The next thing I knew, Jamie appeared out of nowhere beside me.
“Did Trix ask you to come early?” he asked, urgently.
“How did you get here so fast?” I asked.
“Did she ASK you to come now?” he demanded again.
“No, I just wanted to…”
“Shhh, okay! Come on!” He grabbed my arm. “Trix doesn’t like the musicians hanging around during calibration,” he explained, as if that gave any explanation at all. Jamie tugged on my sleeve just as Trix appeared through the door. She stopped in front of us, scrunching up her nose.
“Mouse. You’re early.” Her lips pursed, irritated.
“I thought maybe I’d have a chance to check out the equipment.”
“We can’t have you wandering. You’ll need an escort.”
“I could show her around,” offered Jamie.
“No, I need you. Lizard!” Two boys just inside the wide doorway turned simultaneously at her call. The smaller boy quickly looked down, then busied himself with a paint brush as Lizard stepped forward. Trix’s eyes narrowed. She continued watching the diligent worker.
Lizard’s posture made me reassess his status. He was not a young boy. Lean and self-assured, he walked like a warrior. I admired the green sheen tattoo coating the left side of his neck, snaking into his cropped hairline and sliding down past the shirt collar. Emerald reptilian scales overlaid his smooth skin like a thin elfin fabric. I wondered how far down the decoration went.
Trix didn’t look at Lizard as she spoke, her eyes still glued on the smaller boy, who pretended to work with his back to us. “Lizard, I want you to show Mouse around so she doesn’t get lost or in the way. Who’s that boy there with you?” Lizard’s eyes went not to the boy, but to Jamie, who met his gaze for only an instant before looking away.
“Didn’t see him in Cal today. Is he days or nights?”
“Days, but…well, he’s got nowhere.” As Lizard spoke, I caught something in Jamie’s body language from the corner of my eye. He had reacted to Lizard’s words, but I couldn’t say how exactly. I sensed he wanted to correct Lizard, or maybe he wanted to erase what had been said.
Trix stepped toward the doorway.
“Latchkey, come here. ”
The boy slouched forward reluctantly, while Trix strode to meet him. His nickname suited him perfectly – Latchkey looked like a kid who couldn’t figure out what to do with himself while he waited for a mother who didn’t come home. The kind of kid Trouble finds quickly, twisting a good nature.
“How old are you?” Trix demanded.
“Sixteen.” High voice.
“You are not sixteen.”
“Prove it. Where is your ID?”
“I don’t have any.”
“You can’t be here without ID. We all need to own who we are and how we belong in society. Go to the Social Services office downtown and they’ll help you get your ID. Don’t come back without it. Register with the office when you do come back. Now, out.”
She turned on her heel, the matter closed.
“Wait! Please don’t kick me out. I want to stay. I belong here.”
From where I stood, I saw Trix’s face before she turned back. Her eyes closed, her forehead crumpled down, chin crumpled up, like a dried apple-doll face of sadness. I watched her feel it. I watched her let it go and turn back to Latchkey, mild and in control.
“How old are you?”
Trix smiled her compassion.
“I’m sorry. You should go into foster care, Latchkey. You should try for a family. If it doesn’t work out, you can come back when you’re sixteen.”
The boy’s desperation made my own heart pound faster. I could see him struggling for control, but what leaped from his mouth was, “I won’t be alive by then.” Holding his place but in constant motion, Latchkey turned this way and that, fighting the urge to run by sheer will. He looked from Jamie to Lizard as though one of them could help him. Jamie didn’t acknowledge him. Lizard met the boy’s eyes, and shook his head once.
Trix got down on one knee so her face looked up from below Latchkey’s. She didn’t touch him, but opened her hands on either side as though hugging the air around him.
“I cannot have you here. I’m sorry. I can give you this: whatever you experience in this time while you wait to be sixteen, it will shape the rest of your life. So understand. These things that test you help you grow. That they are hard testifies to your strength. Now the choice is yours – will you come out stronger? Or will you give in to despair?” Latchkey shook his head slightly, slowly. No one existed in the room but Trix and him, for any of us. We all stood transfixed by what passed between them.
“This is your training ground, Latchkey. I see into you. Your spirit can handle whatever comes next. You already have. Can you try to know that?” The boy nodded again, just barely, eyes on his feet, his face worked hard at not crying.
“Foster care is your best chance right now, even if the situation sucks. Please, try. And if, when you are sixteen, you need to come here, come back stronger and more full of love than you leave today. That is your responsibility. Will you accept it?” He nodded. Trix raised her eyebrow, and we all knew she expected a vocalized response.
“Yes,” came his shaky reply. Trix opened her arms wider, and Latchkey stepped forward, his bitter acceptance tolerating but not softened by her embrace. She appeared unaffected by his lack of response. Holding him, she said, “Perhaps when you are settled, your foster family will sign for volunteer hours. Jamie, can you take him to the office and ask Bash to make the call?”
Trix patted Latchkey’s arms on either side, touching his forehead with hers for just a moment as she smoothly rose to standing. Jamie stepped forward and put his arm over Latchkey’s shoulder, but the boy shook it off and walked down the hall, leaving Jamie trailing behind.
Trix strode my direction, but it wasn’t me she was after, it was Lizard.
“You know he shouldn’t be here. Why make things harder by showing him what he can’t have?”
“Trix, if you knew hisstory…” he stammered.
She raised her hand against explanation. “I know his story. It’s all the same story. Speaking of which, you’ve been in the bunkers a long time. Are you close on a new place to sleep?”
Lizard’s face screwed up, open mouth, like he’d been sucker-punched.
“I…ah…well, not yet. Been busy gettin’ ready for the show…”
“No.” He stopped short at her abrupt declaration. “No, Lizard. We’ve been clear about it. The bunkers are for now, not forever. You can still eat here but someone needs your bed more than you do. It’s time you found your way out of this nest.”
“What, ’cause of Latchkey? I’m not even the one – ”
“Latchkey came to my attention because of you, not the other way around. I needed someone I trust to show Mouse around, and you’re an old-timer, which reminded me you’re still in the bunkers when I know you can be more independent. So I guess you could say, Latchkey got kicked out because of you. And you could say I noticed you because of Mouse. But what I noticed…that just is. ”
Lizard frowned, but he didn’t argue. Trix softened.
“I love you, Lizard. You have a place here, but it’s time. You need your own spot to rest your head, and I know you can manage it. I’ll ask you again in two weeks. Be nice to Mouse anyway, it’s not her fault.”
Trix turned to me, and in a moment I felt I’d been the object of her attention all along.
“Mouse, ask the right questions and Lizard can be a font of information. I’m glad you’re here, but I’ll be gladder at one o’clock. Don’t come early again, it just…complicates things.” She winked to take the edge off her words, but that didn’t blunt them much. I felt cold, a creepy discomfort in my stomach. I suddenly wanted to leave, though I felt sure I was over-reacting. Trix didn’t stick around while I figured out how I felt. Down the hall, an office door banged loudly behind her, not quite a slam. Alone, Lizard and I sized each other up.
“Well, that was dramatic,” I offered. A beat passed while I worried I’d hit the wrong note, but then his face broke into a grin.
“You ain’t seen nothin’!” Lizard laughed.