If you need to catch up on the story, check out Chapter 1.
“So, Mr. Desmondo,” the teacher leaned over Lucas’s desk, the buttons of her dress straining to hold her chest off the floor. “That essay was due today, no exceptions. Unless, I guess, you had a family member die.”
Mrs. Farnes was short and round and waddled between the desks. Up and down, up and down all class hour, her nasally voice was worse than nails on a blackboard after fifteen minutes of infinitives and dangling participles. Her city accent emphasized every syllable, adding beats to some words and leaving off the ends of others. ‘Fam-i-ly’ was followed by ‘memba.’ Most teachers lost their accents when they went to college and mingled with the kids with trust funds, but Mrs. Farnes’ got worse because she went to college upstate where she’d practiced her extra syllables and dropped consonants for an English degree.
And her breath stank.
His pen scraped across his desk in an arc as Lucas searched for an excuse. Mrs. Farnes’ hand snapped down and trapped the black ballpoint against a desktop scarred from years of nervous tenth grade boys fidgeting through class.
Her nasally voice echoed in his head. …no exceptions. Unless, I guess, you had a family member die.
Looking up through his hair, he met her eyes, which were greenish hazel and actually kind of pretty if you ignored the rest of her puffy face. “My father has been ill, Mrs. Farnes. He didn’t die yet, but he’s awfully sick. Sorry I don’t have my essay. I’ll try to get it done at the hospital tonight.” He dropped his gaze back to his desk.
Chubby fingers released his pen. Mrs. Farnes stood and played with the button under her chins. “Sorry to hear that, Lucas. I was just joking about the family member dying, you know that, right? Sorry about your pa…”
“Uh…” Lucas stalled, playing with his pen. Oh my God, this one’s a whopper. I can’t believe it’s working. “Uh, it’s okay, Mrs. Farnes. People get sick sometimes.” Lucas hung his head to hide his smile.
Lucas nodded, keeping his eyes down.
Mrs. Farnes left him alone then, watching him with a pitying frown as he left at the end of class.
Outside the air was hot and muggy again, with very little breeze to cool the beads of sweat that ran down Lucas’s neck as he stepped into the sun. Parker and Tyler, his two best friends since elementary school, waited at the corner to walk with him. Lucas didn’t see them much now that he hung with Manny.
“Hey Lucas,” Parker held up his fist for a bump, “sorry to hear about your pa. What’s he sick with?”
Lucas avoided Parker’s eyes. “Well, the doctors aren’t sure yet. They are still running tests and stuff.”
“Can we see him?” Tyler asked. The three of them started walking down the block, their shadows just bending up the corner of the buildings along the sidewalk. Lucas watched the three gray blobs bob against the stucco and cement walls of the city.
“Um,” Lucas stalled. He shoved his hands in his pockets and leaned forward against the weight of his backpack. He hadn’t expected this lie to follow him outside of Mrs. Farnes classroom. “He might be contagious. Better stay away. I’ll tell him ‘hi’ for you guys, though. I’m sure he’d like that.”
“Okay,” Parker shrugged and stopped at the corner. “Gonna be around later? After the hospital?”
Lucas scuffed his shoe on the sidewalk. “Not sure.”
“I know where he’s gonna be.” Tyler narrowed his eyes at Lucas but spoke to Parker. “Manny’s the only one good enough for Lucas to hang with now.”
Lucas looked at Tyler for a long minute.
Parker cleared his throat and reached out for a farewell fist bump, “I guess we split here, then. See you later, Lucas.”
Tyler just turned and headed into the crosswalk. Parker gave Lucas an apologetic smile and left him to follow his own shadow home.
What’s wrong with him? Lucas argued with himself as he measured quick steps to his apartment building. Manny’s the only one good enough for Lucas to hang with now, Lucas mocked his old friend. Better than waiting around for you all day to finish with violin lessons and soccer practice.
He kicked a convenience store soda cup into the street and scooped his bangs out of his eyes. Pa bugged him to cut it, but Lucas thought the longer hair looked cool. He combed it across his forehead in the front, like some teen pop star, and a couple of the girls at school told him they liked it.
The apartment building was quiet. Lucas took the stairs slowly, his backpack and his thoughts weighing him down. Maybe Parker and Tyler just weren’t his friends anymore.
And he had lied to Mrs. Farnes.
At the second floor landing, Lucas paused. The door to his apartment stood open a few inches. He stepped closer. Above the sound of a tv on the first floor and a vacuum on the third, Lucas caught snatches of a woman’s voice.
“Yes, I see. He should be home from school any minute and I’ll bring him down…No, that’s fine. No problem. Thank you.”
He pushed the door open. The apartment was as dim and stuffy as it had been yesterday, the curtains drawn and the windows locked. A woman stood from the couch when she saw him, so thin she looked taller than she really was. He noticed the business suit first, light gray and perfectly pressed with the creases down the front of the legs.
She slid a cell phone into her jacket pocket and picked up a dark gray briefcase. “Lucas Desmondo?”
Lucas nodded, staring. She had long dark hair pulled back into a neat ponytail, her skin pale and smooth, with very large, very dark brown eyes and sharply defined cheekbones.
“I am Vanessa Malum, a caseworker for family services.” She handed him a card with an official county seal and her name in plain, neat letters. “The hospital called me. I’m here to take you to see your father.”
Her voice was very formal, almost icy.
“Pa?” Lucas’s heart sunk to his knees. “What’s Pa doing at the hospital?”
“He passed out at work today. It’s okay, Lucas. Emergency services took him to the hospital where they are running tests.”
Lucas was not finding her quite so beautiful anymore.
His face must have shown all of his fear because she put a hand on his arm, her thin fingers trying to squeeze some comfort into him. Lucas pulled away. There was nothing comforting about this thin woman in a sterile gray business suit telling him that his father was sick.
“What hospital? What tests?” he started to panic. The backpack suddenly felt like it was smothering, pinning his arms behind him in a wrestling hold. He flung it off and dumped it on the floor where it landed with a deep thud. Ms. Malum frowned.
“The doctors at the hospital can explain more than I can. I don’t want you to worry about more than you need to, so if you’ll come along, I’ll get you there in less than twenty minutes.”
My father has been ill, Mrs. Farnes. He didn’t die yet, but he’s awfully sick. Sorry I don’t have my essay. I’ll try to get it done at the hospital tonight.
Lucas felt queasy as he locked the apartment door and followed the caseworker down the stairs. Her grey sedan with state plates was parked at a meter across the street. Traffic was usually heavy at this time in the afternoon, but as they crossed, Lucas didn’t see a car for blocks in either direction. The caseworker unlocked the sedan with her key fob and opened the passenger door. Lucas avoided her eyes as he climbed in and put his seatbelt on.
It was supposed to be a lie.