“Rags,” Mama says with a smile. “Rags died a couple years after . . . about six years ago. Right around when Gracie was born.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “He was a nice dog.”
Dad laughs. “You hated that dog. He always chewed on your shoes.”
“Really?” I laugh too, a little too hard. “I don’t remember that.”
A few weeks ago, at the library, I found the page—my face staring back at me. My page, with my real name—Ethan Manuel De Wilde—on the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s website. I Googled my name and saw all the hits. People had been looking for me. Unreal. And then I found my family’s website. Even Grandpa and Grandma De Wilde and all the cousins and aunts and uncles post things there. Tons of pictures. Discussions about them . . . and about me. How they’ve been searching, and how they remember. Memories shared.
Things flash by the window and in my head: sleeping in doorways, the group home in Nebraska, and how I got there . . . and Ellen. . . . My throat hurts. I stare outside into the darkness, watching glowing snow and bare black trees whiz by.
“Um, so, what else do you remember, Ethan?” Blake asks after a while, still not quite looking at me. His voice is nonchalant, but I know what he’s really asking. He’s asking, Do you remember me?
Instead, I ask him. “Do you remember me? You were just a little kid.”
His smile is wary, as if he’s still unsure of me. “Sure. You hogged the bed. I kicked you all the time under the covers, and Dad would always blame you because you were older.” Blake laughs a little and his voice cracks—he must be going through the horrible voice-change thing.
I smile. “I remember that,” I say, even though I don’t. Stupid nerves. “I wanted my own bed so bad.” I don’t know what I’m saying.
Now I just want a bed. I don’t care if there are seventeen people in it. I need a soft place to rest. My body aches. I’ve been walking and hitching rides for days. I’d lie on a pile of garbage right about now if it was soft.
I look at Gracie. I’d noticed in my peripheral vision that she was staring at me with her big cow eyes, but now, when I look directly at her, she drops her gaze. Do you know why they had you? I want to ask. But I’m not cruel like that. I just stare at her instead, until she hides her face behind Dad’s arm.
What else can I say? I’m grateful for Mama, who chatters about the grandparents. Mama’s father, Papa Quintero, died about a year ago, which I knew from reading the family message board. I try to feel sad, but he’s so distant from me. Besides, he lived in Mexico.
After a while, we are all quiet. Gracie sleeps. Mama says our train ride is about two hours long, and it was already after nine when we left the Red Wing station. I pretend to doze off so I can wrap my head around all of this. All of this newness. Coming back to a family I don’t really remember. A pang of . . . of homesickness, I guess, hits me in the gut, and I realize just how badly I want those memories back.
In Belleville we disembark and walk through the parking lot. Blake drops in step next to me, his eyes level with my chin. “You look a little different to me, kid,” I say. “I mean, obviously you’re a lot bigger. Your hair is darker than it was.”
“It always bleaches blond in the summer,” Blake says, more talkative under the cover of darkness. “You disappeared in the summer. That’s how you’d probably remember me, right? We were outside playing on the sidewalk. Drawing with chalk. I remember it,” he says, looking up at me. His eyes narrow a fraction. “I remember the car.”
I look sharply at my brother. “You do?” I whisper, but we are at the minivan now, and our conversation ends. I really want to know what my family did in those moments and days after it happened.
We drive home. Home to the white house with black shutters and a big picture window on the corner of Thirty-fifth and Maple. When Dad turns onto Thirty-fifth and slows the minivan, the house looks just like it does in the pictures on the website, only now it’s softly lit by the glowing reflection of the moon on snowy ground.
In the front yard stands a weathered family of snowmen:
And a girl.
It’s them, the four of them.
I am not represented by snow.
Stupid hot tears attack the corners of my eyes, and I feel so unstable. I know it’s unreasonable, but I wonder, why didn’t they build one for me before they picked me up? Why didn’t they just smash them all down so I wouldn’t have to see them going on with life without me? As if I didn’t matter. As if I didn’t exist.
I burst out of the vehicle, breathe in the cold night air to stop the crazy laughter from boiling up, and suppress the urge to run.
Dad ushers me in first. A fat, orange blob of a cat darts around the corner when I open the door. Inside the house it smells like stew. “Does it look familiar?” he asks anxiously.
“Yeah, a little,” I say. But I don’t remember any of it. Not this mudroom, not the smells. I thought I’d remember the smells. I try harder, and then I think, yes, somewhere deep down in my brain, suppressed, there it is. That carpety, freshenery, stewy, tiny-bit-of-musty house smell. I assign it a name—home. That’s it. That’s Home. Everybody starts taking off their boots and hanging their coats on hooks like we do this every day together. But there are only four hooks.