Nebraska, June, the sky white with heat.
The dust devil begins with a pocket of unstable air where a farmer’s field of irrigated beans meets the heated asphalt of Highway 20, sending up a sudden rush of warm air that swirls and stretches higher, increasing speed. The twisting funnel of dirt and debris moves east through fields of alfalfa and wheat and corn toward the town of Two Rivers, where, in a two-storied foster home, a girl named Lana Morris lives.
Lana is sixteen and slim, with watchful dark eyes, brown hair that falls in straight lines down her long back, and a slot between her two front teeth that was once called her most charming feature by one of the least reliable in her mother’s long line of unreliable boyfriends. He said she was pretty, too, but the truth is Lana doesn’t think anything about herself is charming or pretty, only that the slot between her front teeth is the exact thickness of a dime, something she learned by trial and error.
Slipped into the crease behind Lana’s left ear, where some people might store a pencil or even a cigarette, you will normally find a tightly rolled two-dollar bill. With use and with time, this bill has been worn soft as cloth. Lana believes the bill was left to her by her father, believes that by unrolling it and holding it flat in her hand, she can sometimes feel the presence of the person he must have been. Lana has always believed in things. Fortune cookies. Horoscopes. That one of these days her mother (whereabouts unknown) would stop drinking, get a steady job, and buy them a little house somewhere. That her father, before he died, was nicer and less foolish than people said he was.
Lana stares down at her open hand with mild surprise. A minute before, she’d been drawing on a yellow legal pad, and now, without remembering doing it, she’s smoothing the two-dollar bill across the flat of her palm.
Lana rolls and fastens the bill, then tucks it behind her ear. Today will be okay, she thinks, if I can just get out of the house.
Always a big if.
It’s Saturday morning, for one thing. School is out for the summer. Whit Winters, her foster father, is upstairs asleep. His wife, Veronica, is in the backyard hanging sheets. Lana makes a point of being where Veronica isn’t, so she’s sneaked out to the front porch and sits sketching on a yellow legal tablet and eating Froot Loops from a box with a foster girl named Tilly, who is also sixteen. With her curly brown hair, green eyes, and round body, Tilly looks almost normal, but she isn’t.
“Look, Lana!” Tilly says, and Lana looks. Tilly holds open her pudgy hand to display a dozen or so Froot Loops, all pink. “Look! Look!”
“Pink is definitely your favorite,” Lana says.
Tilly says seriously, “Pinkies are better than yellows, Lana. You bet.”
They both fall quiet in the thick heat. Lana goes back to sketching Whit Winters’s face from memory. She can do his wavy hair, and she’s never had trouble with his eyes, but there’s something wrong with the chin, and if the chin’s wrong, everything’s wrong. He looks sharp and bony instead of smooth and boyish. She erases quickly, whisks the pink rubbery dust away with the side of her hand, and starts again.
Cicadas are whirring in the cottonwood, and a crow descends on the front lawn. Lana, lost again in her drawing, presumes this is a Saturday morning like any other Saturday morning, but in this she is wrong.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Decoding of Lana Morris by Laura McNeal and Tom McNeal. Copyright © 2007 by Laura McNeal. Excerpted by permission of Ember, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.