We’d been studying on his couch, our Advanced Chemistry textbooks sitting on the coffee table, suffering through questions about alkali metals and noble gases, when Donal made a joke about gas being ignoble. And I’d laughed, like I always did at his dumb jokes. And then our knees touch and our shoulders bump and suddenly we start kissing each other. Like, a real kiss, deep and forceful, sending gentle sparks up my back. I’m wondering how in the world this happened when my cell phone starts ringing.
It’s Mom—I know from the ringtone, I don’t even have to look. The one day I cut out from school early. The one day I break routine. I pull away from Donal, instantly wishing I hadn’t. I let out a little laugh and instantly feel this ridiculous mix of nervousness, because Mom is calling, and regret, because we stopped kissing too soon, and then confusion, because why were we even kissing to begin with?
“Damn,” Donal says. “Let’s not stop.”
I stare into his blue eyes, which look a little dopey right now. He isn’t my boyfriend. He’s my friend, just my friend, ever since freshman year. Why did I like kissing him so much? I wipe my lips, but I also have the urge to lean into him again and start all over.
But the phone keeps ringing. I can’t ignore Mom. I’m her dependable daughter. And if, for once, I’m not, she’ll freak out.
I scoot away from Donal and make a move to go to my purse on the floor at the end of the couch, but I stop.
Did he plan on kissing me all along?
“You gonna get that?” Donal asks. “Or can you just ignore it,” he says, breaking into a smile while raising his eyebrows again and again in a silly way.
It must be close to three o’clock. I’m skipping sixth-period soccer practice. We both are. I hurt my ankle last week and have a doctor’s note—a light sprain. I’m not out for the season or anything. But I’m still supposed to sit on the sidelines and physically be there—you know, be a team player, rah-rah-rah.
But I snuck away with Donal. He’s on the boys’ team, but his coach had the flu and their practice was canceled. It was his idea, skipping out. “Let’s get this chemistry assignment done,” he’d said. And then he added, “at my place.” He knew I didn’t like to spend a lot of time at my own house. So yeah, maybe he planned this. Makes total sense. Except it doesn’t. And now my phone won’t shut up.
I finally hop from the couch and grab my phone from my bag, squatting on the floor. I don’t answer, I just stare at the word “Mom” flashing on the screen. Then the ringing stops. “Great,” I say. Somehow she’s figured out that I’m not at school. Maybe Coach Bailey called her. All I can think about is my mom’s worried face, the thoughts that must be swirling through her brain.
Donal runs a hand through his red hair then leans forward, his eyes on me, but he’s not making the funny face anymore. Then the phone starts ringing again, and he leans back on the couch, laughing.
I try to gather my thoughts. Okay, quick—what’s my excuse? Screw it. “Hello,” I say after the third ring. I brace myself. But I don’t hear any words. I just hear something like a moan. “Hello?” I say again.
The moan turns to some sort of heavy breathing, and then I hear Mom’s voice: “Beth?” It sounds like she’s been crying.
“Mom, I’m here,” I say, feeling sick to my stomach. I was worried about being in trouble. But now I’m just afraid.
“Thank God I found you!” Mom says. I hear her take a few deep breaths. She sniffles and says, “They said you weren’t at school. I thought, I thought—I didn’t know what to think.”
I’m used to hearing my mother cry. For over three years it’s been a fact of life. She can be laughing one minute and then, wham, she’s leaking tears. Like she feels bad for ever having fun. I’m so used to it, it hardly ever phases me. I’m always there to hug her, rub her back, play the good daughter. But the way she sounds now is different. “Mom, I’m okay. I’m at a friend’s—”
“Just come home. Come home.” Then she makes some kind of gurgling noise.
“Mom?” My heart is revving up. I hear a voice in the background—my stepfather’s, probably. I think I hear him say Tell her.
Oh God. I look over at Donal, but he’s still staring up at the ceiling, smiling in an exasperated way.
“Beth,” Mom says, her voice sounding shaky.
I hold my breath, close my eyes.
“They found Sam.”
I let out my breath, or maybe it’s a gasp, but I don’t say anything, and I keep my eyes shut. Because when I open my eyes I’m not sure what the world will look like.
I’ve been waiting for this moment for three years.
“Beth,” Mom says, speaking carefully now. “He’s alive.”
I open my eyes. The world looks the same as before. But it shouldn’t. It should be brighter, more colorful, like a wondrous land of make-believe. I must be in some weird dream now.
Because what Mom is saying isn’t possible.
“They found him this morning, honey. And now he’s home, he’s home with us.” She starts crying again, and then I realize why she sounded different. This is a happy cry.
My brain can’t make sense of it. Sam + Found + Alive + Home = Sam is found, Sam is alive, Sam is at home. Our home.
It’s all wrong. Sam is dead. Sam is gone. He disappeared three years ago. No, more than three years ago. Vanished. Like one of those kids on the milk cartons. You never see them again. You just don’t.
“Beth, did you hear me?” Mom says.
Donal is looking over at me now with a concerned expression. He mouths something but I’m too foggy to read his lips.
“Beth?” Mom says.
I press the phone back against my ear. “Yes,” I say.
Mom says, “Wherever you are, just come home.”
“Okay,” I say. “Okay. I’m coming.” I end the call and drop the phone back in my bag. I just stay there, frozen. I should be screaming and jumping up and down. I should be the happiest person alive. But I don’t feel like I’m in the real world.
“Beth? You okay?”
Donal sits up and I stare over at him and that’s when I realize that I’m not dreaming all of this. “I have to go.” I don’t say good-bye or hug him or anything. I grab my stuff and rush out of his house into the overcast October day. It’s not cold, but I’m shivering when I take out my car keys. I can hear Donal shouting my name from the front door of his house, but I don’t look back. I steady my hand and get in my car and drive. I manage to obey traffic laws. I manage to get back to the southern side of the city, where we live in Pine Forest Estates, in the same house we lived in back when Sam went missing.
My stepdad, Earl, had wanted to move. But Mom was adamant that we stay. What if he comes back and doesn’t find us? How will he be able to find us if we move? Ridiculous. Earl thought so, too. Ridiculous that she could even think that might happen, as if Sam were some stray dog who had simply lost his way.
But now we’re the ridiculous ones.
Sam. I can see him. Brown hair, brown eyes, stubby little nose, sharp dimples. A classically cute kid. And he knew it. Even at that young age, he had the cockiness of a good-looking older boy. Mom always said he was going to grow up to be a heartbreaker. He’s eleven in my mind. Always eleven. But of course he’d be fourteen now, wouldn’t he? He is fourteen now.
I’m driving, getting closer and closer to our neighborhood, approaching a future I never knew existed.
That day in July was hot and sticky. A day when you just wanted to stay inside, which is what I was doing the day Sam disappeared. The AC was on, but Earl was tight with money, and he didn’t like us to run it too low. So basically we all suffered, with useless ceiling fans blowing the stuffy air around. At least my room faced the backyard, which was mostly shaded by a big oak tree. So it was a little cooler in there. But I remember the heat, because it became one more unpleasant thing about that day.
Mom and Earl were at work. We’d been fighting a lot back then—Earl and I. About the AC, about how late I stayed up, too late, about how I talked to Mom (“Don’t be smart,” he’d always say). She had married him the year before. He was fine, but I still didn’t know him that well. Like, who was this guy living in my house and telling me what to do, pretending to be my real dad?
On that day, Sam pushed open my bedroom door, around two in the afternoon.
“What?” I said.
He was always barging in, which I hated. Normally I locked my door but that day I must have forgotten.
“What do you want?”
Let me pause to take in Sam that day: He was tall for his age. He played soccer, basketball, sometimes football, so I guess you can say he was an athletic kid, but he was too young to be muscular. He rode his bike, played video games. He was active, loud, energetic—a boy. That day he was wearing cargo shorts and a Superman T-shirt, looking flush, his dark hair slightly sweaty and stuck to his forehead.
“Josh and I are going to the mall.” Josh Keller was our neighbor, a kid Sam’s age. “We’re gonna ride our bikes.”
“You’re kidding?” The nearest mall was two miles away along a busy road. It was a dying, crappy mall. And it was hot as hell out. “Why doesn’t Mrs. Keller drive you?”
“She’s too busy studying or something. We want to buy some new video games.”
“Mom will kill you if she finds out.”
“But she won’t find out,” he said, smiling that dimpled smile. He knew he could get away with anything. “You want to go with us?” he asked. Maybe he was trying to rope me in so we’d both get in trouble.
“No way,” I said. The idea of riding a bike with two eleven-year-old boys, all the way down Skyland Boulevard as cars zoomed by, was too embarrassing to contemplate.
“I wish you could drive,” he said.
I was fourteen, but turning fifteen that September, and I could get my learner’s permit then. “Me too,” I said.
“If I’m not back by the time Mom gets home, will you cover for me?”
I rolled my eyes and he gave me a pleading, innocent look—always performing, hamming it up. I have to admit, sometimes he was hard to say no to. We were brother and sister, after all. Even if he bugged me, we still had some kind of pact. Especially after Dad had left, when Mom’s bad moods could strike us like thunder.
I sighed. “Fine.”
He cracked his impish grin and gave me a thumbs-up. Then he shut my door.
I almost yelled, “Be careful!” or something like that. But I didn’t say anything.
That was the last time I saw him.
Two or three hours later, I was still in my room. I’d fallen asleep while reading Forever for the millionth time. I’d been trying to read My Antonia, because it was on our summer reading list—this was the summer before I started high school—but, sorry, it was too hot for fine literature. It was the knock on the door that roused me, the sound of it whooshing open.
“Where’s your brother?” Mom asked from the doorway. She was in her work clothes, but her hair—light brown like mine, but with gray roots because she wasn’t good about coloring it—was sort of messy and wilted.
“I don’t know,” I said, feeling groggy. I rubbed my eyes and was almost surprised to find her still standing there. “He’s probably at Josh’s house.” I looked at the little pink digital clock on my bedside table. It was just after five.
“I just saw Josh. He was riding his bike around. I didn’t see Sam.”
I thought about what Sam had said earlier, about how I should cover for him. If Mom found out he was riding his bike out of the neighborhood—one of many things that was strictly forbidden—then he was toast. Part of me wanted to rat him out right then and there. Precious Sam disobeyed you. But he always broke the rules, and it never mattered. Plus, if he got grounded he’d be in my hair a lot more than he already was. So I decided to play dumb. Let Mom figure it out on her own.
Besides, I didn’t think anything was wrong. Bad things didn’t happen to Sam. He’d fallen off his bike once, flipped and rolled, and all he had was a scraped elbow. When most of the kids in his third-grade class got the flu one winter, Sam was fine, not even a sniffle. He seemed invincible.
“Call his cell,” I said. Mom had given us cell phones, but they were meant only for “emergencies.”
“His phone’s in his room. I checked.”
“I don’t know then.”
Mom stared at me, folding her arms across her chest, which is what she always did when she meant business. “You’re supposed to watch your brother,” she said.
“He’s not a baby.”
Mom shook her head and walked out of my room without even bothering to pull my door shut.
A few seconds later I heard the front door slam. I went down the hall to the living room—the room we never used, with its white carpet and fancy furnishings—and looked outside and saw Mom marching across the street to the Kellers’ house. Josh was riding his bike around his driveway in tight circles, but he stopped when he saw Mom approach. Josh was Sam’s friend, but I knew Sam kind of thought he was a tool. A sissy. He had sandy blond hair and fair skin that freckled in the summer. He looked delicate, not like the rough-and-tumble type of boy that Sam was. He was quiet, polite, careful. Josh was the only kid who was Sam’s age in the neighborhood. They were friends of convenience more than anything else.
“Josh hasn’t seen Sam for hours,” Mom said when she came back into the house. “He said they rode their bikes on the trails in the woods, but he went home and Sam stayed there.”
The trails? What happened to the mall? “Yeah, I’m sure he’s just still goofing around out there.”
Mom nodded, pulling her hair back away from her face, barely pushing back panic. It’s like she knew. Mother’s intuition or something.
I went back to my room, but I didn’t stay there long. I felt an uneasiness gnawing at my insides. I put Forever down again and went outside into the heat and over to the Kellers’. I felt better, doing something, instead of sitting around. Josh wasn’t outside anymore, so I knocked on the door and Mr. Keller answered, the cold air from inside whooshing out at me. Mr. Keller was tall, blond going gray, wearing jeans and a blazer. “Hi, Beth.”
“Is Josh here?”
“Yes, he is. You want to come in?”
“Can he just come out for a second?”
“Sure,” he said. He yelled for Josh, who came down the stairs to the foyer and seemed to pause when he saw me. He came outside, and Mr. Keller shut the door and left us alone.
“Sam’s not home,” I said.
“I know. Your mom already came over here.”
“Did you two ride to the mall earlier?”
He hesitated. “Yeah, we did. Did you tell your mom that?”
“No. She would flip out if she knew.”
He seemed relieved. “We did start out together. But I came back.”
Again, he hesitated. “I don’t know. He was mean.”
“What did he do?”
“Josh, you just said he was mean. What did he do? You can tell me.” I felt a twinge of tenderness for him. I wanted to say: I know how he is. He can be a little brat.
“Someone drove by and threw, like, a Coke at me. It got all over me and I fell off my bike and Sam . . . he just laughed. He laughed at me.” He rubbed his elbow and I saw a scrape. There were a few scratches on his knees, too.
“Are you okay?”
He shrugged. His face reddened as he looked down at the ground.
“So you came home after that?”
He nodded. “I was all scratched up and all covered in dirt and stuff. So I rode my bike home. I—never mind.”
“I just rode off. I was mad at him. I didn’t look back.”
“Well, maybe he rode on to the mall. I’m sure he’ll turn up soon.”
Josh nodded again. “Yeah.”
“I’m sorry he was mean to you.”
“I’ll just tell Mom what you told me. That you were riding in the woods.”
“Okay, good. I just didn’t . . . I don’t want to get him in trouble.”
We were both protecting him. Or so we thought.
“He’ll turn up,” I said again, like if I said it enough it would come true. Josh looked at me then, relieved. He believed me. And, right then, I still believed myself.
Panic didn’t truly set in for another hour or so, when Sam still hadn’t shown up. Outside, the daylight was fading.
“And tell me again, what did Josh say?” Earl asked Mom when he got home and she started explaining. She’d already called him on his cell, which she hardly did when he was at a construction site job.
“He said he left him in the woods.”
“So let’s go look there.” He was in his jeans, a sweaty white T-shirt, and his boots. He looked sunburned and overheated from the long day.
“I can help.” That unease was gnawing at me again, and I wanted to do something to keep it at bay. Still, deep down I thought Sam would turn up eventually. Just like him to cause us so much worry.
“No, you stay here in case he comes back. Call my cell right away if you hear from him,” Mom said.
I could tell she blamed me for this whole mess. Somehow it was my fault, and not Sam’s. I almost told them right then that he had gone to the mall—that he had totally broken the rules. But then I’d be in trouble, too, for letting him. And anyway, they were already out the door, carrying flashlights for when it got dark, which I realized would be soon.
Where the hell was he? The idea that he would have vanished seemed ludicrous. Little girls were the ones who went missing. Boys knew how to take care of themselves. Nothing could happen to a tough boy like Sam.
I sat and waited, tried to distract myself with my book, then with TV. But nothing really worked. The unease spread through my whole body like a fever. I couldn’t get my mind off Sam. As it got darker out, I started to get scared. I finally walked over to the Kellers’. I knew I was supposed to stay put, but I had to speak to Josh. He answered right after I knocked, like he was expecting me.
“He’s not back yet?”
“My mom and my stepdad went to the woods to look for him. Josh, we have to tell them.”
A voice floated from the living room. “What’s going on, Joshie?” It was Mrs. Keller. She walked down the hall toward the foyer, barefoot with a pencil tucked behind her ear. She was in law school.
Weird, for a woman her age, my mother always said. But maybe she said that because she was jealous. Mrs. Keller was pretty—tall, with long dark hair, an elegant and smooth face with hardly ever any makeup on. She was going to be a lawyer, a fancy rich lawyer, Mom would say. We’d always been friendly and neighborly, but I could tell that Mom didn’t feel totally comfortable around them. Maybe because Mom believed the Kellers thought they were better than us. Mr. Keller taught geology at the University of Alabama. Earl was in construction—the foreman, in charge of a lot of elaborate projects and renovations, a good job, but still. Mom was a secretary at an insurance company. She had never finished college, because she’d gotten pregnant with me. So everything was always my fault.
“Sam’s missing,” I told Mrs. Keller.
“What? Since when?”
“Since this afternoon.” I looked at Josh, and I could see his blue eyes widen. Don’t tell, he seemed to be saying. “Mom and Earl are looking for him in the woods.”
“Can we help?” She turned then and shouted, “Hal!”
“Josh may be the last person who saw him,” I said.
“When, Joshie?” she asked, stooping slightly and zooming her focus on to him. “When did you last see Sam?” She was normally a distracted person, kind of spacey, maybe because she was always thinking about legal cases and writing papers and stuff. But now she was giving us her full attention. I knew then that it was serious.
“I dunno. Like, at three maybe? We were in the woods.” He looked back at me, like he was checking to see if we were still going to continue with this. But I knew we couldn’t.
“You’re sure it was three?” Mrs. Keller asked.
He stood there, sort of staring into space. “I dunno.”
“Think. This is important.”
Mr. Keller walked up then. “What’s going on?”
I rehashed the whole situation.
“Josh? You sure it was three?” Mrs. Keller asked again.
Right then, as if under a bright light, Josh began to break down, started crying. “I dunno,” he said, and then choked out the story, the truth about heading to the mall. “I came back home. I . . . left him.”
Mrs. Keller was calm. Mr. Keller, too. They looked so kindhearted and understanding, and I envied Josh for that. Not the glares and tears and accusatory tones that would normally come from Mom, not the put-upon looks from Earl.
“And what did Sam do?”
“He kept riding, I guess. He shouted at me to come back.” He wiped a tear away, sniffled. “He yelled he was sorry. But I just kept riding.”
I didn’t know Sam had said he was sorry. I felt a pang then.
Mrs. Keller rubbed Josh’s head, touched his cheek. “It’s okay, it’s okay.”
“I’ll go find your parents,” Mr. Keller said, heading off toward the woods.
Beyond him, I watched the entry to Pine Forest Estates, hoping against hope that, right then, Sam would ride up the little slope on his bike. I was ready to yell at him, and hug him, too.
“We’ll find him, Beth,” Mrs. Keller said, putting her hand on my shoulder. I stepped away, staring off in vain toward where I hoped Sam might appear.
I sometimes later wished that I could do that moment all over. I wish I would have just stood there and enjoyed the touch of her hand. I sometimes wish I would have turned around and hugged her and let her comfort me. But instead I stood there, apart, clutching myself like I was cold, waiting. It’s like I knew it was the beginning of a new sort of life—a new life for all of us—and I was bracing for what was yet to come.
Mr. Keller told Mom and Earl what had happened when he found them in the woods, and by the time they got back to our house they were frantic. We all trekked back to our house. Earl called the police, who seemed to ask a ton of annoying questions. Finally, an hour later, when it was full-on dark, the police came, a man and a woman. The man was tall with thick brown hair and matching thick eyebrows, and he was chewing gum, which seemed inappropriate. The woman seemed much more like someone official—she had dark skin, and her black hair was pinned back, and she smiled at us before putting on a serious, let’s-get-down-to-business face. They talked to Mom and Earl and the Kellers. Then they spoke with Josh and me.
Josh was first, with all of the adults looking on in our living room. That room we never used, which was so quiet and undisturbed, now violated by all of this activity, by all these people. I stood and watched from the foyer, waiting my turn.
Josh didn’t tell them the entire truth. For one thing, he didn’t tell them that I’d known all along that they’d both gone off on their bikes to the mall. He covered for me. He’d started crying again, and I almost wished I was sitting next to him, holding his hand. But it was his mom sitting with him on the couch. It was her hand he was holding. I was leaning against the wall in the foyer, by myself.
When the policewoman, Officer Redmond, sat me down on the couch to go through my version of the story, I told her what I had told my mother. That as far as I knew Sam had gone off with Josh to ride their bikes in the woods at around two or three. She had this calming smile that made me think that everything was going to be okay.
Mom sat watching across from me on one of the boxy upholstered chairs, her eyes strained from fear. My hands were clenched fists at my sides. After Officer Redmond had finished with her questions, Earl came and sat next to me on the couch. He put his arm around me and said, “It’s okay, Beth. It’ll be okay.”
I nodded, feeling the heft of him next to me. Feeling a little stunned by it. He’d never shown me this type of affection. I looked over at Mom. I wanted to see something in her eyes—forgiveness, or even anger. But she just looked blank.
The Kellers finally left, Josh giving me one last sad glance before they returned to their home where no one was missing.
Later, I crawled into my bed and fell asleep. I woke up sometime in the middle of the night. It was cold. I guess Earl finally decided to run the AC on low, to spare us from feeling hot on top of everything else.
I sensed someone was in my room. I could hear quiet breathing. I adjusted my eyes to the darkness and saw Mom standing by the window, looking through the blinds, her form slightly illuminated by the moonlight outside. I watched her for as long as I could, and I almost said something—Sorry, Mom, I’m so sorry—but then I sensed her turn to look at me and I shut my eyes quickly. I listened as she left my room, shutting the door softly behind her.
I kept my eyes closed, but I never fell back asleep. Sam was out there, somewhere, and I was mad at him for doing this to us. And then I was scared for him. And then I started crying, wishing I could go back in time and grab him and tell him there was no way he was going to the mall. He was going to stay right here in this damned stuffy house with me.
When I drive up to the house, I expect—I don’t know, a scene? But there’s nothing like that. Mom’s car is there, and so is Earl’s. There’s an ugly gray sedan I don’t recognize. And a police car. That’s it.
I park and sit in the driveway for a minute. I grab my phone from my bag—three texts from Donal, one asking me what’s wrong, the next saying sorry if I got in trouble, then the last one just three question marks. I put it on silent and throw it back in my bag. I get out of the car, and right then I feel a chill, like I have a fever.
I don’t want to go inside.
But I have to. I have to see him.
I don’t know where Sam has been. Where do you go for three years? Without getting in touch, without letting us know you are alive? What happened? I can’t even imagine what he looks like now.
I slowly open the door and walk into the kitchen. I hear voices from the den. I could turn around, go back outside, and drive away. But Earl walks into the kitchen, his eyes puffy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him cry. He comes to me and pulls me into a hug. “He’s come back to us,” he says, his voice cracking. I sink further into him, holding on tight. “Come see your brother.”
I pull back and look up at him. “Where—I mean, what—”
Earl puts a finger to his lips, shakes his head. Now is not the time for questions, he seems to be saying. All of that can wait.
In the den, I see the police officer—the same one who interviewed me when Sam vanished. Officer Redmond. When she sees me, she smiles. There’s a man in a suit, too, with thick black hair, and Officer Redmond’s partner, that same tall, slouchy guy who’s chewing gum, like last time. They’re all standing around like they’re unsure what to do. On the couch I see Mom sitting up straight. Her eyes are closed, a content look on her face, like she’s having a pleasant daydream. She’s clutching a teenage boy with shaggy brown hair who is sitting next to her, his eyes closed, too, his head resting on her shoulder.
I feel a tightness in my chest, because at first it’s like I’m looking at Mom with some stranger. With his eyes closed, it’s hard for me to get a good look at him. He could be anyone.
I notice something shiny on his eyebrow, visible even in the fading afternoon light of the room. I squint—a piercing? For a moment, I wonder if this is someone else. Maybe Mom finally lost her mind and grabbed this random kid off the street and won’t let go of him, and that is why the police are here. It would almost make more sense.
“Sam,” I say, barely croaking it out.
His eyes open. He lifts his head from Mom’s shoulder, his eyes widening now, his mouth forming an oval, as if I’m the one who’s suddenly reappeared.
He looks the same, but not the same. He’s older of course. Gaunt but also muscular, filled out. His face thin and angular, a more pronounced jaw, and bulging Adam’s apple. And yes, his eyebrow is pierced, and so is his lip, the right bottom corner. It hurts to look at it.
“Beth,” he says. His voice is deeper than the last time I heard him. It sounds so strange. And it all happens so fast: He stands and staggers over and hugs me, and I hug him back, resting my head on his shoulder because that seems the natural thing to do. He’s tall now, taller than me. I can feel the broadness of him. “Beth,” he whispers. “Beth.” I hold on to him, maybe a little too tightly, but it’s like I have to make up for all the years that have gone by, all the hugs I’ve missed.
Finally, he pulls back gently and just stares at me, his dark brown eyes glassy. He’s wearing a checked flannel shirt, unbuttoned, over a black T-shirt. He has on ratty jeans, sneakers.
Someone bought him these things, I realize.
Mom stands and comes over to us and pulls us all into an embrace, a clump of three. And soon I feel another hand on my shoulder—Earl’s. I think I might suffocate, held in this group hug.
Once we all break apart, Mom looks at me with that relaxed expression and says, “I told you he’d come back to us,” like I was so silly to ever doubt that.
Mom had spent almost all of her waking moments searching for him, even after the years went by. She started a website. She made calls. She focused almost all of her energy on this hope that he was out there.
She was right all along. And I was wrong. A cold kind of shame creeps through my body.
“The news conference will start in about twenty minutes,” the man with the thick black hair says. “So we might want to get going.”
“The what?” I ask.
“News conference,” Earl says.
Earl grabs my hand, gently but with certainty, and walks us into the living room, away from everyone else. “Sam’s been through a lot, Beth.”
“But what? Where has he been? What—”
“We’ll talk about this later. Right now we have to go to this news conference. The police and sheriffs want us to speak to reporters, before the story leaks out on its own. They want us to give a few statements, for the media.”
I’m about to ask another question—I have about a thousand—but he puts his hand on my shoulder. “Later. I promise.”
And just like that we’re out of the door and into Mom’s car. Earl sits up front and drives, and Mom crawls in the back with Sam. She doesn’t want to let go of him. I’m about to sit up front, but Sam holds the backseat door open. “Beth, come back here. Please?”
I really don’t want to, but I look at Earl and he nods, so I crowd into the backseat, Sam in the middle. He clutches my hand, tightly, as Earl starts to drive, following the police car and the sedan to wherever it is we’re headed.
No one says anything. Sam is trembling next to me. I grip his hand more tightly, like that might help. And it does, I think. I can feel his trembling wind down.
My mind goes back to one night when he was just a baby. God, fourteen years ago. This same shaking person next to me. I remember the night so clearly. I woke up, and I could hear him in his room, crying like crazy, worse than usual. I climbed out of my bed or whatever it was I slept in at that age. I wandered into his room, where Mom and Dad were trying to calm him. Mom paced back and forth and patted his back, while Dad looked on, smiling like it was all a ridiculous joke.
Mom must have said, “Beth, go back to bed.” But I stood there, gawking. How could I sleep with all this shrieking?
Mom sat down on a chair in the corner of the room, with the crying Sam on her lap. I wanted to cup a hand over his mouth to make the noise stop. But instead, his tiny fingers closed on mine, and he looked up at me. I can see it, his ugly pinched face, the streaks of dark brown hair pasted on his little mushy head, those big brown eyes. He hiccupped into silence, squeezing my hand with his little fingers, his eyes looking into mine like he’d never seen me before and was mesmerized. And maybe before that moment he really hadn’t truly seen me. Maybe, all of a sudden, he realized who I was. His sister.
“Will you look at that,” Dad had said.
Whispering, as if worried she might break the spell, Mom said, “Beth’s got the magic touch.”
I felt a glow inside. Sam gurgled and held my hand till his eyes got heavy and his little head drifted back to Mom’s shoulder. For the first time, I loved him.
But sitting here now in the car, holding Sam’s hand, the tightness still in my chest, I feel something hovering about the air, something—I don’t know? Something not quite right. Something that tempers the elation and happiness and the ecstatic shock we’re all feeling. I think of those questions again, those questions that can’t be ignored: Where has Sam been? What has happened to him? Three years. Three years of what?
The police car turns down a street and Earl follows, and I see that we’re headed to Pine Forest Elementary. Where Sam went to school before all this happened. The parking lot is full of cars and news vans. It’s crazy, but it dawns on me: Sam’s reappearance is a huge story. Not just for my family, but also for everyone else.
I feel Sam’s fingers tighten on mine, and I sense him turning to look at me. But I stare straight ahead. I can’t look into his eyes. Those eyes that hold the secrets of where he’s been for over three years. Of what he might have gone through. I just try to breathe. Because if I take slow breaths then I can probably keep the tight ache in my chest from erupting.