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The freeway was quieter as the sun hit the horizon, setting behind them as the sedan headed back into the older part of the city and to Lucas’s apartment building. The drive to the hospital had been quiet, but the drive back had an added tension. Lucas decided he hated Vanessa Malum, and he was oddly glad she no longer acted as if she cared. It made it easier to be angry.
Lights glowed from several of the windows as Lucas popped his door open and Ms. Malum slid quarters into the meter. Not waiting for his ‘primary guardian,’ Lucas timed traffic and sprinted across the street. He had maybe fifteen minutes to pack his life into a duffel bag, if she even gave him that, and he preferred to count out his underwear without her watching.
The building was warm and steamy, full of families cooking dinner and arguing over homework. The stairs and hallway were deserted, and Lucas unlocked his door without any witnesses. Inside, the apartment was hot and stuffy, but instead of opening the windows to cool things off before bed, Lucas checked to make sure they were all locked.
He heard her boots on the stairs, her bossy steps echoing over the murmurs of tenant life. Lucas stepped over his backpack which he had dropped in the entry earlier that afternoon, and flipped on the light.
Pa would pop a vein if he knew she saw the apartment like this.
Couch pillows lay tossed on the floor, magazines covered the coffee table, and small bits of trash littered the couch. Deli bags from last night’s dinner still sat on the counter, and dishes lingered in the sink. Lucas snatched the bags and dropped them in the trash, then scrubbed the plates with the dish brush. He was squirting soap onto the bristles when Vanessa made it into the apartment.
“Quite the bachelor pad.”
“It works.” Lucas rinsed and moved on to the next dish. One thing about cleaning up after two people was that it didn’t take very long.
“Don’t tell me you plan on cleaning the whole place.”
“Nope,” Lucas wet the rag and worked on the counters. “Just most of it.”
“They don’t pay me overtime, you know.”
“Obviously they don’t pay you to care, either.”
“They do pay me to deliver.” She folded her arms. “Fifteen minutes.”
She watched him as he straightened the couch pillows and magazines, then picked up small, odd pieces of trash. While Lucas cleaned, he caught a whiff of Pa’s aftershave on the couch. He hung his bangs in his eyes and fought tears as he recalled his old man lying in the hospital bed, held in by metal rails and yards of plastic tubing.
As soon as he was finished cleaning it, Vanessa settled onto the couch, crossed her legs, and poked at the screen of her cell phone.
Back in his bedroom, Lucas dug a duffel out of his closet and threw it on the bed. Most of his clothes were in a dirty heap, waiting for the weekend trip to the laundromat. Lucas sniffed out a week’s worth of shirts, taking the ones that smelled the least like cigarettes and body odor.
He had started on his underwear when Vanessa pushed the door open and flipped on the light. He held up a pair of boxer briefs.
“Do you mind?”
She didn’t even flinch. “Five minutes.”
Lucas stuffed the underwear in his bag. “How long does it take you to pack?”
He looked up for her answer, but she was already gone. He snagged a pair of jeans out of a dresser drawer and rolled it into a tube.
“Uh-huh,” Vanessa said. Lucas’s eyes popped to the door, expecting to see her hovering there, but it stood exactly as she had left it a moment ago. He tiptoed and peered out into the living room.
“Yes, sir,” she said, her back to Lucas and a cell phone pressed to her ear. “I know. I gave him five minutes. Yes…the main house, got it.” She ended the call and stared down at her boots.
“Don’t like her much, do you?” a voice grated out behind him. Lucas spun around, searching the dirty clothes and rumpled sheets.
“Can’t see me yet? Look closer.”
Lucas peered at his closet and pile of dirty clothes, then scanned the rest of the room. Something moved in the shadow on the far side of his dresser.
A pair of eyes blinked twice in the thin outline of a face.
“What the hell?!” Lucas stumbled back into his bed and scrambled onto the mattress.
The eyes chuckled, “Thought it would be like that.”
“What are you? Where did you come from?” Lucas squeezed himself into the wall.
“I came from you, Lucas. You made me.” The eyes disappeared, then shimmered back into view.
“Ready yet?” Vanessa’s nose poked through the doorway.
Lucas jumped so high his head hit the ceiling. “Could I have some privacy, please?”
“You’re taking too long.”
“Why, you got somewhere to go?” Lucas got down from the bed and tiptoed to the dresser, out of Vanessa’s view. At least she wasn’t nosy enough to come in to his bedroom.
She didn’t answer right away. Lucas looked closely at the space beside his dresser. Nothing. He waved his hand in there. More nothing.
“I told you. I don’t get paid overtime.”
The shadow by the dresser was just that, a shadow. Hallucinating? He’d heard that stress could do weird things to a person’s mind.
“Almost done.” He shook his head to clear his vision and picked up the pants he’d dropped at the door after the eyes had started talking. He stuffed it in the bag, found two more pairs in the pile, and zipped the duffel closed.
Flipping off the light, Lucas looked back at the room he had slept in every night for his entire fifteen year life. The light from the living room winked off something on the dresser. Lucas dropped his bag on his bed and crossed the room.
The tiger’s eye sat on top of the others, its pupil stretched thin through gold and black swirls. Lucas scooped it up and slipped it into his pocket.
“I’m ready.” Lucas grabbed his backpack and swung it onto his shoulder. With his duffel in his other hand, he had to squeeze out and dump both bags on the floor to lock up the apartment door.
Vanessa watched, her arms in the usual crossed position, her cell dangling from one hand.
“Thanks for the help,” Lucas slung both bags over one shoulder and made it down the stairs and across the street bent over and twisted so they wouldn’t crash onto the pavement.
She ignored his sarcasm, the sound of her boots trailing him across the asphalt.
She did open the door for him, though, partly because he had to stand there until she remembered to unlock it.
“Where are we going?” Lucas asked.
Vanessa buckled her seatbelt and adjusted the rear view mirror. Lucas watched her eyes in the glass.
“Mendacium. It’s a group home just outside of the city.”
Lucas buckled his seatbelt and folded his arms across his chest.
Vanessa turned the key and the engine revved. “Burger?”
“Sure,” Lucas watched his apartment building shrink from view as they pulled off the curb and headed for the freeway.
She can take me anywhere she wants. Don’t mean I have to stay.