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Pushing the kitchen door open, I smile at Lucille

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Pushing the kitchen door open, I smile at Lucille. She rushes to me, her beautiful face etched with concern. I try my hardest to ignore Finch, who sits at the island scoffing down a plate of eggs.

'Oh, bless you for coming over so early, sweetheart. I didn't know what else to do.'

'The boy'll be fine, Dilly,' Thaddeus says, putting his arm around his wife. 'Hearts fix themselves with time.' His gruff voice is cheery, but his presence alone tells me how worried he is. Nothing keeps him from the office.

Two days off school is unlike James. None of us buy the stomach bug lie. He's avoiding Elodie. My insistence on checking he's ok ruffled Cricket's feathers. I don't point out that I know him just as well, if not better than Elodie. Absorbed as she is in 'girl code', she doesn't get it. Neither does Anna-Beth. The only one as worried about James's absence as me, is Ellie.

It's more than him missing Miss Colter's Literature class that worries me, even with us starting a Steinbeck study I'm dreading. After turning his back on his friends three months ago, he lacks a support system without us. I can't imagine the football players ringing up to check on him.

'Can I go up?' I know how strict Lucille is with girls upstairs, so I add, 'I'll leave the door open of course.' Thaddeus's thick moustache twitches.

Nodding, Lucille hands me a steaming mug of black coffee and a bowl of brightly coloured cereal that churns my stomach. I wrinkle my nose.

'Let me help you with that,' Finch says, reaching out for the bowl. My heart flutters at his good intentions. He knows how much I hate the sickly, multi-coloured milk. I shut down my feelings.

'I'm good.' My curt voice causes pain as clearly as if I've slapped him.

Nostrils flaring, he grabs his backpack from the side. 'Suit yourself.'

His absence leaves a deafening silence and a furrow in Lucille's brow. Before she can ask any probing questions, I excuse myself.

It feels almost illicit climbing the stairs. I reach James' door and call out. When he doesn't respond, I place down the cup and bowl and knock. From inside, the dull, melancholy thud of a song I don't recognise blares. I turn the handle and push, only to find the door locked.

'I'm coming in one way or another,' I say, raising my voice so I know he can hear me. 'If that means I have to climb out of Finch's bedroom, no doubt hurting myself on that broken sash, sidle across the roof and up that weedy wisteria, I will. Don't think I won't.' I pause and listen for movement. Hearing none, I continue. 'You know, wisteria isn't known for its strength, and I don't want you to have my unfortunate death on your conscience. After all - '

The door clicks, and I smile at my small victory. Who says you can't speak someone into submission? His room is messier than I remembered it: piles of clothing form a second carpet, and I can count at least four mugs on the cluttered surfaces. I'm partway through working out how to sneak them downstairs with me when he speaks.

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