“We’ll sit down and talk about this. We’ll make a plan for how to make sure we’re taking care of ourselves and each other while Mom’s away.”
He’s been saying this for two weeks now, been referring to this mythical conversation we’re allegedly going to have, in which everything will be ironed out and processed and prayed over and resolved, and yet we somehow never actually have it.
We pull out of the lot. The air blowing into the car finally begins to cool. “I just have to get through church tomorrow,” he says, “then on Monday we’ll figure it all out.” He glances at me. “Okay?” The only response I can give is “Okay.” I know that church comes first, and I didn’t expect us to actually get five minutes to talk, and I guess I should be grateful we got groceries and went to the hardware store.
When we’re almost home, I say, “I ran into Vanessa in the store. I think I’m going to spend the night over there.” Because suddenly the prospect of conversation with other people doesn’t seem as hard as going into that house, our house, staying there with no AC while Dad holes up in his office getting ready for tomorrow. He gives my knee a light and happy smack. “Good, Sam. Good. I’m glad. You need to have some fun.”
At Vanessa’s house, the air-conditioning works and the mail isn’t piled up and we sit around the table, all of us together, looking out onto a backyard where every thing is under control.
“After dinner, you two can go out and pick some tomatoes,” Mrs. Hathaway says as we all pass her our shallow bowls, which she fills with mounds of Chinese chicken salad. “Sam, you can take some home. We’ve got a bumper crop out there.”
“Does this have onions?” Robby, Vanessa’s seven-year-old brother, scrutinizes his dish. He always inspects his food with a funny kind of thoroughness — C.S.I. Dinner Plate.
“No, honey,” his mom says. “Just scallions.”
“I love scallions,” I say, trying to help, making my eyes big and excited. “They’re my favorite. Plus they make you super strong.” He’s skeptical. “What are scallions?”
“Green onions,” Vanessa says. Mrs. Hathaway gives her a look. After we’re all served, Mr. Hathaway extends his hands — one to Robby, on his left, and one to me, on his right. I take it, and Vanessa takes mine, and Mrs. Hathaway takes hers, and then completes the circle by holding Robby’s. The prayer over the food is on the long side, as Mr. Hathaway covers not only the food but also each one of us as well as world events. His hand is rougher and bigger than my dad’s, calloused from playing the guitar, which he does almost every Sunday.
“Amen,” he finally says, giving my hand a squeeze.
This is what a family is supposed to feel like.
“How’s your mother doing?” Mrs. Hathaway asks, as if it isn’t the hardest question in the world to ask and answer.
“Fine.” I eat a bite of salad. It’s good. Mrs. Hathaway got this recipe from my mom.
“I know it’s hard right now, but it’s good that she’s getting help.”
“Mom . . . ,” Vanessa says, and glances at me apologetically.
Robby asks, “Why does Sam’s mom need help?”
I start to say that she had a little run-in with a fence post, which is true, but Mrs. Hathaway answers first: “She’s sick, Robby. It’s a disease. It’s —”
“Well, not quite.” She looks thoughtful. This is a Teachable Moment. “But you could say —”
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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