Page 5 of Dead to You

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There’s his twin bed, a dresser, a desk, and a chair. It’s a small, messy room with clothes piled on the floor. The walls are simple, painted blue. The orange cat I saw earlier has made its way in here and is curled up on the foot of Blake’s bed. Blake starts to pick up some of his crap, and I wander to the dresser, which is topped with a variety of books, papers, and mutilated action figures in inappropriate poses. I stare at a framed picture that is semi-hidden behind the clutter. It’s a photograph of two boys sitting behind a lemonade stand. I think it’s him and me. “Is this us?” I ask.

Blake looks at me curiously. “You don’t remember that?”

“No,” I say.

“Yes, Ethan. It’s us.” Blake frowns.

“I figured,” I say. Embarrassed. Feeling like I should apologize for my memory. This is going to be awkward, all of this “getting to know each other” stuff.

I’m quiet and Blake is still looking at me, working his jaw. He moves to the door and closes it, and I start to get a weird feeling.

“I remember,” he says, his voice low. “The car. You went right to it.”

I just look at him. My eyes get wide and I can’t stop them.

“Why did you do that?” His voice is strained.

I don’t know what to say. I see him winding up, his lips twitching, and I am not ready for this.

“You went right up to those strangers and you got into their car.” Blake’s face twists and turns red. “You were seven years old, a second grader. You should have known better! You should have known not to go up to strangers. What the heck was wrong with you?” Blake sniffs wildly and presses his fingertips into the corners of his eyes to stop the drips.

“I . . . ,” I say. But instead of answering, I go to the door, open it, and slip out, closing it behind me, and I walk slowly past the bathroom, past Gracie’s bedroom, down the hall, and through the dining room, to the living room, where Mama and Dad sit, talking quietly. Dad has his laptop out and he’s typing. They look up and stop talking when I come into the room.

“We’re emailing some more relatives and friends now, but we’ll wait until morning to call the rest and let them know you’re back,” Dad says. “It’s late.” He goes back to his typing and adds, “Give you a good night’s rest and some time to settle in. Then we’ll have everybody over to see you tomorrow night. All right?” He looks up and smiles, and it’s such a warm smile.

“Yeah, okay,” I say. More people.

Mama pats the sofa cushion next to her, so I sit down. “We’ll have Blake sleep out here tonight, at least until we can get another bed for his room—your room, I mean, the both of you.”

“No, Mama, really,” I say. I remember crying out for my mother, vaguely, a long time ago. She loves being called Mama, I know it from one of her stories on the website, so I do it, even though it sounds a little babyish for a sixteen-year-old. “I don’t want Blake to sleep out here. I’ll sleep here. Trust me, the sofa is about a million times better than where I slept last night.”

“Are you sure?” she asks, uncertain.

“Yes, I mean it.”

She sighs deeply. “I can’t believe it’s really you,” she says. “It’s amazing. . . . We thought we’d found you so many times over the years, but the leads were all dead ends.” She shuffles through the pictures of me, putting them into a neat pile on the end table. She looks at me and hesitates. “Do you feel like talking more about that? About how you got home?” Her skin looks so anxious, all crinkled up by her eyes.

“Not really,” I say, sorry. “Not right now. I’m so tired.”

She pats my hand. “It’s okay. We have lots of time to talk.”

Later, after midnight, when all the lights are out and I’m lying on my makeshift couch bed, exhausted, I can’t sleep. It’s too quiet, too . . . too nice. I stare through the moonlight at the framed school portraits on the living room wall. Blake looks like the oldest kid in the family. The Replacement Kid is angelic and perfect. And I am toothless and dumb-haired, perpetually stuck in second grade.

CHAPTER 6

During the night the phone rings. Twice, three times. I hear somebody scuffling around, but I’m gone from the world.

In the morning I wake up to strange noises and smells, and for a minute I don’t remember where I am. I crack open an eyelid and there, staring at me, just standing in the living room all dressed in a freaking snowmobile suit and snow boots and carrying a Dora the Explorer lunch box, is Gracie. She looks like an elf.

“I’m going to school now,” she says. She doesn’t move.

“So what,” I mutter. I remember the other kids in the group home. Sixteen of us, all ages. The head dude had a bratty daughter about the same age as Gracie who always came to the home for lunch after morning kindergarten. Kimberlee. Couldn’t stand her. But there was an abandoned kid who wasn’t bad—really shy. I liked getting him to laugh. You never know with little kids.

I struggle to lift my head. My body is stiff. Everything hurts, but it’s good, sort of, like the worst ache you feel right before the healing begins. My throat is sore, though, which is making me cranky, and my voice comes out hoarse. “What’s in your lunch box?”

Gracie narrows her eyes. “Nofing.”

“Seriously?” I laugh a little and then erupt in a short coughing fit. “Come on,” I say. “Tell me. I’m not going to steal it.”

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