To catch up on what Lucas has been doing at Mendacium, go to the House of Lies page.
Lucas groaned and rolled over. He kept his eyes closed, clinging to the wish that when he opened them, he would be home in his bed with Pa poking at him to get up for school.
But he wasn’t home. It wasn’t the worn out twin mattress, or the rustle of someone else in the room fussing with papers, or even the feeling of being up on the fifth floor that reminded Lucas that yesterday had sucked worse than any other day in his entire life.
It was the smell.
Mendacium was a huge house, an old-school mansion built by some rich mob boss back in the day when the mob ran the city and made sure everybody knew it. Brandon had shown Lucas most of it, starting with their bedroom and the third floor laundry. Lucas followed along, scouting for an exit that he could take to run away.
And Mendacium was probably one of the easiest places he could ever run away from. Thick carpets lined the halls, muffling voices and footsteps. Large statues and odd sculptures offered a million hiding places, and there were doors and twisting staircases everywhere. The mob boss probably died by some planned accident and the county moved in without so much as turning a screw.
Or cleaning it, apparently. The house smelled like the formaldehyde frog Lucas had dissected in biology class last week, a distinct chemical smell diluted by long hallways and tall ceilings.
He peeked out from one eye. Brandon sat on his bed, his purple skinny jeans folded underneath him in the tie-dye sea of his bedspread. A sketchpad balanced between the sharp knobs of his knees.
Lucas closed his eye and buried his face in the mattress. He didn’t have sheets, or a pillow. Vanessa had failed to mention he might need those when he packed last night, so Brandon loaned him a fuzzy rainbow colored blanket until Lucas could borrow some community bedding. Since community bedding had been left behind by previous tenants, Lucas wasn’t too keen on getting himself a set of ‘who-knows-who’s-slept-on-these’ sheets.
Maybe Vanessa will take me by the apartment today. As much as he didn’t like his caseworker, at least she had a car. And he couldn’t forget that Vanessa held his get-out-of-jail-free card and could take him to the hospital to see Pa.
He listened to the scratch of Brandon’s pencil for a good minute before rolling over and staring at the ceiling. Discolored sections marked recent patch jobs, the whitish paint reflecting the morning light in varying degrees of shininess.
“What time is it?” Lucas’s voice grated out. He swallowed, then ran his tongue over the fuzzy fronts of his teeth. No toothbrush.
Brandon paused. “Oh, hey. Thought you were awake. It’s nine twenty-two.”
Lucas rubbed his eyes and let his hand weigh down the lids for a minute. The sketching resumed.
“When’s breakfast?” Lucas lifted his hips on the bed and untwisted his jeans. He had also forgotten to pack something that could pass for pajamas.
Mumbled lyrics punctuated the murmur of Brandon’s pencil. After waiting for a moment, Lucas looked over. Brandon bobbed a few inches above the sketchpad, a green pencil flying in his hand. He wore a sloppy knit cap in clashing rows of color and a tight orange v-neck t-shirt. He breathed out a few lines that Lucas didn’t quite understand, then finally glanced up.
“Hey,” Brandon pulled his headphone out of his ear, the other half already dangling out of the v-neck collar. “Did you ask me something?”
“Cereal, bagels, toast…whatever you can find.” He tucked his earbud back in his one ear and leaned over the sketch pad.
Rolling over, Lucas untangled himself from the borrowed blanket and swung his legs over the edge of his mattress.
“No, when is breakfast?” He almost yelled.
“Oh,” Brandon pulled the earbud out again and swung his pencil nervously against his thumb. “Um, anytime you want it. The kitchen is basically self-serve. There’s always food in there.”
Lucas studied his roommate a little more. Brandon had mismatched eyes that took up half his face, one hazel and one brown. A subtle difference, but noticeable when Brandon stopped moving and actually looked at Lucas. Freckles speckled his nose, sort of dancing when the kid got into an animated attention-deficit moment. And he was barely wider than his pencil.
Stretching, Lucas almost asked Brandon to go down to the kitchen with him, then decided that if the kid hadn’t offered, he either completely missed the social cue or he didn’t want to. Brandon had gone back to his sketching, his pencil flying and his head bobbing to the beat coming out of his headphones.
After going to the bathroom to check his hair, Lucas peeked back in the room. Brandon bobbed to the beat, completely absorbed in whatever he was drawing.
Later, kid. Lucas shook his head and popped down the stairs. As he stepped into the second floor landing, his neck hair bristled and chills traced his spine.
Someone’s watching. He didn’t see anyone in either direction, and all of the doors appeared to be closed. Maybe they have a video system. Lucas scanned the ceiling and the corners, looking for tiny convex lenses in the molding. Nothing, but he still felt eyes on him as he made his way down the final flight of stairs.
When he reached the foyer, Lucas realized that he wasn’t sure if the kitchen was on the right or the left. He looked around, raking through his memory of Brandon’s tour for the doorway that would lead to a fridge.
As he stood thinking, Lucas heard voices to the right and followed. He stepped into the giant rec room, the scene laid out almost exactly as it had been the night before.
This is kind of creepy.
As he looked around for Ami and Tate, a shadow melted out from behind the six-foot set of medieval armor.
“Lucas, right?” Greasy blond hair and all black clothes.
“Yeah,” Lucas shoved his hands in his pockets. “Max?”
The blond head nodded. Max looked tired, his eyes hollow and his lips thin and pale. He crossed his arms and hugged them to his black tee shirt.
“You missed breakfast.”
“I did? Brandon said it was ‘self-serve’ anytime.”
Max shook his head. “No, it’s over at nine. But I bet we could get you a pop tart or something. Mona might be nice since it’s, you know, your first day.”
“Nah, it’s alright. I’m not really hungry anyway.” Lucas offered Max a half-smile, curling his fingers around the tiger’s eye he had slipped in his pants last night before he left his apartment.
“You know,” Max pinched his forearm in his fingers and played with the loose muscle, “Brandon lies sometimes. He’s not being mean or anything, he just sort of…does.”
Lucas shrugged, “It don’t matter.”
The two boys stood a moment in silence, Max playing with his forearm and Lucas looking around for the girl with the wavy hair as subtly as he could from underneath the cover of his long bangs. Nothing.
“So, what do you guys do all day?” Lucas settled his eyes back on the sickly boy.
Max dropped his arms and shrugged. “Not much. We just hang out in here and do what we want, mostly.”
So Brandon didn’t lie about that.
“You like pool?” Max raised an eyebrow.
Pa’s words played in his head. I used to be pretty good at marbles. Lucas’s heart tightened.
“Do you have a cell phone?”
Max shook his head. “Nobody has a cell phone. Nobody to call.”
“I need to talk to my caseworker. She’s supposed to take me to the hospital to see my pa. Is there a phone I can use?”
“I think there’s a phone that way.” He pointed toward the entry. “Nobody uses it. Don’t even know if it works.”
“Thanks,” Lucas turned to go.
Max grabbed Lucas’s arm, “You don’t get it, do you?” He gave him a steady look. “Nobody leaves here. Ever.”
Lucas met his eyes. “Good thing I ain’t ‘nobody.’”