I KNEW RUTH WAS GONE the second I woke up. When I looked across the room, I could see her bed was just as I’d made it for her yesterday. The way she liked it, with the pink ruffle peeking out from under her polka-dotted quilt and the yellow happy-face pillow leaning up against the headboard.
“Ruth?” I pulled on the knob of our closet door, and the accordion folds caught on something. I reached around the door and felt for a foot or a hand, but all I got was the lid of my Mouse Trap game and my fifth-grade spelling book.
The hallway outside our room seemed too quiet, and it was almost as if I could hear the house breathing. “Ruth?” I opened the linen closet and yanked out the stacks of towels and washcloths. I stood on my tiptoes and felt along the top shelves.
“Where did you get to?” I got a prickly feeling on the backs of my arms, like when I’d fallen behind my class at the field trip to the soda factory.
The living room at the end of the hallway was exactly the way I’d left it when I’d gone to bed. I kicked aside the pile of zigzag gum-wrapper chains I’d been working on and jumped up on the couch to look out the front window. The shovel was still there, next to the hole in a bare patch of grass.
My mouth got dry when I pictured Ruth falling into that hole. For a quick second I saw her with a hurt leg, unable to climb out. But my brain made me remember. That hole was barely deep enough for a chipmunk to fall in.
I knew there was only one place left to look, and I’d really hoped to find her before it came to that. The bottoms of my bare feet were sweaty when I opened the door of Valley’s room.
I stood in the doorway. “Valley?” I asked her quietly.
“Valley?” I said it a little louder and hugged myself. No one ever woke up Valley without plenty good reason. “Valley? It’s me, Esther.”
I went another step closer and took a good look around, in case Ruth had wandered from our room in the middle of the night to sleep on Valley’s floor. Ruth’s body had grown only about half an inch to every two of mine, all her life, and it was easy to miss that tiny thing wedged in somewhere.
There was no sign of her, and I knew I had no other choice. I stepped right up close, so my knees were bumping against the side of the bed.
“Mama?” I put my face next to hers, so she could’ve smelled what I’d had for supper last night if she’d wanted to.
“Valley? You awake?”
I stepped back. She looked dead, but I knew she was heavily into one of her long sleeps. The kind she has when she takes the round yellow pills from the top shelf in the bathroom. When her mind won’t slow down, but her body needs to rest.
I thought about tossing some water on her, but she’d be mad as a hornet. So I knelt down and got up close to her again. “I know Ruth was with you last night. I saw her leave in the truck with you.” I got so close, she could probably feel the shapes of my words on her cheek. “Please, Valley? I need you to retrace your steps.”
But I knew it was useless. When her breath caught short in the back of her throat like that, she wouldn’t be up and around for another three or four hours.
My stomach felt both empty and queasy-full at the same time. I couldn’t even think where Ruth might have gone. I tried to push aside the picture of her eight-and-a-half-year-old self out all night.
Valley’s face was scrunched up and tight around her mouth, the way it got if the anger hadn’t quite made its way out of her. When she got really charged up, that fire in her hung around for a while, even in her sleep. I took a giant step backward, out of reach of her balled-up fist, and I knew where Ruth had to be. It was where we always went to wait it out when Valley got her temper on.
I made my way to the coat closet next to the front door, my heart slowing down a bit, because I knew how I’d find her. She’d be all curled up like a cat, bundled in the ratty yellow blanket that Ford had washed out for her from the finders-keepers place.
I felt for the back wall of the closet and pushed Valley’s coat sleeve out of the way. The cigarette smell hung on to the material and made my heart pick up again, as if Valley was lighting one up next to me.
“Ruth?” I knocked on the square door and put my finger through the ring, pulling it toward me.
The crawl space was dark, but if I was on the inside, it felt cozy and safe, all backed in there next to Ruth.
I grabbed the flashlight we kept in the corner and flipped on the switch. That’s when my heart cranked up to full speed. No Ruth. Not even a shred from her blanket.
I thought about Valley’s tight face and I knew I had to find Ruth fast.
I slammed the square door in place and thought about getting my friend Ford to help. But I didn’t want to waste any more time.
As I stepped into the kitchen, I slid in a thick puddle. The sticky pinkness smelled familiar, and that was when I saw all the bags. Five grocery sacks sat in the middle of the table, pink liquid oozing out of the corners and making long, thick trails down the cabinets and onto the floor.
I looked into each bag, and they were all the same. Every one of them was filled to the top with half-gallon cartons of strawberry ice cream. Valley’s favorite. But it didn’t look as if she’d taken even one bite. The bags sat on the table, and Valley had gone to bed without giving them, or anyone else, a second thought.
I wiped a smear of ice cream from the side of my hand onto one of the bags, and I saw the receipt sticking to the side of one of the cartons. I peeled it away and held it up.
Mark and Pack. Valley had been to the Mark and Pack!
I tiptoed through the sticky mess and pushed my feet into Valley’s green step-in slippers, and I was out the door.
The high handlebars of my bike leaned up against the wooden diamond pattern between the front windows of our house. I swung one leg over the silver banana seat and pushed off down the driveway. I could feel my heart beating as I squeezed my handlebars with my thumbs. We both knew better than to go anywhere with Valley when her anger was rising up.
The ice cream dried on my feet, making the fur from the slippers wrap around my ankles like bandages.
Only a few cars were in the Mark and Pack parking lot, so I pedaled right along the middle of the painted-on lines and tossed my bike down next to the front door. My feet stuck to the rubber mat as the automatic door swung open.
I wanted to run in shouting out her name, but I made myself stand real still and listen. All I heard was “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” It was the floaty music without words that follows you around in stores. That music was teasing me today, because it was helping to hide Ruth. I didn’t hear any crying, but I hoped she was there somewhere. She had to be.
I crisscrossed up and down the aisles and was thinking about how I could get myself into the back room when I caught sight of something down low and to the right.
It was the blue Keds that gave her away. Only one person I knew put Dole banana stickers on the hole they’d worn over their big toe. My head had a fizzy feeling to it when I let out a whole chestful of air. I hadn’t even realized I was holding my breath.
She was curled up on the bottom shelf of the toilet-paper aisle, her head resting on a four-pack. And I was willing to bet that no one at the M and P had even noticed her.
She was partly asleep, but one eye was trying to flip open.
Even though it was cold inside the store, sweat trickled down the middle of my back. My whole body relaxed onto the floor in front of the shelf. I couldn’t believe I’d actually found her.
“Esther?” She looked as if she was having trouble getting her mouth around my name.
I put my hand out for her, but she scooted herself back an inch or so on the shelf.
I cleared off some four-packs and wedged myself in next to her. “Hey, Ruth.”
“I GOT LEFT.” Her voice was hoarse and small.
“Valley get out of sorts?” I put my hand next to hers, but I didn’t touch it. Ruth hated to be touched when she was upset.
She shrugged. “I think she might have been out of sorts when we were coming here in the truck. She was using her halfway words. The ones where she starts up with a few sounds and doesn’t finish them.”
“You even see her leave the store?” I asked.
She shook her head. “I was reading the Archie comic books, and I looked out and the truck was gone.” Her voice was slow and careful, as if she was thinking Valley might be able to hear her.
“Valley Page can be like that,” I said. “Quick and stealthy, like a spy. There one second and gone the next.”
She nodded and moved a little closer to me.
I brought my feet up in front of me and peeled some green fur away from my heel. I wanted to hug her tight, I was so glad to see her.
“Hold out your arms.” I pushed her sleeves up past her elbows so I could see the place where Valley usually left her angry squeeze marks.
Ruth shook my hands off. “The truck got the bruises. I stayed by the door.” She screwed her eyes shut tight, as if she was back in the truck. “She kept banging on the dashboard with her coffee mug.” She drew short lines in the air with her pointer finger. “It left little dents.”
“Why’d you go with her, Ruth?” I picked at the plastic wrapping on a toilet-paper package. “You know better than to get in the truck with her when she’s got her temper on.”
She shrugged. “You saw her. She wasn’t mad when we got in the truck.” She narrowed her eyes at me with the blaming look she gets. “You were on your way out, collecting.”
I swallowed hard and thought about how Valley’s anger tended to grow real fast, without much warning of any kind.
Ruth leaned back on her elbows, the corners of her mouth quivering up in a tiny smile. “We were going to have a party.” She closed her eyes as if she was picturing the spread in front of her. “We were getting strawberry ice cream. Everything was going to be pink. Valley was going to make a big strawberry-pink mountain.” Her eyes snapped open, and she sat up. “She’s not home decorating, is she?”
I shook my head. “She’s in bed.”
Ruth blinked hard, as if she was trying to push Valley’s pink party to the back of her mind.
“Want a hot dog?” She held out a cocktail wiener. “They had free samples.” I could see a pile of toothpicks on top of a small stack of comic books beside her.
“No thanks,” I said. “You have it. My stomach’s not settled down just yet.” I thought about Valley, all tucked into her bed like she was, and I got mad and nervous at the same time. “Let’s get going.”
She slid forward and stood up, staring down at the floor. “What you got Valley’s house shoes on for?”
I curled my sticky toes inside the green fur. “It was the first thing I saw.” If my feet hadn’t been so coated with strawberry stickiness, those slippers would have been real comfortable. My Keds hardly fit anymore. Seemed like ever since I’d turned eleven, my feet had been growing like crazy.
Excerpted from A Finderskeepers Place by Ann Haywood Leal.
Copyright © 2010 by Ann Haywood Leal.
Published in 2010 by Henry Holt And Company New York.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.