Lali and Nelson Heading to School

“Morning, Lollipop.” Nelson's deep brown eyes gleamed as I climbed into his truck.

I forced my face into a smile before he could call me out for looking worried again. Even if he'd been right yesterday, it was still maddening. Besides, he didn't need any more reasons to worry about me. “Good morning," I replied, mentally high-fiving myself for managing to sound enthusiastic.

“How’re you feeling today?” he asked. He’d left me a voice mail last night, so I knew he heard about my fainting spell at school. In all the chaos that followed, I'd forgotten to call him back, which I was sure had only added to his concern.

I buckled my seatbelt. “Much better, thank you.”

His expression faltered as his eyes moved over me.

“Really,” I insisted, still keeping my face lifted so he wouldn't pick up on my internal panic. I silently willed him to let it go. I had to get to school with enough time to talk to Mrs. Moubrey, or my plan was going to go up in flames before it even started. What could I say to get him off my back? "But I, um, need to get to school early so I can talk to Mr. Sheahan about the test I missed."

There, he couldn't argue that.

Nelson nodded once and started backing out of the driveway, but I could still feel his gaze flick over to me every few seconds.

Turning to avoid his prying eyes, I rested my forehead against the window and stared blankly through the cool glass. Lines of dirt-covered snow hugged the edges of the road like slushy gray bumpers. From the looks of the washed out sky, it was only a matter of time before the plows would have to go to work again.

“Did you have a good time with your family last night?” Nelson asked after a couple of minutes passed in silence.

“Yeah.” I fought off the memory of Dad catching me at the computer in the wee hours. Remembering the way his faith in my sanity had fizzled right before my eyes wasn't something I could deal with right now. “Yeah, it was a lot of fun.”

Nelson sighed loudly. Without warning, he yanked the steering wheel to the left, and the truck whipped down a narrow dirt road.

“What are you doing?” I cried, gripping the door as the truck bounced over the uneven path.

“Taking the scenic route.”

“This road is a dead end.”

He stayed quiet.

“Nelson, what’s going on?” I demanded.

“That’s what I want to know.”


Pulling onto the side of the road, he hit the brakes and jerked the shifter into park. “I’m worried about you." He unbuckled his seatbelt and turned to face me. "I can tell something serious is bothering you, but I can't figure out why you won't tell me what it is.”

“It's nothing,” I lied. “I just haven’t been sleeping well, you know?”

“Why're you acting like I don't know you like the back of my hand?" He forced his fingers through his dark mop of hair and dropped his arm into his lap with a thud. "Dang, Lollipop, I'm not trying to be nosy here for kicks and giggles. I haven't seen you like this since right after your mom left, and I know you need to talk to someone.”

I swallowed, staring into his kind eyes—the eyes of someone I knew would be there for me no matter what. But could I really tell him the truth? Sure, it would be a relief to get all this off my chest, but what if telling him put him in danger? I’d already watched the man with the scar shoot someone in cold blood. I couldn't risk getting Nelson mixed up in this if there was any chance that man would find him.

Nelson reached out to put his hand on mine. “It’s okay. You can talk to me.”

The warmth of his touch threatened to break me, but I shook my head and stared at the cupholders between the seats. I tried to blink back the tears forming in my eyes, but a drop spilled onto my cheek before I could catch it. I quickly wiped it away and forced down the lump in my throat. “We have to go. We're going to be late.”

“Do you think I care about being late to school when my best friend in the world is going through a crisis?”

That did it. A sob burst out of me, and more tears rushed down my face.

“Hey,” he said, pulling me into a hug. “Everything is gonna be okay. Just tell me what you need me to do.”

I buried my face in his shoulder, wishing there was something—anything—he could do to help me. But I knew the only person who could help was my mom, and I had no idea how to find her.