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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Worth a Thousand Words

Brigit Young

Roaring Brook Press

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1


The Lost and Found

Tillie Green studied constantly. Not math, or English, but pictures. Pictures and pictures of everybody, scrutinizing their comings and goings, their forgotten moments, thoughtless mistakes, and ever-changing faces.

She arranged last week’s photographs over the well-worn desk in her room. Ordering them based on chronology, she recounted the Monday-through-Friday lives of her classmates. She spotted Clay Johansson getting into an argument with the lunch lady about the quality of the tater tots. Next up was Mary Boyd, her eyes crinkled in a smile at Deshaun Washington as he read a poem at an assembly, oblivious to her adoration. And there, from Thursday, was the one Tillie had been looking for. It captured Tom Wilson laughing in the cafeteria in his oversized T-shirt, whispering something, his hands under the table along with Lauren Canopy’s. It looked like they were passing a note of some kind. Or were they holding hands? Were their hands touching all the time now, only in secret? A photograph could hold many secrets, Tillie knew.

In the photo beneath it, taken on the same day, Tillie spotted Tom leaning against his locker reading something, his face scrunched up in concentration. As Tillie had first suspected, they must have been passing a note—the note. A love note, probably.

“I lost some … paper. A paper,” he’d told her last week in an awkward panic. “I need it.”

In the next photo, Tom was walking off, the note teetering out of his back pocket. Maybe it had fallen out shortly after, and if it was retrievable at all, it most likely sat in the recycling bin by Tom’s locker on the third floor. The janitors were supposed to clear them every other day, but sometimes they neglected the bins by the stairwells.

One of her cases might be closed.

Satisfied, she grazed her fingers over more of her weekly spread: Cara Dale, laughing at something unseen as she played with her necklace; Ms. Martinez, the best teacher in the world teaching the best subject—art; and the beautiful and impeccably dressed Diana Farr, just a blur in the background of a classroom photo but somehow the star of it, even when out of focus.

Diana was the one who had designated Tillie the “Lost and Found”—the school’s investigator, its finder of lost things. It had taken Diana over a year, all the way until the fall semester of seventh grade, to even notice Tillie. Tillie wasn’t exactly of the same social status as Diana Farr. Tillie didn’t even have a social status.

It had started with a typical Diana drama. One day, a few minutes before the first afternoon class began, Diana couldn’t find her diamond bracelet.

When Tillie heard “I’ve lost them! I’ve lost the diamonds!” she remembered that just a few short hours ago she had noticed the bracelet’s sparkle in one of her shots. She clicked through her morning’s two dozen pictures. When she got to an image of Diana wearing it in the art room while she washed paint off her hands, Tillie went to retrieve it.

Coming back to Mr. Werner’s classroom, Tillie murmured, “I’ve got it.”

A hush fell over the class. Diana walked toward her.

“You last had it in art,” Tillie said. “It must have fallen off in the sink when you washed your hands.” She paused and shrugged. “It was still there. I saw it in my…” Tillie nodded down to her camera, on its strap around her neck. “This.”

Diana shrieked. She hugged Tillie, whose arms were stuck at her sides, and the class clapped.

“You guys!” Diana turned to the other kids. “Who needs that useless lost and found when we have Tils and her crazy camera?”

By the time the bell rang to start the next class, Tillie had existed for the first time.

Tillie’s mom’s voice broke her concentration—somehow it could boom and squeak simultaneously.

“Tillie! My love! School!”

“Okay, coming!”

She saved the new images she’d uploaded onto her laptop and shuffled all the printed pictures into her Lost and Found folder. One fell out and Tillie bent to pick it up.

It was from Sunday morning. Her dad stood in front of the kitchen window above the sink, drinking his morning coffee, his graying hair messy, staring at the bird feeder in the backyard. He had quietly watched the birds like this, Tillie was fairly certain, ever since the accident. Before, she remembered weekend mornings as full of pancakes and silly songs, the birds scared off by all the noise. But maybe she was just imagining things.

“I guess you’re just not going to school today!” Her mom poked her head into Tillie’s room. Eyeing Tillie’s photographs, she added, “Seriously, get a move on, honey.”

“I’m coming,” Tillie repeated as she began to gather her things.

“And hey, make sure to text me when you’re on your way home!”

Tillie sighed. Her mom always acted as if Templeton, Illinois, were Gotham City and not a small, boring college town in which the most dangerous thing Tillie could ever encounter would be an angry squirrel protecting its nuts. All the other kids got to hang out downtown after school, often until dark, getting hot chocolate and snacks on Main Street, but Tillie always had to head right home, or to physical therapy or a doctor’s appointment. Not like she had anyone to get hot chocolate with, anyway. But it was the principle of the matter.

Tillie grabbed her coat and rushed out the door, her glasses sliding slightly down her nose, her backpack heavy on her shoulders, and her camera hanging from her neck, swinging in time with the drag-step rhythm of her walk as she made her way to the bus stop.

* * *

Tom Wilson’s love note sat near the top of the overflowing recycling bin by the stairwell.

“Did you read it?” he asked as she handed it to him.

“No,” she answered, already turning away.

“Okay, well—” he started.

She looked back at him.

“Never mind, Lost and Found,” he muttered, and walked away.

“You’re welcome,” Tillie mumbled to Tom’s back. And tell Lauren Canopy “You’re welcome,” too, she thought.

Tillie flexed her foot and released it a few times, like the physical therapists always told her to, and began to shuffle off to class. Her leg already hurt and it was only the beginning of the day. She noted some kind of commotion behind her but ignored it, focusing on balancing her walk and clicking shots of some new Sharpie graffiti on Alice Pierce’s locker.

“Hey!” she heard from somewhere far off.

Someone had dropped an anatomy book on the ground. It lay flipped open to a picture of a skeleton. Tillie took a photo.

“Hey, wait up!” the same voice hollered again.

Tillie hardly registered the call behind her. She was too busy noticing a circle of blue gum wads in the drinking fountain that reminded her of one of those old stone circles she had read about in history class. She snapped a shot of it.

“Lost and Found!” The voice had made its way to her, and Tillie felt a hand on her shoulder.

She stopped, turned, and hid a groan.

It was Jake Hausmann. She’d taken photos of him here and there, of course, but she’d gone out of her way to never have to speak to him.

“You’re the Lost and Found, right?” he said. “You find stuff for people? They said to look for the girl that…” He blushed.

Tillie—as kids used to say back in elementary school before they were scolded for it—“walked funny.” At first, for a few months, it was because of the back brace. Once that was off, it was the way her bones had healed, the way her legs had learned to get her around after all her body had been through.

Tillie’s main doctor called her current walk “a triumph,” usually adding, “It could’ve been much worse.” Her mom said she was “so proud she’d come so far.” The gym teacher said the whole thing was “a shame.” The kids at school, most of them speaking in hushed tones they thought she couldn’t hear—unless they were the mean ones and she got in their way in the hall or something—called it “freakish,” “weird,” or “super sad.”

Back in elementary school, her classmates had been used to it. But once middle school started, and kids from all over town joined together for the sixth grade, it was a novelty for a while. And though most of them merely stared but never said anything, a few kids openly mocked her. One time, early in sixth grade, Tillie had noticed a group of kids laughing hysterically, holding their bellies, heads thrown back. She framed the image and locked onto the face of a laughing girl, nailing the focus. A perfect photo. But as she took the picture, a boy broke into the frame, ruining the shot. Through the lens, she saw that he was the source of all the hilarity. With his shoulders hunched over and his hair in his eyes, he dragged his leg and pretended to take pictures. As she dropped her camera against her chest and moved away as fast as she was able, the boy ended his impression and joined in the laughter, too, accepting pats on the back and high fives from those around him.

Now that boy stood before her, his pleading eyes fixed on hers.

“I need your help with something.” He held her gaze. “It’s important.”

Everyone thought what they were missing was important.

“I have to get to class,” Tillie snapped. It took her twice as long as the other kids to get down the hall and she was already late from lingering with her camera.

But then Jake grasped Tillie by the arm, and she fought the urge to flinch. She stopped.

His hand stayed on her. “No … I mean it.”

Tillie stood still, feeling the heat of his hand, and looked Jake Hausmann up and down.

He was small—petite, even. A kid her mom might politely call a “late bloomer.” He had a haircut one could only describe as ridiculous (shaggy-jagged, but a little too short in the back). He wore a shirt with Aragorn from Lord of the Rings on it, and his pants were too tight, revealing matchstick-thin legs. Despite all this, she knew that he was always in the center of every group of people he was around, just as he had been when she’d first spotted him.

“Please, Lost and Found. You have to help me. Just listen.” He dropped his hold on her arm, and even though they were already standing close together, he took a small step toward her, staring right at her.

“Okay. What is it?” She tried to look away from his eyes, but despite their air of desperation, they were warm and wide. Somehow she had never noticed that in her photographs.

“I lost my dad,” he said. “I need to find him.”


2


Missing

“I don’t look for people,” Tillie said, walking away. “Only things.” She wished she could escape faster.

“But I heard you can find anything.” Jake easily caught up with a small skip. “Figure stuff out.”

Tillie arrived at her class and walked to her seat. She could see him outside the classroom door window, peeking in, fidgeting a little. She almost took a picture, but the teacher started lecturing, and Jake’s face disappeared.

On the way home from school, he bothered her again.

“Hey!” he called to her as she was leaving. “Hey, you!”

Her bus idled, the last in line, and she sped up in an effort to ditch him. To do so, she had to thrust her left leg forward more forcefully, which emphasized the walk he once found so funny-looking.

Who loses their dad? A dad’s not a bracelet. A dad’s not a note. Who doesn’t know where their dad is at every second, wishing him home from work or feeling his presence down the hall when you get ready for bed? A dad would have to be dead to be lost. Tillie shuddered.

“You can’t ignore me forever, you know,” he said, suddenly beside her.

“Can’t I?” she replied under her breath. She knew just how easy it was to ignore someone. Or rather, to be ignored.

“I’m Jake,” he said.

Tillie kept her gaze down on the sidewalk before her. About fifty more steps and she’d be at her bus.

“Do you always go by Lost and Found?” Jake continued. “Or do you find that insulting? People used to call me Supergirl in fourth grade, because I wore a cape to school. I thought it was red, but it was really pink. Ya see, I’m color-blind. I personally found the name insulting. Can’t a person wear a pink cape? What, boys aren’t allowed to wear pink or something? Pink is awesome!”

Tillie ignored him, but she couldn’t deny that it was kind of nice to hear someone think out loud about how she might be feeling about something, about anything. And yeah, the pink cape story was kind of funny.

“Listen.” The words poured out of him as he strode energetically beside her. “I think something weird is going on. My dad’s been missing for three days now. He’s not where they’re telling me he is.”

“What does that even mean, ‘missing’?” Tillie grumbled. And who was “they”?

“Three days ago he drops me off at school and everything’s good, right? That night, he isn’t home for dinner, and my mom cooks it, and he’s usually the one who cooks, so that’s weird, but it’s just one night, so I don’t think much of it. Working late or something. And then he’s not there in the morning, either. And my mom doesn’t say anything. Okay, weird, but whatever. Early workday, maybe. But then it’s movie night. Our movie night we have every week. And he would never, never miss a movie night. It was his idea! He loves movie night. But he’s not home! So I ask my mom where he is and she says, ‘Oh, I didn’t tell you? He’s out of town right now. In Toronto. For business.’ For business? In Toronto? I mean, what is he, an international banker? The guy works in refrigeration sales! He’s never taken a ‘business trip’ in his life! And on movie night?”

“You never know—” Tillie started, still forging ahead toward the bus, but Jake interrupted.

“But okay, fine. So then another day goes by and I still haven’t heard from him. And that is weird.”

“Why?” Tillie challenged, stopping and turning to him. It all sounded perfectly normal to her.

“It’s just weird, okay?” he said. “We’ve had an ongoing game of D&D, just the two of us, since I was eight. We trade playlists and get into each other’s music. Last year he took me to a Bob Dylan concert. The man was totally incomprehensible and, like, a lunatic, but still. It was awesome.”

Jake spoke as if everyone would want to hear all he had to say, Tillie thought.

“So anyway, I decide to call him. And it goes straight to voicemail.” Jake paused. “Let that sink in. No ring. Phone off,” he said, enunciating each word. “The one time we were apart before—when my Zayde was in the hospital and Dad went to Chicago to see him—we talked every day. He called while caring for my sick grandfather, but he wouldn’t call after three whole days away on some surprise ‘business trip’? No. So I tell my mom I can’t reach him and ask if he’s called her, if we should worry. She says there’s nothing to worry about, that he left his charger at home, so his phone died, but they’ve been emailing and he’s fine. So I think, ‘Okay, then,’ and I email him. He doesn’t write back. And at this point, I start to think she might be lying for some reason.”

“Did you look for the charger?” A simple mystery solved and Jake the Mocker would be on his way. If it was there, his mom was telling the truth, and there was his answer.

“Of course I did,” Jake said. “He always keeps it plugged in next to his bed. And it’s not there. So I search everywhere in the house, just in case. It’s nowhere to be found. So why would she say that?”

In her peripheral vision, Tillie saw the bus filling up.

“Well,” Tillie said as she moved away, “you just need to call his—”

“Work,” Jake finished for her, not letting up, following. “I did. ‘Could I speak with Dave Hausmann?’ I ask, all professional. They transfer me to his private line. Voicemail. I call back and ask for his friend, his work buddy Jim. And guess what ol’ Jim at the office says? First he goes, ‘Oh, yeah, let me grab him,’ and then Jim gets back on the phone and says, ‘Oh, my mistake. He took the next couple weeks off. Vacation time.’ Like … huh? Which is it—a business trip or a vacation? If he were on a business trip, wouldn’t work know? And why would my mom say one thing and his coworker another? Look, someone is lying to me. I need to know why!”

“And what am I supposed to do, huh?” Tillie interrupted, hearing her own voice, a little louder than usual. “I take pictures. I’m not a detective.”

Jake began to fidget again. He had a habit, she noticed, of scratching behind his right ear. It left a light layer of dandruff on his shoulder.

“But you are.” He scratched away. “That’s exactly what you are.”

“No way,” Tillie scoffed.

“You’re like a detective. With your whole camera-toting, lurking-in-the-shadows, ‘Lost and Found’ thing.”

Tillie paused. “‘Lurking’? Thanks.” The bus was a few yards away now, and she signaled to the driver to wait for her.

“No, I mean—I don’t mean it like that,” Jake said as she boarded.

“I don’t think I can help you with this,” Tillie said, stepping onto the bus.

She could feel his eyes on her as she left him standing there. It felt strange to be the one who was being watched.

* * *

That night, as she clicked through her shots from the day, she stopped on the one of Alice Pierce’s locker. It had been covered in sloppily drawn little broken hearts. Who had done that, she wondered?

“Sweetie,”—Tillie heard her mom’s voice from down the hall—“don’t forget to do your exercises tonight, ’kay?”

Almost every night, her mom repeated this refrain. Sometimes the physical therapy exercises felt pointless, but her mom remained convinced that they would help reduce her pain and “abnormal gait,” which was how the grown-ups around her referred to her limp.

“Just remember that you wouldn’t be in as good a place as you are now if you hadn’t been doing them this whole time, right from the beginning,” her mom said whenever Tillie complained. Unfortunately, her mom happened to be right.

Tillie grabbed her ankle weights and dutifully went through her leg lifts. When she got to the resistance exercises, lying on her back and looping her band around her leg as she pushed against it, the band snapped in two. Tillie reached for another one, but she was all out.

“Mom!” she yelled from her room, still on her back. “Mom, my last band broke!”

No answer. Tillie pushed herself up off the floor and went into her parents’ bedroom, but her mom wasn’t there.

Her dad sat in bed on top of the covers, his laptop on his thighs, his reading glasses pushed down to the tip of his nose.

“Hey,” Tillie said.

“Oh,” he said, his pitch rising in surprise at her presence, but not looking up. “Hey, Til. Good day?”

“Where’s Mom?” Tillie asked.

“She just hopped on the phone with Aunt Kerry. What’s up?” he said, still typing.

“My last band broke. Need someone to help with the resistance exercises,” Tillie mumbled.

He lowered the screen of the laptop and glanced up at her. “Oh,” he said again. His face dropped. “Um…” He looked around as if her mom would appear from thin air beside him and do the job herself.

Tillie began to lie down on the floor.

“Um, you know, Til, I’ve got to finish looking at this,” he said. “Lots of work tonight.”

“Any big scandals?” she asked, standing back up.

Her dad worked as the associate editor of the politics section of the local paper. Tillie loved hearing about the scandals, listening to him tell her mom about politicians’ schemes and secrets. He got to cover stories in Chicago, too, which was where all the interesting stuff happened. “The salacious city!” her mom called it. Sometimes it seemed like his workday never ended.

“Nothing too exciting,” he said with a little smile. “Anyway, can you wait for your mom? She won’t be long.”

“Okay, Dad.”

He returned to whatever was so important on his computer.

Well, she could do them another time, once she had more bands. She went back to her room and her cameras, saving what she liked onto her laptop and clearing her memory card.

Performing her nightly ritual, Tillie set her cameras down on the shelf right across from her bed, where they spent their evenings, watching over her while she slept.

She placed them in order of size, starting with her smallest—a digital range finder that she carried around in her jacket pocket. She used it for clandestine photography, like when she propped the camera on a knee under her desk during class, or when she held it by her thigh, tilted upward, to capture a private moment between other kids. Then came her precious but resilient DSLR, a piece of treasure found at a yard sale, the one she wore around her neck all day like armor. It had kept her company since the summer of fifth grade. At this point it felt like an extra limb. At the end of the row sat a bulky, medium-format film camera that used to be her mom’s. It was too big to take to school, but perfect for playing around with at home. Every couple of weeks her mom took her to Walmart to get the film developed.

After laying her three beloved cameras in their resting spots, she stood back to admire them.

“Honey,” she heard her mom yell, talking to the other ‘honey’ in the house, not her. “Tillie needs to do her resistance reps! Can you please help her if she needs it?

A moment later her dad knocked on her door and said, “I’ve been summoned.”

Tillie forced out an insincere laugh. “How’d she know?”

“Your mom knows all.” He paused. “I think she just overheard us,” he admitted.

Tillie lay on the floor and lifted her leg. Her dad crouched down and began the routine. They both looked up toward the ceiling, avoiding eye contact. He pushed against her leg, her leg pushed back against his hand. He increased the resistance with each lift. And then he increased it way too much.

“Ow, okay, too much, that hurts,” she said as she felt a little pinch in her hip.

“What?” He responded as if he’d been elsewhere the whole time and was only now tuning in.

“That one hurt, Dad.”

“Where? In your hip? Your leg?” he asked, frantic.

“Dad, it’s fine. Just a little pinch. Let’s keep going.”

Her dad put his hand on his forehead, his usual move when he got upset or overwhelmed. He stood up. “Sorry, Til. Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” she said, meaning it, lifting her leg to go again.

“Your mom’s better at these … Maybe she should…” he muttered, heading toward the door without looking at her. “I, um … I really do need to work. I’m gonna see if your mom’s off the phone.”

And with that, he left.

Tillie stayed on the floor for a moment, the pinch still reverberating in her body, and then pulled herself up using the side of the bed. She could hear the faint sound of her mom’s voice laughing on the phone with her aunt and the muffled click-clack of her dad’s resumed typing down the hall.

Tillie tossed her weights aside, grabbed her laptop, put in a single headphone, and turned on one of the shows her parents caught every Sunday night that she wasn’t allowed to see. By bedtime, the slight sting of the pinch in her hip was gone.


Copyright © 2018 by Brigit Young