Chapter one starts here
Linden lay on his bed, not moving, trying not to think. They’d walked home in silence, and as soon as Carrie closed the door behind them, she tried to put her arms around him. He’d managed not to cry before, but her comfort was more than he would have been able to resist. He pushed her away, ran upstairs to his room, and shut the door. Two or three times, as the afternoon passed, he heard her walking quietly up the stairs and coming to his doorway. She waited a few seconds each time, and then went away again. He was making things worse for her, and that made him feel guilty, but he didn’t know what to do about it.
He didn’t think he’d miss school too much, but he couldn’t imagine his life without his mom. When would he see her again, and how would she manage without him? She depended on him for so many things since his dad died. He couldn’t leave her to manage on her own, but he couldn’t think of any way to keep it from happening. He thought about running away and hiding, but they might keep coming back and, eventually, they’d find him. And they might do something terrible to his mom if he disappeared.
It was almost dark when the spicy smell of sausage came floating up the stairs. Reluctantly, he let his nose lead him down to the kitchen.
“Mom! What are you doing? You said we can’t afford that sausage anymore. We’re going to be eating beans and rice the rest of the month to make up—. Oh!” The pain went through him again and his knees went so weak he was afraid he’d fall down. The words came bursting out, an agonizing flood that he couldn’t hold back any longer.
“I can’t leave you, Mom. You’ll be all alone. Who’s going to help you if your asthma gets worse, or you get sick? Who’s going to fix the sink if it leaks again? Those people… they don’t understand that I can’t go, no matter how important they think it is. I’ll talk to them when they come. I’ll explain everything and they’ll go away and leave us alone.”
“Hush now.” Carrie’s arms were around him, and he clung to her as if it was the last time. “They probably know everything about us, not just your schooling. They’re not going to listen. They’ve been watching you for years, without us even knowing, and now they want you. You heard what Mrs. Kinney said. The government needs good minds, and you have a marvelous mind. They’ll educate you and then you’ll find work that can help make this world better. That isn’t such a bad thing, is it?”
Linden shook his head frantically. “I don’t care about that, Mom. I just want to stay home with you. And I want to finish high school, even if most of my classes are boring and my teachers are idiots.”
“Baby, I want that too, but things change and we have to learn to accept them and make the best of it.”
Linden usually hated it when his mother called him Baby, but this time it sank into him with such warmth and sweetness that he nearly cried. It reminded him how she always tried to find some good in whatever happened, no matter how bad it was. The only time he’d known her to fail was when his dad was killed at work. For a little while, he thought she’d accepted it, but when she finally broke down, he’d realized she just hadn’t absorbed the truth, that his dad wasn’t ever coming home, that they would never see him again. She’d clung to him for a long time after that, hardly letting him out of her sight whenever he was home. When he left for school each day, he’d look back from way down the block and see her standing on the stoop, watching him walk away from her.
He couldn’t go, and that was that. He was afraid of what she might do if he left her alone. They’d never talked about it, but he’d known that she wanted to die back then, during that awful time. This wouldn’t be the same, but he would be older and different when he came home for a visit. And she would be different too. Even if she was okay and managed without him, it would change her.
But she’d already changed, hadn’t she? He’d never have his mother back again, just the way she’d been before they were left alone to take care of each other. The silly things she loved to say were mostly gone. She avoided talking about things that really mattered. Right now she was more like her old self, telling him it would be okay, that they’d find a way to make it okay. This wouldn’t be okay though, not ever. How could he let their little family be torn apart and make something good out of it?
“I’m still going to try to talk them out of it when they come,” he insisted. “It may not do any good, but I have to try.”
“Linden, please don’t. You know you’ll get upset, and that will make me upset, and then, when you have to go, that’s how we’ll both remember it. It’s breaking my heart, but I’m trying to look at it the way Mrs. Kinney said, that it’s an honor. You were chosen because you’re so brilliant. You’re special. I’ve always known it. Now someone else does.”
Her pleas were weakening Linden’s resolve, but he shook his head. “I don’t care if it’s supposed to be an honor. They can let someone else have it.”
Carrie let him go, took a step back, and sighed. “Let’s not talk about it now. I fixed everything you like, and you need to eat instead of working yourself into a tizzy. Please.”
He watched her scoop a huge portion of the stir-fried rice and sausage onto his plate. He wasn’t hungry, but she clearly expected some reaction, and the smell that came wafting up to his nose was irresistible.
He took a bite and tried to smile. “It’s delicious, Mom, just like it always is, but you shouldn’t have spent the money.”
“It wasn’t that much.” She looked almost happy now. “I bought plain ground pork and added the spices. I wasn’t sure how it would work out, but it’s almost like real sausage, isn’t it? I wanted to surprise you. Is it really good?”
“It’s great. I don’t know how you do that—make ordinary stuff into something that tastes so expensive. Now we can have it more often.”
He dropped his fork as his words came back at him like a physical blow. When he looked up, he saw the misery in his mother’s face. There wouldn’t be any more meals like this. He stood up, kicked his chair back and ran up to his room. This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening. The words rolled around in his head until he fell asleep, his pillow soaking up the last of his tears.
It was still there when he woke up the next morning: this can’t be happening. Only two days remained before his life was over. Misery swamped him and he pulled the covers over his head. This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening. But it is. He threw the covers back and sat up. He was still determined to fight when the time came, but if he spent the last two days making them both miserable, he’d always regret it. Even if he had to put on an act, he’d try to make his mom feel better about the honor. He didn’t want her last memories of him, for however long before they saw each other again, to be a sour face and complaints.
When he padded into the kitchen, still barefoot and in his pajamas, and saw her face, he knew he’d made the right decision. The dark circles under her eyes and the tight lines around her mouth reminded him of that day. The cup of coffee she was holding reminded him of his first and only taste of real coffee. His dad had splurged and bought her a quarter pound of the real stuff for her birthday. Linden had been allowed a sip and had reacted with disgust. How could something that smelled so wonderful taste so awful? His mom and dad had both laughed at him.
What was in her cup now wasn’t the real stuff. It didn’t even smell like it. He wished he could buy her some before he left. But even if he had the money, where would he buy it? Months ago, there had been a news story about how almost all the coffee trees in the world were dead now, of some disease they didn’t know how to stop. Two big corporations had bought up every bean that had been produced for the last few years. Now only rich people could afford real coffee. There were other things you couldn’t get in grocery stores anymore, but that was the only one he really cared about. And chocolate.
“Morning, Mom. What do you want to do today?” He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her cheek. “Let’s do something we’ll both enjoy. I promise, no more moaning and complaining. If I have to go, I’ll do my best to make you proud of me.” He wanted to turn his face away, afraid she’d see right through the lie, but he let her look her fill, and was finally rewarded with a small smile.
“Okay. I’m sure we can find something that will be fun. But first, how about some scrambled eggs for breakfast?”
“You know I can’t stand that fake stuff. Just toast is fine, and milk, if we still have any.”
“Well, then, how about real eggs?” A smile spread over her face. “Mrs. Compton’s chickens are laying well right now, and she sold me a half dozen.”
“Really real?” Linden threw his arms around her again, and the hug she returned made him want to never let go. “The good sausage last night and real eggs today—it’s going to be harder than ever to leave.” He tried to make it sound like a joke, but couldn’t quite manage it.
“I want you to have good memories to take with you, hon, things we can both remember.”
She was working so hard to keep the smile going, and Linden promised himself he’d do everything he could, to keep it there for their last two days together. “And I’ll tell you all the good stuff that happens at college.”
“Right,” Carrie said. “Promise you’ll let me know as soon as you get there. Or as soon as you can. I guess that’s one of the things you’ll have to find out about—keeping in touch. And vacations.”
They did their best to make the short time memorable, but sometimes the masks slipped. More than once, Carrie tried to keep her back turned to him, but he saw how red and swollen her eyes were.
She suggested that he say goodbye to his friends. “They must be wondering what happened to you.”
“What friends, Mom? I’m one of the outies. Besides, if anybody even noticed I wasn’t in classes, they’d just think I had a cold or something.”
“What about that girl… Cyndy? The one you’ve been helping with her essays? I thought she was a friend.”
Linden laughed at the idea. “She isn’t a friend. She doesn’t even like me. I think she hates that I can write A papers and she can’t do better than a C-. Mr. Shaw assigned us to work together, otherwise, she probably wouldn’t come near me.”
“Oh, Linden, I didn’t know it was that bad. Why haven’t you ever talked to me about it?”
He shrugged. He wished she hadn’t brought it up. It was too late for it to matter, and it was the kind of thing that just made her sad. “There wasn’t anything to talk about. You couldn’t have done anything about it. It isn’t anybody’s fault. It’s just me. I’m not super friendly, and I don’t like the things they like, so they think I’m a snob.”
Carrie sighed and took his hand. “I don’t know, sweetheart. Maybe going away to this college will be a good thing. If everybody’s picked for their brains, maybe you’ll find some friends there.” She patted his hand absent-mindedly. “It doesn’t make up for you being dragged away like this, but if some good can come out of it…” She sighed again. “I just feel so helpless?”
“I know, Mom. But it will be okay once I get used to it.” It was one more lie, but if it made her feel better, he’d lie from the time he got up in the morning until he went to bed.
The last evening was the hardest. They watched a movie that they’d seen more times than they could count, but that always made them laugh. Linden lay with his head in his mother’s lap, and was horrified when his laughter turned to hysterical tears.
Carrie brushed her fingers through his hair, over and over, making soft shushing noises and murmuring, “It’s okay love, it’s okay. Just cry it out. We’ll be together again, maybe soon. The holidays are only a few months away.”
When he could finally find the breath for speech, he tried to apologize. “I wanted it to be nice this evening. And I’m too old to be crying, anyway.”
“You’re not too old, love, and if there was ever a good time to cry, this is it.”
“I am too old. I’m almost 16,” Linden protested, and felt a movement against his head that, if he’d looked, would have been Carrie trying not to laugh. But he would also have seen tears threatening to spill down her cheeks.
They were still at the breakfast table when the knock at the door came. Linden had been picking at his food, hating to waste it, but too tied up in knots to tolerate either the smell or the taste. His heart began to pound heavily and he felt like he might vomit. Carrie put her fork down and got up from the table, very slowly, as if she was in a daze. Another knock and Linden jumped up, trying to put himself between his mother and the door.
Carrie took him by the shoulders and gently moved him aside. “You promised, Linden. Don’t make this harder than it has to be, please.”
The words had no life behind them, just like the last time she’d sounded like this—after his father’s death. “I’ll let them in, Mom. Stay here.” He wanted to tell her it would be all right, but he couldn’t get this last lie out of his mouth.
There were two of them, in uniforms that looked military and sent a vague sense of alarm through him. He stood there, gaping, until one of the men said, “Linden Thomas?”
He nodded and backed away from the door, right into his mother. He leaned into her as she put her hands firmly on his shoulders. “You’re here to take my son away from me?” Linden was surprised to hear anger in her voice, rather than sorrow or pleading.
The man closest to Linden flushed slightly. “I’m sorry, m’am. Those are our orders.” Then, to Linden, “It’s time to go, son.”
Linden’s arguments, the protests he’d intended, died. These men had no power to change anything, he realized. He was just a job they’d been given. He turned and buried his face in Carrie’s shoulder. Wrapping her arms around him, she held him tight. “Mom,” he murmured, his voice shaking. “Mom.” He couldn’t find any more words.
“Go on, Sweetheart. You’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. Make me proud. I know your dad would be so proud of you if he could be here.”
A large hand on his shoulder pulled him gently but steadily away from her. “Let’s go, young man. We have a plane to catch.”
He didn’t really know how it happened, but they were suddenly halfway to a black car parked by the curb before he turned around for a last look. Carrie was standing on the stoop, her face blank, her hands gripping her upper arms as if she was holding herself together. When she saw Linden look back, she lifted one hand and waved to him. Then he was being pushed into the back seat of the car. With a soldier on each side of him, the car glided quietly away from everything he had ever known.