• • •
In the grocery store, Dad doesn’t approve of my list. “Your mother lets you eat like this?” He puts a bag of chocolate-covered pretzels back on the shelf.
I stare at him.
“Nothing.” Just that you sound like a weekend dad who’s been divorced for years, I think, not someone who allegedly lives in the same house as me.
He pushes the cart down the cereal aisle and throws in a box of cornflakes, the store brand that’s always on sale and is not so much cornflakes as corn dust. To stop myself from complaining I turn on my heel and go off to the pet supplies, where I run right into Vanessa and her mom struggling with a twenty-pound bag of dog food. “Sam!” Vanessa drops her end of the bag to the floor and hugs me.
It’s only been a little over a week since I’ve seen her, but she looks like a whole different person to me. True, she’s gotten her hair cut, and maybe she’s a little bit more tan, but I mean she feels like a stranger — her voice, her soft arms around my neck, like it’s been ten years, not ten days. I pull back, and wonder if she thinks I feel like a stranger, too.
“Didn’t you get my messages?” she asks. “I —” Whatever I say won’t be true. How do you admit to avoiding your best friend?
Mrs. Hathaway, still grasping her corner of the dog food bag, saves me. “We wanted to invite you over for dinner sometime this week, if that would be okay with your dad.”
She knows about my mom being gone, that’s obvious, because normally she would have said, if that would be okay with your mom. Which makes me wonder how many other people from church know and when Dad is going to officially announce it so that I can stop playing the “I don’t know if you know” game every time I run into church people , which is pretty much every time I leave the house.
“Yeah,” Vanessa says, bouncing a little bit on the balls of her feet, “you can spend the night.”
“I’ll make your favorite Chinese chicken salad,” Mrs. Hathaway coaxes. She always makes me feel like one of the family, as if she and my mom are still best friends and we all practically live at each other’s houses, even though that hasn’t been true for years. “Come on, Sam.” Vanessa is practically begging. I could make both my dad and Vanessa happy by simply letting the word yes come out of my mouth.
But I don’t want to.
I don’t want to be with people . I don’t want to talk to people . I don’t want to answer questions or pretend to be interested in conversations or activities.
“I’m really tired,” I say. Which is true.
Vanessa’s shoulders slump. “So?”
“Maybe. I’ll call you.” It’s the best I can do. “I have to go find my dad.” I pile a dozen cans of cat food into my arms.
“Okay, sweetie,” Mrs. Hathaway says. “You let us know. Or just show up. You know our home is your home.”
The way she says that, so sincere and warm and nurturing, makes me start to tear up unexpectedly, and I turn as I say, “Thanks,” before she can hug me and make it worse. “Call me, Sam,” Vanessa says. “I miss you!” “Me, too,” I say automatically.
I find Dad in the produce section, loading the cart with vegetables. “There you are,” he says. “Grab anything else you need and then we have to scoot. I haven’t even started prepping tomorrow’s sermon.”
“Dad,” I say, staring into the cart.
“It’s all . . . ingredients.”
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
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