Boot is bouncing up and down, and I pick up an old, badly chewed tennis ball and throw it for him. As he’s gnawing happily on the toy, I put the book in my pocket, and I take out the phone. This time, I don’t worry about it. I don’t think about what if or why not. I just dial my dad’s number.
He answers on the first ring. “Son?”
I feel pressure behind my eyes, and in my throat, but I’m not going to cry, I’m not . . . and then I am crying, like Lanny was, and I say, “I just w-want it all b-back.” It bursts out of me, this thing I’ve been holding back for years. I want to go home to Wichita. To have my old name back. To live in our old house and have a mom and a dad and for things to be right.
My dad sounds worried when he asks, “Did something happen, Brady? Are you okay?”
“N-no.” It was a good answer to both those questions. “Where are you, Dad?”
It’s the second time I’ve called him that, and it comes naturally now. I needed to hear his voice, to hear him really care about me.
“You know I can’t tell you that. I wish I could. But you can tell me where you are. I can come see you if you want me to—but only if you want me to, okay? I’d never do that without your permission.”
I try to remember the last time my mom asked me for my permission. She didn’t when she moved us, or when she told us we’d have to get called by different names. She didn’t when she brought us here and went off without us. Mom orders. She orders, and she lies, and she was never what she pretended to be.
But I’m not that dumb. However I feel right now, Dad’s a criminal on the run, and I can’t just tell him where I am—not because of me, but because of Lanny. Dad would never hurt me, I know that, but there’s something that whispers deep inside me that I shouldn’t take chances with Lanny’s safety.
“Son?” I’ve been silent too long. Dad’s voice is shaking again. He coughs. “Son, I swear, I don’t mean you any harm. You don’t have to go anywhere with me. I just—I just want to see you, that’s all. I miss you so much. You’re important. I want you to know that. Believe that.”
I’m not important enough to Mom to make her stay here. But Dad thinks I’m important enough to risk being caught to see me.
“I can’t go with you, Dad,” I tell him. It hurts, but it’s fair. I don’t want to lie to him. “I do want to see you, though. Can we just . . . talk? Just one time?”
He’s quiet for a second, and then he says, “Yes. Yes, I can do that. But, Brady? We have to be very careful about this. If you tell anybody about it, even your sister, you could get me killed.”
“I won’t,” I say. I sniffle and wipe my nose on my sleeve. “I won’t tell anybody.”
“Not even your sister?”
“I love you. You know that, right?”
I change the subject. “So . . . when?”
“I have to ask you where you are to tell you that. Is that okay?”
“Don’t you know?” I’m surprised. I think he’s probably been tracing my phone. Mom always said he could do that.
“I don’t,” he says, and I believe him. “I wouldn’t try to find you without your permission.”
She lied about that, too. I’m too angry to care about whether it’s right or not when I say, “I’m in Norton. In Tennessee.”
He’s quiet for a few seconds; then I hear a quiet little laugh. It sounds bitter. “She never even moved you away, did she? Smart. She knows everybody will be looking other places. Not so close to where you were last living.”
I don’t want to talk about that. About Mom. It makes me feel terrible. “So when?”
“I’m not that far away right now,” he tells me. “Listen, son . . . we’ll meet somewhere you feel safe. Where is that?”
I don’t feel safe anywhere, ever, but I don’t tell him that. I try to think of somewhere, and the only thing that comes to mind is what Lanny said. She met Dahlia at our old house.
That’s safe. Kind of. And it doesn’t give anything away.
So I tell him, “Come to our old house at Stillhouse Lake. You know where that is?”
“I can find it.”
“I told you, I’m not far. So . . . how about in a couple of hours?”
I’ll have to walk to get there, which means it’ll take me at least an hour. Less, if I run, but I’m not like Lanny. I don’t enjoy it.
“You’re that close?” Suddenly I feel weird. Like I really shouldn’t have said anything. Shouldn’t have asked for this. I want to throw away the phone and go inside and tell Kezia what I’ve done. I never knew you could want something this bad and still be afraid of it, too.
He must have heard it in my voice, because Dad says, “I don’t want to push you, kiddo. If you want to wait, I can wait. I won’t come looking for you, I swear. Just like I don’t call you. You call me when you want to meet. Is that better?”
I suck in a breath so deep it hurts to hold it. I let the cold air get warm, and it comes out white when I breathe again. “Okay,” I say. He sounds completely normal. I’m the weirdo here. Dad’s doing everything he can to make me feel like I can trust him, and I’m being the asshole. “I’ll be there in two hours. But Dad? I’m bringing the dog.”
He laughs. “I’m glad. I want you to feel safe. You bring Boot. You have your sister on speed dial. You do exactly what you have to do to trust this is okay. I don’t hold any of that against you.” He falls silent for a second, and his tone shifts. Gets quieter. A little darker. “But, Brady . . . if you tell your Mom, or another adult, or even Lanny, you’re putting me in serious danger. These cops, I’m telling you that they’ll shoot me on sight. I’m trusting you with my life. You have the power here. I’m in your hands, son.”
I feel like I’m drowning. I want to do the right thing, but I don’t know what that means anymore. He’s my father. He hasn’t asked for anything. I asked him. He’s willing to put himself in danger for me.
And he loves me. I can hear it in what he says, how he says it.
“Okay,” I say. I still don’t sound like I’m sure, so I try again, louder. “Okay. I’ll meet you there.”
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