It had been three days since my friend disappeared and I was starting to think the worst might have happened.
The last time I’d seen him was on Friday, December 21st, just after 3:30 p.m. That was on the sidewalk in front of Washington Latin Middle School where Gabe and I were in the same class. We’d just gotten out for winter break, and as far as I was concerned, I knew exactly how we were going to kick it off.
“So I’ll see you tonight at seven,” I’d said. The plan was to get online with our usual crew and start a marathon session of Outpost, our favorite game.
“Just try and stop me,” Gabe had joked.
That was it. Then he’d turned east on E Street and started walking home. I’d turned west and done the same. I didn’t even think about it. Why would I? Who ever thinks, “maybe that’s the last time I’ll ever see my friend”?
But Gabe never did make it home that day. He wasn’t picking up his phone, and he hadn’t answered any of the half-million texts I’d sent him, either. Now it was Christmas Eve. Three days had gone by, and it was like Gabe had just disappeared.
Except, see, that’s the thing. People don’t just disappear. There’s always an explanation. That’s what my dad says, and he should know. His name is Alex Cross. He’s a homicide detective with the Washington DC police, and I’ll tell you this much: I hope I can be half the detective he is someday.
In the meantime, I couldn’t stop thinking about Gabe. Couldn’t stop wondering what had happened to him. Couldn’t stop a whole lot of really bad thoughts from passing through my brain, like one scary movie after another.
In fact, if anyone had asked me, I would have told them there was only one thing I wanted for Christmas that year. I wanted Gabe Qualls to be found.
And I mean alive.
“Ali? Come on, little brother. Heads up. You’re on.”
I guess I got lost in my own thoughts for a second there. It happens all the time. We were in church for Christmas Eve services. I looked around and realized my older brother, Damon, wasn’t the only one giving me the eyeball. St. Anthony’s Church was packed, and I guess Father Bernadin had already introduced me while I was sitting there spacing out.
“Let’s try that again,” Father Bernadin said in his Haitian accent, and with a kind of impatient smile aimed my way. “The annual Christmas Eve children’s prayer will be led by our own Ali Cross tonight. Ali, would you like to come up?”
The pastor moved aside for me as I stepped up to the old wooden lectern and looked out at the congregation, a whole sea of black faces like mine. Something like four hundred pairs of eyes looked back, waiting for me to get my act together.
It’s supposed to be a big deal to get chosen for the children’s prayer at my church, especially on Christmas Eve. I guess you could say it was an honor. But my mind was like mush that night, and I was wishing they’d tapped someone else.
“Go ahead, son,” Dad said from the front row. He pointed at the page in my hand where I had the whole prayer written out, since I didn’t trust myself to remember it by heart.
When I looked at the words on that paper, it was like they didn’t mean much. Not compared to being alone out there on the street, or kidnapped, or whatever else Gabe might have been going through.
I hadn’t known him that long—only since the beginning of middle school. But we got to be friends right away. I saw him in the cafeteria one day, eating by himself and working on a pretty cool drawing. I mentioned something about it, and that’s when I found out he was a total Outpost fan, like me. Ever since then, we’d been gaming together, he’d come over to watch movies, and that kind of thing. But he never talked about himself much, and I never really asked. Now I was thinking maybe I should have.
Like I also should have just read the prayer anyway and gotten it over with like I was supposed to. But I couldn’t.
“I know this is usually a prayer for kids everywhere, but if it’s okay, I’d like to pray for just one kid tonight,” I said. “A lot of you know Gabriel Qualls. He’s in my grade at Washington Latin. He doesn’t really come to church, but the point is, he’s been missing for three days.”
I thought Father Bernadin might cut me off right there, but he didn’t. Everyone just waited, so I kept going.
“When I was working on this prayer, I thought a lot about the night Jesus was born, and how nobody wanted to make any room for him, and how he had to be born in a stable,” I said. “So now I’m wondering if maybe we could learn something from that. I’m hoping we can all make room for Gabe. Like in our hearts. And in our prayers.”
I didn’t know if this was going to help, but I figured it couldn’t hurt. How often do you get the chance to send four hundred prayers someone’s way, all at once? My voice was kind of shaky, but I just kept talking.
“Dear God,” I said, and everyone went still. Most of the congregation bowed their heads. “I know you know where Gabriel Qualls is. And I know you probably have a plan for him, just like you do for anyone else. I don’t want to ask too much, but if you’re listening, please watch out for Gabe tonight. Please help bring him home again soon. And, um … I guess that’s all. In Jesus’s name, amen.”
“Amen!” the congregation echoed back at me.
Then, just before I stepped down, I realized there was one more thing.
“Oh, and happy birthday, Jesus,” I said.
Because hey, it was Christmas, after all.
Maybe I should have said a prayer for my dad, too. Because I wasn’t the only one dealing with some heavy stuff that night.
In fact, when we came out of church after services, there was a crowd of people with cameras and microphones waiting for us. It was a little like walking into a pack of hungry lions—and guess who was on the menu?
“Detective Cross! Care to comment on the assault charges against you?”
“Alex, over here! Is there a trial date set?”
“They’re saying you need to go to jail, Detective Cross, do you agree?”
It was all just words. I knew that. But at the same time, it’s not true what people say about words. They can hurt you. And all those questions the reporters were throwing at my dad felt like they might as well have been throwing rocks.
Here’s what it was all about. Six months ago, Dad had gone to interview the father of a murder suspect. The suspect’s name was Tyler Yang, and he was already in jail. But when Dad got to the Yangs’ house that day, Mr. Yang wasn’t having it. He said his son was innocent and tried to kick Dad off their front porch. It turned into a scuffle. Then Mr. Yang fell down the steps. His head hit the pavement really hard, and he had to go to the hospital. Ever since then, he’d been in a coma.
Now the Yang family was suing Dad and the police department for assault. Maybe also for murder, depending on whether Mr. Yang survived.
It was crazy. I didn’t believe Dad was guilty for a second—he said it was an accident. But try telling that to the crowd following us up the street that night. The closer Dad’s trial got, the more they were dogging him with nonstop questions everywhere he went.
“Alex, did you deliberately push Mr. Yang down the stairs?”
“Are you ashamed of yourself, Detective Cross?”
“What’s it feel like to put someone in the hospital?”
My stepmom, Bree, grabbed my hand. I took my great-grandma, Nana Mama, by the arm on the other side. I wanted these people out of my face. I wished I had some kind of flashbang on me, the kind they use for police raids. Not to hurt anyone, but just loud and disorienting enough to make these reporters wish they’d all stayed home on Christmas Eve.
Meanwhile, we still had to get back to the car.
“Detective Cross, do you think you set a good example for your family?” someone asked.
A spotlight hit my eyes then, and another camera popped up, pointing right at me and my sister. That’s when I heard Jannie let out a sob. And even though I’m the youngest, I wasn’t going to let them do that to her. Or to anyone in my family.
“Hey! Back off!” I shouted. “My dad didn’t do anything! So why are you coming for him like this? In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s supposed to be Christmas.”
“Shh,” Bree said in my ear. “Just keep walking.”
“Ali? Anything else to say?” another reporter asked. “Are you proud of your dad?”
“You proud of yours?” I asked.
Then I felt Dad’s hand on my shoulder.
“Not another word,” he said.
But I couldn’t help it. Sometimes my mouth starts going and I can’t find the off switch.
“Yeah, I’m proud of my dad!” I yelled back. “Why don’t you put that in your story? Or better yet, why don’t you write something about Gabriel Qualls, and do some good for a change?”
I shouldn’t have said that last part about doing good. Dad’s always reminding me, we have freedom of speech here, and freedom of the press, too. Just because a few reporters don’t know how to be professional, it doesn’t mean they’re all bad. They’re mostly good at their jobs. Just like cops.
“Who’s Gabriel Qualls, Ali?” one of the reporters shouted.
“Is he a friend of yours?”
“What’s the story there?”
But I didn’t get to answer. Dad was already stepping in to take over. Which was just as well, because I was ready to go off on these people.
And trust me, nobody needed that.