Lance played with the bottom button of his shirt nervously. He tried to focus on the lecture Mr. Finley was giving at the front of the classroom, but he kept finding his mind wandering to guilt. He shouldn't have left Dalia home alone today. His foster sister had been sick for four days now, and he had stayed home with her for the first three days—but today he could tell she was acting like she was still sick just because she didn't want to go back to school.
He just couldn't miss another day of classes. The grading period was about to end, and missing classes meant bad grades, and bad grades meant no scholarships, and no scholarships meant—
Lance realized he was grinding his teeth and unclenched his jaw. He turned his eyes back to the teacher.
Dalia should be fine though. It was one day home alone. He had locked all the doors and windows before he left, and he'd made sure she understood not to touch the stove or open the door for anyone. She was smart. She would be fine.
He briefly considered asking the office if he could use their phone to call home and check on her. Then he realized the ladies up in the office might get concerned about a six year old being alone and gossip about it, and when people gossiped, CPS got called, and when CPS got called—
He was grinding his teeth again.
Lance rubbed his face with his hand, trying to keep his mind off of Dalia. He really had no reason to worry, but he was obsessively protective of her. She was probably fine. Definitely fine.
He jerked his head up to face Mr. Finley, who was looking at him expectantly. Lance's heart dropped when he realized everyone's attention was on him and he had no idea what he'd just been asked. He gulped. "I'm sorry, I—"
Mr. Finley smiled at him kindly. Out of all of Lance's teachers, Mr. Finley was by far his favorite; he had a lot of patience for Lance's tendency to get caught up on little things and completely zone out.
"I asked you to read a passage out of the book. Do you have it?" he asked.
Lance's mind flashed to the kitchen table this morning, while he set down Dalia's breakfast and noticed he'd left his psychology book out last night. He hadn't grabbed it before he left. "No, I—uh—I don't have it. I'm sorry."
Mr. Finley just gave him an admonishing look and moved on to ask somebody else on the other side of the classroom.
Lance ducked his head and glanced at his watch. He noted with relief that the bell was supposed to ring in a few minutes. Lunch followed this class, so maybe he could ask to use Mr. Finley's phone. Mr. Finley used to be nosy about the abnormalities of Lance's life, especially since he was advisor of the chess club and the AP psychology teacher, so he and Lance were around each other a lot—but eventually he had learned to just let Lance be.
When the bell rang, Lance waited until everyone had filed out of the room to walk up to Mr. Finley's desk. "Do you mind if I use your phone?" he asked.
Mr. Finley glanced up from his computer and smiled. "Go for it, Lance."
Lance took the hand piece off the receiver and dialed his home phone number. After a few rings, he started to chew on his lip. Four rings… No answer. Five… Lance reminded himself not to grind his teeth. Voicemail.
Lance put the phone back on its base slowly. "Uh… thanks," he mumbled, turning away.
He went to his locker to switch out his books before walking over to the cafeteria, where he grabbed a chicken sandwich and water bottle. He got the same food every day, but it was free and edible, so he couldn't really complain.
Lance located his friends and crumpled down into a chair at their table. His best friend, Michael, lifted one eyebrow. "What's your problem?"
Lance shrugged but didn't respond. Instead he asked, "Can you give me a ride home today? I need to get home pretty quickly."
Michael looked like he wanted to inquire more about why, but he just nodded. "Sure thing, dude." He took a bite out of his chicken sandwich. "So can you come to the movie on Saturday?"
Lance had said "maybe" to that question way too many times already; he felt guilty for not giving his friends a definite answer. He thought about how things had been going at home lately. He could probably get away with being out on Saturday. "Yeah."
Michael looked surprised. "Seriously? Sick! I'll pick you up at noon!"
Lance looked down at his sandwich and picked at the crust. He forced himself to smile.
When Michael dropped Lance off, he put the car in park and said, "Hey, everything's alright, right? Like… things are… things are good?" He looked like he was trying to be casual, but he was failing horribly.
Lance grinned at him. "Everything's fine, dude." He pretended not to understand why Michael was asking. He grabbed his backpack and slammed the car door.
Michael drove away, and Lance hopped up the steps to his front porch. He stuck his key in the handle and turned it. He realized with a jolt of anxiety that the door was already unlocked. His heart dropped into his stomach. Had he accidentally left it unlocked? No, he'd definitely triple checked that it was locked before he left.
Gulping, Lance pushed the door open and poked his head inside. The TV was on, but nobody was sitting on the couch. He stepped inside, closing the door behind him. He glanced into the kitchen then continued into the living room.
"Shit… shit shit shit!" Lance sprinted up the staircase two at a time, looking in every bedroom, but not seeing Dalia anywhere. "Dalia!" His heart pounded, and sweat pricked up on his forehead. "Dalia! Where are you! This isn't funny!"
After searching the entire upstairs, he stopped at the top of the stairs. He took two deep breaths then started to walk down the steps as slowly and calmly as he could. She was probably just out in the backyard, playing.
He went into the laundry room and continued out the next door to the backyard. It was empty. He was about to run inside to call someone (Who? He didn't know. Anyone.) when he realized that the gate was open.
Feeling his heart rate increase, Lance walked through the gate to look out at the empty fields behind the house. No Dalia anywhere. He felt like all the oxygen had abandoned his lungs, and his legs started to quiver beneath him. He took two slow steps backward then quickly turned and ran into the house.
He was just getting into the living room when the front door opened. His hopes got high for a moment when he thought that it could be Dahlia, but they plummeted when Melissa, his foster mother walked in. She put her keys on the hook beside the door and her purse on the ground. When she set her eyes on Lance, she scowled. "What's got you all worked up?" she asked.
Lance opened his mouth to respond, but he found that he couldn't speak. He swallowed then slowly mumbled, "Um, I…" He made eye contact with Melissa and felt himself start shaking. "I can't… find… Dalia."
She blinked once. "What?"
Lance looked down at the ground and stuck his hands in his pockets. "I left her here alone," he whispered, almost quietly enough that he wasn't sure if she would hear him. "She was gone when I got home from school."
Melissa stared at him, her lips slowly forming a thin line. Lance knew her well enough not to be fooled into thinking her silence meant she wasn't upset. Sure enough, a few moments later, she burst forward, shoving Lance back. He stumbled back and caught himself on the edge of the couch before he could fall. "Are you insane?" she shouted.
Lance opened his mouth, but he couldn't think of a reply.
"Goddammit! You idiot!" She spun around, pulling her cell phone out of her pocket.
Lance couldn't tell who she was calling, so he could only assume it was Frank, his foster father. He decided to take the opportunity to slink away while her back was turned. He disappeared into the room he and Dalia shared. Sitting down on his bed, he put his face in his hands and wondered how he could have possibly screwed this up more.