44

“So what have you been up to the last… fourteen years?” Madison asked once they had settled in the little café at the north end of the mall.

“Oh geez,” he said. “I wouldn’t know where to start.”

Madison sipped her coffee, did not break eye contact, and waited.

He sighed. “Well you know I was a mess back then, right? I had a pretty serious drug problem. I thought it was best to get away from you and Jenny, for your own safety.”

Madison raised her eyebrows. “You know the goons came after her for the money you owed them, right?”

“Yeah. I’m really sorry about that. But like I said, I was a mess. I was begging on the street sometimes. Taking whatever work I could get. Rolling other bums for money when I had to.”

“Lovely,” she said.

“So what finally happened was, I was hanging around the big home improvement stores on the edge of town. Sometimes the contractors will hire you for a day, just as muscle. A guy picks me up and I get a day’s work digging holes for a fence. Rich folks, putting in a nice picket fence around their pool, you know? It was super hot, and the lady of the house was real nice. She brings us lemonade, and I notice she has a ridiculous rock on her hand, right? So the next day I hang around her house until I see her leave, and I pop the window by the back door. Cleaned out a bunch of jewelry. Figured she wouldn’t miss it. Fenced it at a pawn shop. Pretty good haul. Cops get me a couple days later with the wad of cash still in my pocket. Had me six ways to Sunday. She can ID me. I’m on the pawn shop security tape. I was an idiot.”

“Oh geez,” Madison said.

“Turns out the lady’s husband was politically connected. Wants the max. DA won’t deal. Judge is a cruel bastard. Long story short, I’m upstate for five years.”

“Harsh,” Madison said.

Lucas shrugged. “I deserved it. Best thing that ever happened to me, honestly. Once I was inside, I got clean. Shrink helped me with the gambling. Said I have an ‘addictive personality disorder’ or something like that. And anxiety. So now I do meditation every day and I run a lot.”

“You’re faster than me,” Madison said. “I couldn’t catch you.”

He laughed. “Not bad for an old man, yeah? Been doing odd jobs, washing dishes and stuff since I got out. Nobody will hire an ex-con, you know. And then I get that job at the warehouse, where I ran into you.”

“That’s a crazy coincidence,” she said.

“Right? You can’t imagine how shocked I was to see you in person. You looked just like the pictures. I knew who you was right away.”

“Pictures?” she asked.

“Yeah. I’m ‘Candice’ from Instagram.” He smiled broadly. “I copied the pictures from a girl your age and made a fake account so I could see you on there. You followed me right back.”

“Oh geez. Not my spam!”

“I don’t know what that means,” he said.

“All us kids have two accounts. One that’s super tame that we give our parents, so they think they’re keeping an eye on what we’re doing on social media, and then we have our spam where we shitpost any stupid thing we want. If I thought you were a kid from high school, you’re probably following my spam.”

“Yeah, you post a lot.”

“Oh my God,” she said. “You probably know more about my life than my mom does.”

He nodded and smiled. “That’s ironic.”

The two stared at each other in silence for a minute. Lucas sipped his coffee.

Madison broke the silence. “This is so weird.”

“Yeah,” he agreed.

“I’ve had this conversation with you a thousand times in my head. All the things I was going to say to you. A lot of the time in my imagination you were bleeding because I started by punching you in the nose. And now I’m sitting here, and I have no fucking idea what I’m supposed to actually say to you,” Madison confessed.

“I can take a punch alright. You want a shot?” he asked.

Madison laughed. “No. I’m not as mad as I thought I’d be.”

Lucas smiled and shrugged.

“It’s just,” she continued, “that it was so hard. Especially in elementary school, because back then, everyone’s parents were still together. By the time I got to high school, everyone’s parents were divorced, and a lot of times kids never see their dad. So my situation is more normal now. But back when I was little, it was super hard. Daddy daughter dance and my mom wants to bring me, but I just don’t want to go at all. Or like there’s a Christmas choir concert and everybody’s mom and dad are there in the audience, but for me it’s mom and grampa.”

“I’m so sorry, Mads. How is he doing?”

“Grampa? He’s an insufferable, entitled, privileged son of a bitch,” Madison said. “But he’s healthy.”

“So he hasn’t changed.” Lucas smiled. “I was never a fan.”

“I try not to hate him too much, because I know he helped my mom a lot when she was trying to figure out how to do everything all by herself.”

“That must have been hard,” he said.

“So hard. But she never let me see it. I didn’t know we were poor. I now realize that we were poor and that she was barely scraping by. But if the other girls at school all got some new thing from Justice, I got it, too, you know.”

“Jenny is a remarkable woman. And your grandmother?”

“Died when I was little. Cancer, I think. I barely remember it. It’s just been Mom and Grampa for as long as I can remember,” Madison said.

“That’s too bad,” Lucas replied.

“So the warehouse,” Madison finally asked. “What’s going on there?”

“I don’t really know. They have me walking around with a sidearm, which is weird since I’m an ex-con and I’m definitely not allowed to do that. And then they use me as muscle for maintenance stuff. Putting together shelving, mounting security cameras, stuff like that. Operation goes 24/7. I mostly work nights. Pay is good.”

“What name is on the pay checks?”

“Cash under the table. But I see the name CLP a lot. On shipping labels and stuff,” he said.

“Any idea what that stands for?”

“Hmm. Consolidated something…” Madison watched as his eyes wandered to the ceiling, then returned to her. “Consolidated Logistics Partners,” he announced. “Pretty sure. Why were you there, anyhow?”

“Can’t say,” Madison replied. “Thanks for returning my phone, by the way.”

Lucas smiled. “No problem. I did it as quick as I could. I knew you’d be freaking out about losing it. Especially when I saw your license was in the back.”

“You have no idea. Mom would have killed me.”

“How’s she doing?” he asked.

“She’s good, actually. You know she got married again, right?”

“Yeah,” he said with a bit of sadness visible on his face. “He a good guy? Treat her right?”

“Absolutely. He’s kind of a pussy. She bullies him. But they both seem happy.”

“You guys set for money?” he asked.

“Not hardly,” she said. “They definitely live paycheck to paycheck. And I have college next year, which is going to cost a small fortune. You know you owe her some crazy amount of back child support, right?”

“I can imagine,” he said. “I keep expecting to get picked up in one of those deadbeat dad sweeps. I guess she hasn’t reported me.”

Madison shook her head. “I don’t know how any of that works.”

“I don’t have anything saved yet, but this job pays okay, and my expenses are low,” he said. “I have every intention of making good on what I owe her, as soon as I can figure out how.”

“Frankly, Dad,” Madison said, “I’ll believe that when I see it.”

“Fair.”

Madison glanced at the clock on her phone lock screen. “Look, I gotta get back to the store. My manager is a bitch about breaks going too long. Message me on Instagram, okay? Candice?”

“Will do,” he said as they both stood from the table. “I’m really sorry Mads. About everything. I’m a piece of shit, and if you ever want to punch me in the nose, you earned it.”

Madison gave him a brief hug. It felt awkward, but she was glad she did it.

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