by Madeline McEwen
Lucas agreed to foster care until Mom finished Chemo, that was only fair, but it wasn’t fair to pick on Piecrust. So what if he was ornery. Fourteen feline years meant eighty human years. He’d already used up more than twenty of his nine lives, at least. Lucas swore he could live forever, but a few weeks in a cattery would kill him. Lucas couldn’t take the chance and vowed to keep him safe. It was an easy decision. The difficult decision was where to hide, but he fixed that too. Don’t go home. The first place they’d look.
Traveling light, he wore the luminous yellow parka Mom bought him for science camp. While he was gone they found the lump.
Soon the cancer would be destroyed and then he’d come back, and bring Piecrust too. He’d settle the cat on Mom’s bony thighs, paws kneading her lap, nesting, circling until she’d squeal and swat him, saying, “What do you see in this humongous mangy fur bag?” Piecrust would make love-eyes at her with heavy lids and a growly purr deep in his chest. Cats didn’t talk. They didn’t have to. People talked, but most of what they said was lies.
Lucas took a peek at Mom asleep in her chair with her suitcase at her feet. Time to go before Miss Penny, the social worker, arrived to collect him at nine. He made sure the door clicked closed quietly, so as not to wake her. His only doubts were about Mom. If she worried—Mom’s always worried—she might not get better. So he’d written her a letter in his best handwriting saying he’d be okay, stuck on a stamp, and dropped it in the mail on his way out.
On the doorstep, the silence of the grey morning weighed him down, as did Piecrust secreted away in his backpack. Lucas watched a car crawl along the curb. The driver searched the houses slowly, and pulled into the curb. He rolled down the window, pushed up the peek of his hat, and lowered the sunglasses on his beaky nose.
“You okay Sonny?”
Lucas looked to left and right, but the man looked directly at him. “Sure.”
He said the first thing that came into his head–“School”—then realized it was Saturday.
“Can I give you a ride? I’m a safe driver, honest.”
“No thanks.” He was tempted to slip back into the house, but he didn’t have his own door key yet. “Maybe when you’re older,” Mom had said. She’d kill him for talking to a stranger.
The man got out of the car and leaned against it, folding his arms across his chest. Lucas saw a tattoo under the edge of his cuff and the flinch of muscle cords under his pale skin. His other arm was nut brown.
“Your backpack’s wriggling. Got a python in there?”
The man reached out. “I’m Bill by the way. And you are?”
Lucas found his hand enveloped by Bill’s huge paw, meaty with blunt nails, and blue snaking veins.
“Cat got your tongue son?”
“No, I just—”
“Can I take the backpack for you? Looks heavy.”
“Which way is school?”
Lucas pointed down the road towards the gas station. He knew the owner. He’d be safe there.
“I’ll walk with you a while,” said Bill. “Don’t want you to be late.”
Lucas checked to see if anyone else was around. Was there any point in yelling? In his mind he heard Mom—”never allow yourself to go to the second location.” Or something like that.
“No need to be afraid,” said Bill. “See this car? Paratransit. That’s official, like the police.”
Lucas took a tentative step and let go of the railing. He dragged his heels and hung his head, keeping his eyes on the pavement and the familiar cracks. He knew every hydrant, lamppost, and steel grating between here and the schoolyard.
Bill kept pace with him, step-by-step, slow and deliberate. They passed his friend’s house—not really a friend—a guy in the 6th Grade, an acned older kid with and a shadow on his upper lip and the promise of puberty waiting in the wings.
Lucas stole a glance at Bill. Would he be able to remember that face? Describe him to the cops or a sketch artist?
“There’s nothing for you to worry about you know?’ said Bill.
His voice was soft and gentle.
“You don’t have to do this,” said Bill, this time persuasive, in a husky confidential tone. His ferrety eyes flicked
between the road and Lucas.
His throat felt dry, all the saliva drained when he tried to swallow.
“Things can be rough for a kid like you. I know. I understand.”
Lucas kept his breathing steady. Half a block to go. The bright colors of the gas station logo had never seemed so welcoming. Piecrust, in the backpack, felt as heavy as a sack of stones. How far would he have been able to carry him anyway? Bill kept talking.
“Single mom’s are tough cookies.”
How did Bill know Dad died?
“It’s not your fault Lucas.”
He wondered what Bill meant? Not his fault that Dad died or not his fault that Mom was a single parent? If he died
too, Mom would be alone. Why had he run away? He should have said good-bye properly. Kissed her. Hugged her. The last thing she’d have of him was that dumb letter. Suddenly he wanted to rush back and rip it up.
“It’s never too late Lucas. Running away isn’t the solution.”
He stopped next to the old house on the corner and said, “How did you know I was running away?” His voice crackled through his throat. “How do you know any of this stuff?” he said, louder. “Why did you pick me?” Now he was yelling, tears spouting. “What have I ever done to you?” Looking back down the street he saw another car pull up close to his house. He craned his neck to see if anyone got out.
“I’m only trying to help,” said Bill. “Don’t upset yourself.”
He put a hand on Lucas’ shoulder, but he tore himself away, shaking like a dog. He backed up to the door of the house. No one lived there any more. A convulsive shiver of revulsion arced through his body. He was trapped between a massive planter and a garbage can smelling of rancid fish. Could he make a run for it? Rush over the road and dash into the cashier’s booth at the gas station.
“You might need to save some of those tears for later.”
Lucas searched for the right words. “You! You’re…sick, you’re sick that’s what you are.”
“Me? No. It’s your Mom who’s sick, but she’s going to be okay if we help her. Do you want to help your Mom?”
What did Bill want him to do? Perhaps he could reason with the guy. “I can’t do anything–now.”
Bill smiled and said softly, “Come back with me.”
Lucas squeezed himself against the door, forgetting about Piecrust, who hissed and squirmed.
“We’ll all go together,” said Bill, “in my car.”
Again with the smile. Bill put his palm flat against the door, caging Lucas in, and whispered, “This isn’t right. Don’t make any hasty decisions.”
“—it’s lucky I turned up early,” said Bill.
“Yeah. You weren’t supposed to be here. I expect she got delayed, or couldn’t find the house.”
“Miss Penny from Children’s Services. She was supposed to collect you, right?”
“I hate Miss Penny,” said Lucas, although right now he’d give anything to see her pinched little face, with the big
glasses, and hard clipboard. He heard a car door clunk and tried to look past Bill’s bulk.
“We could wait for her in the car together.”
“Don’t be like that Lucas. There’s some things in life you can’t change, and this is one of them.” He took his hand away from the door, glanced at his watch, and sunk his hands in his pockets, resolute. “Come on, it’s nearly nine.” His face set, mouth tight. “I’ve got to go. I’m on a schedule.”
Lucas shifted his weight from one foot to the other playing for time when he heard high heels tapping along the pavement.
“Hi there,” said a familiar voice. “Is that you Lucas?”
“Miss Penny–you found me.”
“You’re hardly lost, not in your own neighborhood,” she said, turning to Bill and shaking his hand. The adults exchanged glances in silent negotiation. Miss Penny’s ID badge flashed in the watery sunlight.
“I was thinking,” said Bill. “Would it be okay if Lucas came with us to the hospital?”
“Us?” said Lucas.
“Yes,” said Bill. “You, me, and your Mom.”
Miss Penny frowned. “That’s not authorized I’m afraid.”
“We made a pact,” said Bill, giving Lucas a friendly nudge. “Can’t you pick him up at the hospital later?”
“Well,” said Miss Penny. “I suppose one hour won’t make a heap of difference.”
“No!” said Lucas. Bill duped her too.
“I expect your Mom would like that wouldn’t she?” said Miss Penny.
“No—” But Miss Penny wasn’t listening.
“–You’ll be able to see her room, know she’s in good hands.”
“That’s what I thought,” said Bill.
“Good,” said Miss Penny. “We’re agreed—”
“But—” said Lucas, but she talked right over him to Bill.
“Next time make sure you wear your hospital transportation ID, or I’ll have to report you to management. And one last thing Lucas.”
“I managed to get hold of your aunt like I said, so you’ll only be in foster care for a day. She’s flying down from Canada as we speak.”
Lucas felt his body sag, confusion and relief intertwined. Bill wore a big grin. Somehow he looked less scary.
“What about Piecrust?” said Lucas.
“Who?” said Miss Penny.
“My cat,” he said, off loading the backpack. He opened the zipper an inch and a furry paw raked the air with ragged claws.
“Oh my!” said Miss Penny. “Well you’d better put him back in the house. I’m sure he’ll be okay home alone until tomorrow.”
“Cats are like that aren’t they, independent?”
Piecrust’s paw whipped back inside and a low growl of discontent emerged.
“He sure is a fighter,” said Lucas, listening to the throaty burr, his version of a purr.
“Bet it runs in the family,” said Bill, “A real life survivor.”