However, I see a sadness there, too; a softness for us, a familiar bent of the head that comes from the things we're used to seein', like the sun-dazzled canopies of the Hundred Acre Wood, or learnin' to go without butter, or havin' Mama disappear for weeks on end.
She waits until I'm steady again. I hold on to her eyes, like a rock in the roilin' river.
"Your mother wrote us last month, Carey. She said she could no longer take care of you and your sister"
"That's a lie! She'd never leave us!"
"She asked us to intervene," she continues, ignorin' my outburst. "We would've been here sooner, but we couldn't find you girls. She really had you hidden away pretty good."
But it's a strangled cry, a hollow cry, floatin' away on the air like dandelion fluff and wishes that don't come true. And then, as quick as the emotion escapes, it freezes over. I stand up straight. I am ice, slippery and cool, impenetrable and in control.
"You must have it wrong, ma'am. Mama wouldn't leave us permanent-like. You must've misunderstood."
The three of us jump back, but not fast enough. Nessa's stomach contents spatter Mrs. Haskell's fancy shoes. This, I can tell, is somethin' she ain't used to. Mrs. Haskell throws up her hands, and without thinkin', I fling my arms in front of my face.
"Oh, God, honey, no"
"Just leave us alone," I snap. "I wish you'd never found us!"
Without a word, she knows another one of my secrets, and I hate her for it. I hate them both.
Her eyes burn into my back as I lead Jenessa over to a pail. I dip a clean rag into the water and dab at my sister's mouth, her eyes glazed over and dartin' from me to them like a cornered rabbit. The man walks away, his shoulders saggin'. He pulls a cigarette pack from his coat pocket, the cellophane crinklin' like a butterscotch wrapper.
Get a hold of yourself this instant, Carey Violet Blackburn! Fix this!
"You're scarin' my little sister," I say, my voice close to a hiss. "Look, Mama will be home tomorrow. Why don't you come back and we can discuss it then?"
I sound just like an adult. Pretty convincin', if you ask me.
"I'm sorry, Carey, but I can't do that. Under the laws of the state of Tennessee, I can't leave two minor children unattended in the woods."
I soak another rag in the water and hand it to Mrs. Haskell, lowerin' myself onto the rough bark of a downed tree. Then I pull Ness onto my lap, my arm around her waist, not even carin' about the acrid smell that replaces the sweet, sunbaked one from just an hour ago. Her body is limp, like a rag doll in my arms. She's already gone.
"Can I see the letter, ma'am?"
Mrs. Haskell picks her way over to the table, riffles through more papers, and returns with a sheet of my own notebook paper containin' a handful of lines that, even from a distance, I recognize as Mama's scratchy penmanship. I pluck the page from her fingers, turn from her, and begin readin'.
To Whom It May Concern,
I'm writing in regards to my daughters, Carey and Jenessa Blackburn
It's as far as I get before the waterfall blinds me. I wipe my face with the back of my hand, pretendin' I don't care that everyone sees.
"Can I keep it, ma'am?"
Without waitin' for an answer, I fold the paper into smaller and smaller squares before shovin' it into my jeans pocket.
Mrs. Haskell nods. "That's just a copy. The original is in your official records. We need it for the hearing, when your case goes before the judge."
I jut my chin at the man on the bench, who's watchin' us, squintin' through a latticework of cigarette smoke, his form spotlighted by the wanin' sunlight.
Excerpted from If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch. Copyright © 2013 by Emily Murdoch. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Griffin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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