Twice I step on Nessa's foot, and tears spring to her eyes. I pat her headit'll have to dothen stand back, fold my arms, and wait.
"Wouldn't you like to sit?" the woman asks, her voice soft.
I glance at Nessa, squirmin' in her seat, shyly slurpin' her water, and shake my head no. The woman smiles at me before fumblin' through her briefcase. She slides out a manila folder thick with pages. The white label on the front, I can even read upside down. It says: "Blackburn, Carey and Jenessa."
"My name is Mrs. Haskell," she says.
She pauses, and I follow her gaze back to my sister, who pours a few drops of water into an old bottle cap. We all watch as Nessa leans down and sets it in front of a fat beetle laborin' through the sea of wanwood leafmeal.
I nod, not knowin' what to say. It's hard to keep my eyes on her when the man keeps starin' at me. I watch a tear slip down his clean-shaven cheek, surprised when he don't wipe it away. Puzzle pieces click-clack into old places and my stomach twists at the picture they're startin' to make.
He hasn't offered his name, and he isn't familiar to me. But in that instant, hittin' like a lightnin' bolt, I know who he is.
"It's called Brut. I can't smell it anymore without gettin' sick, thinkin' what he did to us."
The memory bridges ten years of space, and, just like that, I'm five again, and on the run, clutchin' my dolly to my chest like a life preserver. Mama, crazy-eyed and talkin' nonsense, backhandin' the questions from my lips until the salty-metal taste of tears and blood make me forget the questions in the first place.
"Do you know why we're here?"
Mrs. Haskell searches my face as my stomach contents begin their climb: beans, of course. Baked beans cold from the can, the sweet kind Nessa likes so much. I feel like a fortune-teller, knowin' her words are about to change the earth below and the sky above and rearrange everythin' we hold normal and dear.
I stare at her, expectin' the inevitable.
"We're here to take you home, Carey."
I wait for the ground to right itself, and once it does, I fling myself into the bushes and let the beans fly. Afterward, the anger licks my innards like a wildfire. I turn around, hands on my hips, and stare this woman down. She cringes when I wipe my mouth on the sleeve of my T-shirt.
"That's impossible, ma'am. We are home. We live here with our mama."
"Where is your mom, honey?"
I glare at her; no way I'm fallin' for the "honey" bit.
"Like I said, Mama went into town for supplies. We were runnin'runningout of some stuff and"
"How long has she been gone?"
I have to lie. Jenessa is almost hyperventilatin', on the verge of one of her nervous fits. She skitters over and stands next to me, reachin' for my hand and holdin' it so tight, my pulse punches through my fingernails.
"Mama left this mornin'. We're fixin' on seein' her before nightfall."
I give Ness's hand a hard squeeze.
"Your mother said she left over two months ago. We received her letter yesterday."
The blood rushes from my head and my ears ring. I grasp onto a nearby branch for steadyin'. I must have heard her wrong. But she nods her head yes, her eyes full of sorrys I don't want to hear.
Jenessa's tears tickle my arm like chiggers, and I want to scratch, but I can't let go of her hand. She sags against me, and again, I burn. Look what they're doin' to my sister. Mama was right: Outsiders can't be trusted. All they do is ruin lives.
Mrs. Haskell smiles an apologetic smile, a practiced smile, like we're not her first victims, nor her last. I wonder how many kids have stood before her like this, swayin' in their newly tiltin' worlds. Hundreds, I'd bet, goin' by her eyes.
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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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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