BKMT READING GUIDES

Island Life (Five Star First Edition Mystery)
by Michael W. Sherer

Published: 2008-03-19
Hardcover : 385 pages
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How do you live without someone who’s been part of your life for twenty years? Jack Holm begins to find out when his wife doesn’t return to their suburban Seattle home after shopping one day. Her absence is not unusual given her flight attendant’s job, and it’s a respite from recent ...
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Introduction

How do you live without someone who’s been part of your life for twenty years? Jack Holm begins to find out when his wife doesn’t return to their suburban Seattle home after shopping one day. Her absence is not unusual given her flight attendant’s job, and it’s a respite from recent marital discord, so Jack feels relief not worry. But when a day goes by with no word, then another, Jack, his teenage daughter and ten-year-old son do worry. After three days, Jack reports her missing. Suddenly, Jack is swept up in a terrifying conflagration of events that threaten to tear his world apart. The police suspect him of foul play. Children and Family Services suspects him of abuse. And someone is spying on his kids. Now a single dad, Jack tries to help his kids deal with their mother’s disappearance, but when he’s arrested on suspicion of murder, he stands to lose it all. The state and his mother-in-law want to take away his kids. The police want him in jail. Abandoned by friends and family, Jack has nowhere to turn, and the mounting evidence begins to make him think he might actually be a killer. But mysterious phone calls and a CD containing child pornography that turns up in his wife’s belongings convince him otherwise. He quickly realizes the only way to stay ahead of the law and prevent his children from being put in foster care is to find out what happened to his wife. With new-found courage from a woman who believes in his innocence and the help of another outcast, Jack pursues a shadowy Japanese Yakuza crime boss from Seattle to Las Vegas and back, putting himself and all the people he loves in mortal danger.

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Excerpt

“How do you live without someone who’s been part of your life for twenty years?”

“Depends,” Sarah said, enigmatic as usual.

The irony of therapy—basically paying to talk to someone—is that you end up talking to yourself a lot, a characteristic most of us associate with crazies on the street. I wondered how dissimilar I was, really, from them. What separated me from them other than a shower, shave and clean clothes?

* * * * *

“Where’s my hoodie?” Kelsey yelled from the second floor, but I could already hear her bounding heavily down the stairs. She came into the kitchen with a look of annoyance on her normally pretty face. I winced involuntarily when I saw the black circles around her eyes—not from lack of sleep, but from too much mascara—and my reaction only deepened her vexation.

“What hoodie?” I asked, trying to smile pleasantly.

“My Juicy.” She could barely keep the exasperation out of her voice. “The pink one,” she added, just in case I was a complete moron and severely fashion-impaired.

“Probably in the laundry, sweetie.”

“The laundry? Da-a-d! I wanted those things washed last night!”

I sighed. “Sorry. I forgot.”

She folded her slender arms, shifted her weight onto one foot, pouting. “Now what am I supposed to do?”

“You know, you could have put a load in all by yourself if you needed clean clothes.”

The logic was lost on her. My smart, funny, attractive and utterly spoiled, almost fifteen-year-old daughter stabbed me with one more blood-letting look, tossed her head and flounced out of the room. I shook my head. I had never understood why a girl that pretty would want to cover it up with so much face paint. I didn’t mind her wearing make-up. It was the quantity that bothered me. She’d never admit to being pretty, of course. Letty, my mother-in-law, never wasted an opportunity to remind her that “Pretty is as pretty does.” Kelsey would likely have to wait until adulthood to objectively recognize that her grandmother had all the warmth of a January day in Juneau.

Kelsey was smart, too—way smarter than either of her parents—which made me sometimes wonder whose child she really was. She wouldn’t admit that, either, since intelligence was pretty low on the list of qualities required to run in Kelsey’s circle of friends, or even belong to her peer group. Looks, fashion sense and the ability to lip synch all the misogynistic, foul and mean spirited lyrics from the latest gangsta rapper hit were far more important. It was just a phase, I kept reminding myself. And when it was over there would be another phase in its place to deal with.

The ring of the phone saved me from her laser beam stare of death. She leapt for it and snatched up the receiver.

“Hello? Hello?” She frowned, held the phone away for an instant, then pressed it to her ear again. “Hello?” She appeared to listen, and handed it to me. “For you, I think.”

I took the receiver and said hello. There was no response. I heard a soft click and the line went dead. “That was strange. Did they say who it was?”

Kelsey shook her head. “Maybe it was a wrong number. Sounded like gibberish to me, like some foreign language.”

I pressed a button on the phone and checked Caller ID. The number was blocked. “Then why did you think it was for me, sweetie?”

She shrugged.

“Um, Dad?” A soft voice piped up behind me.

I turned. “Yeah, Bud?”

Tyler had his nose in a paper bag on the kitchen counter. His hair, dark as a glass of stout, was whorled with cowlicks, making him look as if he’d just woken up. He had, but he always looked that way. He was shy, quiet. A serious child. Small for his age, he always seemed to be swimming in his clothes. It made him look younger than ten.

“Is this my lunch?”

“Sure is. Something wrong?”

“Um, no.” He turned his big blue eyes my direction. As usual, they hid his thoughts, but not the fact that his adolescent brain was churning them out at a rate of hundreds per second.

“It’s just that ...” He paused. “Well, Mom always puts applesauce in there.”

“Right, kiddo. Sorry.”

I almost left it at that. I had a million things to do, and it wasn’t important. At least not to me, not right then. Ordinarily, I would have let my children’s small criticisms bounce off unnoticed. With a full schedule, though, the morning already felt rushed, and my own impatience had somehow left me more vulnerable to their small slights.

Then again, it could have been because nothing was ordinary anymore ...

I took a step toward the refrigerator, but the shadow that crossed Tyler’s face for a split second stopped me. In that instant there was something in his eyes—hurt? guilt?—that shifted my self-centered focus outward to a slightly bigger picture. There, I saw my kids’ accusatory looks, heard their unasked question—where’s Mom? Mom would have remembered laundry and applesauce.

“Tell you what,” I said. “I’ll give you a ride to school. If we leave a little early, we can swing by the store and get whatever kind you want. Okay?”

He shrugged, then nodded, but didn’t meet my gaze. I put two frozen waffles in the toaster and finished washing and cutting up some strawberries while the waffles heated. The sound of the water running in the sink was strangely soothing. The repetitive motion of rinsing, stemming and cutting each berry under the rush of cold water from the faucet stilled the anxious thoughts in my head, leaving it blissfully empty for a brief moment. The toaster’s metallic twang jarred me back to reality. I plated the waffles and joined Tyler at the table. We gave each other a quick half-smile of acknowledgement and started eating in silence.

No doubt there was even more going on in Tyler’s head than mine, but none of it needed discussion even if it was ready for the light of day, so our silence wasn’t strained. Sitting there together, in fact, provided its own form of contentment. It’s a guy thing. Men aren’t programmed for conversation, particularly idle chit-chat. It’s not in our genes. We can do it when prompted, but it’s sort of like getting a dog to walk on its hind legs. It’s mildly amusing, but there’s not much point to it.

Kelsey bounded back into the kitchen wearing an entirely different outfit. She stopped in front of the table and looked from Tyler’s plate to my bowl and back.

“Where’s my breakfast?”

“I didn’t know what you wanted. I’ll make you something if you’d like.”

“No time.” She reached over Tyler’s shoulder, snatched the uneaten waffle off his plate and skipped away.

“Hey!” He whirled, arm outstretched. Kelsey was already out of reach, mouth full of waffle. “Dad! Kelsey took my waffle!”

“I saw it, Bud. I’ll get you another.” I pushed back from the table and walked to the freezer. On the way, I threw my daughter a disapproving look, hoping she’d take the hint and apologize to her brother, maybe even offer to get him another. She was already shrugging into her backpack.

“Dad, don’t forget that I’ve got practice after school, then I’m going to Jennie’s house to do homework before we do our community service project. I probably won’t be home for dinner. ‘Bye. I gotta go or I’ll be late.” A mouthful of waffle made the tumble of words barely intelligible.

“Wait! What? When will I see you, then? When will you be home? Need a ride? Do you have your phone?” I shot the questions at her almost as fast as she’d rattled off her schedule for the day, but not fast enough to get a definitive answer before she was out the door.

“I’ll call you,” she said over her shoulder as she dashed out.

When had I completely lost control? The two separate occasions on which I’d stood in a hospital delivery room garbed in green like a B-movie Martian and cut their umbilical cords, I decided. Then again, maybe I’d never been in control. My life felt as if it was lived on a runaway train, just waiting for enough speed or a curve sharp enough to send it off the tracks into the mother of all wrecks. But the breakfast table was still, my son’s face calm. No one here seemed panicked except me. I reached out and tousled Tyler’s hair. A little messier couldn’t hurt.

“Come on, Bud. Go brush your teeth and get your coat. Time to go.”

I’d already long forgotten the phone call.

* * * * *

“Right, it depends.” I conceded Sarah’s point. “If it’s a casual acquaintance, I suppose it’s not much of a loss. Sort of like getting a wisdom tooth pulled before it ever comes in. You know it’s there, but you never really notice. When it comes out, you sort of poke at the space with your tongue for a while until you forget you ever had one.

“If it’s one of your kids, you probably can’t wait until they leave home. I’m already looking forward to an empty nest, and I still have years to go.”

Sarah smiled.

“This is different,” I went on. “It’s like my life was taken away from me. I don’t know, like suddenly discovering after all these years that you’re adopted, or were raised by wolves. You wonder what’s real and what’s a lie. You wonder who you are, where you really belong. You live by a certain set of rules, then all of a sudden, the game changes and there are no rules. How do you go on if you don’t know what the game is? How do you live if you don’t even know what the rules are?”

“How do you want to live?”

Ah, the therapist’s principal artifice—answer a question with a question.

“Any way but this. I hate living like this.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to think.”

“Rather than focus on what you believe you’re supposed to do or think, let’s talk about what you feel. What is it you hate about living like this?”

She was determined to get it out of me.

“I feel guilty, and I don’t know why. I feel relieved, and that just makes me feel more guilty.”

“Relieved?”

* * * * *

Tyler and I stopped at the grocery store and bought a box of cinnamon-flavored applesauce. I remembered picking apples when I was a kid and helping my mother cut and cook them and press them, still steaming, through a Foley food mill. The kitchen smelled wonderful for days afterward. We packed it in plastic containers and froze it. Throughout the year, the containers would come out on occasion to accompany a pork chop dinner or Sunday pancakes or gingerbread for dessert. Now applesauce comes in little single-serve plastic tubes. Kids squeeze it into their mouths like toothpaste.

I wondered why I’d never taken my children to an apple orchard, never given them the chance to experience an autumn day in the crisp outdoor air and then in a warm kitchen redolent of cooked apples and cinnamon. Was life so much busier now that we had no time to make applesauce? We couldn’t sacrifice one day of our normal routine for a family activity that the kids would remember all their lives? My father had never taken part in making gloriously sweet and spicy pink soup out of crunchy, freshly picked apples. That didn’t mean I couldn’t. I looked ruefully at the box Tyler held. I was short-changing my kids, depriving myself.

I stopped at the bakery on the way out and bought a tall double latte and an almond biscotti. I couldn’t afford it, but it was a habit that would be hard to break. I had become addicted to lattes—the Northwest’s version of a plain cup of Joe—almost from the first one I ever tasted. It had reminded me of café au lait in Paris—dark, roasty, aromatic, bitter coffee sweetened with steamed milk and lumps of sugar. The taste alone was enough to wake you, never mind the jolt of caffeine. Tyler fidgeted impatiently while I dreamed of fresh croissants laden with butter and strawberry jam in a Paris cafe.

“Want a donut, kiddo?”

“No, thanks.”

I couldn’t even distract him with a bribe. Didn’t he know how short childhood really is? We drove to school, still early enough that there wasn’t yet a long line winding into the parking lot. Near the end of the drive we finally ran into a string of half a dozen cars. Slowly, we inched our way, a car-length at a time, to the bus shelter where each car stopped to disgorge its contents of kids, coats, knapsacks and lunch boxes. The car in front of us pulled up to the drop-off. Tyler slung his backpack over one shoulder, picked up his lunch in one hand and grabbed the door handle in the other. When our turn came, he bailed out like a paratrooper and hit the ground running before I’d stopped.

“’Bye, Dad.” He swung the door shut.

“See you after school,” I called through the open window. “Love you, Bud.” He was already gone. I rolled away to make room for the car behind me.

I took the floating bridge into downtown Seattle. Traffic was light since it was after nine, but you never knew in this town. A little rain—something we get frequently at certain times of the year—and the freeway might have been jammed. As long as I’ve lived here I’ve never understood the native population’s lack of common sense. Granted, rain doesn’t fall all the time in Seattle. That’s a myth. Summers here are quite beautiful, in fact—sunny and dry as tinder, turning lawns brown and putting forests at high risk for fire. But it’s as if people are in denial. It rains; they forget how to drive. It rains; they forget how to build roofs that don’t leak (the old Key Arena), crumble (King Dome, since imploded) or collapse (Husky Stadium). Water is everywhere, but Seattleites still have trouble figuring out how to get over it, or out from under it.

The bridge I crossed—a mile-and-a-half expanse of steel and concrete across the surface of Lake Washington—is a good example. Actually two bridges built side by side, both essentially resemble a series of barges tied together and anchored to the bottom of the lake with cables. The original bridge was built before the start of World War II. Fifty years later, a new one was constructed to add more lanes. When it was finished, work refurbishing the old one began. Rumor has it that someone forgot to close a seacock one day. Overnight, a big storm filled a section with water. The weight dragged the next section underwater so it filled up, too, and so on, like dominoes, until the bridge resembled the Titanic. Half a mile of bridge went to the bottom.

The region has had more than its share of catastrophic bridge failures. I wondered if I was having one of my own, or if I could shore up the damage before the accumulated weight of too many things gone wrong pulled us all into the silent darkness beneath the surface.

The bridge was floating just fine at present. Rush-hour stragglers, often as discombobulated by sunshine as rain, were behaving themselves. At least I didn’t have to depend on a ferry to get off the island. The glossy surface of the lake made me wonder which ocean Mary was flying over this time. I wondered if there was a bridge in the world long enough to traverse the ocean that had opened up between us.

The trip into town was quick. I followed Interstate 90 to its very end—or beginning if you’re traveling east to Boston. A left on 4th Avenue, and another left on Jackson took me down toward Pioneer Square. I circled a few blocks looking for street parking, unwilling to shell out twelve bucks to park in a lot for the short time I planned on being there. Finally fed up, I wedged into a loading zone, turned on the emergency flashers, locked up and left. I drive a white minivan, plain enough to be mistaken for a delivery van instead of a passenger car. Instead of crossing my fingers, I thumbed my nose at the gods and dared them to send a meter maid—excuse me, “traffic control officer”—rolling by in one of those scooters.

The receptionist didn’t look up when I stepped off the elevator. I walked past her desk, feeling as inconsequential as a wisp of fog. Back past several offices and cubicles sat the space I had called mine for the past three years. A desk, two-drawer file cabinet and two chairs all covered in matching wood-grained plastic laminate furnished the small ten-by-twelve office. The window overlooked the century-old iron-and-glass pergola on the square below. The pergola had been reconstructed a few years before after a truck had cornered a little too closely, clipped a post and brought it crashing down.

The office had never really felt like mine, and now it wasn’t. Devoid of personal items, it had reverted to its former anonymity, waiting to be transformed by the next occupant. For now, it gave no indication of the sort of work done in this place. It could have been an office in almost any corporation in America.

Easing into the chair behind the desk, I turned on the computer. While it booted up, I picked up the handset on the phone and checked voicemail—no messages. I turned my attention to the computer. None of the forty seven e-mail messages in my in-box were personal or important. I erased them all and shut down the computer. I went through the desk drawers one more time to reassure myself I’d taken everything. A guy from research named Dave stuck his head through the open doorframe. I don’t think I ever knew his last name.

“Last day, huh?”

“Yeah, this is it.”

“Well, good luck.”

“Thanks.” I gave him a half-smile.

He hung awkwardly in the doorway for a moment, hands braced on either side of the frame. With a flush of embarrassment, he gave a short wave and disappeared from view.

I took a last look around, then got up and walked out. No one in the surrounding offices said a word to me as I left. After I picked up my paycheck, my e-mail and voicemail boxes would be cancelled and wiped clean, my name purged from address lists, and I would disappear from corporate consciousness like a wave receding on the sand.

* * * * *

“¡Hola!” Tyler’s small voice sounded distant, followed by the slam of the front door.

I looked at my watch. The day had disappeared on me. Where had it gone? What had I done to fritter away the hours since breakfast?

There was a muffled thud from the kitchen that reverberated through the floorboards. Tyler’s backpack, no doubt, let go from some height. It wouldn’t take much. The weight schools required kids to lug back and forth would cause Governor Schwarzenegger to break a sweat. Judging from the sounds that followed, a small but ravenous boy foraged for food.

“Hello?” Tyler’s voice called again, closer now. “Anybody home?”

“In here, kiddo,” I responded loudly.

The door to the den burst open and banged against the rubber tipped door stop. Tyler stood in the doorway wide-eyed, dribbling crumbs from a toaster pastry on the floor as he took a bite. His quiet demeanor and small size belied the dynamo that hummed inside him.

“Whatcha doin’?”

“Working. How was school?”

“’Kay. Whatcha workin’ on?”

“Making sure we won’t starve for another couple of months.”

“You got a job?”

“No, I got a new client today.” A small company that needed help with a trade show. The first, I hoped, of many, since I was now unemployed.

“Oh, yeah? Cool.” Tyler took another bite, filling his cheeks like a chipmunk and chewed thoughtfully. My attention drifted back to the work on my desk. Tyler interrupted my thoughts. “So, you ready?”

“Oh, jeez, you have soccer practice today?”

“Hello? Earth to Dad. Yes, I have practice today.” Fist on one hip, he threw me a look.

“You don’t look like you’re ready.”

“I’ll change in the car. I’ve got all my stuff. Come on! Let’s go!”

“Okay, okay. Let me get my shoes and a jacket.” I followed him out into the hall.

“Dad! We’re gonna be late!”

“I’m coming!” I slipped into a pair of deck shoes at the front door. “Keep your shirt on. Wait, I take that back—take your shirt off and get your jersey on.”

“Very funny.”

* * * * *

“Well, yes, relieved. I just hate the fighting. It’s not even that. We don’t even fight that much. It just seems like we’re walking on egg shells around each other. I’m always on pins and needles waiting for the next crisis to unfold. I dread it.”

“What makes you uncomfortable?”

“The tension. I hate confrontation, but we never seem to be able to resolve anything when we talk. So we let it fester, and it feels as if one of is going to explode at any moment. So I feel relieved when she’s not there.”

“It sounds as if you would rather live this way.”

I thought about it for a moment. Sarah delicately put the end of her pen in the corner of her mouth. The unconscious habit made her seem more human. More fallible. Less judgmental. I still squirmed uncomfortably. “Maybe. But whenever I even think about it, I start to feel guilty.”

“Why?”

“I’m not supposed to feel this way. I made a commitment. We’re supposed to work things out. And I can’t imagine the alternative. It would be hard on the kids—terrible, in fact. And financially, it would be a disaster, I think. We’re living on the edge as it is. I don’t know how we could swing it financially. It just doesn’t seem feasible. I can’t even afford coming here. And I just can’t imagine life without someone who’s been there for twenty years.” I shook my head. “I don’t see any viable options.”

“But you’re not happy now, are you?”

The brutal truth of her words landed like a blow, leaving me breathless and queasy. The room started to go dark as a bleak future yawned blackly in front of me, inescapable and immutable. Tears welled up in my eyes. A feeling of helplessness threatened to pull me under and drown me in a sea of depression. I swallowed hard, determined not to let her see me dissolve into a puddle of emotions.

“I guess that’s the point.” My chest felt so constricted that the words were barely audible. I cleared my throat and swallowed hard again. “I hate living like this.”

* * * * *

A knot of chatty soccer moms stood a few yards away from the mid-field sideline, fairly reeking of estrogen. I wandered over with the notion of being sociable and joining in the conversation. One or two glanced my way, silently acknowledging me as I approached.

“Hi,” I murmured to those who looked up, politely trying not to interrupt. “How are you?”

No one made a move to open the circle, and a couple of them unconsciously closed ranks, turning inward as I got closer. It was like walking into an invisible and impervious wall. I bounced off, changed direction and circled at a distance. I moved well past them, and stood on the sidelines farther down field.

One other man stood at the edge of the parking lot on top of the embankment on the far side of the field. He had dark hair and chiseled Asian features. Another dad probably, avoiding the soccer moms even more studiously. He watched the boys on the field intently. Dressed in a dark suit, he looked out of place. A sweater over a dress shirt with khakis constituted formal dress in Seattle, I’d discovered. While still worn, suits and even ties were rarely seen outside a downtown office high-rise. For a moment he appeared to stare at me. I couldn’t be sure from this distance. An odd chill ran through me. I shook it off and turned back to the practice.

Tyler hustled up and down the field, his short legs churning to keep up with some of the larger kids on the team as they drilled. A tall, lanky kid named Alex loped toward Tyler as the ball came his way. Ty started dribbling up field. Instead of stealing the ball, Alex just bowled into Ty, knocking him over. Laughing, he dribbled the ball the other way. Tyler got up slowly, but he didn’t look hurt. I looked over at the coaches, but they either hadn’t seen it, or didn’t consider it serious enough to warrant a whistle.

“Hey, you’re both on the same team,” I called. “Take it easy out there.”

The kids were oblivious and the coaches didn’t seem to care. I’d seen Alex get away with dirty play like that at several practices, even during games against other teams. Ty hadn’t been hurt. He didn’t need me to step in and fight his battles for him. Not yet, anyway. But I tired of kids like Alex who thought they could do anything they wanted. I looked over at the women still gabbing at mid-field. Alex’s mother exuded the same air of superiority. Let it go.

Tyler was up and running, an earnest look on his face as he focused his efforts on chasing after the ball. I knew I should shrug it off as my son had, but I couldn’t. It festered like the remains of a splinter you thought you’d tweezed out.

Three more times Alex physically moved players off the ball with plays that a sharp-eyed ref would have red-carded him for. Sure, one could chalk it up to youthful exuberance and inexperience. The kid was too good, though. He appeared reckless, but there was awareness, purpose, in his actions. Almost as if he disguised his true intent.

When the coaches ended practice, the kids ran whooping and hollering to the sidelines to get juice and snacks that one of the moms had brought. It reminded me I would have to check with Ty to see when our turn was. While the boys descended on the refreshments like flies at a picnic, the moms drifted apart, picking up the shirts and shoes, bags and water bottles that littered the grass. I slowly made my way over to Alex’s mother, putting myself between her and the crowd. She bent over a sport bag, but looked up when she felt my presence.

“Hi, I’m Jack Holm,” I said, making an effort to keep my voice pleasant. “Tyler’s dad.”

I waited a beat, but forged ahead when she didn’t reply. “Just a suggestion, but you might want to have a conversation with Alex about good sportsmanship.”

“Excuse me?” She stood upright, a frown on her face. Her loud response attracted the attention of a few of the moms scattered behind me.

“Alex played a little rough out there today.”

“Are you a coach?”

“No. I just think your son ought to recognize that all those other kids are his teammates, not tackling dummies.”

“Who do you think you are?” she said, her voice rising. “I didn’t hear any whistles out there. I didn’t hear the coach tell Alex not to do his best. I don’t see why my son should apologize for being a better player than the other boys. And if you’re not a coach, maybe you ought to mind your own business.”

“This was obviously a mistake.”

“A big mistake,” she spat. “Sounds to me like your son is the poor sport. It’s a rough game. If your kid can’t take it, maybe he shouldn’t play.”

I could feel my ears burn and my face flush. My stomach knotted and a black acorn of pain planted itself behind my left eye. Exactly the feeling I had when I tried to talk to Mary. A small gathering behind me had heard at least a portion of her tirade. I clamped my jaw shut before saying something I really regretted.

“You might be right.” I nearly choked on the conciliatory words. “Sorry to have bothered you.”

Before she got in any more last digs, I turned and quickly walked past a group of moms. They averted their eyes, pretending they hadn’t been listening. I scanned the crowd of boys. Tyler stood off to one side, head down, intently sucking on a juice box and examining the grass in front of him.

“Hey, kiddo,” I said lightly. “Great practice. You really hustled out there. Ready to go?”

“Yeah, sure.” He grabbed his sport duffel and shuffled after me as I headed for the car.

I looked up the embankment to get my bearings. The man standing there earlier had disappeared, along with the car that had been parked behind him. I glanced over my shoulder at the field, curious. Tyler and I had been the first to leave.

“You really took a tumble out there today,” I said when Ty caught up with me. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” He shrugged. We finished the walk in silence. As we drove out of the lot, Ty piped up again. “Um, Dad? What were you talking with Alex’s mom about?”

“I told her I thought she ought to talk to Alex about being a poor sport.”

“She looked really ticked.”

I sighed. “She didn’t take it well. I’m not sure what her problem is.”

Ty was quiet for a moment. I glanced over. He fidgeted and turned his head away to look out the window. I returned my attention to the road, waiting him out.

“I wish you hadn’t done that,” he said finally. “It’ll just make things worse.”

“What things?” I kept my tone light, hoping I sounded merely curious. He didn’t respond. I tried again. “Has Alex been bothering you at school?”

“He bothers all the kids. Alex is a real A-hole.”

“Watch yourself, buster.”

“Well, he is.”

“If it’s a problem, tell someone. Let your teacher know.”

“He’s sneaky, Dad. He knows how keep from getting caught. It’s better to just try to stay out of his way.”

“Good strategy, kiddo.”

“Doesn’t always work, though.”

“What happens? Does he pick fights?”

“Nah, nothing like that.” Ty waved a hand, a look of disdain on his face. “It’s more like—whaddya call it?—a hit-and-run. He’ll just do something mean and then he’s out of there. Like, the other day we were in music class? And Mrs. Burke is showing us different musical instruments? So, like, we’re on percussion, so she hands out all kinds of things to the class—triangles and cymbals, drumsticks and gourds and stuff.

“So we’re trying this stuff out, and Mrs. Burke says she has to leave for a minute. Like, the second she’s gone, Alex takes his drumsticks and starts drumming on Trina’s head. Real hard. I mean, she was even crying. But by the time Mrs. Burke came back in, Alex was back in his seat like nothing happened. She didn’t even see that Trina was hurt.”

“And no one said anything?”

“What’s the point? Mrs. B didn’t see it, so she wouldn’t do anything about it. And whoever told would just get grief for snitching.”

Welcome to the cold, cruel world. It’s dog-eat-dog out there, and no one ever said life was fair. I sighed again. The problem was, Tyler was right. Kids like Alex grew up to be rude, obnoxious adults like his mother.

My cell phone chirped, and I struggled to fish it out of my pocket without driving off the road. I managed to flip it open after the third ring.

“Dad, we need a ride,” Kelsey’s breathless voice came over the phone. “Can you pick us up?”

“Sure. Where are you?”

“Jennie’s house. Her mom was going to take us down to do community service, but now she can’t, so we need a ride.”

“I got it. You said that. Jennie’s house is the one down near the middle school, right?”

“No, that’s Amanda, Dad. Jennie’s is, like, near the south end center. You know, you go past it and down the hill a little and then take a right?”

“What’s the address, Kelsey?” I said impatiently.

There were muffled sounds and then she was back on the phone with the street number. “When will you be here?”

“Give me five minutes.” I shoved the phone back in my pocket with a flustered sigh and looked at Tyler. His normally serious face was split by a wide grin of amusement.

* * * * *

Ty walked into his room in an oversized T-shirt and a pair of boxer shorts with Homer Simpson’s face imprinted on the back side. I couldn’t remember if I’d noticed the switch before, from pajamas to these. The shock sent momentary panic through me. Where had the little boy gone? Who was this person inhabiting my son’s body?

“Teeth brushed?”

“All done.”

“And you’re sure you finished your homework?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“Story?” I asked. “Pick a book.”

“I can read, you know.” He took a book off the nightstand, opened it to a bookmarked page and handed it to me. I sat on the floor next to his bed and settled in to read. Nine-thirty already, and I was beat. It felt good to sit. I read a few pages out loud, making up voices for the different characters. Completely absorbed, Ty looked up accusingly when I stopped in the middle of an action packed paragraph.

I handed him the book. “Your turn.”

“Just a few more pages. Please?”

“Nope. You did say you know how to read.”

“Oh, all right.” Reluctantly, he took the book from me.

I slowly got to my feet, working the stiffness out of my joints, then gave him a quick peck on his forehead. “’Night, kiddo. Love you.” His nose was already buried in the book. “Don’t stay up too late. Lights out in half an hour.” I turned to go, but he stopped me.

“Dad?”

I looked at him over my shoulder. “Yes?”

“Where’s Mom?” view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1. In Island Life, Jack Holm is an ordinary man thrown into extraordinary circumstances. How do you think you would react under such circumstances? To what lengths would you go to protect your family?

2. Other than his fear of going to jail for murder, what motivates Jack to pursue the truth about his wife’s death? Do his motivations change during the course of the book?

3. What observations does this novel make about family life? How has our concept of “family” changed over time?

4. What is interesting about the way this story is told? How are the episodes arranged and linked? Are there turning points in the novel? Did you anticipate them?

5. We see the world of suburbia and family life through Jack’s eyes. Is this a good way to tell this story? Many novels of suspense use the third person point of view, allowing the author to shift from the protagonist’s viewpoint to that of the villain. Do you think that would have been a better way to tell Jack’s story?

6. Jack reveals his relationship with his wife through sessions with his therapist. Do you feel you got a fair picture of the type of person she was? Is Jack justified in thinking and behaving the way he does based on what you know about Mary? Why or why not?

7. Jack and his friend Jian feel alienated among a group of single mothers. What kind of parenting job do you think they are doing with their children? Are they parenting as well as single moms can? Men’s domestic skills are often belittled and lampooned in the media. Do you think this is fair? How do you think men can be encouraged to be more like Jack? Would that be a good thing or not?

8. What is the central theme of the novel? Is there an idea or message that links the components of the novel together?

9. How would you describe Jack’s relationship with Amy? Do you think his feelings for her are realistic? What role do you think love plays in Jack’s motivations throughout the novel?

10. What is your impression of the community in which Jack lives? Do you know of similar communities? What would you like about living there? What would you dislike?

11. To keep his kids and maintain his freedom, Jack must unravel the mystery of his wife’s murder. At any point in the novel did you think Jack was responsible? When did you know for sure that Jack wasn’t the killer? Did you figure out who it was before Jack did?

12. In the book, Jack must balance his responsibilities as a parent with his desire to exonerate himself. What do you think of his decision to take his children to Las Vegas with him in pursuit of Takeshi?

13. Mystery and suspense novels usually fall into separate genres. Which would you say best describes Island Life? Which elements of suspense or mystery worked best for you? Why?

14. Why do you think we read mysteries? Are they morality plays? Are they worlds of black and white, or worlds of gray like real life? What sort of world did the author create in Island Life? Is it a world in which justice exists? What kind?

15. In what ways does this novel deal with the effect of violence and crime on people’s lives? In what ways does love affect these same people’s lives?

16. Has this novel changed your ideas about gender roles, family or parenting in any way? How? In what other ways has this novel changed you or your thoughts?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

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by stefanieapplegate1 (see profile) 05/23/20

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