On a Wednesday night in August, Caleb Waltz, 13, pedaled down Carter Avenue toward Reshma Mohammadian's house. He was going to deliver the mix tape he'd made for her after her brother Farhad had dropped dead out on the school track the previous week. The plan was to attach it to her window screen using the ring of duct tape he wore around his wrist so that when she opened her curtains in the morning it would be the first thing she saw. He ascended the hill at the end of Carter, standing up to push the pedals all the way around, and then swung right onto the shoulder of Van Meter Road, winding expertly through the mangled beer cans and the constellations of glass shards glinting in the gutter beneath the street lights. The cool wind whipped his shaggy blonde hair across his eyes and stretched his t-shirt back across his scrawny frame. On his left, cars hurtled past, spewing up fans of water from that afternoon's rains and trailing strong gusts of air that were liable to send you flying if you weren't prepared for them. But Caleb had made the trip out to Reshma's house many times, or, more specifically, to the woods next to her house, and so he knew now to lean into the air stream whenever a car passed, not much, an inch or two maybe, just enough to keep from toppling over into the gutter.
He'd started the rides out to Reshma's a year earlier after Nana had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, a disease that neither Caleb nor his older sister Cassie understood all that well, beyond the fact that it had seemed to be steadily eating away at her brain. A couple nights a week, usually after one of Nana's and Cassie's shrill shouting matches, he would sneak out the back door to retrieve his bike, telling himself that he was just going for a ride around the neighborhood to clear his head. Inevitably though, he would find himself pedaling the mile and a half to Reshma's so that he could sit in the dark woods outside her window, watching the soft orange glow from inside and contriving fantasies in which he had to go live in those woods because Nana had kicked him out of the house—as she had his eighteen-year-old sister Cassie a month earlier. And in this fantasy Reshma would find him there sleeping in a nest of dead leaves and, moved by his manly fortitude and his apparent desire to be near her—even if it meant living off of berries and caterpillars for who knows how long—she would invite him into her room, the sweet-smelling warmth of it, and they would kiss a little bit, sure, and maybe things would get kind of steamy and there'd be some touching and some muted moans, but it was always that offer for him to climb through the window that Caleb focused on more than anything: just getting in there, that was the important part. And while he knew that there'd be hell to pay if anybody ever found out what he was doing out there in the trees next to the Mohammadians' house—especially from Nana, whose condition, as the folks at church tended to refer to it in defeated whispers, had worsened steadily over the past year and had evoked in her a real a nasty streak that at times made Caleb wonder if maybe she was possessed by some evil spirit, the way she would curse at him and call him by the wrong name, as in, "Gordon, get the fuck out there and check the fucking gate already!"—this sense of risk only reinforced Caleb's belief that what he was doing, this spying if you really wanted to call it that, was, when you got down to it, actually kind of romantic.
He passed the Markleys' house, where he used to go after school back before Nana got too sick to work anymore. Skirting the small silver puddles gleaming against the broken curb, he felt a slight pang of something that might have been sadness, though he couldn't be sure; these days, when it came to Nana, Caleb was often unsure how he was supposed to feel. He and Cassie had come to live with her six years earlier when their mother and her boyfriend Skip had gone to prison for some financial scam they'd been involved in. The details of it had never been made clear to Caleb, though he knew that it had something to do with elderly people and credit cards. Nana had been working in the gift shop in the hospital downtown back then, where she'd been for the past twenty-five years. On Sunday mornings during services, she volunteered in the church nursery, where she could be found cooing sweetly at the squealing infants and saying things like, "Oh, I think somebody made a mess, Mr. Saggy Diaper Man!" Most of her spare time she spent at home in the kitchen, scrubbing the floors and counter tops and scouring the grimy innards of the oven, activities that seemed to enliven her in a way that Caleb and Cassie had found both endearing and a little sad, but now whenever Caleb thought back to those first few years, this was the image that always came to mind: Nana, wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt and a pair of yellow dish gloves, hunched over the pea-colored stovetop with a Brillo pad in her hand, swathed in the oddly comforting aroma of Comet disinfectant.
It was difficult to say precisely when she'd started getting sick. She always had a tendency to forget things, names and days of the week and where she had left her purse the night before—things that were easy enough for her to laugh off and chalk up to old age. "I swear I'd lose my head if it wasn't attached to me," she'd say, smiling. But it was when she started mistaking Caleb for other people, usually one of her older brothers—all of whom had been dead for more than a decade—that he and Cassie began to understand it was more than just old age.
Then there was the Saturday morning a year ago when she had one of her fits on the bus on her way to work and wound up at the end of the route on the far side of town, too confused and belligerent to leave her seat. It took the police forty-five minutes to coax her off, after which they took her to the station nearby and held her there until they were able to get a hold of Cassie. By the time she and her boyfriend Jay, with whom she'd stayed the night before, had arrived to pick her up, Nana's fit had passed, leaving her in a state of mild panic at the fact that she could not recall how or why she had ended up at a police station.
This was the incident that ultimately led her physician to diagnose her with Alzheimer's and, consequently, to recommend her forced retirement from the gift shop. Since then she'd grown steadily thinner and weaker, spending most of her time in front of the tiny black and white television in her bedroom and tumbling through increasingly shorter states of lucidity.
Now Caleb passed the two-story stucco house with the lonely dead dogwood in the corner of the yard and the Christmas lights that blinked year-round, and then he crossed the road and jumped the curb and sped down the grassy slope into the small bowl of land where the creek cut a murky trench through the stubborn scrub. At the bottom of the hill, he leapt off his bike, moving carefully so as not to damage the plastic cassette case in his pocket, and propped the bike up against a tree. Then, with small careful steps in the dark, he found the narrow spot in the creek and jumped across and scrabbled up the other side of the land-bowl. Reshma's house was at the top of the hill, a small rust-colored place overlooking the Shuford highway on the opposite side.
At the top of the hill, he came upon the chain-link fence running the length of the Mohammadians' back yard. The cuffs of his jeans, soaked from the damp cheatgrass, clung to his bare ankles. He didn't want to go right up to the window without making sure that there was nobody around inside to catch him, so he crept along in the dark with his back hunched over, trying his best to avoid the buttery glow of the back porch flood light, until he made it to the side of the house where the fence stopped. From there he darted into the woods a dozen or so yards away, where, after edging through the branches, he found the magnolia tree where he usually stationed himself, and he crawled through the wall of stiff leaves into the bare interior and then looked out, monitoring the house for any signs of activity.
It excited Caleb to think of how Reshma might react when she found the tape the following morning, whether or not it would bolster her opinion of him in the way he hoped it would, so that maybe when she came back to school she would tell Laney and Hillary in homeroom not to call him "Spoonchest" anymore and not to ask him if that's where he ate his corn flakes in the morning. He liked to think back to the day she'd shown up in class in the first grade, a skinny girl with black hair and honey-colored skin and big brown eyes that when you looked at them, really looked at them, made you realize that it was over, all of it—you were a goner. That was six years ago, just a couple months after the state had transferred him and Cassie to Nana's house, and Reshma had spoken to him only once since then—last year in Social Studies, she'd leaned over the aisle one afternoon and asked him what day the midterm was on—but even now, hunkered down on the spongy floor around the magnolia tree with the flat pressure of the tape on his thigh, Caleb felt the same way he'd felt that morning six years earlier, like he was doomed somehow, and it was a good feeling, big and exhilarating and real.
The light was on in the room next to Reshma's, which had been Farhad's, and Caleb wondered what might have been going on in there at that moment. Maybe they were packing up the boy's things, his trophies and clothes and whatnot. A couple times in the past while watching Reshma's window, Caleb had seen Farhad in his room, rifling through drawers or talking to somebody on the phone, and one time he'd seen him standing naked in front of the full length mirror mounted on the closet door, twisting through a series of strange poses, sulkily examining his chest and biceps. He was tall and lean with arms that seemed just a bit too long for his lanky frame. He had been something of a local celebrity ever since he'd broken the national high school records for the eight hundred and the thousand-meter dashes at a track meet in Longview earlier that year. The Nix Courier had dedicated half the front page to an article about him, and there had been some talk about athletic scholarships, LSU or maybe Tulane, full rides all the way.
And so it was especially difficult to make sense of what had happened to him out on the track last week. Caleb had heard about it from Ricky Lucas, whose brother Randy was on the cross country team with Farhad. They were running laps when Farhad stumbled and went down hard onto the track. This happened from time to time, Ricky was careful to point out, guys falling, either from a misstep or from pure exhaustion, and so there wasn't any real concern, not until after a couple of Farhad's teammates helped him up and back over to the bench where, upon being released, he collapsed onto the rough red clay and died, just like that, as though something had lifted the life right out of his body.
The school had canceled all remaining home track events for the term, and the Courier ran another article about Farhad, a full-pager this time, in which they stated that his death was the result of a brain aneurysm, and then just a couple nights ago there had been a candlelight vigil out at the track, a few hundred people, students and parents and teachers, moping around in the tidy green grass encircled by the track with their arms around each others' shoulders, clutching candles in paper sconces and singing "Amazing Grace" and the "Nix High Fight Song." Caleb didn't attend the vigil, but he rode his bike the two miles over to the school that night and sat up on the hill near the tennis courts and looked down on the event, listening to the chorus of weepy voices carry out into the dim blue night, a sound that could have been mistaken for a single voice, he considered, if you were far enough away.
Later that night, long after Nana had fallen asleep, Caleb wandered into Cassie's room. There was something about the vigil that had evoked in him some biting need to glimpse the abandoned clutter of her life—the unmade bed, the piles of dirty clothes on the floor, the dresser drawers hanging open like awed mouths. Standing there in the middle of his sister's room, he'd felt like a tourist in the aftermath of some natural disaster, the way that everything seemed to hang suspended in a single moment of panic. However, it was when he spotted the CD player on the far side of the room that he realized why he'd stumbled in here in the first place. He made his way over to it, stepping gingerly over a pair of black combat boots and a pile of magazines, and sat down on the brown shag rug in front of it. There was a stack of blank tapes on top of one of the speakers. Cassie had been an avid tape-maker; each season or holiday in the Waltz house was marked by some compilation that she would blast from her stereo for weeks at a time, much to Nana's annoyance. Caleb grabbed one and peeled off the plastic shrinkwrap, and then began fumbling through the plastic milk crate of CDs sitting nearby, selecting artists that he'd heard Cassie talk about, REM and the Pixies and Elvis Costello. He worked late into the night, listening to each album in its entirety and then selecting the songs that he thought might somehow offer Reshma a little consolation while also expressing to her the many fathoms of his sophistication.
Presently, rain water trickled down from the trees outside of Reshma's room until Caleb's t-shirt and shoes were soaked. By this point it had become clear that she wouldn't be coming to her window any time soon, that in all likelihood she wasn't even home, probably at a relative's or something, and so finally Caleb crept out of the woods and over toward the window, where he squatted down in the grass and reached into his pocket for the tape, and that was when he noticed the figure standing there in the shadows of the big oak tree in the nearby corner of the back yard. Actually, it was the glow of the man's cigarette that first caught his attention, a small orange dot there in the dark. Caleb froze in place, kneeling beneath the brick window ledge, praying that by some stroke of luck he had gone unnoticed. But when the man raised a hand in greeting, Caleb stood up straight and, somewhat reluctantly, returned the gesture, wondering with a kind of distant unease what sort of punishment Nana would dole out whenever the Mohammadians, the poor, sad, grieving Mohammadians, called her to explain that her grandson had been prowling around the woods outside of their daughter's window.
The man took a few steps toward Caleb and placed his hands on the top rail of the fence, his cigarette smoldering between his fingers. "Hello," he said, and Caleb could tell from his accent—Middle Eastern; rough, but elegant in a way—that this was Reshma's father.
"Hi," said Caleb.
"What are you doing?"
Caleb took a breath and stood up, brushing the grass off his knees.
"Nothing," he said, but then immediately realized how ridiculous this sounded, so he added, "I've got this thing I was supposed to give to Reshma."
"It's just, like, this little tape I made her. Some songs and stuff. It's dumb." He shrugged and rocked back on his heels. When the man didn't say anything, Caleb continued: "I mean, I was supposed to give it to her. I was just going to leave it on the window here because I figured it was kind of late and I didn't want to knock on the door or whatever. That's all I was doing. I was supposed to give it to her."
The man—Mr. Mohammadian—took a long drag of his cigarette and exhaled a mouthful of bluish smoke into the air, then coughed into his fist and said, "Come over here."
Slowly, Caleb made his way toward the fence, his legs wobbling as though his muscles were evaporating. As he approached, the shadows parted and the man's face came into view; it was long and full of hard angles and planes, like something carved out of wood, but in a hurry.
"Let me see it," the man said.
Caleb retrieved the plastic cassette case from his pocket and handed it to Mr. Mohammadian. The man turned it over in his hand, examining the hand-written track listing and the large FOR RESHMA printed in careful blue letters on the spine, gazing absently down at the thing as though it were a kind of puzzle, something that needed to be solved. Finally, he handed the tape back to Caleb, and said, "What's your name?"
"How old are you?"
"Thirteen. Except I'll be fourteen in two weeks."
The man nodded deeply, an exaggerated gesture. Then, in a far away kind of voice, he said, "Do you like baseball?"
Caleb looked up into the man's eyes for the first time and was startled by the way they seemed to quaver there in his puffy sockets, as though poised to burst from his head. The expression on his hard face was frighteningly similar to the look that would come over Nana whenever she went into one of her fits and started cursing and calling Caleb by the wrong names: angry and lost and sleepy all at once.
"Yeah, I do," Caleb replied.
The man took another drag off his cigarette. "I do, too. There is a league in the town that I used to play on. I was a good shortstop. What is the position you play?"
"I don't really have one. Just anything, I guess."
"Would you like to play baseball?"
There was that too-eager nod again. "We will toss the ball. Play some catch, yes?"
Caleb looked around at the dark yard, the dewy weeds and the snarls of tree roots entangled in the bottom of the fence. He felt a kind of buzzing in his chest that threatened to turn him inside out if he didn't make a decision quick. He had played T-ball as a kid, only because that was what you did in the summers when you were too young to know any better, and he and Cassie had tossed the ball around in the back yard once or twice over the years, but there was a galaxy of difference between playing catch with your sister and with some guy who plays shortstop in a town league. But something in him would not let him say no to Mr. Mohammadian. How could he? Maybe it was because the man had just lost a kid and appeared to have slipped into a mild psychosis, or maybe because he had caught Caleb skulking around his daughter's window, and he had every right to call the cops. Either way, the circumstances demanded that Caleb agree to play catch with him, and so finally he said, "I guess maybe for a few minutes or something. But I can't play for real long. I've got to get home in a while."
Mr. Mohammadian tapped the fence rail with his palm, rattling the rusty wire. Caleb leaned away from him a little. "We play in the front yard, okay? There's not so many trees." He swung an arm through the air, gesturing, apparently, to the large back yard. "Too many trees here, yes?"
"Okay. But I don't have a glove."
"I have an extra."
"Okay," Caleb said again, quickly adding, "But I really can't be out real late."
"No, not too late. I will go get the gloves and a ball. I will meet you in front yard, okay?"
Caleb nodded and said sure, and then Mr. Mohammadian turned and strolled across the back yard, past the rusted over jungle gym that you could tell hadn't been played on in maybe a decade, and into the warm cone of light spreading out from the house across the overgrown grass. His stride was wide and airy, his long legs seeming to search out the ground in front of him like a pair of antennae. To anybody else he might have looked like a man happily lost in thought, but to Caleb he just looked like he was missing part of his mind.
Caleb headed around the front of the house, past Reshma's and Farhad's windows, into the long narrow front yard, which was mottled with weeds and the corpses of unidentifiable plants lining the small concrete walkway snaking up to the front step. He took the cassette out of his pocket and set it and the ring of duct tape down on the bottom step for the time being. Then he moved over into the driveway and he looked out toward the edge of the yard where the ground dropped off suddenly toward the highway, a good six feet maybe, and he could hear the wet hiss of the cars speeding along the steamy asphalt below. During the holidays, there was this big inflatable Santa that the Mohammadians would put up in the front yard that would wave at the traffic, despite the fact that, as Cassie had pointed out to him, they didn't actually celebrate Christmas, being from Iran and all. But Caleb guessed you didn't necessarily have to be a Christian to get wrapped up in the whole Santa Claus thing. People liked big inflatable things waving at them; sometimes it really was that simple.
The front door opened, and Mr. Mohammadian strode out into the yard carrying a couple of mitts, his arms swinging in an attitude of forced casualness, and Caleb smiled weakly and pretended to shake out his hands and feet. He was going to toss the ball with Reshma Mohammadian's father. They were going to play catch. How do these things happen? He wasn't sure how to answer that question or even if it could be answered, but it didn't matter now anyway because here was Mr. Mohammadian crossing the yard to where Caleb stood in the driveway and handing one of the gloves to him and then motioning to the opposite side of the yard and saying, "I will go over there, okay?"
The man turned and trotted across the grass, stopping about a dozen yards short of the woods and pulling a ball out of his mitt and slapping it into the glove a few times. Then he wound up, slowly, executing this little kick move that seemed more comical than practical, and he lobbed the ball to Caleb. For a moment it was suspended in the milky gleam of the porch light, a spinning white orb of doom, and Caleb held his glove up in front of his face, keeping his eye on the ball like his coaches had always told him to do when he was a kid—this was the only piece of advice he'd retained from his t-ball days—and a moment later he felt the stiff smack of the ball in the mitt.
He looked down. There was the ball.
Letting out a breath, he tossed it back over to Mr. Mohammadian and then watched, smiling, as the man reached out and plucked the thing from the dark, graceful as a pirouette.
Pretty soon they had worked themselves into a comfortable rhythm, catch, throw, catch, throw, and Caleb began to feel a bit more at ease. It was a good feeling, refreshing really, throwing a ball out in the cool evening air while the cars zoomed past on the road below. There was something to it all, a sense of things coming together: he wasn't just doing this for Mr. Mohammadian anymore. He managed to snag most of the tosses, and the ones he missed were usually the result of a miscalculated trajectory on the man's part or because the ball sailed too close to the bright porch light, and each time he missed, Mr. Mohammadian would call out, "S'okay!" as Caleb scrambled to retrieve it from the ground.
As the session wore on, he found himself thinking about the Big Fight a month earlier, when Cassie had left for good. She and Nana had been in the kitchen discussing the family's annual trip to Shreveport the following weekend for the Fourth of July. It was a tradition: family from around the state would congregate at Nana's sister's Jackie's house each year for the holiday weekend. Nana and Jackie and the rest of the adults would head downtown to the riverboats to play the slots and maybe see a show, while Caleb and Cassie and their younger cousins would wander down along the riverbank, watching the street performers—elderly black men with electric guitars and portable amps and teeth like the remnants of bombed-out cities—and ducking in and out of museums. Caleb was particularly fond of the antique car museum, a large glassy building that housed several dozen lavish vehicles, including an orange Duisenberg that the owner, a woman about Nana's age, would let him sit in if there were no other patrons in the place. Then, in the evening, the family would head back to Jackie's sprawling ranch house to grill burgers on the deck and, if the weather was right, start a bonfire. It was the closest thing to a vacation that Caleb and his sister had been able to take since their mother's incarceration, and as such they looked forward to it each year.
This year, however, Cassie's boyfriend Jay had won concert tickets from a local radio station. The concert was the same night as the party. "I feel like maybe I'm a little too old for it, anyway," Cassie said to Nana in the kitchen on the night in question. "It's nothing against Jackie or anything. I just think I've outgrown the whole thing, you know?"
"You've outgrown it," Nana replied bitterly, and Caleb, seated on the sofa in the next room, could tell from the low, raspy sound of her voice that this was one of her bad moments coming, one of her fits, and he prayed that Cassie would pick up on this too and just drop the whole thing, but she had never been as adept at forecasting Nana's sudden mood swings.
"I don't wanna get into a big thing about it," Cassie said with a loud sigh, and Caleb felt his muscles grow rigid and tight, like an airplane passenger bracing for an emergency landing. "I'm not going to Shreveport. I'm going to the show with Jay."
From here the conversation had only deteriorated into one of their customary shouting matches, their voices steadily rising, rising, filling the house like a bad smell, until it was almost impossible to breathe.
Finally, Nana bellowed. "You'd rather be with him than your family, then you get on out of here and go be with him!" Her voice would have been fitting for a cartoon witch. "I don't want you here anymore, anyhow! You're an ungrateful bitch! Get on out of my house!" When Cassie, transfixed by the ferocity in the woman's voice, didn't move, Nana screeched. "Get the fuck on out!"
Without another word, Cassie turned and marched down the hall to her room, wiping tears and snot from her face, and began stuffing clothes in a duffel bag, a couple of shirts and some underwear and a pair of jeans. Caleb followed her and then stood there in her doorway trying to calm her. She had to have known that this wasn't actually Nana talking, that it was all part of her condition. "Her brain is all messed up," he said timidly, standing there with his hands shoved deep in his pockets—a nervous habit—trying hard to keep from crying. "Seriously, you don't have to leave, Cass. She's sick, that's all." But Cassie just shook her head and reached down and brushed the hair out of his eyes and said softly, "There's sickness, and then there's sickness." She pointed down the hall to the kitchen where Nana was still babbling incoherently to no one in particular. "But that woman is a fucking nightmare, and I'm just over it." It was something she said whenever she was frustrated—I'm over it—although this time it seemed to carry an unusual amount of weight. Caleb trailed her to the front door and then stood out on the step and watched hopelessly as her car squealed out of the driveway and took off down the road, toward Jay's apartment, where she'd been staying ever since. Moments later he heard Nana's psychotic voice rumble up from the back of the house: "Where's Michael? Where's the goddamn saddle?"
He was remembering this as he held his glove out to snag one of Mr. Mohammadian's lazy lobs, but he lost it in the porch light again and the ball struck the tip of the glove and, glancing left, bounced over toward the edge of the yard. He scrambled after it, tripping lamely and falling down onto his knees and elbows in the cold wet grass just as the ball disappeared over the lip of the steep slope, rolling down into road. "Let it go, it's okay," said Mr. Mohammadian, taking a couple steps toward him, but Caleb was so alight with panic at the thought of spoiling the game that the words did not even register with him. He'd lost the man's ball. There it was, rolling across the busy highway below and then coming to rest in the gutter on the other side. Struggling up out of the grass, he hobbled over to the edge of the slope, and again Mr. Mohammadian said, "Just let it go," a bit louder this time, but Caleb ignored him and instead squatted down on the edge of the slope, preparing to hoist himself down into the small trough of land next to the shoulder of the road so that he could dash over and grab the ball, until suddenly Mr. Mohammadian appeared right next to him and grabbed him by the arm and flung him backward into the open yard. Caleb rolled once, feet over head, before coming to rest on his backside in the wet grass.
He propped himself up on his elbow and peered up at Mr. Mohammadian, too stunned to move. The man's rough face was wide open with fear and anger, a look that, in a weird way, seemed much more fitting than the distant expression he'd worn only moments earlier. He seemed alert, eager to act. He gestured toward the road behind him. "Are you a crazy person? Do you see the cars? Look at the cars! Look!"
Caleb, still a little dazed, tilted his head to peer around Mr. Mohammadian's legs, toward the lip of the slope. He didn't know what to say. His arm burned mildly from where the man had grabbed him, and his head was still ringing from the roll backward.
The two of them stared silently at each other for some time, until all at once the muscles around Mr. Mohammadian's eyes and mouth relaxed, settling into a guilty frown. There were rules about this sort of thing, Caleb knew, about handling kids who were not your own, and he suspected that Mr. Mohammadian had just violated one of those rules—a fact that seemed to have dawned on the man at that moment—but Caleb understood that it had been an act of instinct, that he had been trying to protect him. "Okay," Mr. Mohammadian said with a sigh, and then he held his hand out for Caleb. Caleb looked at it for a moment and then took it without a word, and he lifted himself to his feet. They stood there in the yard for a few moments, side by side, staring out to the other side of the highway where the ball had come to rest in the trash-strewn gutter.
Mr. Mohammadian pulled his cigarettes out of his pocket and tapped one out into his palm. "I will get it tomorrow," he said, lighting the smoke.
Caleb looked down at his wet shoes. He felt like he might cry. He wanted to. How many rescues were left? All around him people were going away, Nana and Cassie and now Farhad. None of it made any sense.
"My Nana's sick," he said quietly. It was the first time he'd actually spoken it aloud to anyone other than Cassie, and immediately he felt as though he'd divulged some deep and private truth. To hear the words hanging there between him and Mr. Mohammadian made him feel exposed, skinless. The man looked down at him, the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth like an afterthought. Caleb could feel his eyes beginning to glaze over with tears; he couldn't bring himself to meet the man's gaze. "She's got something wrong with her brain. She curses a lot, and she forgets who I am, and she made my sister leave."
"What is wrong with her?"
"I don't know," Caleb replied, shaking his head. "It's a disease." The tears were coming now, strong and hot, and he struggled to steady his voice against the hitching in his chest. "But Cassie's gone now and Nana's really mean sometimes and I don't know what to do."
Mr. Mohammadian nodded, exhaling smoke into the cool dark.
"You are afraid."
He put his hand on Caleb's shoulder. It was the first time in a long while that Caleb could remember anyone touching him, and he twitched slightly as the man's large hand, the rough slab of it, settled upon his collar bone, swallowing up his shoulder. They stood there like that, side by side at the edge of the slope, for a minute or so, who knew how long, watching the cars slip past below, and Caleb considered that, to any of the drivers down there, they might have looked like a dad and son: two guys playing catch in a yard.
Finally, Mr. Mohammadian flicked his cigarette butt out into the road, a motion that seemed to signal the end of the conversation. He turned to Caleb. "I have to go inside now." That dreamy, detached quality had returned to his voice, as though he were talking to himself.
Caleb sniffed wetly and wiped his eyes with the back of his arm. "Me too. Home, I mean. I have to go home."
The man turned and loped back across the yard, and Caleb followed. At the front steps he handed the baseball mitt to Mr. Mohammadian, and was about to make his way back around toward the back slope when the man picked up the mix tape from the bottom step and, holding it out in front of him, said, "Do you want me to give this to Reshma?"
Caleb looked up at the small plastic cassette case gleaming like a jewel in the sallow light of the house, and he realized with a sort of mild shock that he didn't care anymore about getting it to Reshma. It wasn't that he didn't want her to have it; it just didn't seem relevant anymore. Really, what was the point? Too much had happened since he'd arrived out here, things had changed in a way he didn't quite understand.
Of course, given the efforts he'd taken to make the compilation and then bring it out here, it did seem somewhat futile to take it back home with him, knowing that he would probably just stow it in his desk drawer, and so finally he looked up at Mr. Mohammadian and shrugged and said, "Sure, that's fine."
With this, Mr. Mohammadian nodded in that deep way again, a gesture that seemed to involve his entire upper body, and then turned and slipped back inside the small house. The small brass knocker clacked once, defiantly, as he shut the door behind him.
Caleb made his way through the thick wet grass at the side of the house toward the back slope, past the two windows, Reshma's and Farhad's, the latter of which was still glowing warmly from within. When he came to the place where the chain-link fence met up with the house, he paused and looked out beyond the Mohammadians' back yard to where the ground gave way to the slick, grassy slope. Behind him, the pine trees rustled wearily in the cool breeze. There was something building in him, he could feel it: a feverish need for movement, which he knew was connected somehow to the conversation he'd just had with Mr. Mohammadian, and now suddenly he found himself sprinting along past the back fence, his sneakers kicking up small flurries of wet grass like handfuls of confetti, running, running, his fists clenched and his arms working like pistons, until he finally reached the bottom of the slope, where he sank down into the stiff cheatgrass and, resting his hands on his chest to feel the pulsing of his heart, gazed up at the dark sky, waiting to catch his breath.