London, Henry decided, was the stupidest city in the world. The stupid buildings were too tall, the stupid cars went the wrong way, and the stupid clouds were always blocking out the sun. It was too busy, too loud, too big, and too smelly.
The schools were stupid too. None of the teachers made any sense (what the heck was “maths” anyway) and they kept assuming Henry knew things — like how pants were supposed to be called trousers, how many pences were in a pound, and what the Queen looked like (old, she looked old). They even made him wear a stupid uniform with a stupid tie!
That was why Henry was running away.
Or trying to, at least.
He and his very best friend Louise had planned it all out. It was an awesome plan. By the time anyone figured out he was gone, he’d already be on the plane back to Wichita. They’d been working on this plan for two whole weeks — proper prior planning prevents poor performance, his mom would say — so everything was perfect. They’d even built out a timeline with super-secret symbols in case anyone flipped through his notebook.
The plan only worked this week, it only worked today, in fact; his mom was going on a weeklong work trip and his dad was trapped on a bus for five hours, so Henry had a four-hour window before anyone learned he wasn’t at school. And so today was Go Time, symbolized by an exclamation point on his calendar.
Louise had sent him an email with just “?” in the subject line (part of their special code system), and Henry had replied with “!” right before taking his mom’s credit card out of her wallet (he felt bad about stealing, but once he got to Kansas he could get a job or something and pay her back — maybe he could work with Louise’s dad at the garage and learn how to fix cars and stuff). He grabbed his passport out of her desk, stuffed some extra snacks into his backpack, and left a note on his bed.
Dear Mom and Dad, it started in his careful block print.
London sucks. I’m flying back to Kansas to stay with Louise. DON’T COME AFTER ME.
Henry Ellenore Lasso
Everything had been going smoothly. His mom and her suitcase had walked him to school to drop him off at the gate.
“Have fun,” she’d told him, smiling in that weird fixed way that meant Henry was making her anxious (he’d seen that expression a lot since moving here). “Dad will pick you up after school, and I’ll be back from Scotland next week, kay?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Henry said, scuffing his shoes against the sidewalk. He hated lying to his mom, but it was for the best. She’d probably be happier without him around anyway. Henry knew he’d been stressing her out. School had been calling her a lot, and she’d been having lots of tense, whispered conversations with Dad. Without him around, she could focus more on herself — take that “me time” adults were always saying was so important.
His mom hugged him, and, even though he was nine and being publicly hugged by his mom was basically a death sentence, Henry allowed it — breathing her in for maybe the last time in forever.
“I love you,” she said, kissing his cheek. “Have fun with your dad.”
“Mom,” Henry groaned, scrubbing his face. God, you give parents an inch, and the next thing you know they’re dragging you halfway across the planet and dumping you in primary school.
Not anymore. Henry Ellenore Lasso was putting his foot down.
“You have to set boundaries with people, dude,” Louise had told him. She’d had the flu at the time and was watching a lot of daytime television. “Otherwise, they walk all over you and make you join their cult.”
Louise was the smartest person in the world.
She, Henry scowled, kicking the curb viciously, would be able to figure out the stupid train system.
After giving his mom a five-minute head start to hail a cab and get on her way, Henry had slipped out the gate and walked down the street toward the big train station at the corner. He would use his mom’s credit card to buy a plane ticket for the 13:30 (1:30pm) flight to Denver, and from there catch the 19:00 (7:00pm — why was time so weird here) flight to Wichita. Louise had looked up the flight numbers and everything — they had debated about buying the tickets in advance, but Louise said it would show up on his mom’s bank statements, which would ruin their awesome plan before it even started.
All Henry had to do was take the train to the airport.
Except the map of the train routes plastered against the wall made absolutely no sense. It looked like the inside of the cars Louise’s dad worked on, with parts crisscrossing all over the place and dangerous-looking pieces shooting randomly off the main block. Henry had looked up directions on Google Maps beforehand, but it just told him to take Piccadilly West all the way there. He didn’t even see the Piccadilly line. Plus, you needed something called an Oyster card just to get down to where the trains picked you up, but you had to get them from a machine or stand in one of the really long lines that stretched forever.
He should have done a test run or something, but his mom always wanted to walk everywhere or take cabs because she said they had to support the local trade unions.
Henry was starting to feel sweaty.
Just take it one step at a time, his dad always said. Break down things that seem too scary or too intimidating into smaller, more manageable pieces.
Henry took a deep breath. Okay, Step One was gathering supplies — he’d done that. Step Two was getting to the airport. He could do that. He just needed to ask someone for directions, like the time his dad got all turned around on those country roads and had to stop to chat with some nice men in a van. Henry looked around for the nicest person he could find.
“Excuse me,” Henry asked a kind-looking woman in a business suit. “How do you get to the airport?”
The woman opened her mouth, paused for a moment, and narrowed her eyes at him. “Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“Um,” Henry replied, mind going blank. He stared up at her, mind stumbling over excuses. Her eyes went to his jacket, clocking the school crest on his uniform. Oh, lordie, she was going to tattle and then he’d be grounded for the rest of his life and he’d never get to see Louise ever again.
“Nevermind! Thank you very much! Have a nice day!” Henry blurted and fled.
Step Two, Plan A was a bust. Fortunately, Louise had come up with a Step Two, Plan B just in case.
Henry stood on the street corner and waved his hand like he’d watched his mom do until a taxi stopped in front of him. Taxis cost more money than Henry had on him. He would just have to risk using his mom’s credit card a bit early and hope the bank didn’t notice.
“The airport, please,” Henry said. Taxis were cooler anyway. You got to have someone drive you around like you were important or rich, like Ms. Welton or Iron Man.
“Which airport?” The driver asked, sounding bored.
“Uh, the one that goes to America?” Henry replied, nervously. They had more than one? How many airports did this city need?
The driver slowly turned around, looking at Henry and narrowing his eyes like that narc in the train station. “Where are your parents?”
“At the airport?” Henry offered hopefully.
The driver pointed a finger at the door. “Out.”
“What?” Henry shrieked. “Why?”
“I’m not having a part of whatever this is. Out.”
Henry got out. The taxi drove away, leaving Henry where he was, kicking the corner of the curb viciously. Stupid, dumb-butt city with its stupid million airports and stupid unhelpful people.
Henry sighed, wishing he had a phone so he could call Louise. Louise would know what to do. She knew what to do when he’d gotten gum in his hair, when he’d broken his neighbor’s window with a baseball, when he’d lost his mom’s air pods, and when his parents told him they were getting a divorce and his dad was moving to England forever. Louise knew how to do everything, but she wasn’t here and he didn’t have a phone because Dad said constant access to technology would make him illiterate, so he couldn’t talk to Louise. He was just stuck in this stupid city until he died.
One step at a time, he reminded himself.
New Step Two was to call Louise and restrategize. They’d been talking every night on Zoom, so maybe Henry could just find a computer or something. He’d left his school laptop at school because it was technically theirs, and if he took it to America then he’d be an international criminal. He could go home — his mom was out of town for the whole week, so he was probably in the clear unless nosy Mrs. Davis saw him and ratted him out. There was also the library, but that was across the street from his school, and if the teachers spotted him sneaking around he was definitely busted.
He’d just have to risk a run-in with Mrs. Davis. No risk, no reward, as his dad always said.
Step One, cross the street so he wasn’t on the same side as his school. He automatically looked left. No cars. He stepped off the curb.
A loud blast of a horn and squealing brakes had his head snapping to the right. A car was barreling toward him. The driver’s eyes were wide and frantic. Now I’ll never know how Supergirl ends, was all Henry had time to think before an arm was wrapping around his waist and yanking him backward. The car shot past, missing Henry’s toes by inches. His heart was trying to burst out of his chest, it was beating so hard.
A snide voice spoke from behind him. “Didn’t your parents teach you to look before crossing the road?”
Henry looked around and up. An old man — but not super old like Mrs. David, more like average old like his parents and teachers — with long, gray-streaked dark hair was staring down at him with dark, probing eyes. He was dressed like his math (maths) teacher, with a tie and suit jacket. A messenger bag was slung over his shoulder. He even had a dorky pen sticking out of his breast pocket and everything. The man had this high-and-mighty expression on his face, like Henry was some big loser who was too stupid to tie his own shoes.
This day was too much, Henry decided. Hours of planning and he couldn’t even get past Step Two. He’d almost been splattered all over the road, and yet another adult was talking to him like he was an idiot. His throat felt tight and his eyes burned. No! He was nine — too old to be crying like a baby in front of mean strangers.
“They did!” Henry snapped, so angry about his life he could spit. “But they taught me to look the right way, not this dumb opposite way y’all’s roads are.”
The man’s eyes widened. “Aren’t you Coach Lasso’s son?”
“My name’s Henry,” Henry said, voice hitching. He was sick of everyone here knowing who his dad was and trying to talk to him about stupid football, which wasn’t even football at all. Oh cripes, tears were welling in the corners of his eyes.
“Oh no,” the man said, looking nervous. “Don’t do that.”
“I’m not doing anything,” Henry wailed, wiping at his eyes furiously. “I have allergies!”
“Okay, okay,” the man held out his hands in a soothing gesture. “Let’s start over, shall we? My name’s Trent Crimm.”
Henry gaped up at him. “From The Independent?”
Dad talked about Trent like he was the coolest, smartest person in London. Trent Crimm did this; Trent Crimm wrote that; Trent Crimm made so-and-so cry. He would read parts of Trent’s articles out loud to Henry sometimes. Henry didn’t understand a lot of it because Trent used big words and Henry liked real football, but his dad thought Trent was pretty funny. He liked that his dad had found his own version of Louise. Everyone needed a Louise.
Trent raised an eyebrow. “I see my reputation precedes me.” He held out a hand. “A pleasure to meet you, Henry.”
Henry shook his hand, a bit awed by the way Trent’s hand swallowed his own. “What’s a knob?”
“Beg your pardon?” Which was the annoying British way of asking “what” with too many words. No wonder his dad loved it here so much.
“You called Rupert Mannion a total knob on that sports show last week,” Henry reminded him. “Dad laughed so hard he fell off the couch.”
“Did he?” Trent asked, and Henry swore he looked pleased. “Well then, he can tell you what that word means.”
Trent looked Henry up and down, taking in his uniform and his backpack. Henry saw the exact moment Trent clicked the pieces together.
“Why aren’t you in school?” Trent asked.
You can’t lie to people like Trent Crimm, his dad had told him. They can smell a lie a mile away, and they’ll just chase after you like a dog with a bone until you either fess up or they get someone else to prove you’re lying and come after you again, but now they’re three times as mad because you wasted their time by making them run around all day. His dad had paused before adding, Not that you should lie because honorable men tell the truth even when it's hard.
Henry sighed, may as well come clean now. He didn’t want Trent chasing him all over the city or hacking into his emails or anything. “I’m running away.”
“Oh?” Trent said. Henry glanced up at him. Trent was watching him like he was actually interested in what Henry had to say, not in that bored way most adults looked at him — like they were tuning him out or just waiting for him to shut up and go away.
“London’s stupid,” Henry blurted out — it felt good to spill his guts, maybe this was why everyone loved reporters so much. “Everything’s wrong and people talk funny and Louise said I could come live with her in Kansas. She’ll hide me in the garage until Mom and Dad let me stay, and then I’ll get to live in her guest room, but I can’t even get to the stupid airport and— are you okay?”
Trent’s face was spasming like he was having a seizure or something. “Mmm,” Trent said, a little choked as if he was holding back a cough. “And what were you going to do when you got to the airport?”
Henry pulled his notepad out of his backpack and flipped it to his timeline. He handed it over to Trent, who pulled glasses out of his pocket and looked it over.
“I see,” Trent said. “You’ve planned this out remarkably well.”
“Yeah, except apparently y’all have more than one airport, which is just—”
“Stupid?” Trent offered.
“Yeah…” A thought occurred to him. Trent was smart. Dad said he knew everything! “Do you know which airport I need to go to?”
“Yes,” Trent said, flipping the notebook closed and handing it back to Henry.
“Awesome,” Henry beamed — Trent was the coolest.
“But I’m most certainly not telling you.”
“What?” Henry shrieked.
“In fact,” Trent continued, ignoring Henry because he sucked. “I think we should get you back to school.”
“No!” Henry yelled, panicked. He couldn’t go back there. He wouldn’t! “I’m not going back there, and you can’t make me.”
A few people on the sidewalk turned their heads. Trent glanced around, grimacing.
“I can’t just let you wander off.”
“Then just take me to the airport!” Henry said, feeling desperate. “I won’t tell anyone you helped, I promise. I won’t let you get in trouble! I just want to go home.”
Oh no, he was crying again, and people on the street were looking. He was crying like a dumb kid because he was a dumb kid. He actually thought this plan would work — that he’d be able to live with Louise and go to a normal school and eat BBQ again and, yeah, his parents would be mad, but after a while they’d understand, they’d have to.
“Henry,” Trent said, patting him tentatively on the shoulder. “It’ll be okay.”
“No it won’t,” Henry hiccupped through his tears. “The principal’s going to make me stay in from recess and write lines forever and then he’ll tell my mom I’m maladjusted again.”
Henry didn’t even know what that word meant, but he heard his mom whispering it to his dad. His dad got this pinched look on his face, like Henry was making him sad by not fitting in or loving London as much as he did.
“How about this,” Trent suggested a bit desperately, shifting so that his body was shielding Henry from most of the nosy looky-loos who had nothing better to do than watch Henry embarrass himself. Couldn’t a man cry in privacy around here? “How about, instead of going to school, we call your mum? She can come pick you up, and you don’t have to go anywhere.”
Henry was breathing in ragged gasps. He was trying to get his face back under control, but it was just making him feel lightheaded. “Mom’s flying to Ed-in-burr-oh for the week.”
It had been a sticky point in their plan. What if he ran into his mom at the airport? But Louise did some research and found out the international flights were in a completely different terminal. Henry was confused because wasn’t Scotland a different country? Louise did more research and found out technically yes but also technically no, which was even more confusing but whatever.
“Well, I’m sure if we call her, she’ll cancel her trip straightaway.”
“I don’t know her new number,” Henry said. He used to have both his parent’s numbers memorized, but they switched to London numbers, which had a lot more numbers. “Dad was supposed to pick me up from school, but he’s on a bus.”
“From Newcastle,” Trent said under his breath.
“Don’t you have his cell number?” Henry asked. He didn’t want Trent to call either of his parents, but it was looking less and less likely he was getting past Step Two today, and getting grounded was probably better than living in a park until his snacks ran out and the pigeons ate him.
“No,” Trent said, sounding confused that Henry would even suggest it.
“Why not?” Henry asked, sniffing. His tears were starting to dry up, but now his nose was all stuffy. “Aren’t you guys friends?”
Trent stared at him. “Why would you think that?”
“Well, he’s always talking about how cool you are and stuff.”
“Ah,” Trent said, looking a little freaked out, which made no sense, but adults were weird sometimes. “I can call the Richmond communications office, I suppose.”
Trent guided Henry over to a bench near the corner of the park. Henry sat, clutching his backpack to his chest, still sniffling as Trent dialed.
“Don’t tell him I was crying,” Henry whispered, feeling small and pathetic.
Trent gave him a funny look. “Does your dad not like it when you cry?”
Henry shrugged. His dad said that crying was a healthy way for a man to express himself, but recently every time he cried his dad got that pinched expression on his face and wanted to talk about feelings for hours afterward.
“I just don’t want to talk about it.”
“Fair enough,” Trent muttered, dialing his cell phone. He held it up to his ear for a long time.
“Maybe they’re all out sick,” Henry said hopefully after Trent tried for the third time.
“They better not be screening my calls again,” Trent said, low and a little dangerous. “Milksops.”
“I could just walk home,” Henry suggested.
“Oh? And simply trust you’ll make it there alive?”
“You could walk me home,” Henry tried.
“And you’ll stay there? No,” Trent sighed, rubbing at his temples, “unfortunately, societal etiquette dictates I’m responsible for your safety until a more qualified person comes around.” Trent examined Henry over the top of his glasses — Henry was reminded of a wise old owl, but thought it'd be impolite to say so. “How would you feel about coming to my office until we get a hold of your dad?”
Henry gasped. “You mean I get to see The Independent? Where all the reporters write their articles and uncover miscarriages of justice and stuff?”
“That would be my office,” Trent said dryly. “But, Henry, this is very important.” Trent leaned close, his face going deadly serious. “You cannot repeat a single word you hear overhear.”
“Oi, dickhead! Back from Newcastle already— oh, shit is that a kid? That’s not your kid.”
“Hello, Mel,” Trent said, leading Henry through the halls with a hand firmly on his shoulder. “Astute as ever.”
“Where the fuck, shit, um, the heck did you get that kid?”
“I popped round the shop. What do you think, you daft numpty?”
“Whoa,” Henry said, delighted. Everyone in The Independent was running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Phones were ringing all over and people were screaming at each other about inches and copy and assets, and Henry was pretty sure he’d heard more swear words in the last thirty seconds than he’d heard in his entire life. “This place rocks.”
“Not. A single. Word.” Trent hissed, pushing Henry past desk after desk of stressed-out looking people who were either yelling or scowling into their phones or typing so fast their fingers blurred. They reached a desk in the corner where a pretty blonde woman was sitting, surrounded by three phones and two computer screens.
“Mr. Crimm,” the woman greeted, doing a double-take when she noticed Henry. “And guest.”
“Anne, this is Henry. Henry, Anne.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Henry said politely, sticking out his hand like his dad taught him. Anne shook it, looking amused. Henry remembered that Granny Ellen said it was polite to compliment people the first time you meet them. “You have very pretty hair.”
“How kind of you to say,” Anne said, shooting Trent a look. “Interesting accent you’ve got there, Henry.”
Henry opened his mouth to reply he didn’t have an accent, thank you very much, but Trent spoke first.
“Could you get me the Richmond communications office on the line? Tell them it’s an emergency, if you don’t mind.”
“Uh-huh,” Anne said, looking back and forth between Henry and Trent. Henry squirmed a little under her gaze. “Is this—”
“As quick as you can, come along Henry,” Trent interrupted, shoving Henry past Anne’s desk and into an office just beyond. As soon as Trent closed the door, he was immediately opening all the blinds on the windows to the outer office, which seemed silly to Henry because what was the point of closing the door when everyone could just look in and spy on you?
And look inside they did, boy howdy. Anne was subtle about it, shooting glances at them out of the corner of her eye, but the others were very clearly gawking at them through the glass. One guy even stood on his chair to get a better view.
“Ignore them, they’re wretched humans,” Trent said. He opened the door and half-leaned out. “Don’t you lot have anything better to do?”
“No,” they all replied as one.
Trent slammed the door in disgust, making the glass rattle in their frames.
Henry nervously turned his back on the windows and looked around the office.
The first thing Henry noticed was the huge desk in the corner. It was the cleanest desk Henry had ever seen. Dad’s desk was always covered in scraps of paper filled with notes and sketches and Mom’s was littered with pens, pencils, and dirty plates. Even his snootiest teachers’ desks were a mess compared to this one. This desk was totally organized, empty of everything except three items set at perfect right angles: a computer screen, a pad of paper, and a phone that was blinking like crazy.
There were two chairs on the opposite side of the desk and a small couch in the far corner. The entire wall space was taken up with stuffed bookshelves covered with, well, books, but there were also stacks of magazines, autographed photos, and things that looked like trophies.
“Whoa,” he said for the second time that day. “This is your office?”
“I’m afraid so,” Trent said, sitting down at the desk and plugging in his laptop.
“It’s huge! Dad’s office is only half this size. Have you read all these books?” Henry dumped his backpack on the couch and walked toward the shelves to read the titles. Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell; On Boxing by Joyce Carol Oates; Everything They've Got by David Halberstam. Ugh, boring.
“I’ve even written some of them,” Trent replied distractedly, clicking away with his mouse.
Men and Glory: The Odyssey of Roy Kent by Trent Crimm.
Holy moley, Trent was a total nerd. Of course his dad couldn’t shut up about him. They probably read the same nerdy books and watched the same nerdy documentaries and knew all the same nerdy stuff. Henry’s shocked his dad hasn’t brought Trent over for dinner and trivia already.
Anne knocked on the door as she opened it, sticking her head in. “Richmond communications is on line three.”
“Thank you,” Trent said, picking up the blinking phone and pushing a bunch of buttons. Anne smiled at Henry and closed the door behind her. Henry noticed that most of the people in the outer office had gone back to yelling at each other and pounding frantically away at their keyboards.
“Hello? Yes, this is Trent Crimm, The Independent. I’ve got a bit of an emergency and need Coach Lasso’s mobile.” Trent paused, brow furrowing in irritation. “Well, his son is currently standing in my office, in my newspaper building, which is filled with bloodthirsty journos. Could you make an exception for that? I see. Your name please? Tell you what, Eric, how about you call Coach Lasso, explain your company policy, and give him my number? When Coach Lasso eventually rings me up, I’ll be sure to tell him how truly dedicated you were to the communications department’s policies and procedures, putting them even before his only son’s wellbeing.”
Henry stared at Trent, mouth dropping open. He’d never heard someone manage to be so rude without actually being rude. Not even Granny Ellen’s sweetest “bless your heart” came close. Is that something they were taught in journalism school? Maybe Trent could give him lessons.
“Wonderful,” Trent said, scribbling a number down on his pad. “You’ve been most helpful.”
“They let you talk to people like that?” Henry asked when Trent hung up. “For a job?”
Trent glanced at him, amused. “It’s encouraged.”
“I’m going to be a reporter,” Henry decided right then and there, flopping onto the couch next to his backpack.
“I’m not sure it's the best career aspiration,” Trent said. “It’s not for everyone.”
“Why not? You get a cool office, you get to swear all the time, and people are terrified of you.”
Henry would bet all the money in his parents’ bank accounts that no one ever made Trent Crimm move across the world or even forced him to do anything he didn’t want to.
“All true, and very excellent points, but—” Trent paused, thinking over his words “—it can be a lonely job, reporting on miscarriages of justice as you say.”
Henry thought Trent looked a little sad. He got it — he’d felt sad a lot recently. Sometimes talking with Louise was the only thing that kept him from curling up into a ball on his bed and never getting up.
“Yeah, but that’s what friends are for. You have friends, right? People you can call and play video games and have sleepovers with?”
Trent’s face was doing that funny spasm again. “Not recently, no.”
“Dad will be your friend,” Henry offered. “He loves sleepovers.”
“Does he?” Trent asked, covering his mouth with his fingertips, voice strangled.
Henry nodded eagerly. “Oh yeah. He always tells the best ghost stories and makes the best late-night brownies. He tells us we need to go to bed by ten, but then he always lets us stay up until at least eleven.”
“He sounds like a wonderful father,” Trent said. “Won’t you miss him after you’ve run away to America?”
Henry looked away, frowning. He hadn’t thought about that when he was planning his escape with Louise. When Dad moved to London, it had sucked big time. His mom didn’t know how to do all the voices during bedtime stories and there was no one to blast music in the morning or tell ghost stories whenever Louise came for sleepovers. He knew his mom had done her best, but she wasn’t Dad. If he lived in Kansas with Louise, then he wouldn’t even have her. Who would tuck him in or make sure he brushed his teeth or make him eggs just the way he liked them? Louise was his best friend, but who would love him?
Henry felt his chin wobble dangerously.
“I’ll let you think that over,” Trent said mildly, picking up his phone and dialing again. “But I do need to call your father now. I know it won’t be an easy conversation, but I promise it’s for the best.”
Bravery isn’t always easy or fun, his mom would say, it takes a strong character to own up to your mistakes, especially when you could lie or let someone else take the blame.
Henry clenched his hands in his lap and nodded. His dad would be mad, maybe even angry like the time he called Charlie Parkins that name on the playground. Dad never yelled, but, boy, he could be really quiet and scary. He couldn’t let his dad get quiet and scary with Trent, that wasn’t fair. Sure, Trent had been kinda mean, not helping him get to the airport and all, but that wasn’t a good reason for letting Trent get scolded in his place.
“I’ll do it,” Henry said morosely. Trent looked at him, face blank and unreadable.
“Yeah, but could you dial for me?” Henry asked. Phone numbers here were weird, it had nothing to do with how badly Henry’s hands were shaking.
“Of course,” Trent said, dialing for him and not mentioning Henry’s trembling fingers when he handed the receiver over.
The phone rang once.
“Trent, I swear to fucking God, this better not be what it sounds like.“
“Dad?” Henry squeaked. He had never heard his dad swear before or sound so hacked off. This was way beyond calling Charlie that word he’d overheard Louise’s dad scream at a car. Henry was in so much trouble. He’d probably get his computer taken away for years . How would he talk to Louise? She was his only friend.
There was a pause on the other end. Henry could hear engine sounds and people chattering away in the background.
“Henry? Henry, honey, are you okay? Higgins called me, something about Trent interviewing you?”
“What?” Henry asked, confused. He turned to Trent. “You’re not interviewing me, are you?”
Trent looked like Henry had just spat in his food. “I’m thrilled to hear your father thinks so highly of my morals that I would stoop to kidnapping a child for a scoop.”
“I’m not a child,” Henry protested. “I’m almost ten.”
“And already an expert in football strategy and statistics?”
“Yeah, in real football, not the fake football you play over here.”
“Henry,” his dad was saying his name over and over again on the other end of the phone, frantic. “Henry, I need you to tell me what's going on. What are you doing in Trent’s office? Are you hurt?”
“No, sir,” Henry muttered. He sucked in a breath and, as Granny Ellen would say, screwed his courage to the sticking place. “I ran away from school and almost got hit by a car.”
There was this wet, breathy intake from his dad’s end. He’s officially the worst son in the world.
“But I’m okay!” Henry said quickly, guilt twisting at his gut. “Mr. Crimm got me out of the way and took me to his office. It’s not his fault, Dad. I wouldn’t let him take me back to school.” Henry picked at the corner of Trent’s desk, where some of the wood had chipped. “I guess I was being a baby about it. I’m… I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings or ruined everyone’s day. I don’t mean to make you and Mom unhappy.”
“Oh, Henry,” his dad said, sounding shattered, like he’d been hit by a car. His dad cleared his throat before continuing. “Can you tell me why you needed to run away from school?”
Henry thought about what he could say — how he missed Louise and Granny Ellen’s farm and his baseball team, how everything here just felt a little bit off, how teachers never called him “Henry” here (always “Mr. Lasso” or “Coach Lasso’s son”), or how he missed the blue sky and empty horizons and fresh air — but his jaw locked, words frozen behind his gritted teeth. Trent watched him for a moment, before taking the phone from Henry’s limb, useless grip.
“Coach Lasso? It’s Trent Crimm,” Trent paused for a moment, then, exasperated, “Yes, The Independent. He’s safe, positively robust. Of course.” His eyes darted over to Henry. “That’s not necessary. Yes. Yes. Not a problem. No, this is my office line. Let me give you my mobile.”
Trent rattled off a bunch of numbers, listened again, and then held the phone back out to Henry. “Your father wants another word.”
Henry held it to his ear. “Hello?”
“Henry, you’re gonna hang with Trent for the rest of the day, okay kiddo? The bus will be back at the clubhouse around two o’clock. Trent’s gonna drive you over to meet us there.”
Henry’s eyes widened. A whole day! A whole day hanging out in Trent’s office and listening to people shout at each other? This was not the reaction Henry had anticipated.
“Yes, sir,” Henry said, trying not to let his excitement show.
“You behave yourself and mind your manners now. Do everything Mr. Crimm tells you. He’s doing us a huge favor, so you treat him with the same respect you’d show a member of the family, okay?”
“We’re gonna have a serious talk about your behavior today when I get back,” his dad sighed loudly, “but right now the most important thing you need to know is that I love you.”
Henry was blinking furiously. “I love you too, Dad.”
“You’ve never made me or your mom unhappy. Not once in your life, understand?”
Now Henry was making that breathy inhaling sound. “Okay.”
“You be good. I’ll see you in a few hours.”
“Bye, Dad,” Henry said, voice frail and shaky — even to his own ears. He hung the phone up and kept his eyes on Trent’s desk. Trent must think he’s the biggest baby in the world. All he’d managed to do today was steal a credit card, almost get himself killed, and cry, like, thirty times.
“I have Tetris on my phone,” Trent said carefully. “If you’d like to play that until your teachers forward your assignments for the day.”
“What?” Henry asked, totally respectfully and not whining at all. “I have to do homework?”
“Education is the passport to the future,” Trent told him snottily, like a huge freaking nerd. “Your father said he will have your work sent to his email, which he will then forward to me.”
Henry groaned. “Can’t I hand out mail or sort files or something instead?” His mom used to let him hand out mail when he came to her office, when she still worked in an office. Plus, if he was walking around, he might be able to learn some new swear words.
“Absolutely not,” Trent said savagely, turning to his computer and clicking away at the keyboard. “I’m not letting you walk around the floor unattended. Those people are animals, and they will eat you alive.”
“Anne seemed nice,” Henry protested. “What? Why are you laughing?”
Adults were the worst.
After Henry beat Trent’s high score (it was sad really, who can’t get past level five?), Trent took his phone back and handed him a printed-out email with his assignments. Henry sighed loudly, but pulled out his math (maths) book and started working on the assignment his teacher sent over. He’d rather do multiplication problems than read about stupid dead kings — he was American, learning about kings went against his cultural values.
Also, Henry would never admit it, but he really liked math. Something about taking all the random numbers and symbols and forcing them to make sense appealed to him. Trent was playing some kinda old-people music softly in the background, alternating between typing furiously and muttering to himself. Occasionally someone would run past Trent’s office, shouting about deadlines or sources. After a while, the hum of activity faded into the background.
He was working on his final problem when his stomach gurgled loudly. Trent glanced up from his computer and blinked, as if surprised to find Henry still sitting on his couch.
“I suppose it’s about lunchtime,” Trent said, looking at his watch. “What do nine-year-olds eat these days?”
“Food,” Henry replied, doing his best impression of Trent’s dry tone. Trent’s lips twitched.
“You’re surprisingly sarcastic for Ted Lasso’s son.”
“My mom’s in marketing,” Henry explained.
“I see,” Trent said, but in a way that implied Henry made no sense at all. “There’s a good chippy—” Trent caught Henry’s cringe, he was so tired of fish he could spit, and smoothly adjusted course “—or I believe there’s a BBQ place near the park.”
“Do they have brisket?” Henry asked, shooting to his feet.
Trent gathered up his coat and shoved his laptop back into his bag. “I suppose we’ll have to find out.”
Crossing the office to the elevators was disappointingly uneventful. Everyone had mostly emptied out — probably either headed to lunch or tracking people down so they could yell at them in person. The only exciting moment was when a tiny, unassuming brunette slammed her phone down and screamed “smarmy bloody tosser” before spotting Henry and going pale.
As they were getting into the elevator, someone in an office on the opposite side of the floor tried yelling at Trent.
“At the copydesk,” Trent cut the man off, and the elevator doors closed. He winked at Henry. “The secret to success is always being a few steps ahead of everybody else.”
Henry nodded gravely. He was going to have to write that one down.
Trent drove them to the restaurant, weaving smoothly in and out of London traffic. He reminded Henry of how his mom used to drive back in Kansas — two hands firmly on the wheel, eyes moving steadily between the road and mirrors.
“Why take the train if you have a car?” Henry had asked, surprised when the elevators opened to an underground garage.
“I drive here with my daughter and then walk her to her daycare — it’s just around the corner from the Tube.”
“Is her mom a reporter too?”
“Her biological parents aren’t involved,” was all Trent said in reply. Henry left it at that. Never go poking where you're not invited, Granny Ellen said.
Henry thought they’d pick up the food and then head right back to the office, but instead Trent turned right, taking them away from the river and closer to the palace.
“Where are we going?” Henry asked. Trent had told him he was in charge of making sure the food didn’t spill, so it was sitting, firmly gripped in his lap. He kept sticking his nose in the bag, breathing in the familiar hickory-smoked scent. Henry wished someone had told his parents London had more to offer than just fancy fish sticks.
“Hyde Park,” Trent said. “I always come here when I need to get away for a bit.”
Hyde Park was like nothing Henry had ever seen before. A huge park smack in the middle of the city, filled with green grass, hundreds of different trees, massive ponds with quacking ducks, and miles of open space that weren’t blocked out by steel buildings or concrete roads.
“Look, a rabbit,” Henry said, tugging excitedly at the sleeve of Trent’s jacket. “Holy mackerel is that a swan? It’s huge!”
“I believe so, yes.” Trent had this small smile on his face, like he was happy Henry found this place as cool as he did. Henry got it — sharing things you loved with people who appreciated them was the best. It was like showing Louise his favorite spot in Granny Ellen’s barn or watching their favorite movies together. He wondered if this was the first time Trent shared this place with anybody. Dad would love it. Maybe they could both show it to him.
Trent let Henry drag him over to a large chestnut tree. They spread the food out on the sun-dappled grass, Trent sitting on his jacket and Henry perched on his backpack. There were other people around, sitting on benches or laying on blankets together in the grass.
The brisket was good. It wasn't Kansas brisket, of course, but it was good enough to make Henry moan in delight.
“I see it passes muster,” Trent said, eating his own sandwich with a fork and knife, careful not to get sauce all over his clothes. Henry grinned up at him before spotting two people practically sucking each other’s faces off a few yards over Trent’s shoulder.
“Ugh,” he muttered, wrinkling his nose.
Trent followed his gaze. When he turned back, his eyes were guarded.
“Do you find men kissing distasteful?”
“No,” Henry said between bites of his brisket. “I just think it's super gross when people mack on each other.”
“Mack on each other,” Trent repeated tonelessly. It was the same way Granny Ellen had sounded when his mom asked if they could swap out turkey for fish one Thanksgiving.
“Yeah, the human mouth has more bacteria than a dog’s butt, you know.”
Trent rubbed his temples. “Where did you say you went to school again?”
“I don’t see why kissing is so great anyway,” Henry continued before trailing off. He narrowed his eyes. “Wait. Do you think it’s gross when men kiss?”
“No,” Trent said, delicately cutting another chuck off his sandwich. “Quite the opposite in fact.”
“Good, because Dad used to kiss Uncle Frank before he married Mom.”
Trent choked on his food.
“He’s not my real uncle,” Henry corrected quickly, handing Trent a napkin.
He’d been confused by that too when he saw the photo of his dad and Uncle Frank in Granny Ellen’s photo album. They’d had long hair, funny-looking jeans, and were holding each other in a way that Henry didn’t think was family appropriate. Granny Ellen explained that Uncle Frank was an honorary uncle on account of his nice manners and pleasant demeanor, but that he and Henry’s dad totally used to mack in the barn and think she didn’t know about it.
“We just call him my uncle because he always comes over for holidays,” Henry continued. “Like Christmas and Thanksgiving, which are family only. He makes really good pie.”
“You mean to tell me,” Trent managed as he coughed up his sandwich, “that your father’s ex-boyfriend comes over for Christmas dinner?”
“Yeah,” Henry said, eyeballing Trent who was looking freaked again. “Why? Is that weird here?”
“No, no more so than anywhere else,” Trent said, but he was still a little wild-eyed. “That was just unexpected information to receive today.”
“I don’t see why adults have to make out all the time,” Henry complained, resuming his original subject. “There are other ways you can do lovey-dovey stuff without sucking each other's face off.”
“And what, pray tell, do you define as appropriate displays of physical affection?” Trent asked, bland as a boiled egg. Henry glared at Trent to show that he knew he was getting sassed.
“Well, Dad always used to lean into Mom’s space and touch her arms and tease her,” Henry explained, thinking back to before his mom and dad started fighting all the time and he had to sit through uncomfortable, silent dinners. He realized with surprise that the memories didn’t make him upset anymore, maybe just a little sad — bittersweet, that was the word. “That was okay, I guess.”
“Isn’t that easy to mistake for displays of friendship?”
“Ew, what?” Henry recoiled. “You don’t lean with your friends!”
“No?” Trent asked mildly, but his face was going all twitchy. “What do you do with friends then?”
“You scheme, of course,” Henry said.
Trent threw back his head and laughed. Henry laughed too. He supposed Trent was his friend now — they had schemed just a tiny bit, but it totally counted — and making your friends laugh was the best feeling in the world.
Trent let him hang out in the park for another whole hour after lunch. Henry lay on his stomach, reading his English assignment as he ran his fingers through the soft grass, stopping sometimes to flop on his back and stare up at the blue sky, listening as the birds chirped away in the trees. He could still hear the sounds of cars in the distance, but it was more background noise and less of a constant soundtrack that drowned everything else out. Occasionally, Trent would point out a bird Henry had missed or explain what type of tree Henry had spotted across the field.
“London isn’t all terrible, I guess,” Henry admitted. Trent glanced up from his phone where he’d been typing rapid-fire with his thumbs. Henry figured he was either writing the world’s longest text or fighting with someone on the internet.
“I’m glad to hear it,” Trent said, tucking his phone in his pocket. “I’m afraid we need to be going. Your father will be arriving at the clubhouse soon.”
Henry’s heart sank.
The drive to the clubhouse was silent. Henry sat in the passenger seat with his backpack clutched to his lap, biting his lip. Trent kept shooting him concerned glances whenever traffic slowed down but didn’t try to make him talk, which Henry was grateful for. Sometimes a man just needed to be alone with his thoughts.
And Henry had a lot of thoughts to pick through. He still hated his school and missed Louise like nothing else, but today had been… fun. Maybe he hadn’t given London a fair shot. There was good food and parks, who knew what else the city had hidden away.
Not to mention the little fact that he was still on the hook for skipping school — and his dad didn’t even know about the stolen credit card or escape plan yet. What if Henry told him and his dad tried to send him back to Kansas? Would his mom have to pack up all their things again? What if he went back to seeing his dad only in summers and spring breaks? Henry didn’t want that, no way.
There were way too many factors for a nine-year-old to handle, even if he was almost ten. He couldn’t even figure out the train system, how was he supposed to work through all this stuff?
“Here we are,” Trent said, pulling to a stop in the parking lot next to the soccer field. “Shall we wait for your dad outside or would you prefer to sit in the car for a bit?”
“Outside,” Henry said, popping open his door and clambering out. May as well enjoy the fresh air before he was grounded for the next fifty years.
Trent stood next to him, watching silently as Henry kicked at the weeds growing up between the cracks of the pavement.
“You know,” Trent said slowly. “At the moment your dad is only aware of your truancy. You could choose to omit the whole running away to America bit from the story.”
“Wouldn’t that be lying?”
Trent shrugged, it was a smooth, elegant gesture that Henry was going to have to practice later on. “Perhaps. Depends on your personal definition of the term and what your conscience can justify. No one would fault you for it. However,” Trent paused, meeting Henry’s eyes, “I think if you did figure out a way to share your burdens with your father, he could help take some of that weight off your shoulders.”
“Dad is always so happy,” Henry tried to explain. “He never lets anything get him down.” Except for me, Henry didn’t answer, I make his shoulders do that weird slumpy thing all the time.
Trent hummed. “Everyone gets depressed, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. We all express it in our own ways. Your father’s no different.”
“What if he’s just upset that I’m depressed?” Henry asked softly.
“Henry,” Trent said, amused. “My job is to study Richmond’s every move and publicly criticize your father for their mistakes. According to what you’ve said today, he gets a giggle out of it. If I don’t upset him, despite my best efforts, how on earth could you?”
Henry tried to smile, but it was a shaky, uncertain thing.
Trent looked like he was about to say something else, but there was a chugging sound, and then the red Richmond bus was coming around the corner, turning into the parking lot. Henry watched it, throat tight. What if Trent was wrong? What if Dad spent the entire bus ride thinking about all the ways Henry disappointed him?
Trent shifted next to him. Henry felt a flare of panic that Trent would drive away, leaving him to face his father on his own. He reached over, gripping Trent’s hand tightly. After a moment, Trent squeezed his hand back.
The bus pulled to a stop, and Henry’s dad was bursting out the doors before they were fully open, sprinting across the parking lot.
Henry barely had time to get a breath out before his dad was scooping him up in his arms, clutching him tightly to his chest. Even though Henry was too big for this kinda stuff, he wrapped his arms around his dad’s neck and clutched back.
“You scared me so badly,” his dad whispered. “I love you so much, kiddo. I can’t do this without you.”
He knew then that Trent had it right all along. Maybe he did make his dad's face pinch up sometimes or make his mom’s smiles anxious, but if his dad was hugging him this tight, there was no way he’d send Henry away. Not now. Not ever.
“I know,” Henry whispered back. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I’ll explain everything.”
“There we go, I’ll just—” Trent started, but Henry’s dad must have grabbed Trent by his jacket and pulled him into their hug because there was an affronted “oof” and then a warm, boney body was crashing against his back. Henry didn’t mind. It felt nice, being held all around like he was something precious. Trent tolerated it for a moment, standing there stiffly before gently pulling away.
Players were starting to file off the bus, chatting away and laughing as they picked up their bags. Henry squirmed. (What if Jamie Tartt saw his father holding him like a baby? He would die.) His dad eventually set him down, but he continued to hold Henry close with an arm around his shoulder. Henry allowed it, looking over at Trent. Wait...
“Are you blushing?” Henry asked, fascinated.
“Don’t be daft,” Trent said, smoothing out the wrinkles in his shirt. Henry must have imagined the red tint to Trent’s checks because he sounded perfectly normal, not all stuttery like the people on TV went when they blushed.
“Trent, I don’t know what to say,” his dad was saying.
Trent smiled. “That would be a first.”
His dad must have found his words because he started rambling away about gratitude and fatherhood and life debts, but Henry tuned him out, eyes getting wider and wider as he watched what was happening in front of him. Dad was leaning into Trent’s space, touching his elbow softly as he talked. Then Henry’s mouth was dropping open because Trent was leaning back — his dad and Trent curling towards one another like two magnets helpless to resist.
And, like he’d just solved a complicated equation, everything slotted perfectly into place.
“Whoa,” Henry said softly to himself, but Trent must have heard him. His dark eyes shot back and forth between Henry and his dad, and he was pulling back, drawing into himself.
“Yes, well, I do need to be getting back to the office,” Trend said, backing slowly away. He was totally freaking. “If I miss another deadline today, my editors will have me sacked.”
“You already submitted your article to the copydesk,” Henry reminded him helpfully. Trent’s nostrils flared.
“Thank you so much for that, Henry," Trent drawled. "What would I do without you?”
Henry was pretty sure he was getting sassed again.
“That’s all right, Trent,” his dad said, tucking Henry in against his side. “You’ve done plenty today, and I think Henry and I are due for a good ol’ father-son heart-to-heart.”
Henry winced. He may have come to terms with what he needed to do, but he still wasn’t looking forward to all the talking in his future. Lists and charts would probably be involved — his mom loved mood boards.
Trent practically bolted back to his car, but before he disappeared inside the door, he looked over at Henry and inclined his head.
“It’s been an enlightening experience, Henry,” he said, eyes crinkling fondly. “Best of luck.”
“Thanks for lunch,” Henry said, remembering his manners. “And for taking me to the park. And for letting me hang out in your office. I really liked watching all those people have nervous breakdowns and scream at their computers.”
Trent stared at him. “He’s certainly your son, Coach Lasso.”
“Oh yeah, he’s a real character.”
“Bye, Trent!” Henry waved. Bye for now, he didn’t add.
He would see Trent again, he’d make sure of it.
“Is that him?” Louise whispered loudly, tugging on Henry’s shirt. Getting her parents to let her come to England for Thanksgiving break had been an exercise in parental warfare, but eventually they’d managed it. It helped that Henry’s mom and dad were also working on Louise’s parents from their end. Now Henry had a whole week to show Louise all the coolest parts of London that he and his mom had found on their new weekly adventures. He couldn’t wait to show her the museum with all the pirate ships! (The guy at the museum insisted they were “merchant marine ships,” but it sure sounded like the British just sailed around and stole a bunch of stuff.)
Henry turned and looked in the direction she was pointing. “It’s him! Hey, Trent! Mr. Crimm!”
Trent Crimm, dressed in another button-up and tie, glanced around. Henry rushed past all the Richmond fans crowding up the hall, dragging Louise behind him.
“Ah, Henry. Lovely to see you again.”
“You’re Trent Crimm from The Independent?” Louise asked, eye wide in amazement. Trent blinked down at her, dumbfounded.
“This is Louise, my very best friend,” Henry introduced them like Granny Ellen said a proper midwestern gentleman should, by sharing interesting facts about the other person. “Louise, this is Trent Crimm. He makes grown men cry on national television.”
“Dude,” Louise drew out reverentially. “Respect.”
Henry knew time was limited. He started talking as fast as he could, telling Trent all about his new school. Did Trent know there were schools where you didn’t have to wear ties all the time? Henry’s new math (sorry — maths) teacher was already starting them on ratios even though that was totally advanced, and no one made a big deal about Henry’s dad being a coach because who had time to care about sports when the Robotics World Championship was coming up?
Trent listened, staring at them like they were strange, three-headed creatures that had crawled out from the shadowy depths of the locker room.
“Hey, there you are!” Henry’s dad finally caught up with them. “You two are trickier to wrangle than a greased pig at the county fair. Heya, Trent. How you doing? Excited for today’s match?”
Trent was still watching Henry and Louise warily. “Exceedingly.”
“I see your fan club found you,” his dad said, clapping Trent lightly on the shoulder, letting his fingertips settle there. Trent slanted towards the touch — Louise and Henry exchanged knowing glances. “You’ve become a household name in Casa Lasso. It’s all Trent Crimm this, The Independent that. I’m starting to wonder if I should trade in my coaching visor for some reporter credentials, you know what I’m saying?”
“Haven’t the foggiest,” Trent replied, but he was smirking at Henry’s dad, a teasing twist to his lips.
“Are you here to write about the game?” Henry asked.
“Oooh, Mr. Lasso, can we watch the game with Trent Crimm?” Louise turned to Henry. “I wanna hear all those swears for myself, just like—”
“Okay,” Trent interrupted, darting a nervous glance at Louise and holding his bag up like a shield. “This has been an unfathomable interaction, but I do need to get to my seat.”
Henry’s dad just laughed, nudging Trent with his shoulder. “See what I mean? Next thing you know, they’ll be wearing shirts with your name on the back. Just wait! Only four more years until your kiddo hits this age.”
“Oh, God,” Trent said, horrified, before disappearing into the press box.
His dad stared after Trent for a moment before ushering Henry and Louise to their seats, depositing them next to Ms. Welton.
“Excited for the match?” Ms. Welton asked, handing them a bag of popcorn and tucking a blanket over their laps.
“Yes,” both Henry and Louise lied in unison, smiling innocently until Ms. Welton turned back to the field.
“Dude,” Louise whispered furiously. “Mr. Trent and your dad are totally in love.”
“I knoooow,” Henry whispered back. “I don’t even think they realize it. It’s the saddest thing ever.”
“We have to get them together,” Louise declared, reason number five trillion why she was the most awesome friend in the world. “If we don’t, they’ll try to find themselves and end up taking solo camping trips and getting eaten by bears.”
Henry grinned, pulling out a paper with a rough plan already timelined out. The secret to success, as Trent Crimm once said, was to always be a few steps ahead of everyone else.
The match began with the piercing shriek of a whistle. People leaped to their feet, shouting and cheering. Goals were scored and blood was shed. There were even a few swears yelled. Neither Louise nor Henry noticed a second of it. They were busy, heads bent together and scheming.