A Stolen Soul

Yong Jones blinked back tears as she watched her son load the U-Haul van.

''I don't want him to go,'' she thought.

Her son, Laurence Alton Jones Jr., was moving from Bangor to Baltimore. Junior, as his parents fondly called him, hoped to fulfill a dream in Maryland. He wanted to get his master's degree in psychology at one of the country's top schools, Johns Hopkins University.

Like any mother, Yong wanted the best for her son, but she also longed to keep him home, where she could protect him from harm. She worried about her only child moving to such a big city.

''Junior, do you have to go?'' she asked.

''Yes, Mom,'' he told her gently.

Laurence Jones Sr. chided his wife: ''Cut the apron strings, honey. He's 24.''

''You promise to call collect?'' she asked.

''Yes, Mom.'' Above: Laurence Jones Jr. holds his tiny cousin, Jea Chung. As boys, the two shared a bedroom for a while after Jea and his family moved to America from South Korea.

Yong wasn't the only one who would miss Junior. Junior's cousin, Jea Chung, and his family lived next door to the Joneses. Only a year younger than Junior, Jea and his cousin were like brothers.

When Jea's parents and grandparents moved from Korea to America in 1976 they lived with Larry Jr. and his family. For two years, the boys shared Larry's small bedroom at the top of the stairs.

Though they couldn't communicate with words at first, the boys had no trouble playing together. Larry showed his train set and race cars to Jea. ''Fast car,'' Larry explained.

As they got older, the two cousins shared a passion for baseball and hockey. When Larry got his dirt bike, he and Jea spent many afternoons roaring along muddy trails in the woods around Bangor.

Now, on this August afternoon, Jea swept his sadness aside as he helped Larry load the truck. Though he had mixed feelings about his cousin living 600 miles away, Jea knew Larry hungered for the hustle of a big city.

''There's nothing to do here,'' Larry routinely said of Bangor.

As the August sun dipped in the sky, Larry fastened the lock on the U-Haul's door. ''I better get going.''

He hugged his mom, dad, grandparents, Jea's parents and Jea.

''Be careful on the ride down, honey,'' Yong said, hugging her son one more time.

Her chest tightened as she watched Junior hop in the truck and drive down Grace Court, away from the white, two-story home he grew up in, away from his family, away from Bangor.

A day later, Larry parked outside a stretch of rowhouses on Bank Street, a Southeast Baltimore neighborhood. Despite the U-Haul's dying engine and his tired eyes, he grinned at his new roommate, Tonia Hodge.

A childhood friend, Tonia had offered to let Larry stay rent-free at her apartment until he found a job. Her three-story rowhouse apartment bordered Little Italy and was a 15-minute stroll from Fells Point, a waterfront neighborhood with an abundance of bars, restaurants and trendy shops.

While bright lights and the scents of cappuccino and homemade pasta lured tourists to Little Italy and Fells Point, the children of Bank Street jumped rope and played hopscotch amid discarded drug needles and broken beer bottles. Drug sales, shootings and robberies were common on the poorly lit stretch of streets, where rows of squat, tan-brick public housing projects kept silent vigil to the violence.

Larry paid little attention to the dangers lurking on the bleak Baltimore streets. Whenever he drank at the Fells Point bars, he walked home alone, often at odd hours of the night.

One of his neighbors, Norman Hock, warned Larry he needed to be more careful. Baltimore wasn't like Bangor, Hock told him. ''You can't walk these streets alone at night,'' he said.

Larry told his neighbor not to worry.

Nearly three months after he'd moved to Baltimore, Larry called his parents, excited about a job prospect at the Johns Hopkins medical school. He'd been called back for a second interview. If he got it, he'd be working with mentally handicapped children.

''My chances look pretty good,'' he told his mother. ''Then hopefully I can start taking classes soon.''

Yong smiled as she sat in bed, pride swelling in her chest.

Junior told her he'd be driving home to Maine as soon as he was finished with his interview. He hoped to be heading back to Bangor the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

''OK, Mom, see you soon.''

''Aren't you forgetting something?'' she teased.

''Oh, Mom,'' he groaned. ''I love you.''

''I love you, honey. Make sure you call me before you get in your car to come home.''

Before hanging up, Junior talked to his dad. They talked about his upcoming interview, then Junior remarked about a few of Baltimore's gritty neighborhoods. He never mentioned that he lived in one of them.

As Larry Sr. hung up the phone, he grinned. ''Boy, I love that guy. He's really growing up.''

Yong nodded, unable to speak. A wave of chills had suddenly washed over her. She felt as if someone had poured ice water down her back.

''What's wrong?'' her husband asked.

''I've got chills all over. I don't know why. Our son seems so happy and he's coming home for Thanksgiving next week.''

''Maybe you're coming down with the flu.''

''Maybe,'' she said, shutting off her light and sinking beneath the blankets. As she lay awake in the dark she thought about Junior. It had been nearly three months since she'd seen him. She should be excited about him coming home.

''But then why do I feel so scared and so cold?'' she wondered.