Ralph is hunkered down in the kitchen sink when I come in, cool porcelain all around him, and meows at me as if there’s something I can do about the heat. I’d sit in the sink, too, if I fit. I lift him out and put him on the floor where he paces and meows and rubs his gray fur against my legs.
There’s no cat food. There’s barely any people food. I tear a few pieces off a leftover rotisserie chicken in the back of the fridge and toss them on the floor for Ralph, then pull an envelope from the stack of mail on the counter and start a grocery list on the back of it.
Soon I hear Dad up and moving around, and within a few minutes he appears under the archway to our open kitchen. I lift my head and he’s rumpled and sweaty, his thick hair sticking up every which way, and staring at me like he’s thinking of how to form the words that will make whatever it is not sound so bad.
“What,” I say. It’s not a question, because I know it’s something. Every day it’s something.
I wait for it, thinking of some of the information that has recently followed that statement.
Grandpa’s surgery didn’t go like we’d hoped. We’re not sure if we can pay the tuition at Amberton Heights Academy next year.
Your mother’s been in an accident.
“The air conditioner is on the blink,” Dad says.
He reaches down to scratch Ralph’s head. “At least, I can’t get it cranking. On the up side, the TV seems back in commission. I’m not sure how, but we’re getting a picture again.” “My ceiling fan isn’t working, either.” “You’re kidding.”
“No. And we need to buy groceries today.” I hold up the envelope I’ve been writing on. “I’m making a list.” He comes close, smelling like someone who lives in a house where there is no air, and takes the envelope, turning it over to look at the front. It’s a bill of some sort. “When did this come?” He rips into it.
“I don’t know. The mail has been sitting here . . .” For a while. “Don’t mess up my list.”
He pulls out the bill, looks at it for half a second, and stuffs it back into the envelope. “I guess I should go through all of this,” he says, looking at the pile.
“Yeah.” There are a lot of things around here I can take care of, a lot of things I have been taking care of for a long time, but being fifteen and unemployed, money isn’t one of them.
Dad searches through a pile of paper on the other end of the counter. “Doesn’t your mom keep coupons around here somewhere?” “Mom hasn’t clipped coupons in at least three years,” I say. I know, because it was my job to sit at the counter with the Sunday paper while Dad was at church getting ready for the ser vice. I’d scan the coupons and deals, while Mom had her weekly anxiety attack about what to wear, and what to make me wear. She hated Sundays. Eventually I realized she wasn’t even using the coupons, and I figured I’d be of more use helping Mom get dressed and ready and calm. “You look perfect,” I’d assure her. And she always did.
Dad, of course, was never here for any of that, so he has no idea. He stops rummaging through the papers and looks at me. “Well, what is all this, then?”
It’s stuff from the last four months that she was scared to throw away: old phone messages, fl yers for events she was afraid she’d forget about, bank deposit slips. She used to like a neat house, everything in order, so the fact that she let that stuff pile up should have told Dad something. Obviously, he’d barely noticed the kitchen counter until right this moment.
Excerpted from Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr. Copyright © 2009 by Sara Zarr. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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