“We don’t really need to go into this right now, do we, Nance?” Mr. Hathaway looks at Robby. “Sam’s mom doesn’t have cancer, bud. She’s going to be fine.”
“Yeah,” I say to Robby, who’s staring at me with eyes that are the same blue as Vanessa’s. “She’s going to be fine.” Out in the yard the ripe tomatoes are almost jumping into our hands. It’s dusk, and the hummingbird moths hover and swoop around the lavender bushes while Daisy, Vanessa’s golden retriever, walks the perimeter of the yard over and over. The Hathaways’ yard is smaller than ours — they live a little closer to the main part of town where the houses are packed in a little more tightly. But it’s definitely a better yard. They have a drip irrigation system, with a trickle of water constantly seeping out, just under the soil, and neat rows of summer produce. I wonder if I could do that without any help.
“My mom is so dumb sometimes,” Vanessa says, straightening up among the tomato plants.
“It’s okay. It’s just . . . I didn’t know she knew. And that you know.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
I move to another plant, but most of the tomatoes on this one are still a little green. “I was going to. You haven’t been back that long.”
Vanessa, along with almost the entire youth group except for me, went on a mission trip to Mexico. A lot of kids had to raise the money, but Mom didn’t want me to because of how my dad’s job already involves asking for money. When you stand there every week and pray before the offering plate is passed, people get funny about it.
I change the subject. “I love your haircut. It makes you look older.”
She reaches a hand to her neck. “Really? It feels so short. This one old lady in Mexico thought I was a boy. Ugh.” “No, it’s cute. And with the highlights cut off it looks more cocoa-y.” I find a dark red tomato and pluck it from the vine. “Maybe I should chop my hair off, too.” Even though I’ve always had long hair, the same ashy blond as my mom’s, maybe short hair like Vanessa’s could help me feel less weighed down by . . . every thing.
“I like your hair the way it is.”
We pick for a while, just listening to the crickets, before she says, “I wish you could have been there, in Mexico. It wasn’t the same without you.”
“Thanks. I wish, too.”
“Sam? Is your mom really going to be okay?”
I blink several times and bend low, pretending to be interested in the plants. “Yeah. It takes time.” That’s what they said in the family orientation. It takes time, and patience, and perseverance. “Are you okay?”
She wants me to talk, as in really talk, about my feelings. And I know she’ll try again when we’re in our sleeping bags tonight, and in the morning when we’re getting ready for church. And every time, I know I won’t be able to.
“Mm-hmm.” I hold up my bowl of tomatoes. “Do you think this is enough?”
The outline of her head in the dimming yard nods.
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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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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