Sara Lost and Found
SOMETIMES THERE’S A TUG-OF-WAR INSIDE of me. My head says one thing. My stomach says another. Like yesterday, when I stole a roll of paper towels from the 7-Eleven around the corner. My head said, Don’t. My stomach said, Do.
So I did.
And yeah, paper towels might seem like a strange thing to steal. I mean, I could have stolen some candy, or crackers or something. But paper towels last longer than food. A roll of paper towels can feed me and my sister, Anna, for a whole week—sometimes more.
I know my name is Sara Rose Olson. I know what empty feels like. And I know I should feel bad for stealing. But I don’t. Last night, waiting for Daddy to come home, I ripped off pieces of paper towel, wadded them up, chewed the paper balls soft and slow, and swallowed. I felt better. I gave some to Anna. She sat cross-legged on the floor next to me. We didn’t have to talk about it. We just ate. I pictured myself biting into a juicy hamburger. I know Anna was picturing her favorite—hot dogs.
Eating paper towels is the secret way I trick my stomach into thinking it’s been fed. It works, too. By the time Anna and I’d eaten only half a square of paper towel, our stomachs quit making those whiny noises. And after eating one towel each, we both felt better.
* * *
Tonight I’m not awake because I’m hungry. I have a stomach full of paper towel. Tonight what’s keeping me awake is the wind. It’s whipping around like it needs to get somewhere fast.
I look around. Spidery shadows dance on the walls. A skit, skit across the floorboards draws my eyes to the dark hallway. At first I think the sound is rain pattering down instead of little rat claws skittering, but when their tiny feet hit the paper on the floor, the sound changes to a muffled scuffle. Rain doesn’t sound like that.
Then a different noise makes me listen even harder. It sounds like someone scratching against the window. My whole body turns cold. I lie frozen on the bed, too scared to look, but then I slowly sit up, squeeze my eyes shut, open them, and squint against the darkness. The window slowly starts looking like a window, instead of a big, dark hole in the wall.
I look through the dark pane, heart pounding. No prowler. Just the low branches of a tree scraping against the glass. I lie back on the mattress slowly. It’s got some small rips, and hard springs press against my back. I try to get my breath to slow down.
I’ve been jumpy like this ever since last year, when I turned nine. A couple of days after my birthday, Mama took off, leaving a hole in me so big she might just as well have died. Daddy, Anna, and I weren’t the only things she left behind. Mama left a letter, too, and a picture. I hid them, afraid Daddy would tear them up or throw them away like everything else of Mama’s that he tossed out after she left us. The letter and picture are almost the only things of Mama that Anna and I have left. Just thinking about Daddy finding them sends heat through me that warms me up. He’ll be so mad I hid them if he ever finds out.
“That woman is plumb crazy,” he’d tell us. But then I think of what Mama said to me once, and I feel cold again. It wasn’t crazy that made Mama run off. It was me.
“Every time I look at you, I see him.”
I know the “him” Mama was talking about was Daddy. I can’t help thinking that if only I looked different, Mama wouldn’t have run away. Now Daddy’s gone too.
Not gone-gone, like Mama.
Daddy disappears every once in a while, but he always comes back. It’s been longer this time, though, and Anna and I are more scared than a pair of cats in a room full of rocking chairs.
Daddy’s a singer and drummer in a band called Stix and Stonz. Stones is the last name of two other guys in the band. They call Daddy “Stix” because he’s skinny, and because he plays the drums. Sometimes at night I lie awake and hear him drumming in his room. Tat-tat-tat, like rain on a tin roof, like the top of a shed Anna and I once hid in. I listen hard to hear the sound in my thoughts. Normally, it brings Daddy closer, but tonight my thoughts won’t work right.
The scratching noises don’t scare me anymore, but I’m still cold. I roll onto my side and peek at Anna, whose face, for once, doesn’t look all twisted. It’s good to see her sleeping so hard and not waking up because of horrible nightmares, the noisy wind, scratchy trees, or skittering rats.
A couple of nights ago, Anna and I buried one we found in the alley. Even though it was dead, its bright little beady eyes glowed in the moonlight. The rat couldn’t have been dead long. Its fur was still soft, yet it lay there like a clump of loosened dirt.
We lined a box with soft leaves. The coffin was a shoe box we’d saved full of treasures, including the picture of Mama, which I took out and put in my jacket. Then we gave the rat a name. No one should die without a name. I wanted to name it Sid because I thought that was a great name for a rat, but Anna gave it another name.
“Hope it’s not dead.”
“It is,” I said.
“Hope we can fix it.”
“Bury Hope,” she murmured.
And we did. We buried Hope with all the love we could muster.
The ceremony was a short one. Anna scooped dirt over the box while I sang a good-bye song I made up right on the spot. When the last scoop of dirt was patted down, we made a ring of small rocks around the lumpy mound. Then we marched back to the house, sad for Hope but happy that we could send the rat on its new journey in a nice box with two somebodies missing it.
I climb out of bed, telling myself with each step that everything’s going to be okay. The wooden floor is cold and sends tiny shivers up my legs. I walk faster. I try to pull the window all the way shut, but it won’t budge. A chilly breeze swirls around my nightshirt.
A movement on the glass makes me jump. My heart beats faster. Is someone outside peeking in after all?
When I look again, I see that it’s only me in the glass and feel silly at being scared of my own face. Seeing myself in the glass makes me feel better—like I’m not alone.
Sometimes reflections look like they’re supposed to—color and all. Other times, or at other angles, I can only make out shadows. I lean close to the cold glass for a better look. In the shadows, my hair looks inky black. I look different with such dark hair. My hair is really brown like toast. In the reflection, my eyes are round, black circles, like holes in a skull, instead of sky blue. I remember Daddy saying that when God made me, He put a piece of that blue sky in my eyes so I would see great things.
I lean against the dusty sill, hugging my arms around me. Sometimes the dark feels warm and safe, other times cold and scary. Still, one thing never changes about the dark: I can always count on it to be there. I just wish Anna and I didn’t have to be alone in it so much. I cross the room and crawl back into bed, roll up into a tight ball, and tuck my feet under me—forcing myself not to snuggle up against my sister for warmth. I’m sure that if even one cold toe touches Anna, she’ll wake up with a jolt, swinging her arms, and she needs to sleep.
Even though she’s two years older than me, I sometimes feel like her older sister. I have to watch over her, especially when Daddy’s gone. Which makes me wonder, Where can he be? What if something bad has happened to him? I’m thinking a car crash, but he doesn’t have a car—though he could have gotten mugged. I count the marks on the wall. It’s been seven nights since we saw him last.
My eyes sting from tears, but I hold them in. Crying doesn’t bring him back. At least, it never has before.
I wrap my arm around my stuffed black-and-white cat and listen to Anna breathe. Daddy said the toy looked more like a cow than a cat, so I named it Cowwy. Daddy found Cowwy lying in the street, dirty, missing a button for an eye. He brought him home and gave him to me for my birthday. Cowwy still has only one eye, but we cleaned him up.
I roll over and look at the hole where the door is, hoping Daddy will suddenly fill it, but the doorway is empty and the hall is dark. He’ll come back. He promised.
I close my eyes and picture Daddy up on the stage, half hidden in smoke. Fat people, skinny people, happy people, sad people—all kinds fill the room. The lights dim and the crowd settles. Daddy sits behind his drums in a big black felt cowboy hat, jeans, a faded denim shirt, and scuffed black boots. He closes his eyes and sings a tune about a love gone wrong. His sad songs always make me want to cry.
I start to sing one of his songs in my head when a soft thump, like a door closing, jars my thoughts back to the room, the shadows, and the noises that are right and wrong. Something about this noise doesn’t sound right. I sit up in bed and listen hard. Maybe Daddy’s home after all! He does that sometimes. Slipping in when he isn’t drinking, thumping and bumping to his room when he is. But this wasn’t thumping and bumping. This was just one soft thump.
“Daddy?” I try to keep my voice low so I don’t wake Anna, but loud enough to carry into the next room.
“Daddy, is that you?”
I roll from the mattress, cross the room, and peek out the door. Shadows dance, but nothing else in the next room moves. Something about the air smells different—sweeter, maybe—but I can’t place it. I pause at Daddy’s bedroom door. No light. No sound. I peek around the doorway at the mattress on the floor, hoping to see a familiar lump under the sheets. No lump. No Daddy.
“Is that you?” I whisper again, knowing no answer will come but still hoping one might. I go back and flop down on the bed, wanting to feel the heat from Daddy’s body on the mattress, telling me he’d just been there—like maybe he’d gotten up to go to the bathroom. But the mattress is cold.
I grab one corner of the sheet and start twisting it into a rope. It’s a game I play with myself. I call it the hugging game. When the sheet is fully twisted, I wrap a rope-hug around me as tight as I can. The hug feels good, almost like Daddy is here, holding me in his big arms. The mattress is still—not gently rising and falling like Daddy’s chest. No sound of his heartbeat inside the pillow against my ear—just the faint smell of smoke from Daddy’s hair and skin.
My throat tightens, and my mouth twitches like it does right before I’m going to cry. I bite my lip hard to chase the tears away.
“Daddy home?” Anna’s voice startles me. For one thing, she hardly ever talks, and for another, I thought she was asleep. But here she is, leaning sleepily against the doorway.
“Not yet.” I undo the rope-hug and pat the mattress beside me.
Anna shuffles across the room and sits on the edge of the bed. I hear tiny snaps as she bites her fingernails. She’s lost somewhere in her head. We sit together in the dark, thinking about things, when suddenly three loud raps on the front door make us jump.
I reach out and cling to Anna.