Angus’s alarm went off at seven in the morning. He turned it off and fumbled his glasses onto his face before getting dressed in the dark. It wasn’t hard—Angus had very specific taste in clothes, so as long as the colours didn’t clash too badly he’d look fine.
He snuck quietly down the hall. Only when he reached the kitchen did he turn on lights and start making noise. His grandfather would still be asleep, and he couldn’t disturb him. That’d be rude. Grandpa didn’t have much energy these days, and most of the time he was home he spent sleeping. Angus poured himself a bowl of store-brand Froot Loops and sat at the large dining room table to eat by himself. He still had to make himself a lunch, but that wouldn’t be too hard. After all his cooking lessons with Taako, Angus was very good at making sandwiches.
Angus washed his dishes in the sink and opened up the fridge. He needed to ask Grandpa about groceries again. There was enough there to last another few days, but if he didn’t keep reminding Grandpa he’d forget before he got around to it. He didn’t want to have to ask Taako to let him take home café food again. That was just…embarrassing. It made it seem like he and Grandpa couldn’t get by. They could! They were fine! Grandpa just forgot things sometimes. And if all else failed, he could always take some cash from the emergency fund that Grandpa thought he didn’t know about and ask Taako or Magnus to take him shopping. As much as Taako complained and Magnus made fun, he knew they didn’t really mind.
Lunch made and school bag packed, Angus brushed his teeth at the kitchen sink and hurried to get out the door. It wasn’t very far to school, and Angus had been walking there and back for two years now. He knew some of his teachers worried, especially when he’d first started, but Angus had always been very smart for his age. He knew all the rules of the road, and besides, nobody could walk with him and he lived close enough that the school bus wouldn’t take him. It was the best solution.
It was just a little chilly outside. Angus sighed, thinking that maybe he should’ve worn a jacket. It was halfway through September, after all. It was only going to get colder from here. Too late now. He readjusted his backpack and headed down the sidewalk.
Even though it was a little chilly, it was still a nice walk. Angus spent most of it thinking about the newest Caleb Cleveland novel. He only had a few chapters left, and he was determined to figure out who the culprit was before the book revealed it to him. He kept going back and rereading earlier chapters to see if he’d missed any clues.
When he got to school, the first bus was just arriving. Angus slipped into the school and headed straight for the gym, leaving his backpack in the hall and lining up for breakfast club. He’d already eaten at home, of course, but that was over an hour ago. Besides, no one had caught him sneaking breakfast club food into his lunch yet.
Ms. Herrington smiled at him when he got to the front of the line. “Morning, Angus. What’ll you have?”
“Hi, Ms. Herrington,” he said politely. She was a teacher who’d retired a few years ago that came back to help out around the school sometimes. Angus had never been in her class, but she knew everyone in the school by name. “Can I have the apple cinnamon oatmeal and a glass of milk, please?”
She beamed. “You’re always so polite,” she said, shaking a packet of instant oatmeal into a bowl and adding hot water from a kettle for him. “Milk?”
“Yes please.” He kept his hands behind his back as he waited. He’d ask for something to sneak into his lunchbox later. It never worked if you got it the first time you went up. They had to see you eat all of what you got the first time so they didn’t notice you leave with food the second time. Today they had string cheese and orange slices. Oranges weren’t his favourite, but they were better than a sandwich and a juicebox and nothing else.
Miss Dickinson turned towards him as Angus came into the library. “Hi,” she said, clutching a stack of books to herself. “Does your teacher know you’re here, Angus?”
Angus nodded. She asked him that every time he came to the learning commons. He’d be upset that she didn’t trust him, but she also asked everyone else that came there without an adult. Some kids liked to run out of class and thought they could hide in the library. “Mr. Albert said I could read here,” he said.
She pointed at one of the tables. “That’s fine, just leave that table be for now, okay Angus? I’ve got a group coming in a few minutes and that’s where they’re going to set up shop. It might get kind of loud.”
“That’s okay.” Angus settled in one of the chairs in the reading corner. He wished they weren’t made of such sticky plastic, but they were comfortable enough.
“Let me know if you need any help, okay?” Miss Dickinson said. She’d turned back to her shelving. Angus figured she was used to him by now. He was always done his work early and he got bored easily. Mr. Albert was usually nice enough to let him do what he wanted afterwards, which meant Angus spent a lot of time in the learning commons reading anything he could get his hands on. It was tough being the smartest kid in your entire grade, but someone had to do it.
A gaggle of fifth graders spilled into the room, laughing and chatting. Miss Dickinson turned to them with a frown. “Guys, keep it down. Other people are working here too.”
Angus buried his nose in his book and hoped they wouldn’t notice him. He wasn’t exactly the most popular kid in his grade along with being the smartest, and one of them was Devon. Devon had never liked Angus since they were in kindergarten together. They hadn’t been in the same class since, but Devon still had it out for him apparently, because he took every opportunity he could to make Angus’s life miserable.
Sure enough, it wasn’t long before he heard Devon’s voice shouting “Hey, nerd! Sitting with all your friends?”
Angus slouched in his seat and ignored him. All the adults always said to ignore bullies and eventually they’d get bored and leave you alone. It hadn’t worked yet, but it was bound to eventually. He just needed to put up with it a little while longer.
“Devon, if you’re going to call people names instead of working, you can go back to class,” Miss Dickinson snapped.
“What?” Devon said. “Nerd’s a compliment now.”
“Get to work or leave. Make a good choice.” Miss Dickinson headed over to the reading corner with her armload of books. “If he bothers you again, he’s out,” she told Angus.
He nodded. “Thank you,” he said quietly.
“Can I play?”
Alyssa looked over her shoulder at Angus. He stood with his hands behind his back, smiling in what he hoped was a disarming way. She rolled her soccer ball back and forth with her foot, studying him. “You any good?” she asked.
Angus nodded. “I love soccer!”
She pointed at his glasses. “Aren’t you worried your glasses’ll get broken?”
He looked down and adjusted them. “No, they stay on pretty well, and I’m not planning on blocking any shots with my face.”
Alyssa laughed. “I like you, Angus. Sure, you can be on my team. I’m goalie, so get outta my goal.” She flapped her hands at him, shooing him towards the field.
Angus beamed and ran off to join the other kids on the field. He didn’t get to play soccer much. If Devon was involved, he didn’t want to chance it. But he’d seen Devon in the principal’s office on his way outside, so he figured he wouldn’t be there.
It was so freeing, running and passing and kicking and shooting. Angus didn’t score any goals, but he got a few assists. By the time the bell rang to call everyone in from recess, he was sweaty and laughing and for just a moment, he felt like a normal boy who’d just played a game of soccer with his friends.
Then they all headed inside in small groups, and Angus was left walking by himself.
“Hey!” Someone thumped him on the back and he stumbled. “Oh, sorry.” It was Alyssa. “How come you’ve never played with us before? You’re really good!”
He smiled at the ground. “Thank you. I’m—well, it’s just—when Devon’s there—”
“Ugh, Devon.” Alyssa rolled her eyes. “It’s my ball, not Devon’s. You should play more often. Are you going out for the soccer team?”
It hadn’t even occurred to Angus that that was something he could do. “I—yeah.” He grinned at her. “I think I’m going to.”
Angus’s stomach growled as he walked home. He thought about the state of his fridge and grimaced. He’d have to wait until dinnertime to eat. That was fine. He could handle it.
Although the Starblaster Café wasn’t too much of a detour. Taako would have gone home for the day, but Lup or Magnus would probably give him something if he sat quietly and did his homework. He chewed his lip as he thought about it. Grandpa probably wouldn’t notice if he didn’t come home right away. He probably wasn’t even home in the first place. He was probably at the hospital for more tests and appointments that would leave him tired and wouldn’t help his memory.
He blinked and realised he was outside the Starblaster. It looked like the decision had been made for him. He pushed the door open and stepped inside.
This wasn’t where Angus lived, but it was always the place that felt the most like home to him. He settled down at a table near the front counter and pulled out his homework. It was only a matter of time.
That wasn't Lup or Magnus. He looked up to see Davenport, the man who owned the Starblaster. Davenport looked just as surprised to see Angus as Angus was to see him. “Hello, sir,” he said.
Davenport shook his head. “Hey. Taako isn’t here right now—it’s not even Saturday! What are you doing here?”
Magnus appeared on the other side of the table. “Hey, kid!” He didn’t seem to notice Davenport. “Grandpa didn't do groceries again, huh? Wait here, I’ll be right back.” He disappeared into the kitchen.
Davenport watched the whole exchange, a mortified look on his face. “Angus,” he said slowly, “is everything alright at home?”
Angus scowled. Adults always asked that. Things were fine at home. He was a big kid. He could take care of himself! He’d gotten this far, hadn't he?
“You shouldn’t have to, though,” Davenport said, and Angus’s hands flew to cover his mouth. He hadn’t meant to say all that out loud. “That’s the thing about being a child. You should be able to rely on the adults in your life to help you.”
He shrugged and traced the wood grain of the tabletop with a finger. “I do. Grandpa buys groceries and gives me somewhere to live. I get more food at school, and the teachers are—well, I’m smarter than they are—” Davenport chuckled. “I am! I’m done work faster than anyone else in my class and I’m always right! I took one of those tests online that tells you how smart you are and I was in the top one percent! I don’t need to go to school anymore—I could get a job as a detective or something!”
“Except for those pesky child labour laws,” Davenport said flatly, sitting down across from him. “Is this why you take cooking lessons with Taako? So you’ve got food at the house?”
Angus shook his head. “Not really. There’s usually food at the house. Today’s just an anomaly.” Days like this came every few weeks or so. Grandpa did well with the groceries for a while, then started forgetting again until Angus reminded him over and over. “Mostly I want to learn things I don’t know that they don’t teach us at school. Like cooking.”
Magnus came back out of the kitchen, a plate in one hand and a glass in the other. He stopped when he saw Davenport, but Davenport sighed and waved him over. “Is this what keeps happening to our day-olds?” he asked as Magnus approached.
Magnus looked embarrassed. “Maybe. Some of them. A lot of them.”
Davenport sighed and rubbed a hand over his face, messing up his immaculate moustache. “Alright, look, Angus. I’m fine with your lessons with Taako. I don’t mind you coming by here when you need a safe place.” Every muscle in Angus’s body was tense. There was a ‘but’ coming, he could feel it. “But this can’t be your be-all-end-all. You need to promise you’ll start relying on the adults in your life more often, okay? I don’t know your grandpa or your teachers, but I’m sure they care about you too. Nobody wants to see you hungry or struggling.”
Angus nodded, but he knew it was a hollow promise. He had to rely on himself. After all, he was the only one he’d have around forever. “Yes, sir.”