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Every Missing Piece
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EVERYTHING GOES SOMEWHERE
The day Billy Holcomb went missing, tornadoes made me miss the bus. Technically, they were just potential tornadoes and I was hiding in the culvert when the bus blew past me, but life can go from good to bad in a heartbeat, and I’d rather be safe than sorry.
“How did he miss you?” Mom asked.
“Maybe he was in a hurry,” I said.
Which was sort of true.
The middle-school bus driver has a reputation. He’ll skip your stop if you aren’t waiting exactly where you’re supposed to be. We were three weeks into the school year, so I already knew that, but the sky had looked way too angry that morning to risk standing out in the open. Tornadoes can come from anywhere at any time. It doesn’t even have to be raining out. North Carolina may not be a tornado magnet, but there are more of them here than you might think.
“I should say something to the principal,” Mom said.
Stan looked up from the little red notebook he keeps in his pocket, where he was busy writing about who-knows-what. Stan basically ceases to exist when his notebook is out. It’s like his whole brain disappears inside the pages.
“Where were you standing, exactly?” he asked.
“By the bus stop.”
This wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t the whole truth. I was standing, but sort of crouched over, and not right next to the bus stop, but in the culvert next to it. The culvert is a ditch made of thick concrete, so it isn’t going anywhere, even if a tornado does drop out of the sky and try to suck me up. If Mom knew the truth, she wouldn’t have been mad, but she would have been concerned.
Those days, everyone was concerned about me. Like they all expected me to freak out because Mom and Stan got married, when really I just wished everyone would leave me alone about it.
Stan tipped his head, thinking. I swear you could see gears turning behind his eyes. If I didn’t get moving, he would put the pieces together and blow my cover.
“Can you give me a ride?” I asked Mom, who sighed. She works nights as a labor-and-delivery nurse, and she really should’ve been asleep by then.
“I can,” Stan offered. “I need to get to the office early, anyway.”
Mom smiled. “That would be great, honey. Thank you.”
“Maddy. I’m sure you appreciate Stan’s offer.” Her eyes said I did, with daggers.
Mom is always trying to get me to be cool with Stan. I don’t have to pretend he’s my real dad or anything, but it’s still annoying how she says stuff in this pointed way, like we don’t all know what’s going on here. But I also know that “getting along” really matters to Mom, and that more than anything, she wants me and Stan to be friends.
“Thanks, Stan,” I said.
He beamed like he’d won stepfather of the year.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate Stan, but he drives slower than church ladies on Sundays. Sure, there aren’t any posted speed minimums, but there are limits to what is reasonable. Stan is from New York City, where people don’t even have cars. He doesn’t know how to mow the lawn or rake leaves, either. He just got his driver’s license over the summer, and that was only because Mom made it a requirement for getting married, which they did in August, right before I started sixth grade. Now Mom is Sarah Wachowski instead of Sarah Gaines, but I’m still Madison—Maddy—Gaines. It’s not like Stan adopted me or anything. I don’t expect him to, either. When a person is right, there’s a click. You fit together, like two halves of a plastic Easter egg. Stan is a good guy, but I’m pretty sure we’ll never click like that.
Mom opened her arms and gave me a squeeze. “I’ll miss you today.”
I closed my eyes and breathed in her warm vanilla smell. Mom is taller than me, but not by much. Her side is soft and steady, and when she presses her cheek against the top of my head, I can feel her smile. She was smiling all the time those days, which I knew had a lot to do with Stan being around. Stan is tall and skinny, and he looks even taller next to Mom. She says I look like Dad, with my stick-straight hair and pointy chin, and that I’ll probably grow up to be bigger than her because Dad was a tall guy, too.
Stan gathered his work computer and I followed him out to the garage, where my dog, Frankie, was asleep on her bed. She shot up the second she saw me, but I told her to sit and she plopped down, her black tail wagging. The people who say Labs are the best dogs are right.
In the car, Stan checked his mirrors and tested his brakes. He set the radio to the local station and beeped before he backed out. At the end of our court, he rolled his window down and signaled with his arm as well as his turn signal, like the dork that he is.
As we drove to school, I rested my forehead against the window and watched the familiar pattern of houses and fields roll by. Summerfield is just a stretch of highway to people passing through, but it’s a nice place to live, even if we have more cows than human beings. The grocery store is a social visit and pig pickin’s are regular occasions. If you need a hospital or a dry cleaner, you make the twenty-minute trip to Greensboro. The local churches hold Sunday suppers, and everyone’s welcome even if you don’t belong to a church, like us. The downside is that everyone knows everybody else’s business, and rumors spread like wildfire.
Halfway to school, a new voice came on the radio. “—the boy was last seen crossing the street opposite his Fayetteville middle school at approximately seven forty-five yesterday morning. Foul play has not been ruled out at this time.”
Goose bumps prickled along my arms.
Stan moved to switch the radio off, then hesitated.
“Authorities have issued an Amber Alert for the boy, Billy Holcomb, age eleven. He’s described as a white male, approximately four and half feet tall and eighty-five pounds, with brown hair, blue eyes, and a round birthmark on his upper chest. He was last seen wearing a white T-shirt and blue jeans. Anyone with information pertaining to his whereabouts should contact their local authorities. Police say the boy may have been abducted.”
This time Stan did switch off the radio, plunging us into awkward silence. For some reason, the missing boy made me think of Dad. Only my father didn’t disappear.
A heavy feeling clouded my chest.
This happens sometimes when I think about Dad. It’s like my body doesn’t know how to live with the idea of him not being here anymore, even though he’s been gone a long time. Dad died when I was eight. Now I’m eleven. But some losses keep coming back, the way a shout echoes long after it’s gone. I still text him sometimes. The messages don’t go through, but writing them helps. I tell him about my day, or when I’m stuck on a math problem, or when Stan really drives me bonkers. Sometimes I just say, “I love you.” He never answers back.
I could feel Stan glancing at me, waiting for me to say something about the missing boy, but I kept my eyes on the road and tried my best to look like I wasn’t freaking out, even though my mind was racing. What kind of kid got himself abducted right outside of his own school? Everyone knew about strangers. Don’t talk to them. Don’t take candy from them. And never, ever go anywhere with them. That way you don’t end up plastered all over the news.
I swallowed hard, trying to get some moisture moving in my throat.
“Are you okay?” Stan asked. There it was again. The concern.
I nodded, my face going hot.
“I’m sure they’ll find him,” Stan said. “A large percentage of abductions turn out to be misunderstandings rather than actual kidnappings. Not that it’s bad to care about things like this,” he said quickly. “Your mom and I just want you to be happy.” He stopped speaking then, his pale cheeks pinking up like they always did when he tried to talk to me.
It’s not that I don’t want to click with Stan. We’re just different. Mom and I eat oatmeal. Stan likes hard-boiled eggs. We take our shoes off at the door, but Stan always forgets. We use whole milk. He drinks skim. It feels like Stan is the wrong piece for our puzzle. No matter which way I turn him, he just doesn’t fit.
Stan was still watching me, so I gave him a tiny smile to show him I was okay.
He was right. The kid had to be somewhere.
Things can’t just disappear. They can move, they can hide, they can get stuffed down inside you, but they have to go somewhere.
Five minutes later, we pulled into the drop-off lane at school, but when I turned to shut the car door behind me, Stan didn’t give me his usual chipper wave good-bye. After a few seconds, he saw me waiting and smiled, but his smile didn’t reach his eyes. He was worried again—about whether we would ever click, about whether this new family of ours would work, about whether he’d made a terrible mistake by signing up to be my stepfather. Stan liked to pretend his worries disappeared the day he married Mom, but they were right there in his eyes.
Like I said, everything goes somewhere.
Six months later, I was going somewhere different—to a graveyard. It was the end of spring break and the daffodils were blooming, but it was still cold out. March in North Carolina is all mixed up. One day it’s eighty degrees and the next it’s freezing. I was more than halfway through sixth grade, but I didn’t feel any older than I had at the beginning of the year. Growing up is weird like that. You feel the exact same way for ages and ages, then suddenly you look back and everything is different. You leap ahead. Growing up is like a form of teleportation, only blindfolded. You can’t see where you’ve been until you get where you’re going.
Normally, graveyards aren’t my thing, but it was the last Saturday before we went back to school and I still needed a rubbing from a gravestone to finish the list of dares Cress had left for me. I’d given her a list for while she was in Trinidad, too. Whoever won had to buy the other person ice cream for two whole weeks, and I love ice cream. Which meant a visit to the Roach family cemetery was in order.
The Roach family cemetery is a super-secret graveyard that’s hidden in the middle of my neighborhood. People say it’s from the family who lived here before White Oaks became a proper subdivision with neat blacktop and streets named after trees. You wouldn’t think this place held any secrets, but North Carolina is full of old stuff like that. Especially old buildings. The oldest ones are crooked and missing half their boards, like picked-over skeletons. There’s no telling what you’ll find in places like that, though usually the answer is ghosts.
Greensboro’s most famous ghost is Lydia, the phan-tom hitchhiker. On rainy nights, she shows up at the side of the road and begs people for rides, but she always vanishes before they reach her destination. They say that Lydia’s trying to get back home, but she never makes it there because she died on that road a long time ago.
Sometimes I wonder why Dad didn’t come back as a ghost, or if maybe he did and I missed it. I don’t know if I would like it if he appeared out of thin air like that, but it would mean he was still thinking about me, even if he did scare me to death to show it.
The graveyard is on the other side of the subdivision, so I rode my bike. In our neighborhood, the blacktop is smooth and hilly, and I alternated between standing on my pedals and coasting with my feet up. When the Jessups’ house came into view, I slowed down and kept my eyes peeled in case one of them was around. The Jessups’ house is enormous, with a rounded section like a castle. It also happens to be located right next to the Roach family cemetery. Our house is small and looks like a triangle on top of a square, but it’s big enough for the three of us, with a bedroom for me and one for Mom and Stan. Still, I can’t help wondering what it’s like to live in a place so big you could sleep in a different bedroom every night of the week.
A little past the Jessups’ house, I stopped and stowed my bike in the ditch, where it would be less noticeable. The Jessups could be anywhere at any time, and the last time I’d seen Diesel—the biggest and rottenest Jessup of them all—he’d threatened to rip my arms off. That’s the way it was between us now. We used to spend our summers swimming in the pond behind his house, but the territory wars had made us sworn enemies. Diesel started it by charging admission to his pond, and I fought back by staking out our stretch of road and nailing him with sweet-gum burs. Now Diesel says no one can use the pond without his express permission, especially me, which is just one example of his rottenness.
I snuck along the edge of their property until I reached the place where the woods got a little more wild, full of prickers and blackberry bushes. The Jessups kept an old double-wide back there, right up against the trees. I slipped past the trailer and slowed down, keeping an eye out for the tombstones. It always takes a minute to find them. They aren’t big slabs like you see in church cemeteries. More like worn granite nubs. The first time I saw them, I thought they were monster’s teeth sticking up through the leaves. Most of them don’t have any writing left, but a few have dates and names for anyone brave enough to brush away the leaves.
Luckily, the ground was still clear. Once the fiddler ferns filled in, it would be impossible to find the tombstones. Here and there, baby sassafras trees offered new leaves to the sun. A sassafras tree has three types of leaves: oval, mitten shaped, and three-toed feet, which all smell like fresh oranges when you rub them between your fingers. Dad showed me that.
I spotted a gray-green tombstone poking up between the leaves and pulled a folded piece of notebook paper from my pocket. All I needed was a quick rubbing and I’d be done with Cress’s list. She was almost done with hers, but there was no way she’d steal her sister’s favorite T-shirt. And if she didn’t, Cress would be the one buying me ice cream for two whole weeks.
I grabbed a nice long stick to check for sunken spots before I knelt to scrape the gunk off the tombstone. Then I pressed the paper against the stone and rubbed my crayon over it. I was nearly finished when something moved over by the Jessups’ trailer. I saw it out of the corner of my eye, in that part of your vision where you aren’t sure if what you’re seeing is real or not.
I jammed the paper in my pocket and hefted my stick.
My first thought was that the Night Ghost had finally decided to make an appearance. When me and Diesel were little, we made up this story about a ghost who haunts the Roach family cemetery. We called him the Night Ghost and imagined he was angry because he lost the love of his life in a high-wire accident at the county fair. That might’ve had more to do with our obsession with daredevils at the time, but it sure made for a scary story.
My second thought was that Diesel Jessup had come to rip my arms off. Either him or his younger brothers, Devin and Donny. Devin was round as a potato, and Donny’s face was always smeared with dirt. Not that there’s anything wrong with a little dirt.
The Jessup boys like to act like they own this cemetery, but the land doesn’t belong to them or anyone else. It’s just there, hidden by the houses that surround it. Dad said it was a historic site, so it belongs to everyone. And besides, Mr. Jessup was Dad’s best friend. He was there for us after Dad died, always doing stuff around the house for Mom, fixing things or moving heavy furniture. He says we’re family. He would never chase me out of the cemetery.
More than anything, I wished I’d brought Frankie with me. It was a pain holding her leash while I biked, but for protection she was aces. One day last summer, we were walking in the woods when she grabbed a snake and threw it off the trail. Mom said she was probably trying to play with it, but I knew the truth: Frankie always had my back.
“Hello?” I said, wishing my voice didn’t sound so small.
It was probably the Jessups. The trees were still bare except for last season’s beech leaves, which hung from the branches like curled-up waffle cones. They could’ve spotted me through the enormous bay windows on the back of their house.
“Who’s there?” I said louder. “Show yourself, coward!”
The woods remained still.
That’s when I noticed something odd overhead: a hunk of wood, hanging from a rope. The rope led to the ground and disappeared into the leaves. I couldn’t tell what it was tied to, but that old hunk of wood looked like it could fall out of the sky at any moment.
I took a step back.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a voice said from somewhere up ahead.
“That you, Diesel?”
A lanky, pale-haired boy popped out from behind the tree in front of me like a ghost appearing out of thin air. White-blond hair, skinny arms, stick-out ears.
Not a Jessup.
“Fudgesicle,” I swore. “What’re you doing out here?”
“I should be asking you the same thing,” he replied, giving me a sly half grin. It was the kind of smile that spelled trouble, like the faded purple bruise beneath his left eye.
“I thought you were the Night Ghost.”
“The ghost who haunts these woods. He’s been pining for his long-lost love for a hundred years. He’ll kill anyone who disturbs his peace.”
The boy cocked his head. “Really? I haven’t seen any ghosts out here.” He probably thought I was a total weirdo who was afraid of ghosts. Which I am not.
“You know what, never mind.” I took another step back. “I was just leaving anyway.”
He frowned. “You’d better stop right there.”
I took another step back, and my foot caught on something. By the time I looked down, that hunk of wood hanging in the trees plummeted to the ground as a rope net shot up from under the leaves and snagged my legs, leaving me dangling upside down like a squirrel in a trap.
“Told you.” The boy came closer, reaching for the net.
“Stay away from me!” I shouted. “I don’t need your help.”
He crossed his skinny arms and leaned back against an old oak tree while I flopped around like a fish, trying to get my sneakers free of that darn net. I finally got my legs loose, slithered to the ground, and hauled myself upright, my T-shirt and shorts all smeared with dirt.
I fixed him with a glare. “What’re you booby-trapping a cemetery for anyway? That’s plain silly.”
He scowled. “I have my reasons.”
There was something familiar about the boy’s face, but I couldn’t place it. For all I knew, he could be a serial killer. Plus, his baby-doll hair gave me the creeps.
“I’m leaving now,” I said, slow and even. “You’d best not follow me.”
His face went still as I backed away.
When I reached the edge of the little woods, I turned and ran. The boy didn’t follow me, but I could feel his stare boring into my back all the way home. I rushed inside and slammed the door, but when I closed my eyes, he was all I could see.
His weird, bright hair.
His skinny arms.
That empty look on his face.
And that’s when I remembered Billy Holcomb.
THE GIRL WHO CRIED WOLF
After Billy Holcomb went missing, he was all anyone could talk about. Missing-child flyers covered the bulletin board at the Food Lion. The Christ Baptist Church held a prayer vigil. The local news gave updates every night like they did when a hurricane was headed for town, even though he was from Fayetteville, which is clear on the other side of North Carolina.
Mom and Stan were glued to the coverage, but they always shut the TV off when I was there. When they weren’t around, I watched the news reports for myself. My heart raced as I listened to Billy’s father pleading for the kidnappers to let Billy come home. I studied the photo of Billy that flashed up on the screen. I imagined Billy walking to school, minding his own business—maybe staring at the ground like I always do—and someone snatching him. Bam. Gone. Just like that.
Now here I was, all these months later, thinking maybe I’d found him.
As I got ready to hang out with Stan for the afternoon, I went over every little detail of my encounter with the boy in the woods that morning, trying to decide what to do. You might think that as soon as I thought I’d seen a missing kid, I’d call the police.
And maybe I would have, if I hadn’t already worn out my welcome.
The summer after Dad died, the electric company ran a power line through the back of our property. They mowed down the trees and blasted the bedrock. The explosives were so loud our windows shook. All I could think was that they might blow us up, too, so I called the sheriff’s office to tell them about it. They said they’d look into it, which made me feel better, like maybe I’d stopped something terrible from happening. They did ask to speak to Mom, though. That was the first time I saw a ripple of concern on her face.
Later that year, I called again when our neighbors were practicing their aim on a foam deer. Their bows weren’t pointed in our direction, but hearing that thwap, thwap noise was enough to make me break into a nervous sweat. That time, the officers weren’t as friendly. We started seeing our therapist then, who made me practice deep breathing and taught me how to imagine my own private island when I wanted to call the police.
After that, I tried not to call too much, but some things needed to be seen to.
Like a lady at the mall who looked like she had a gun in her purse (it was an umbrella).
Or when the Jessups shot sparklers into people’s front yards (they weren’t illegal).
Or when Frankie went missing, though it turned out she was begging for treats from our neighbors, the Davises, who have a tiny bichon named Beamer (Labs are greedy like that.).
Each time I called, the deputies got a little less friendly and the worry lines on Mom’s forehead got a little deeper, until they were ironed in like creases in a tablecloth. By sixth grade, Sheriff Dobbs and I were on a first-name basis. He didn’t mind hearing from me every once in a while. In fact, he was so nice about my “harebrained theories” that I was pretty sure he didn’t take me seriously at all. The truth is, Sheriff Dobbs and I have never seen eye to eye about what counts as an emergency. He only wants information that’s “statistically sound,” which means likely to be true, but I can’t help it if I’m good at spotting trouble. Once you’ve seen the worst-case scenario, it’s impossible not to see terrible prospects everywhere, like promises waiting to be fulfilled.
Then the Skate-A-Thon happened.
Every fall, our middle school holds a fund-raiser at our local roller-skating rink. I didn’t go there expecting to see anything suspicious, but as Cress and I skated around the rink, I kept catching glimpses of this man who looked a lot like someone on America’s Most Wanted. He was wearing a baseball cap with the bill pulled down, like he was trying to hide his face.
I tried not to freak out, I really did, but then I saw him taking off his skates like he was going to leave, and I had to dial 911 before he got away. Only this time when the police came, they turned off the music and locked the doors so they could check every single person to make sure the guy from America’s Most Wanted wasn’t there. Which he wasn’t. It turned out the guy I saw was really someone’s uncle from out of town. By the time the police finished their search, our fund-raiser was ruined and the whole school knew I’d done it.
After that, Sheriff Dobbs came over to our house to have a talk with Mom and me. He was built like a tank, with a crisp tan hat and dark brown skin. He looked at me like I was some broken, rusted thing that had been left out in the yard.
“Do you know the story about the boy who cried wolf?” he asked.
I did. It’s about a shepherd boy who wanted attention, so he tricked his village into thinking wolves were attacking his flock. Everyone got tired of him lying, so when a wolf really did appear, no one answered the boy’s cries for help. All his sheep got gobbled up.
“I’m sure you don’t mean any harm,” Sheriff Dobbs said, “but this can’t happen again. If it does, there will be consequences.” Mom held my hand while he used words like false report and felony charges. On the way out, he tipped his hat and said, “I’ll tell you what I tell everyone, Maddy: I hope I don’t see you anytime soon.”
Then he gave me that look again, the one full of pity.
When your father dies unexpectedly, people don’t forget. The tragedy is always there, hovering like a ghost in their words. When they look at you, they see the same person, but inside, you’ve changed. They can’t see the change inside of you, but they can feel it. And it feels wrong to them. They wear their concern on their faces, the questions they want to ask but never will. Do you remember him? Do you miss him?
It’s a gossiping, prying kind of concern that doesn’t make you feel any better, just haunted. Even worse is how everyone thinks I freak out about everything, like emergencies aren’t the kind of thing little girls should worry about, but I don’t think there’s such a thing as caring too much when it comes to saving someone’s life.
All it takes is one little mistake, and your world can change forever.
For example, you can end up without a dad.
Praise for Every Missing Piece:
"Conklin's well-paced narrative nimbly incorporates Maddy's ever-present fear and lingering grief into a nuanced tale of a tween discovering that things aren't always what they seem."—Publishers Weekly
"Conklin's fine Southern storytelling, complete with Cheerwine, homemade pies, and pig pickin's, blends these nuanced realities with care."—Kirkus
"Fans of Rebecca Stead and Erin Entrada Kelly will appreciate the author's compassion for kids navigating the dynamics of an uncertain world."
"In this heartfelt story about a family struggling through adjustments big and small, Maddy's efforts to make sense of the changes in her life will inspire young readers."—School Library Journal
"Conklin's strength as a writer keeps this story hopeful, even lighthearted and funny at times. Readers who enjoyed The Thing about Jellyfish will find this enjoyable too."—Booklist
- On Sale
- Apr 5, 2022
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers