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Ruth Long’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: Hope Is Where You Hang Your Hat
Mac pulled into the alley, rolled down the window, and hollered at the kid on the curb. “Dude! Get in the car. We’re going to be late thanks to your disappearing act.”
Tommy stayed where he was, leaned up against a trash can and a concrete wall, face in hands.
“Look, kid. I know it’s been a rough week, but I think I can swing the odds in your favor this afternoon. Come on. One hour. No bull.”
Without speaking or making eye contact, Tommy got up and got into the car.
Mac bit back a comment about the rumpled clothes and rank body odor. His job was to integrate misfits not further alienate them. Still, the scent was pretty pungent and he left the windows down as he nosed the car into traffic and headed uptown.
He was focused on the upcoming appointment and Tommy wasn’t much for talking so the radio was their only accompaniment on the twenty minute drive.
When they pulled into the tree lined drive and stopped in front of the large luxury home, Mac felt the tension radiating off Tommy. Tight lips. Short breaths. Clenched hands.
He knew better than to touch Tommy as means of comfort but he was so keyed up about the next few minutes it was difficult to think of any appropriate words of comfort. “We’re halfway there, kid. When we get through that door it’s all going to make sense, okay?”
Damn, he hoped that was true. So much was riding on this venture. Not just his career, but Tommy’s future and the well-being of this household. He smoothed his hair, popped a handful of breath mints, and got out of the car. It was Go Time Skippy.
Before they reached the door, the large glass paneled doors swung open and a man dressed in grey slacks and dress shirt ushered them into the foyer.
Mac looked down at his jeans, t-shirt and birkenstocks and then over at Tommy’s beanie, grim reaper jersey and unlaced vans. Underdressed was an understatement. Too late to fuss about it now. Besides, any quip he could make to put himself at ease would only serve to further unsettle Tommy. Breathe deep. Keep calm. Stay focused.
The well-dressed man led them through a well-appointed dining room and out into portico overlooking a well-manicured yard and pool. “Mrs. Nyberg will be right out. Would you care for some lemonade while you wait?”
“That’d be great,” Mac said, his easy smile sneaking past his determination to remain neutral.
The lemonade arrived courtesy of Mrs. Nyberg, looking elegant and lovely in a sleeveless cream linen dress and cream mules with dusky blue suede flowers. She set the tray on the table, passed a glass to Mac, and then to Tommy, patting his shoulder as she did.
Mac noticed that Tommy didn’t flinch from the contact. A small thing in anyone else but notable in this kid. The knot in his chest eased up a little. It didn’t go away altogether though because there was still a rough spot to get through. Hang on. Be cool. Don’t panic.
Leila Nyberg settled into a chair and smiled at Tommy, the warmth of it lighting her blue eyes and chasing away the shadows beneath her inky lashes. “I’m so pleased to finally meet you, Mr. Wentworth.”
The boy met her gaze, eyes narrowed and searching. “Mr. Wentworth is my dad’s name. I’m just Tommy.”
She chuckled. “Fair enough. So listen, I asked Mac to bring you out here today because I’m looking for an assistant -”
“Look, lady, don’t get me wrong,” Tommy said, palming his beanie and rifling his hair. “You’re hot and all but this place, it ain’t me. And I might be a homeless dropout but that don’t mean I’m gonna agree to be somebody’s bitch.”
Mac choked on his lemonade.
Tommy shot him a dirty look.
Leila burst into laughter.
A man stepped out onto the patio, his face an echo of Mac’s, but his body was more muscular and his mouth less inclined to grin. “What did I miss?”
Mac’s chest constricted.
Tommy’s eyes widened.
Leila’s eyes sparkled.
The interloper sat in the chair next to Leila, took a gulp of lemonade from Mac’s glass, and fixed Tommy with an inquisitive stare. “So, you agreed to be my lab rat yet, kid?”
Tommy’s mouth opened but it was devoid of sound.
The man tipped his head and peered at him. “You’re worrying me, squirt. Good communication skills are a must for the job.”
Tommy abruptly shoved back his chair and headed across the patio.
Mac went after him, grabbing his sleeve and ignoring the violent thrashing. “What’s wrong?” The boy surprised him by stepping into his personal space. “That’s Adam frigging Nyberg. The mad scientist.”
“I know who he is,” Mac growled, pushing Tommy back and immediately regretting it. Nut up. Stay strong. Get real. “Look, you are the most brilliant and destructive dumbass I know, which makes you the perfect candidate this job. Adam needs help in the lab and Leila needs help managing Adam.”
“The guy is a legend in the physics world - “
“I prefer the term ‘quantifiable genius’,” said a voice behind him.
Adam eyed Mac. “You’re looking thin, brother.”
Tommy glared at Mac and mouthed the word ‘brother.’
Adam clapped Tommy’s shoulder. “Now that we’ve established you can speak, let’s head for the lab and see what you can tell me about electrons.”
“Can’t promise it will be a positive experience,” Tommy said with a smirk.
Adam’s bark of laughter was startling “Aw, the nerd boy made a joke. He might work out after all, Mac. Why don’t you stop by some day next week and check on us? Bring your swimsuit. We’ll barbeque or something. I’ll have Leila email you to confirm. Come on kid. Let’s see what you have.”
As Adam steered Tommy towards the office complex beside the house, Mac returned to Leila and his lemonade.
She gave him a few minutes to settle before speaking. “Good to see you.”
“He looks great.”
“He misses you, Mac. We both do.”
“He has a strange way of showing it. Hasn’t spoken to me since before you moved out there. That’s been what? Three years?” Don’t cry. Don’t yell. Stay mellow.
She kicked off her shoes and propped her feet in one of the chairs. “I left for a while after we moved here. Was gone about six months. He was so bad and I was so worn out. Before you comment, think back to how burned out you were too.”
He remembered. Dad’s death. Adam’s breakdown. The whole world collapsing around him.
“Anyway, I’ve been back about a year. Things are much better now. The company built a satellite complex out here for him, complete with accredited staff, and they send a physician’s assistant and therapist out here every Friday to monitor his behavior and meds.”
“That’s all I ever wanted, Leila. For him to be happy and grounded.”
“We go through rough patches but we’ve got a good team now. I hope Tommy decides to become part of it. We could use some youthful perspective and enthusiasm in the lab. And it would give me a chance to have some time to myself. Can’t remember the last time my sister and I went to the movies.”
The ache in his chest dissipated. “He suggested a barbeque next weekend.”
Her feet hit the patio tiles and she leaned across the table. “Oh, I hoped he would break the ice! Will Friday afternoon work for you? Say four o’clock?”
He got up and fished the car keys out of his pocket. “No onions in the potato salad. Remember?”
She grinned. “I remember. Hey, there’s a set of spare house keys on the hook in the kitchen. Grab them on your way out. I got a real good feeling that you’re going to be using them a lot. Thank you, Mac. For Tommy. For being such a terrific brother-in-law. For just, oh, everything!”
He nodded, headed for the kitchen, and grabbed the keys off the hook, pausing when he saw Tommy‘s hat hanging there beside them.
A lot of kids had come through his office and most of them were lost in the system or had moved on to the penal system. But this kid had something special, a gift, and it gave him a real shot at making a life of his own, and damn if Mac wasn’t going to invest himself in seeing that come to fruition.
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