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Following Brandon through the twists and turns of the large house gave Lucas a headache. The whole place was as old and weird as the rec room with its orphans and relics. They ended in the main floor foyer, their rubber shoes flopping on the checkerboard marble.
“Hungry?” Brandon asked. He had a habit of scratching his nose when he wasn’t picking it, and Lucas made a point of not touching anything after his roommate had.
“Um, not really. Vanessa bought me a burger for the ride over.”
“Vanessa, huh? She brought me here, too. I think she’s the caseworker for most of the kids at Mendacium.”
“Where did you come from?” Lucas looked around, then at the ceiling to keep his eyes anywhere but on Brandon’s nose scratching. A giant chandelier hung on twisted links from a decorative gold medallion on the ceiling. Light sparkled through hundreds of tiny cut crystals, throwing miniature rainbows on the burgundy velvet wallpaper and dark wood molding of the room.
A crest took up most of the wall across from the front door, a huge shield with a proud centaur in the middle of it and a ribbon carved across the top that said, ‘Quaere Veritatem’ in gothic lettering. Lucas would have noticed it when he arrived earlier if the excessively large human named Carl hadn’t been standing in the way.
“I used to live in the city. I’ve been in a few homes, but I think the county decided it would just be easier if I could stay in one place, like this, where they can’t decide they don’t want me.”
“Bummer.” Lucas shoved his hands in his pants. They stood there, fidgeting in silence. Brandon scratched his nose and Lucas traced the outline of a square of black marble on the floor, studying where the chandelier dropped sparkling sequins of light on the veins.
“Do you want to go see what the other kids are doing? I know you met a few of them, but the only way to get to know anybody is to hang out in that room.”
I don’t want to get to know anybody. I want to go home. Lucas looked at Brandon for a moment.
“Or we could go hang out in our room. That would be fun. We could ask each other weird questions and stuff. Get tight.” Brandon grinned under a mess of light brown hair that hadn’t been cut in a couple of months.
“The rec room sounds good.”
As far as Lucas could tell, the room looked exactly as it had an hour ago when he came in with Mona. Two boys, holding cue sticks, watched as a third lined up a shot on the pool table. A girl wearing a purple t-shirt with a cartoon pegasus on it watched herself in a compact mirror as she stroked mascara on her lashes, her legs folded under her on the seat of the bay window. Others were on laptops, reading books, or just staring at nothing. As far as Lucas could tell, Max was gone.
Two kids got up off the floor and walked over when they saw Lucas come in. The first was a girl, maybe five feet tall and curvy, with streaked blond hair that fell in waves to her waist. Behind her followed a tall gangly boy in a khakis that were too short and a ball cap that looked as old as the house.
Lucas smoothed his bangs over and pulled his t-shirt down.
“Hi,” a smile lit up her blue eyes and marked a dimple in her left cheek. She held out a hand. “I’m Ami.”
Lucas accepted the handshake. Her skin was soft and cool, and for a heartbeat, it was all Lucas could think about.
“Nice to meet you, Lucas.”
The boy behind her must’ve been over six feet tall. He towered over Ami, blocking her from Lucas’s view when she pulled the boy forward by the elbow.
“This is Tate.” She said from behind her friend.
Lucas politely took his hand. Tate’s face was awkwardly angular, acne and scars mottling his cheeks. He had a little beard fuzz shadowing a sunken chin, and an Adam’s apple the size of an actual apple. He was one of the ugliest people Lucas had ever seen.
“Nice to meet you, Tate.”
“You, too.” His voice was deep and melodic, like the voice of a singer Lucas liked on one of his favorite reality tv shows. It wasn’t what he would have expected from Tate’s appearance.
Lucas wracked his brain for conversational questions, but everything he came up with either had an obvious answer, or it had an answer Lucas probably didn’t want to hear. Where are you from? Grimm County, duh. Why are you here? Because my parents died in some horrible accident. I’ll tell you all about it over dinner. Where do you go to school? I don’t go to school because nobody leaves here, ever.
“I heard your dad is in the hospital. How is he doing?” Ami’s concern was genuine, her eyes steady on Lucas’s face.
He flicked his bangs over and shifted his weight. “They’re running tests.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she brushed her hand on his arm. “You must be very worried.” The line she traced from his shoulder tingled.
“Your pa will be okay,” Tate chimed in. “I’m sure of it.”
“Uh, thanks, Tate.” Lucas looked over at Brandon, who stood staring at the floor, one arm across his stomach and holding on to his other elbow. He suddenly felt very sorry for the weird kid. It was obvious that Brandon didn’t have many friends. “So, what do you guys like to do all day?”
“We play games and read. Tate sings sometimes. There’s a piano in the other room.”
We do everything together. She didn’t say it out loud, but Lucas heard it between the lines. He took another look at the tall kid, sizing him up. Tate wasn’t anything special, that was for sure, but Ami made it clear that she cared about him.
“Brandon’s got some talent, too.” She looked at the kid in the purple skinny jeans.
Brandon grinned under his mess of hair. He said something in reply, probably ‘thanks’ or ‘ah, shucks,’ but it was lost in the chaos of everyone in the room getting up at the same time. The kids playing pool put up their cue sticks, and a pair of twins who had been arguing over a laptop pulled the cord out of the wall and shuffled toward the doorway. The girl putting on make-up closed her compact and scooped up her bag of eye shadows and blush. When she stood up, Lucas saw that her shirt said ‘Save the Ponies’ in bold print below the pegasus.
Ami sighed, “C’mon, Tate.” She brushed by between Lucas and Brandon, Tate close on her heels.
Lucas watched everybody leave. Well, he watched Ami, who turned around in the doorway and gave him a wave before she disappeared with the others. He was still gazing that direction when Brandon poked him in the ribs.
“What?” Lucas swatted the boy’s arm aside.
Brandon pointed. Mona and Carl glared at them from the other side of the room.
“Lights out. Everybody goes to their rooms.” Mona’s voice grated out.
With an apologetic smile to the old woman and the mutant doorman, Lucas let his bangs fall in his eyes and watched his shoes all the way up to the fifth floor.
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