Yeah, sigh, the climax has passed, but don’t think the story’s over. Stick around for the conclusion.
Chapter 22—Put Down Your Bag
The day was cooler than it had been in weeks, a breeze blowing up the hill off of the river. It didn’t smell as good as it felt, but Lucas wanted to wait outside, anyway.
It don’t matter, Lucas joked to himself. And it really didn’t, not after yesterday. His duffel sat on the sidewalk at his feet, like a canvas sausage stuffed with clean clothes. An art portfolio leaned against the step next to him, full of the sketches that Brandon had drawn of the orphans at Mendacium. Well, all of them except the sketch of Sandra; Brandon kept Zombie Girl for himself.
Tapping his toe and singing to the music coming out of his headphones, Brandon waited on the steps next to Lucas, his colorful beanie bobbing to a beat that Lucas couldn’t hear. He was sketching Zagan as a demon towering against the stalactites in the cavern, shading one of the long teeth.
The door creaked. Lucas looked behind him as Max came quietly onto the porch. The blond boy leaned against a post and folded his arms, wearing a fresh black shirt, his hair slicked up with gel. The gray was gone from his face, but he was still pale, a few freckles dotting his nose.
“Vanessa?” Max asked.
Lucas turned back to watching the parking lot, the breeze blowing his bangs out of his face. “Yeah. She’s supposed to be here any minute.”
Max shuffled around behind Lucas. “Cassy’s back, and I think Tom is close. He looks kind of funny with all of that red hair curling out of the head of a half-soul, but his eyes are normal and he’s already stealing the pool balls off of the table.”
“What about Dee?” Lucas asked.
“A few signs, but not much yet. Ami says it can take longer for some than for others, kind of like how their personal brand of lying affected how fast they turned. A lot of them are just standing there, not doing anything.”
“She has a lot of kids to take care of.” Lucas kept his eyes on the lane that led to the parking lot in front of the house. He put his elbows on his knees and rested his face in his hands, kicking up the edge of his duffle bag with his toe. “Did it hurt?”
“Yeah, sort of. But it was better than completely becoming a half-soul and forever serving a demon.”
Vanessa’s gray sedan pulled around in front of the sidewalk. She stepped out, wearing a sundress with a flirty skirt and heeled sandals.
Beautiful. Lucas thought of the first time he had seen her, in her gray pantsuit and her black heeled boots. She had seemed heartless to him then, cold. Now she was very different. She walked lightly.
Lucas stood up and pulled his tee shirt smooth, sweeping his bangs over. “Hey, Vanessa.”
“Hey, Lucas,” she stopped on the other side of his bag, her eyes a bright green instead of the black eyes. “Ready to go?”
“He was released this morning. ‘A miracle recovery,’ Dr. Isom said.” She squeezed her hand on Lucas’s arm. Her fingers were cool from the air conditioning in her car. “Your pa is waiting for you at the apartment.”
Lucas nodded and shoved his hands in his pockets. He felt around for the marble, but it had disappeared in the cavern when he had freed Tate by lying.
Brandon finally noticed Vanessa when her shadow fell over his sketchpad. He bounced up from the step and pulled out an earbud. “Hey.” Tucking his pencil behind his ear, he frowned. “Here to get Lucas?”
She nodded and gave Brandon a tight smile. “What are you drawing?”
“Oh!” Brandon perked up and held his sketchpad up for Vanessa to see. “It’s the final battle scene from last night.”
In the center of the page was Zagan, who looked like he was screaming in pain, clawing at his throat as Tate stood behind him and sucked in the shadow creatures like a tornado. Lucas saw himself at the bottom of the page, curled up, the skin on his face drawn tight like the skin of a half-soul. He pushed the sketchpad away.
“It’s really good, Brandon.” Vanessa ran her finger over something in the corner of the page. “Especially the way you gave everything so much texture. We’ll have to talk to the new headmaster about entering your artwork in some local shows.”
Brandon’s eyes grew big and he bobbed side to side, looking like a piece of movie theater candy in orange skinny jeans and a rainbow tie dye shirt. “That would be epic!” He looked like he wanted to hug Vanessa, but hitched up his pants instead. Then his face fell, “New headmaster?”
Max also looked concerned. “What if it’s another demon? This place doesn’t seem to attract the most humble and caring headmasters.”
Vanessa grinned. “It’s me!” She threw up her arms. “At least for now. I told the director that Zagan was suddenly absent from his post and asked if I could fill in.”
“Any chance it could be a relatively permanent position?” Max’s eyebrow went up.
She winked at him. “I’ll see what I can do. Sometimes it can take a really long time to find a permanent replacement for a position like this.”
For the first time, Lucas saw Max smile. Not a mischievious ‘you’ll see what’s coming’ smile, but a genuine ‘I’m actually happy’ smile. Lucas picked up his duffel bag and the giant envelope of artwork that was his gift from Brandon, getting restless. He kept glancing at the car, trying to give Vanessa the hint that it was time to go.
“I have one more thing.” She looked at him and held up a finger. “Put down your bag.”
Can’t we just go already? Lucas carefully returned the duffel and the art to the cement and straightened up. Vanessa’s finger shifted to point behind him. He turned around, and nearly fell down as Ami swung her arms around his neck and squeezed him in a tight hug. “Thank you, Lucas.”
He slowly reached his arms around her and held her for a moment, not sure what to say to an angel.
“No matter what happens, remember that you’re a hero,” she whispered in his ear, “My hero.”
He felt his neck and face get hot. There was no way he would be able to hide this blush in the late summer morning. He let his bangs hang down in front of his eyes as she let go. “Thanks, Ami.”
“It’s Amitiel, actually. I have a big job taking care of this guy.” She gave Tate a punch in the arm. He smiled, which pulled his adam’s apple up under his chin.
“Thank you,” Tate held his hand out for a shake. Lucas grabbed the boy’s hand and pulled him into a hug. Tate smelled surprisingly good, like deodorant soap and clean laundry.
The door slammed shut and Devon and Jayden pushed their way down the porch for high fives. They pushed Lucas around a little, teasing him about saving the world and blushing about it.
Vanessa picked up the artwork and headed for the car. Lucas gave Max and Brandon fist bumps and scooped his hand through the straps of his bag. In two months he would have his license, and before Brandon had let him fall asleep last night, the tie dye boy made Lucas cross his heart and pinkie promise to be back.
In the short time that it had been parked in front of Mendacium, the car had grown warm from the sun beaming in through the windshield. Lucas dumped his bag in the back seat and climbed in shotgun.