A dial tone purred out of the receiver. Lucas pressed his eyelids against his forearm, blotting out the light so that all of his senses could focus on the sound of the phone. He pinched the business card Vanessa had given him at the apartment yesterday between two fingers like a cigarette.
The dial tone clicked off. Hello, you have reached the voicemail box of…
Lucas slammed the receiver onto its cradle. The payphone was sunk into the wall in a small alcove on the opposite side of the main entry from the rec room. It was smooth black plastic, with a classic push button dial pad and twisted cord. Like the washing machine, the change receiver was rigged so that the phone worked without money.
After leaving two messages, Lucas had dialed Vanessa’s number three more times and let the phone ring until her voicemail box picked up. He tucked her card into his back pocket and bit his lip.
Stupid cell phones. I bet she’s ignoring my call. He would’ve called Manny, but he couldn’t remember the number.
The entry was as empty as it had been when Lucas came down for a breakfast he never got to eat. He looked at the stairs, then heard the ‘plink’ of the pool balls along with the hum of voices coming from the rec room. Ami might be around…
He felt the tiger’s eye through his pocket, a small knob of pressure on his thigh, and took one last glance toward the rec room.
He headed to the bedroom on the fifth floor. He took the steps two at a time at first, but he ran out of breath by the third floor landing and had to drag himself up by the railing.
Brandon still sat on his bed with his sketchpad and music. He looked up when Lucas came in.
“Hey man, get breakfast?”
Lucas paused, panting. “Max told me it was over by nine.”
“He lied. You could’ve gotten some food.”
“He said you lied.”
“Well,” Brandon pressed the blunt end of his pencil into his bottom lip, “I lied about the bagels. We usually don’t have any of those.”
“Do all of you lie?” Lucas flipped his bangs out of his eyes and looked around for his duffel, frustrated. He threw the rainbow blanket back onto Brandon’s bed where it landed on top of the sketch pad.
“Hey!” Brandon pulled it off. “What is that for?”
“I need to pack. Have you seen my bag?” Lucas dropped to the floor and looked under the bed. He pulled out his shoes.
“Where are you going?”
“Home. To the hospital. I don’t really care.” He tied his laces, then stood up and ran his fingers through his hair. “Where is my bag?”
“Um,” Brandon tilted his head, the focus requiring effort. “In the laundry room?”
“Damn it!” Lucas bit his lip and put his hands on his hips.
“You’re really leaving?”
“Yeah, why would I stay here?”
“It’s just that…” Brandon drifted off and stared into space.
“What?” Lucas leaned in.
“Well, nobody’s ever left before.” The mismatched eyes blinked.
Lucas pulled his bangs back in his fingers and held them there. “How would you know that? I thought you said you had only been here two weeks.”
The skinny boy scratched his nose with the pencil this time. “I’ve been here three weeks, but the other kids talk. Nobody leaves. Ever.”
They put me in a room with a lying nose picker. But what bothered him was the echo of Max’s words.
Nobody leaves here. Ever.
“Can I have some paper?”
“Sure,” Brandon tore a page out of his sketchpad and handed it over. Lucas grabbed the pencil, too, and scratched a note on the paper. He folded it into a square and handed it to the boy on the bed.
“Will you give this to her when you see her?”
Brandon took the note and is pencil. “Ami? Why does she get a note?”
“Really?” Lucas raised an eyebrow underneath his bangs.
“You’re actually leaving?” Brandon leaned forward on his folded knees and pushed the note into the back pocket of his purple skinny jeans.
“I’ve got to see my Pa.”
Brandon nodded, his striped beanie waving up and down. “When you get back, wanna see what I drew?”
“I’m not coming back,” Lucas called back as he left the room.
The five stories of stairs was much easier going down. Lucas held his breath on the final stretch, mentally crossing his fingers that the entry would still be abandoned.
The knob on the door squealed when Lucas turned it. He cringed and looked around, waiting for Mona or one of the kids to pop out of a doorway and ask him where the hell he thought he was going. Lucas listened for a moment, but the murmur from the rec room stayed the same, and he didn’t hear any footsteps on the checkerboard marble floor. He pulled the door open.
A blast of late summer air pinned his tee shirt against his stomach. The wind plastered his bangs to his forehead, the ends scratching at his eyes. He closed the door, careful to keep the knob turned in so that it wouldn’t ‘click’ too loudly in the casing, and made it off the porch and two steps down the sidewalk before running into a wall of flesh.
“Hello Lucas, going somewhere?” Carl’s deep voice rumbled through the sidewalk.
How did I miss seeing the giant cockroach when I opened the door? Lucas squinted to avoid the summer wind. His shoes looked flat underneath him, almost two-dimensional, his shadow stretched like black ice behind him on the cement.
“I was, uh, looking for the laundry room. Brandon showed me around yesterday, but this house is soooooo big, I guess I got lost.” Lucas backed up, feeling his way onto the stoop.
Carl stayed where he was, his black suit blocking Lucas’s view of the parking lot and the street below.
Inside the foyer, Lucas closed the door and crept up the stair to the second floor landing. He watched until Carl came inside, then sprinted down the hallway. At the end was a window, wide enough for him to climb out and have a one-story drop to freedom.
Glancing behind him, Lucas tried the latch. The window was old, definitely not up to housing authority standards, and the latch had been painted over more than once. Finally, he popped it up with his thumb. The window screeched loudly as Lucas opened it a few inches, paint flaking generously onto the floor. Then it stopped, stuck in the casing.
Come on, Lucas begged, just a few more inches…
He crouched down and put both hands below the pane, using his legs to push up. He felt his face go red from the strain, all of his weight leveraged toward getting the window to slide up another hand’s width.
“Looks like it’s more trouble than it’s worth.” A familiar voice judged behind him.
“What—“ Lucas started, then the window popped up, coming unstuck and sending Lucas onto his butt.
A cloud of dust billowed up from the thick carpet. When it cleared, a pair of eyes and then a face formed out of the shadow in the corner of the hallway. Lucas sneezed.
“You.” He scooted back, stirring up more dust.
“Hello, Lucas.” The eyes blinked.
“What are you?” Lucas looked down the hallway behind him. Empty. At least nobody was around to witness that he was going crazy.
“I am your lies. The one you just told Carl made my day. One more and I’ll be able to feel my legs.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
The face sighed. It had the smooth cheeks and bright eyes of a young child, but the voice had the gravelly edge of an old man.
“That’s because you don’t want it to make sense.”
“I haven’t been getting much of what I want lately.” Lucas scowled, both at himself and the creature talking to him from the shadows.
“Oh, but you have.”
Lucas didn’t want to understand what the face meant, but he did. Got myself a sweet tiger’s eye. My father has been ill, Mrs. Farnes. I guess I just got lost.
The last one wasn’t entirely a lie…at least not yet.
“I’m just trying to stay out of trouble,” Lucas told the face.
The eyes turned up in a smile. They were mostly green with a golden cast to them. “That’s alright by me. I’ve been waiting for years for your lies to be this strong.”
“How many years? Have you been stalking me?” A chill ran up Lucas’s spine, as if someone was behind him.
“I’ve been around as long as you’ve had a shadow, Lucas.”
This is crazy. Stop talking to it. “Well,” Lucas pushed himself up off of the floor. “I would say, ‘See you later,’ but since you aren’t supposed to actually exist, I’m just going to walk away and pretend this whole conversation never happened.”
He pushed the window open as far as it would go, then swung a leg over the sill. Where he should have been stretching down from the second story, he was now on the fourth floor, with no roof below him for twenty feet, and then another ten to the ground. His heart sunk into his stomach.
I guess I got lost.
Lucas pulled his leg in and slid the window back into place. His pulse pounded in his temples. He had almost dropped from a fourth story window. Taking a deep breath, he turned to head back down the hallway.
As soon as he moved his head, his cheek pressed into a set of knuckles the size of golf balls.
Carl’s meaty fingers gripped his shoulder and tugged him around. “The boss wants to see you.”