By Sara Zarr
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When thirteen-year-old Jody goes missing, the national spotlight turns to Samara Taylor’s small town of Pineview. With few clues for investigators to follow, everyone is a suspect, including Jody’s older brother, Nick. But even as the town rallies in solidarity, Sam feels more alone than ever. Her mother is drifting farther and farther away while her father grows increasingly preoccupied as he steps in to help Jody’s family in the wake of the disappearance. During the tense, uncomfortable days that follow, Sam draws closer to Nick as the local tragedy intersects with her personal one.
National Book Award finalist Sara Zarr delivers a powerful novel (originally published under the title Once Was Lost) about community, family, faith, and one girl’s realization that sometimes you have to lose everything to find what’s been missing all along.
Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
A Preview of The Lucy Variations
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Saturday, early August.
The whole world is wilting.
Shriveling. Giving up. Dying.
Maybe not the whole world. Somewhere, I guess, it's not ninety-one degrees at four in the morning. I would like to be in that place. I would like to be somewhere, anywhere, that life feels possible and not smothered under a layer of heat and hopelessness. I'm tired of waking up every two hours in a puddle of sweat, and tired of every day discovering there's something else that's ruined or broken or falling apart. Yesterday it was the TV. Today, it's the ceiling fan in my room, the brokenness of which I discovered when I woke up wondering where the air went. I slipped out the sliding glass door into the backyard hoping for a miracle of something below eighty, and I now realize I can add the yard to the list of minor tragedies that make up my life these days.
The solar luminaries my dad put in last summer give just enough light that I can see the disaster it's become in this heat wave. Except I can't completely blame the heat. Honestly, it's looked like this for a long time. Dad's momentary burst of involvement via the luminaries and also painting the lawn furniture was just that—momentary. For about seventeen minutes last summer our family worked the way it's supposed to. The problems with the yard are just a symptom, really.
Everything out here reminds me of something. I can almost see the outline of my mom crouched at the base of the apple tree, mulching the roots, her blond hair held back with a blue bandanna; the curve of her neck, elegant. Even just a few months ago, when she was passing-out drunk, she still had that elegance. Classy is the word for my mother.
The clothesline strung up between a fence post and the metal eyebolt my dad screwed into the tree makes me think of the way he looked at her, laughing, when he said, "I can just imagine your undies flapping in the breeze on this thing, for all of Pineview to see. Your bra size will end up in the church newsletter if you're not careful."
"That would be funny if it weren't true," my mom said, but she smiled, too, and I know she liked it, Dad teasing her that way.
"Dad," I said, acting embarrassed. "Please." But I liked it, too.
That summer it wasn't too hot, and when the heat did climb there was iced tea on the back porch, my parents playing cribbage together after the sun went down, the game board balanced on my mom's tan thighs and my dad laying cards down on the arm of the chaise.
None of that lasted long. Probably all my good memories of the last year add up to three days.
I walk through the yard, making a mental checklist of what needs fixing. The two butterfly bushes have grown into each other and taken over the spot where my mom once had an herb garden, back when she still cared about things like cooking. The Mexican sage has completely run amok. The hollyhock plant that looked okay a few weeks ago has fallen over from its own weight, and lies across the flagstone path like a corpse. I step over to it, sweat trickling down the inside of my tank top and to the waistband of my pajama shorts. I try to get the hollyhock to stand up and stay up, but it flops back down over my bare feet.
I'm glad my mother isn't around to see this.
Instead, she's got the residents' garden of New Beginnings Recovery Center, neatly xeriscaped with drought-resistant plants that never ask for more than you can give them. Her room is neat. The cafeteria is neat. The visiting area is neat. She's been lifted, as if by the hand of God but in truth by the long arm of the law, out of this messy life.
I could make this yard look like the one at New Beginnings. All it would take are some supplies and time and maybe a book from the library telling me how to do it. Then, when she comes home, she won't have to see the same dead and dying things that were here when she left.
Ralph is hunkered down in the kitchen sink when I come in, cool porcelain all around him, and meows at me as if there's something I can do about the heat. I'd sit in the sink, too, if I fit. I lift him out and put him on the floor where he paces and meows and rubs his gray fur against my legs.
There's no cat food. There's barely any people food. I tear a few pieces off a leftover rotisserie chicken in the back of the fridge and toss them on the floor for Ralph, then pull an envelope from the stack of mail on the counter and start a grocery list on the back of it.
Soon I hear Dad up and moving around, and within a few minutes he appears under the archway to our open kitchen. I lift my head and he's rumpled and sweaty, his thick hair sticking up every which way, and staring at me like he's thinking of how to form the words that will make whatever it is not sound so bad.
"What," I say. It's not a question, because I know it's something. Every day it's something.
I wait for it, thinking of some of the information that has recently followed that statement.
Grandpa's surgery didn't go like we'd hoped.
We're not sure if we can pay the tuition at Amberton Heights Academy next year.
Your mother's been in an accident.
"The air conditioner is on the blink," Dad says.
He reaches down to scratch Ralph's head. "At least, I can't get it cranking. On the up side, the TV seems back in commission. I'm not sure how, but we're getting a picture again."
"My ceiling fan isn't working, either."
"No. And we need to buy groceries today." I hold up the envelope I've been writing on. "I'm making a list."
He comes close, smelling like someone who lives in a house where there is no air, and takes the envelope, turning it over to look at the front. It's a bill of some sort. "When did this come?" He rips into it.
"I don't know. The mail has been sitting here…" For a while. "Don't mess up my list."
He pulls out the bill, looks at it for half a second, and stuffs it back into the envelope. "I guess I should go through all of this," he says, looking at the pile.
"Yeah." There are a lot of things around here I can take care of, a lot of things I have been taking care of for a long time, but being fifteen and unemployed, money isn't one of them.
Dad searches through a pile of paper on the other end of the counter. "Doesn't your mom keep coupons around here somewhere?"
"Mom hasn't clipped coupons in at least three years," I say. I know, because it was my job to sit at the counter with the Sunday paper while Dad was at church getting ready for the service. I'd scan the coupons and deals, while Mom had her weekly anxiety attack about what to wear, and what to make me wear. She hated Sundays. Eventually I realized she wasn't even using the coupons, and I figured I'd be of more use helping Mom get dressed and ready and calm. "You look perfect," I'd assure her. And she always did.
Dad, of course, was never here for any of that, so he has no idea. He stops rummaging through the papers and looks at me. "Well, what is all this, then?"
It's stuff from the last four months that she was scared to throw away: old phone messages, flyers for events she was afraid she'd forget about, bank deposit slips. She used to like a neat house, everything in order, so the fact that she let that stuff pile up should have told Dad something. Obviously, he'd barely noticed the kitchen counter until right this moment.
"It's Mom's," I say. "Just leave it." I don't want her coming home from rehab and feeling like we went through the house, erasing her. "Can we stop at the hardware store when we go out?" I ask. "I want to get some stuff for the yard."
"Maybe I can find the part for your ceiling fan and get that working." He stares at me in that meaningful, fatherly way I can't bear anymore so I have no choice but to turn away and pretend to look in the fridge. "What else do you have going on today?" he asks.
"Nothing." I move an almost-empty carton of milk two inches to the right and close the door. "Unless you want to start our driving lessons?"
He shakes his head. "I can't today. I think you should make a plan. I think you should call Vanessa, or Daniel. Get out of the house. Go see a movie in an air-conditioned theater."
"Sammy, it's not a suggestion. Okay?"
I nod. We've discussed this. Me being home alone too much, a habit I developed when I started to get afraid to leave Mom by herself. But she's not here now, so.
"I'm going to hop in the shower," he says.
I nod again, and watch him walk away, through the airless living room and down the hall.
Main Street in Pineview has exactly six not-so-creatively-named businesses:
Petey's Ice Cream
The Casa Nova Mexican Diner (only open three days a week)
Main Street Coffee
Main Street Gas & Garage
Main Street Bar & Grill (the "grill" part closed down years ago)
Main Street Hardware
We're two hours south of Medford, six hours north of Sacramento, and a day west of Denver, which puts us exactly… nowhere. We have parades on Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Christmas. The Ten Commandments are still inscribed on a monument outside City Hall even after three lawsuits. Once a year people from all over the West come here for the Migratory Bird Festival. There's one public school for all grades, one private school (where I go, or went, I guess), one post office that's really a trailer off the pass, one library, and one grocery store where the whole town shops except for those who drive thirty-eight miles to the new Dillon's Bluff Wal-Mart. And seven churches, including Pineview Community, where my dad is the pastor.
Everyone knows him. Everyone thinks they know us, me. Everyone is wrong.
Even as we drive through town now, people in other cars and kids playing near the road recognize us and wave. Probably a third of the town's population helps pay the lease on our Taurus and the mortgage on our house, which gives them the right to say things to my dad like, "I see you got new tires there, Charlie. Are you sure the steel-belted are really worth it? They can't be cheap…" or "The front lawn at the house is looking a little ragged—do you need to borrow a mower?" Whenever I get new clothes I can almost see some of the women at church calculating how much we spent.
Everyone knows exactly how much my dad makes, and they think it's enough. Some think it's too much.
One time I was out with Mom when we ran into a congregant who owns his own tech company and gives a lot of money to the church. Mom was holding on to her cell phone, which she'd just upgraded to one of those that does everything so that I could have her old one, and this guy, this congregant, made a comment about it. "I guess you can keep your grocery list on that thing, if nothing else," he said. His big, jokey smile didn't hide what he was really saying: Why does a housewife need a fancy phone, especially when the church basically pays the cell bill, and shouldn't we use that money for new pew Bibles or an ad in the county yellow pages?
"Yes," Mom said, smiling back, drawing a perfectly but modestly home-manicured finger through a piece of hair that had fallen across her face. "It does wonders with grocery lists." But when the guy was gone, Mom said to me, "I guess we're not supposed to live in the twenty-first century," and tucked the phone into her purse, out of sight.
There's a lot of stuff like that we deal with. Those are just examples.
Now Dad pulls the car right in front of Main Street Hardware, and as he turns off the engine there's a little rattle coming from under the hood. I look at him. He's pretending not to hear it. After Mom's accident, and everything else, the last thing we need is car trouble.
The bells on the door of the hardware store jingle as we go in. A wave of air-conditioned air feels too cold at first, raising goose bumps on my arms, but then it's like heaven.
"Charlie, hey." Cal Stewart, who owns and single-handedly runs the hardware store, greets us. Or I should say he greets my dad and nods politely at me. "What can I do for you?" I like Cal, even though he never remembers my name. He's got woolly dark hair that's just starting to go a little gray, and wire-rim glasses that make him look smarter than most people in Pineview, and he's a lot nicer than the old couple he bought the store from a few years ago.
Dad and Cal discuss the ceiling fan issue, and I take advantage of the chance to walk the aisles of the store, running my hand over the different-size chains that hang from spools, looking into bins of glittering loose nails in every size, examining a dozen kinds of spackles and glues. There's something to make or fix or connect everything.
When he's done talking to my dad, Cal walks by the other end of the aisle and catches sight of me.
"Can I help you find something?"
"I'm thinking about doing something different in our backyard."
"Let's go to the outdoor section. Near the front."
My dad is up front, too, talking on his cell, something about the music for tomorrow's service.
Cal asks me, "So you want to do something different. Different how?"
"It's so hot," I say. "Everything's kind of… dying."
He leads me to a spinning wire rack of thin gardening books, many of them dusty and with pages that are starting to yellow from the sun. "Here's one on desert gardening. Technically, Pineview is high desert and not true desert, but it's got a lot of info on plants that don't need much water."
"Right." He hands me the book. "Is this for 4-H?"
"No," I say, surprised that he remembers. "Just for my house."
The last time I came here was to get wooden dowels. I dropped out of 4-H before I finished that project, which was supposed to be me and Vanessa teaching crafts at the Dillon's Bluff Senior Center, but my mom wasn't doing so well the day she'd promised to drive us to do the setup, and my dad was busy with church, and instead of telling the truth I told Vanessa that I'd given my mom the wrong date and Vanessa got mad and I dropped out rather than let her down again. Anyway.
"You'll probably need some of this," Cal says, leading me through the store to a pile of black plastic sheeting.
"To smother those water-greedy plants you're trying to replace." He hands me a bulky, folded armload of it.
"Ready, Sam?" my dad asks, eyeing what I've got and, I'm sure, calculating the price.
I nod. Cal rings us up and Dad pays with a credit card. We both exhale and try not to look too surprised when it goes through.
In the grocery store, Dad doesn't approve of my list. "Your mother lets you eat like this?" He puts a bag of chocolate-covered pretzels back on the shelf.
I stare at him.
"Nothing." Just that you sound like a weekend dad who's been divorced for years, I think, not someone who allegedly lives in the same house as me.
He pushes the cart down the cereal aisle and throws in a box of cornflakes, the store brand that's always on sale and is not so much cornflakes as corn dust. To stop myself from complaining I turn on my heel and go off to the pet supplies, where I run right into Vanessa and her mom struggling with a twenty-pound bag of dog food.
"Sam!" Vanessa drops her end of the bag to the floor and hugs me.
It's only been a little over a week since I've seen her, but she looks like a whole different person to me. True, she's gotten her hair cut, and maybe she's a little bit more tan, but I mean she feels like a stranger—her voice, her soft arms around my neck, like it's been ten years, not ten days. I pull back, and wonder if she thinks I feel like a stranger, too.
"Didn't you get my messages?" she asks.
"I—" Whatever I say won't be true. How do you admit to avoiding your best friend?
Mrs. Hathaway, still grasping her corner of the dog food bag, saves me. "We wanted to invite you over for dinner sometime this week, if that would be okay with your dad."
She knows about my mom being gone, that's obvious, because normally she would have said, if that would be okay with your mom. Which makes me wonder how many other people from church know and when Dad is going to officially announce it so that I can stop playing the "I don't know if you know" game every time I run into church people, which is pretty much every time I leave the house.
"Yeah," Vanessa says, bouncing a little bit on the balls of her feet, "you can spend the night."
"I'll make your favorite Chinese chicken salad," Mrs. Hathaway coaxes. She always makes me feel like one of the family, as if she and my mom are still best friends and we all practically live at each other's houses, even though that hasn't been true for years.
"Come on, Sam." Vanessa is practically begging. I could make both my dad and Vanessa happy by simply letting the word yes come out of my mouth.
But I don't want to.
I don't want to be with people. I don't want to talk to people. I don't want to answer questions or pretend to be interested in conversations or activities.
"I'm really tired," I say. Which is true.
Vanessa's shoulders slump. "So?"
"Maybe. I'll call you." It's the best I can do. "I have to go find my dad." I pile a dozen cans of cat food into my arms.
"Okay, sweetie," Mrs. Hathaway says. "You let us know. Or just show up. You know our home is your home."
The way she says that, so sincere and warm and nurturing, makes me start to tear up unexpectedly, and I turn as I say, "Thanks," before she can hug me and make it worse.
"Call me, Sam," Vanessa says. "I miss you!"
"Me, too," I say automatically.
I find Dad in the produce section, loading the cart with vegetables. "There you are," he says. "Grab anything else you need and then we have to scoot. I haven't even started prepping tomorrow's sermon."
"Dad," I say, staring into the cart.
"It's all… ingredients."
He stops in the middle of filling up a plastic bag with broccoli and gives me a questioning look.
"Who's going to cook this stuff?" I ask.
"I thought…" Now he stares into the cart.
"It's not like I know what to do with it. She never let me in the kitchen when she cooked," I say. Cooking was the one thing she and I didn't do together. Everything else—shopping, cleaning, watching TV or movies, looking at magazines, gardening, polishing our toenails, doing our hair, trying on clothes, going for walks or runs—was the two of us. But when she was in the kitchen, even I was banished. It was the one place in her life where she was totally in charge.
"Haven't you noticed," I continue, "that your meals have come out of a can or the microwave since, like, Christmas?"
I take the bunch of broccoli out of his hand and put it back, along with the mushrooms, the little red potatoes, the baby squash. I keep the bagged salad and apples. Then I wheel the cart to the meat case and put back the package of ground beef and the whole chicken in favor of some pre-seasoned, pre-cooked chicken breasts.
"I could cook," Dad says weakly, but he knows I'm right. We're not the kind of family anymore that sits around the table to a balanced and nutritious meal to talk about our days. We're the kind that lives on stuff only requiring a person to work the microwave or add boiling water.
After filling our cart with stuff that meets these criteria, I pull Dad along to the checkout line. He's still in a daze, like he's only just now living in reality. I think of a line he uses in sermons sometimes: "Denial ain't just a river in Egypt." Funny how talking about things safely from behind a podium in church is different from really getting them in real life.
The cashier, a squat fifty-something woman who's worked here as long as I can remember, smiles big at us. Well, at Dad. "Hey, Pastor Charlie. Haven't seen you here in ages!"
And instantly he turns on his Pastor Charlie charm, going from sad and dazed to warm and present, like our grocery cart tragedy never happened. "Come to church and you can see me every week," he says with a grin. "You haven't been since your niece's baptism, am I right?"
I turn away, look at the candy shelf, and add some four-for-a-dollar chocolate bars to the conveyer belt. Meanwhile, the cashier and my dad are laughing it up. "Maybe I was hiding in the balcony."
"And maybe you weren't."
She loves it. Because all women love my dad. He's handsome enough even with the little soda-belly he's grown in the last couple of years, has all his hair, is youngish, charming, kind, a good listener, reliable, attentive, there when you need him. Those last four only apply if you aren't in his immediate family. Most of all he's the kind of man who would never cheat, and—as my mom pointed out to me once after a few drinks—that's exactly the kind of man women want to cheat with. "Ironic, isn't it?" my mom said, kind of laughing and kind of not. And I wanted to tell her how that isn't the sort of thing I want to know about or think about my own father, and please could we change the subject, but I don't think she really realized it was me sitting there with her. I mean she knew it was me, but when she's drinking she kind of forgets I'm her daughter and she's my mom. So the definition of appropriate topics of conversation tends to… expand.
Dad pays for the groceries with a check, which will float a couple of days while he figures out how to get money into our account.
Back in the car, he's still in his confident pastoral mode. "I'm sorry," he says, buckling his seat belt. "The food thing—"
"It's okay," I say, cutting him off. I turn up the air-conditioning full blast and lift myself off the seat a little to keep from burning my thighs on the vinyl.
"We'll sit down and talk about this. We'll make a plan for how to make sure we're taking care of ourselves and each other while Mom's away."
He's been saying this for two weeks now, been referring to this mythical conversation we're allegedly going to have, in which everything will be ironed out and processed and prayed over and resolved, and yet we somehow never actually have it.
We pull out of the lot. The air blowing into the car finally begins to cool. "I just have to get through church tomorrow," he says, "then on Monday we'll figure it all out." He glances at me. "Okay?"
The only response I can give is "Okay." I know that church comes first, and I didn't expect us to actually get five minutes to talk, and I guess I should be grateful we got groceries and went to the hardware store.
When we're almost home, I say, "I ran into Vanessa in the store. I think I'm going to spend the night over there." Because suddenly the prospect of conversation with other people doesn't seem as hard as going into that house, our house, staying there with no AC while Dad holes up in his office getting ready for tomorrow.
He gives my knee a light and happy smack. "Good, Sam. Good. I'm glad. You need to have some fun."
At Vanessa's house, the air-conditioning works and the mail isn't piled up and we sit around the table, all of us together, looking out onto a backyard where everything is under control.
"After dinner, you two can go out and pick some tomatoes," Mrs. Hathaway says as we all pass her our shallow bowls, which she fills with mounds of Chinese chicken salad. "Sam, you can take some home. We've got a bumper crop out there."
"Does this have onions?" Robby, Vanessa's seven-year-old brother, scrutinizes his dish. He always inspects his food with a funny kind of thoroughness—C.S.I. Dinner Plate.
"No, honey," his mom says. "Just scallions."
"I love scallions," I say, trying to help, making my eyes big and excited. "They're my favorite. Plus they make you super strong."
He's skeptical. "What are scallions?"
"Green onions," Vanessa says. Mrs. Hathaway gives her a look.
After we're all served, Mr. Hathaway extends his hands—one to Robby, on his left, and one to me, on his right. I take it, and Vanessa takes mine, and Mrs. Hathaway takes hers, and then completes the circle by holding Robby's. The prayer over the food is on the long side, as Mr. Hathaway covers not only the food but also each one of us as well as world events. His hand is rougher and bigger than my dad's, calloused from playing the guitar, which he does almost every Sunday.
"Amen," he finally says, giving my hand a squeeze.
This is what a family is supposed to feel like.
"How's your mother doing?" Mrs. Hathaway asks, as if it isn't the hardest question in the world to ask and answer.
"Fine." I eat a bite of salad. It's good. Mrs. Hathaway got this recipe from my mom.
"I know it's hard right now, but it's good that she's getting help."
"Mom…," Vanessa says, and glances at me apologetically.
Robby asks, "Why does Sam's mom need help?"
I start to say that she had a little run-in with a fence post, which is true, but Mrs. Hathaway answers first: "She's sick, Robby. It's a disease. It's—"
"Well, not quite." She looks thoughtful. This is a Teachable Moment. "But you could say—"
"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."
- On Sale
- Apr 2, 2013
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers