CHAPTER 13. TOUCHED AT THE ROOTS
Luce could hear her Converse sneakers beating hard against the pavement. She could feel the humid wind tugging on her black T-shirt. She could practically taste the hot tar from a freshly paved portion of the parking lot. But when she flung her arms around the two huddled creatures near the entrance to Sword & Cross on Saturday morning, all of that was forgotten.
She had never been so glad to hug her parents in her life.
For days, she'd been regretting how cold and distant things had been at the hospital, and she wasn't going to make the same mistake again.
They both stumbled as she plowed into them. Her mother started giggling and her dad thwacked her back in his tough-guy way with his palm. He had his enormous camera strapped around his neck. They straightened up and held their daughter at arm's length. They seemed to want a good look at her face, but as soon as they got it, their own faces fell. Luce was crying.
"Sweetheart, what's the matter?" her father asked, resting his hand on her head.
Her mom fished through her giant blue pocketbook for her stash of tissues. Eyes wide, she dangled one in front of Luce's nose and asked, "We're here now. Everything's fine, isn't it?"
No, everything was not fine.
"Why didn't you take me home the other day?" Luce asked, feeling angry and hurt all over again. "Why did you let them bring me back here?"
Her father blanched. "Every time we spoke to the headmaster, he said you were doing great, back in classes, like the trouper we raised. A sore throat from the smoke and a little bump on the head. We thought that was all." He licked his lips.
"Was there more?" her mom asked.
One look between her parents told that they'd had this fight already. Mom would have begged to visit again sooner. Luce's tough-love dad would have put his foot down.
There was no way to explain to them what had happened that night or what she'd been going through since then. She had gone straight back to classes, though not by her own choice. And physically, she was fine. It was just that in every other way—emotionally, psychologically, romantically—she couldn't have felt more broken.
"We're just trying to follow the rules," Luce's father explained, moving his big hand to squeeze her neck. The weight of it shifted her whole posture and made it uncomfortable to stand still, but it had been so long since she'd been this close to people she loved, she didn't dare move away. "Because we only want what's best for you," her dad added. "We have to take it on faith that these people" — he gestured at the formidable buildings around campus, as if they represented Randy and Headmaster Udell and the rest of them—"that they know what they're talking about."
"They don't," Luce said, glancing at the shoddy buildings and the empty commons. So far, nothing at this school made any sense to her.
Case in point, what they called Parents' Day. They'd made such a big deal about how lucky the students were to get the privilege of seeing their own flesh and blood. And yet it was ten minutes until lunchtime and Luce's parents' car was the only one in the parking lot.
"This place is an absolute joke," she said, sounding cynical enough that her parents shared a troubled look.
"Luce, honey," her mom said, stroking her hair. Luce could tell she wasn't used to its short length. Her fingers had a maternal instinct to follow the ghost of Luce's former hair all the way down her back. "We just want one nice day with you. Your father brought all your favorite foods."
Sheepishly, her father held up a colorful patchwork quilt and a large briefcase-style contraption made of wicker that Luce had never seen before. Usually when they picnicked, it was a much more casual affair, with paper grocery bags and an old ripped sheet thrown down on the grass by the canoe trail outside their house.
"Pickled okra?" Luce asked in a voice that sounded very much like little-kid Lucy. No one could say her parents weren't trying.
Her dad nodded. "And sweet tea, and biscuits with white gravy. Cheddar grits with extra jalapenos, just the way you like 'em. Oh," he said, "and one more thing."
Luce's mom reached into her purse for a fat, sealed red envelope and held it out to Luce. For the briefest moment, a pain gnawed at Luce's stomach when she thought back to the mail she was accustomed to receiving. Psycho Killer. Death Girl.
But when Luce looked at the handwriting on the envelope, her face broke into an enormous grin.
She tore into the envelope and pulled out a card with a black-and-white photograph on the front of two old ladies getting their hair done. Inside, every square inch of the card was filled with Callie's large, bubbly handwriting. And there were several pieces of scrawled-on loose-leaf paper because she'd run out of room on the card.
Since our phone time is now ridiculously insufficient (Can you please petition for some more? It's downright unjust), I'm going to get all old-fashioned on you and take up epic letter writing. Enclosed you will find every single minuscule thing that happened to me over the past two weeks. Whether you like it or not…
Luce clutched the envelope to her chest, still grinning, eager to devour the letter as soon as her parents headed home. Callie hadn't given up on her. And her parents were sitting right beside her. It had been way too long since Luce had felt this loved. She reached out and squeezed her father's hand.
A blaring whistle made both her parents jump. "It's just the dinner bell," she explained; they seemed relieved. "Come on, there's someone I want you to meet."
As they walked from the hot, hazy parking lot toward the commons where the opening events of Parents' Day were being held. Luce started to see the campus through her parents' eyes. She noticed anew the sagging roof of the main office, and the sickly, overripe odor of the rotting peach grove next to the gym. The way the wrought iron of the cemetery gates was overcome with orangey rust. She realized that in only a couple of weeks, she'd grown completely accustomed to Sword & Cross's many eyesores.
Her parents looked mostly horrified. Her father gestured at a dying grapevine winding its decrepit way around the splintering fence at the entrance to the commons.
"Those are chardonnay grapes," he said, wincing because when a plant felt pain, so did he.
Her mother was using two hands to grip her pocket-book to her chest, with both elbows sticking out—the stance she took when she found herself in a neighborhood where she thought she might be mugged. And they hadn't even seen the reds yet. Her parents, who were adamantly against little things like Luce getting a webcam, would hate the idea of constant surveillance at her school.
Luce wanted to protect them from all the atrocities of Sword & Cross, because she was figuring out how to manage—and sometimes even beat—the system here. Just the other day, Arriane had taken her through an obstacle course-like sprint across the campus to point out all the "dead reds" whose batteries had died or been slyly "replaced," effectively creating the blind spots of the school. Her parents didn't need to know about all that; they just needed to have a good day with her.
Penn was swinging her legs from the bleachers, where she and Luce had promised to meet at noon. She was holding a potted mum.
"Penn, these are my parents, Harry and Doreen Price," Luce said, gesturing. "Mom and Dad, this is—"
"Pennyweather Van Syckle-Lockwood," Penn said formally, extending the mum with both hands. "Thank you for letting me join you for lunch."
Ever polite, Luce's parents cooed and smiled, not asking any questions about Penn's own family's whereabouts, which Luce hadn't had the time to explain.
It was another warm, clear day. The acid-green willow trees in front of the library swayed gently in the breeze, and Luce steered her parents to a position where the willows obscured most of the soot stains and the windows broken by the fire. As they spread out the quilt on a dry patch of grass, Luce pulled Penn aside.
"How are you?" Luce asked, knowing that if she'd been the one who had to sit through a whole day honoring everyone's parents but hers, she would have needed a major pick-me-up.
To her surprise, Penn's head bobbed happily. "This is already so much better than last year!" she said. "And it's all because of you. I wouldn't have anyone today if you hadn't come along."
The compliment took Luce by surprise and made her look around the quad to see how everyone else was handling the event. Despite the still half-empty parking lot, Parents' Day seemed to be slowly filling up.
Molly sat on a blanket nearby, between a pug-faced man and woman, gnawing hungrily on a turkey leg. Arriane was crouched on a bleacher, whispering to an older punk girl with hypnotizing hot-pink hair. Most likely her big sister. The two of them caught Luce's eye and Arriane grinned and waved, then turned to the other girl to whisper something.
Roland had a huge party of people setting up a picnic lunch on a large bedspread. They were laughing and joking, and a few younger kids were throwing food at each other. They seemed to be having a great time until a corn-on-the-cob grenade went flying and almost blind-sided Gabbe, who was walking across the commons. She scowled at Roland as she guided a man who looked old enough to be her grandfather, patting his elbow as they walked toward a row of lawn chairs set up around the open field.
Daniel and Cam were noticeably missing—and Luce couldn't picture what either of their families would look like. As angry and embarrassed as she'd been after Daniel bailed on her for the second time at the lake, she was still dying to catch a glimpse of anyone related to him. But then, thinking back to Daniel's thin file in the archive room, Luce wondered whether he even kept in touch with anyone from his family.
Luce's mother doled cheddar grits onto four plates, and her father topped the mounds with freshly chopped jalapenos. After one bite, Luce's mouth was on fire, just the way she liked it. Penn seemed unfamiliar with the typical Georgia fare Luce had grown up with. She looked particularly terrified by the pickled okra, but as soon as she took a bite, she gave Luce a surprised smile of approval.
Luce's mom and dad had brought with them every single one of Luce's favorite foods, even the pecan pralines from the family drugstore down the block. Her parents chomped happily on either side of her, seeming glad to fill their mouths with something other than talk of death.
Luce should have been enjoying her time with them, and washing it all down with her beloved Georgia sweet tea, but she felt like an imposter daughter for pretending this elysian lunch was normal for Sword & Cross. The whole day was such a sham.
At the sound of a short, feeble round of applause, Luce looked over at the bleachers, where Randy stood next to Headmaster Udell, a man whom Luce had never seen in the flesh before. She recognized him from the unusually dim portrait that hung in the main lobby of the school, but she saw now that the artist had been generous. Penn had already told her that the headmaster showed up on campus only one day of the year—Parents' Day—with no exceptions. Otherwise, he was a recluse who didn't leave his Tybee Island mansion, not even when a student at his school passed away. The man's jowls were swallowing his chin and his bovine eyes stared out into the crowd, not seeming to focus on anything.
At his side Randy stood, legs akimbo in white stockings. She had a lipless smile plastered across her face, and the headmaster was blotting his big forehead with a napkin. Both had their game faces on today, but it seemed to be taking a lot out of them.
"Welcome to Sword & Cross's one-hundred-and-fifty-ninth annual Parents' Day," Headmaster Udell said into a microphone.
"Is he kidding?" Luce whispered to Penn. It was hard to imagine Parents' Day during the antebellum period.
Penn rolled her eyes. "Surely a typo. I've told them to get him new reading glasses."
"We have a long and fun-filled day of family time scheduled for you, beginning with this leisurely picnic lunch—"
"Usually we only get nineteen minutes," Penn interrupted in an aside to Luce's parents, who stiffened.
Luce smiled over Penn's head and mouthed, "She's kidding."
"Next you'll have your choice of activities. Our very own biologist, Ms. Yolanda Tross, will deliver a fascinating lecture in the library on the local Savannah flora found on campus. Coach Diante will supervise a series of family-friendly races out here on the lawn. And Mr. Stanley Cole will offer a historical guided tour of our prized heroes' cemetery. It's going to be a very busy day. And yes," Headmaster Udell said with a cheesy, toothy grin, "you will be tested on this."
It was just the right kind of bland and hackneyed joke to earn some canned laughter out of the bunch of visiting family members. Luce rolled her eyes at Penn. This depressing attempt at good-natured chuckling made it all too clear that everyone was here in order to feel better about leaving their children in the hands of the Sword & Cross faculty. The Prices laughed, too, but kept looking at Luce for more cues on how to handle themselves.
After lunch, the other families around the commons packed up their picnics and retreated to various corners. Luce got the feeling that very few people were actually participating in the school-sanctioned events. No one had followed Ms. Tross up to the library, and so far only Gabbe and her grandfather had climbed into a potato sack at the other end of the field.
Luce didn't know where Molly or Arriane or Roland had sneaked off to with their families, and she still hadn't seen Daniel. She did know that her own parents would be disappointed if they saw nothing of the campus and didn't participate in any planned events. Since Mr. Cole's guided tour seemed like the least of the evils, Luce suggested they pack up their leftovers and join him by the cemetery gates.
As they were on the way over, Arriane swung herself off the top bleacher like a gymnast dismounting a parallel bar. She stuck her landing right in front of Luce's parents.
"Helloooo," she crooned, doing her best crazy-girl impression.
"Mom and Dad," Luce said, squeezing their shoulders, "this is my good friend Arriane."
"And this" — Arriane pointed at the tall, hot-pink-headed girl who was slowly picking her way down the bleacher stairs, "is my sister, Annabelle."
Annabelle ignored Luce's extended hand and swept her into her open arms for an extended, intimate hug. Luce could feel their bones crunching together. The intense hug lasted long enough for Luce to wonder what was up with it, but just as she was starting to feel uncomfortable, Annabelle let her go.
"It's so good to meet you," she said, taking Luce's hand.
"Likewise," Luce said, giving Arriane a sideways glance.
"Are you two going on Mr. Cole's tour?" Luce asked Arriane, who was also looking at Annabelle as if she were crazy.
Annabelle opened her mouth, but Arriane quickly cut her off. "Hell no," she said. "These activities are for absolute lame-o's." She glanced at Luce's parents. "No offense."
Annabelle shrugged. "Maybe we'll have a chance to catch up later!" she called to Luce before Arriane tugged her away.
"They seemed nice," Luce's mother said in the probing voice she used when she wanted Luce to explain something.
"Um, why was that girl so into you?" Penn asked.
Luce looked at Penn, then at her parents. Did she really have to defend, in front of them, the fact that someone might like her?
"Lucinda!" Mr. Cole called, waving from the otherwise unoccupied meet-up point by the cemetery gates. "Over here!"
Mr. Cole clasped both of her parents' hands warmly and even gave Penn's shoulders a squeeze. Luce was trying to decide whether she should be more annoyed by Mr. Cole's participation in Parents' Day or impressed by his fake show of enthusiasm. But then he began speaking and surprised her.
"I practice for this day all year," he whispered. "A chance to take the students out in the fresh air and explain the many marvels of this place—oh, I do love it. It's the closest a reform school teacher gets to a real field trip. 'Course, no one's ever shown up for my tours in years past, which makes you my inaugural tour—"
"Well, we're honored," Luce's dad boomed, giving Mr. Cole a big smile. Immediately, Luce could tell that it wasn't just Dad's cannon-hungry Civil War buff side speaking. He clearly felt that Mr. Cole was legit. And her father was the best judge of character she knew.
Already the two men had started trooping down the steep slope at the entrance of the cemetery. Luce's mom left the picnic basket at the gates and gave Luce and Penn one of her well-worn smiles.
Mr. Cole waved a hand to get their attention. "First, a bit of trivia. What" — he raised his eyebrows—"would you guess is the oldest element of this cemetery?"
While Luce and Penn looked down at their feet—avoiding his eyes as they did during class—Luce's father stood on his toes to take a gander at some of the larger statues.
"Trick question!" Mr. Cole bellowed, patting the ornate wrought iron gates. "This front portion of the gates was built by the original proprietor in 1831. They say his wife, Ellamena, had a lovely garden, and she wanted something to keep the guinea hens out of her tomatoes." He laughed under his breath. "That was before the war. And before the sinkhole. Moving on!"
As they walked, Mr. Cole rattled off fact after fact about the construction of the cemetery, the historical backdrop against which it was built, and the "artist" — even he used the term loosely—who'd come up with the winged beast sculpture at the top of the monolith in the center of the grounds. Luce's father peppered Mr. Cole with questions while Luce's mom ran her hands over the tops of some of the prettiest headstones, letting out a murmured "Oh my" every time she paused to read an inscription. Penn shuffled after Luce's mother, possibly wishing she'd latched on to a different family for the day. And Luce brought up the rear, considering what might happen if she were to give her parents her own personal tour of the cemetery.
Here's where I served my first detention…
And here's where a falling marble angel nearly decapitated me…
And here's where a reform school boy you'd never approve of took me on the strangest picnic of my life.
"Cam," Mr. Cole called as he led the tour around the monolith.
Cam was standing with a tall, dark-haired man in a tailored black business suit. Neither of them heard Mr. Cole or saw the party he was leading on the tour. They were talking quietly and gesturing in a very involved manner at the oak tree, the way Luce had seen her drama teacher gesture when the students were blocking a scene in a play.
"Are you and your father late arrivals to our tour?" Mr. Cole asked Cam, this time more loudly. "You've missed most of it, but there's still an interesting fact or two I'm sure I could impart."
Cam slowly turned his head their way, then back at his companion, who seemed amused. Luce didn't think the man, with his classic tall, dark, and handsome good looks and huge gold watch, looked old enough to be Cam's father. But maybe he had just aged well. Cam's eyes skimmed Luce's bare neck, and he seemed briefly disappointed. She blushed, because she could feel her mother taking in the whole scene and wondering just what was going on.
Cam ignored Mr. Cole and approached Luce's mother, drawing her hand to his lips before anyone could even introduce them. "You must be Luce's older sister," he said rakishly.
To her left, Penn gagged into her elbow and whispered so only Luce could hear, "Please tell me someone else is nauseated."
But Luce's mom seemed somewhat dazzled, in a way that made Luce—and her father, clearly—uncomfortable.
"No, we can't stay for the tour," Cam announced, winking at Luce and drawing back just as Luce's father approached. "But it was so lovely" — he glanced at each of the three of them, excluding only Penn—"to encounter you here. Let's go, Dad."
"Who was that?" Luce's mother whispered when Cam and his father, or whoever he had been, disappeared back up the side of the cemetery.
"Oh, just one of Luce's admirers," Penn said, trying to lighten the mood and doing exactly the opposite.
"One of?" Luce's father peered down at Penn.
In the late-afternoon light, Luce could see for the first time a few gray whiskers in her dad's beard. She didn't want to spend today's last moments convincing her father not to worry about the boys at her reform school.
"It's nothing, Dad. Penn's kidding."
"We want you to be careful, Lucinda," he said.
Luce thought about what Daniel had suggested—quite strongly—the other day. That maybe she shouldn't be at Sword & Cross at all. And suddenly she wanted so badly to bring it up to her parents, to beg and plead for them to take her far away from here.
But it was that same memory of Daniel that made Luce hold her tongue. The thrilling touch of his skin on hers when she'd pushed him down at the lake, the way his eyes were sometimes the saddest things she knew. It felt at once absolutely crazy and absolutely true that it might be worth all of this hell at Sword & Cross just to spend a little more time with Daniel. Just to see if anything might come of it.
"I hate goodbyes," Luce's mother breathed, interrupting her daughter's thoughts to draw her in for a brisk hug. Luce looked down at her watch and her face fell. She didn't know how the afternoon had gone by so quickly, how it could already be time for them to go.
"You'll call us on Wednesday?" her dad asked, kissing both her cheeks the way the French side of his family always did.
As they all walked back up toward the parking lot, Luce's parents gripped her hands. Each of them gave her another strong hug and series of kisses. When they shook Penn's hand and wished her well, Luce saw a video camera clamped to the brick post housing a broken call box at the exit. There must have been a motion detector attached to the reds, because the camera was panning, following their movement. This one hadn't been on Arriane's tour and was certainly not a dead red. Luce's parents noticed nothing—and maybe it was better that way.
Then they were walking away, looking back twice to wave at the two girls standing at the entrance to the main lobby. Dad cranked up his old black Chrysler New Yorker and rolled down the window.
"We love you," he called out so loudly that Luce would have been embarrassed if she hadn't been so sad to see them go.
Luce waved back. "Thank you," she whispered. For the pralines and the okra. For spending all day here. For taking Penn under your wing, no questions asked. For still loving me despite the fact that I scare you.
When the taillights disappeared around the bend, Penn tapped Luce's back. "I was thinking I'd go see my dad." She kicked the ground with the toe of her boot and looked bashfully up at Luce. "Any chance you'd want to come? If not, I understand, seeing as it involves another trip inside—" She jerked her thumb back toward the depths of the cemetery.
"Of course I'll come," Luce said.
They walked around the perimeter of the cemetery, staying high on the rim until they'd reached the far east corner, where Penn paused in front of a grave.
It was modest, white, and covered with a tawny layer of pine needles. Penn got down on her knees and started to wipe it clean.
STANFORD LOCKWOOD, the simple tombstone read, WORLD'S BEST FATHER.
Luce could hear Penn's poignant voice behind the inscription, and she felt tears spring to her eyes. She didn't want Penn to see—after all, Luce still had her parents. If anyone should cry right now, it should be… Penn was crying. She was trying to hide it with the mildest of sniffles and a few tears wiped on the ragged hem of her sweater. Luce got down on her knees, too, and started helping her brush the needles away. She put her arms around her friend and held on as tight as she could.
When Penn drew back and thanked Luce, she reached into her pocket and pulled out a letter.
"I usually write him something," she explained.
Luce wanted to give Penn a moment alone with her dad, so she got up, took a step back, and turned away, heading down the slope toward the heart of the cemetery. Her eyes were still a little glassy, but she thought she could see someone sitting alone on top of the monolith. Yes. A guy with his arms wrapped around his knees. She couldn't imagine how he'd gotten up there, but there he was.
He looked stiff and lonely, as if he'd been there all day. He didn't see Luce or Penn. He didn't seem to see anything. But Luce didn't have to be close enough to see those violet-gray eyes to know who it was.
All this time Luce had been searching for explanations about why Daniel's file was so sparse, what secrets his ancestor's missing book held in the library, where his mind had traveled to that day she'd asked about his family. Why he'd been so hot and cold with her… always.