowed to doze in the trailer. He might have gone on like that for decades, but one day the truck turned over on the Dan Ryan Expressway when a semi cut him off. He broke his femur, screwed up his back and ended up with a fairly hefty settlement from the semis insurance company. In his usual cheerful way, Sheets took it as a windfall and had spent the last few years sitting around, reading, getting the occasional physical-therapy session and, yes, drinking red wine.

Lets sit. Charlie pointed to a bench at the side of the lagoon that was shaded by a patch of vibrantly green trees.

He took a seat, his long arm on the top of the bench. I arranged myself cross-legged and looked at him, trying to figure out how to tell Charlie what Id heard, or thought Id heard, last night. I stared across the pond at a bridge that spanned one edge of it, at the Hancock building and the skyline beyond that.

Ever since Charlie and I were little, I was the more serious, the one who worried enough for everyone, the one who analyzed a situation ten ways before deciding what to do, while Charlie mostly rolled along. I needed him to analyze this one with me, though. I wouldnt tell him about working for Mayburn, but I had to tell Charlie that I thought Id heard our fathers voice.

So I was on Moms computer, Charlie said, before I could form my words.

Working on something for YouTube? Charlie produced funny little movies filmed on the streets of Chicago. He shot them in black and white and set them to old-fashioned French music. It was kind of hard to explain, but they were really quite charming, and he had developed a coterie of people, mostly female college students, who loved them and as a result, loved Charlie, as well.

I was working on my r'esum'e.

Really? I tried not to sound surprised. Charlie had talked about looking for a job-after years of living off his settlement check, it was starting to dry up-but somehow it was impossible to imagine him getting up and doing something besides deciding between merlot versus cabernet.

Yeah. Actually, I think I already have the job. They just need my r'esum'e for office purposes, to put it in my file.

Whats the job?

An internship at WGN. The radio station.

The one with the glass studio on Michigan Avenue?

He nodded.

Wow. I couldnt hide my astonishment. That sounds like a big gig.

No, its being an assistant-or intern or whatever-to the producer for the midday show.

So youll be going there every day? Somehow this concept seemed impossible.

Yeah. Im going to be working, Iz. There was a note of pride in his voice I didnt recognize. He studied my face. I mean, cmon, I dont know what I want to do with my life. Actually, I wish everyone would stop asking me what I want to do with my life. What does that even mean?

I shrugged. I couldnt be of any help there.

But its time to do something, he continued. Maybe this radio thing could be for me. He shrugged, too. You know Zim?

I nodded. Zim was Robby Zimmerman, a friend of Charlies from high school.

Well, his dad is in radio sales, and he got me the job. Theres no money in it, like no money, but-

Youre going to work for free? Financially, I was appalled, but this sounded more like the Charlie I knew.

Yeah. At least at first. Because I have to try something, Iz. Im twenty-seven. He said this like, Im eighty-three.

Charlies birthday was just a few days ago, and he was taking it even more seriously than I was my upcoming thirtieth.

I cant sit around on my ass forever. He frowned and looked out at a duck being chased by a toddler who was being chased by her mother.

Why not? You do sitting on your butt better than anyone I know. Somehow, this whole notion of Charlie as a member of the working class freaked me out, made me feel as if my world was shifting even more. Things in my life kept skidding around, and I hated the fact that I had no idea where they would all land.

Charlie laughed. You dont want me to get a job, because you dont have a job.

Exactly. Its the beginning of summer and both the McNeil kids are lazy good-for-nothings. Lets make the most of it and spend the summer on the lake. Suddenly, I could envision it-Charlie and I walking from my moms house to North Avenue Beach, maybe sitting on the roof deck of the restaurant that looked like a boat and eating fried shrimp for lunch, lying under an umbrella in the sand for the rest of the afternoon, barbecuing with my mom and Spence in the evenings. Ever since the breakup with Sam-and Theo and Grady-I craved my family like never before. Even more so now that it felt as if I was about to lose Charlie somehow. Or at least the Charlie I knew.

You should do that, Charlie said. Have yourself a lazy summer. Pretend youre me, and Ill go to work and pretend Im you.

I frowned. I wasnt enjoying the prospect of suddenly being the sloth of the family. I didnt think I could pull off slothful with exuberance and elegance the way Charlie had. I was pretty sure I didnt want to.

Then I had an idea. How about we go to Italy? Tell the radio station you can start in a month or even a few weeks. If we could stay with our aunt and I could use my airline miles, it might be doable. Charlie loved the concept of traveling, had been talking about Europe the last year, and if I planned the trip for him, the ease of it all might just push him over the hump and get him to agree.

Cant. Their other intern quit. They need me on Wednesday.

Like in two days, Wednesday?

Yeah.

Wow. I hardly knew what to say. Congratulations, Charlie. I squeezed his hand.

Thanks. He smiled-that great Charlie McNeil smile that made the few freckles on his face dance and his hazel eyes gleam. If there was a famous McNeil smile, as Mayburn had suggested, it belonged to Charlie, not me.

I turned and looked at the pond, at a dad with twin girls on a paddleboat. The girls were laughing, pointing. The dad appeared stressed and was trying to stop them from falling over the side.

Remember when we got to do things like that with Dad? I gestured at the boat.

Charlie crossed his arms and studied the family. Not really. I dont remember much about him at all.

Really?

I remember a few things. I remember what he looked like. I remember what Mom wore on the day he died. Remember that belt she had on?

I nodded. I could see the scene as if it were playing in front of me.

When I was eight and Charlie five, my mother had to tell us that our dad was dead. We lived in Michigan then. It had been a magnificent, sunny fall day, and Charlie and I were playing in the leaves in the backyard. I would rake and form piles, then Charlie and I would take running, shrieking leaps and dive into them. Then Charlie would sit, and I would rake, and we would do the whole thing again.

We had been doing that for at least an hour when my mother came out of the house. She wore jeans and a brown braided belt that tied at the waist. She walked across the lawn slowly, too slowly. She was usually rushing outside to tell us it was time to eat or time to go into town. The ends of her belt gently slapped her thighs as she walked. Her red-blond hair was loosely curled around her face, as usual, but that face was splotched and somehow off-kilter. I remember stopping, holding the rake and studying her, thinking that her face looked as if it had two different sides, like a Picasso painting my teacher had shown us in art class.

She sat us down on the scattered leaves and asked us if we knew where our dad was that day.

Work! Charlie said.

My father was a psychologist and a police profiler. I knew that much, although I really didnt understand what those things meant.

No, he- my mom started to say.

The helicopter, I said, jumping in. My father already had his pilots certificate and was training for his helicopter rating.

Thats right. My moms eyes were wide, scared. The helicopter my father was flying had crashed into Lake Erie, she explained. And now he was dead. It was as simple and awful as that.

Charlie seemed to take the news well. He furrowed his tiny brow, the way he did in school when he knew he was supposed to be listening to an adult. But when she was done, he leapt to his feet and scooped up an armful of leaves with an unconcerned smile.

Im surprised you remember that, I said to Charlie now. I thought you didnt really understand what was going on.

I didnt, not until later. But I remember that day. Always will.

We both stared at the pond. The father had gotten his twins to sit still, and they paddled away from us, all of them laughing.

Do you ever think you see him? I asked Charlie.

Who?

Dad. You know, do you ever think you see him or hear his voice?

You mean, someone that reminds me of him? Not really.

I do.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Charlie turn his head and look at me. What are you talking about?

I said nothing for a moment, then, I think I saw him last night.

Are you serious? You think you saw Dad?

I nodded.

Cmon, Iz, dont start losing it on me now.

I forced a fake laugh. Maybe I am losing it. But last night How to explain? I took a breath, and in a rush, I poured out the story, leaving out the fact that I was working for Mayburn, making it sound as if Id had some trouble with some weird dudes I met at a bar, but telling Charlie exactly how the man saved me, telling him exactly about those words-Youre okay now, Boo.

Charlie said nothing for a while. I could tell he was thinking hard, turning over what Id said in his mind. Charlie was the type who couldnt be hurried, and he couldnt be shamed into pretending to comprehend something he didnt.

Finally, he looked at me.

I turned my body to face him. What do you think?

He gave a one-shouldered shrug. I think this guy probably said something, and you heard it as Boo. I think it was a stressful situation, and you wanted someone like your father to save you.

It was possible. Id heard that endorphins and adrenaline could do strange things to your mind. You dont think it was him?

Iz, hes dead.

Supposedly.

Charlie searched my face.

I know, I said. I feel like a prize idiot now that Im saying this out loud, but there was something familiar about him when I saw him.

You said you didnt really see him. He had a hat on and then it was dark in those stairs, right?

Yes.

And are you positive he said Boo? I mean, it could have been any word. He could have said you or something like that.

I guess. Thats what Ive been telling myself. Its silly, right?

Charlie leaned forward and ruffled my hair. It gave me a pang of wistfulness because it seemed like something I would do to him. I was usually the stalwart of common sense, the logical one, and now it was Charlie getting a job, Charlie forcing reality into his siblings world.

He looked at his watch. I have to get back to that r'esum'e.

Right. Ill walk you.

We strolled to my moms house in silence. We climbed the front steps and went inside. I thought Id get a glass of water, then go home. But my mom and Spence were there, in the kitchen-a room with an octagonal breakfast table tucked into the big bay window. They were taking food out of grocery bags, talking rapidly as if theyd just run into each other, not two people who spent nearly all their days together.

Izzy, sweetie. My mom kissed me on the cheek. Victoria McNeil was a graceful woman. Her hair was still strawberry blond, although slightly shorter and more styled than she used to wear it. She had a manner that drew people to her-a sort of mysterious melancholy that made people want to know her, to take care of her.

Hello, darling girl, Spence said. It was what hed always called me. Spence was a tall, slightly overweight guy with a perpetually pleasant air. He had thinning brown hair gone mostly white now, which he let grow more on the sides to compensate for the balding up top.

Charlie shot me a look, as if to say, Are you going to tell them?

I shook my head no.

Spence glanced at the clock above the fridge. Four oclock, he said. He looked around at the rest of us. Well, its five oclock somewhere, right?

He opened a bottle of wine, and we slid into the evening like so many others. Spence and my mom put out a series of small plates of food-some soft goat cheese surrounded by sliced figs; sliver-thin smoked salmon, small dishes of blanched almonds seasoned with truffle salt-and we sat at the breakfast table and feasted slowly, talking quickly. That table was my mothers favorite spot in the house. She had decorated the living room at the front of the house in different shades of ivory, and the room was beautiful, but in the afternoons as the sun slid around the house, it fell into darkness, and my mother, who was prone to depression, always moved into the kitchen, where she could get a few more hours of the daylight that seemed to feed her. And on days like today, with the windows open, the backyard garden green and lush, my mothers sometimes tight personality seemed to unfurl and relax.

A former business associate of Spences had died that week, and he told us about the visitation service that morning. Ill just never get used to it, he said, seeing a body like that in a casket. Ive been to probably a hundred funerals and wakes in my life, but I just cant stand it. He turned to my mother. Remember, if I die-

I know, my love. She gave him a patient smile that said shed had this conversation before. A closed casket.

There was a closed casket for Dad, wasnt there? I said.

Everyone went still, looking at me. Spence often talked, even joked, about his death, and in general death was not a conversation we shied away from in my family. Except we rarely spoke of my fathers anymore. My mother had slipped into a severe depression after he died, and Id often thought we all still acted afraid, as if any mention of the topic could send her reeling again.

But my mother nodded and answered quickly now. Yes, a closed casket. Thats what theyd always done in your fathers family. But it was also required because they never found his body.

So no one ever saw him? Like, to identify him?

The silence returned, hardened. I felt Charlie nudge me with his knee under the table.

Im just curious, I said, as lightly as possible. I dont know why. Im sorry My words trailed off.

Dont be sorry, my mother said. Youre entitled to ask such questions. We probably should have had more discussions like this in the past. But the answer is no. When a helicopter goes down like that, the water is as unforgiving as the ground, and so it shattered on impact. She closed her eyes, as if seeing it, then opened them again. They found wreckage, which is how they knew the location of the crash. But they couldnt find a body. I was told thats fairly typical for a crash into a large body of water like Lake Erie.

Something went wrong with the blades, right?

From the wreckage and from his last call, it sounded like the blades flexed in a way they werent supposed to and they cut the tail off.

Wouldnt they notice a problem like that before he went up?

He did an inspection with the instructor and didnt see any problems. The instructor told me later they thought your father had gotten into some kind of problem, something about oscillation. They think he overcorrected and caused the blades to flex.

Who was the instructor?

My mother looked up in the air, as if searching for the answer there, then shook her head. He was with the local aviation company. R.J. was his first name. I cant remember his last. Another shake of her head. Maybe I dont want to remember.

I opened my mouth to ask another question, but I felt my brother staring intently at me. When I looked at him, he shook his head slowly and gave me a look that seemed to say, Enough, Izzy. Enough for now.


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