The Missing Piece

I press my face so hard against the door I think my ear will get splinters. It sounds like the word Dad took Sam’s car keys away for saying, but that was summer and I don’t think it was quite the same word this time. But after the word nobody says anything from the living room. I turn my head until the doorknob touches my ponytail, trying to listen better.

Chairs scrape for a second. Mom’s voice drags lower than usual, “We’ll just have to deal with it, won’t we? I mean…” then drops out so everything is just a mash of mumbles and all I feel is the door shiver a little bit by my ear each time they say something. Kinda like a bee before it decides to sting.

Sam, what did you do?

Yesterday Benji Feldman stole a Snickers from lunch and got sent to the principal’s office. His mom and dad came and everything, he was in so much trouble. But he was still at school the next day flicking grapes at me with his spoon so he must not have gotten it that bad. So if Sam stole a Snickers, it’ll be all be ok by tomorrow. It’ll be ok.

“No!” Sam’s voice chops through the door, and I half stumble over. Then he goes soft again, so I have to crouch and put my head against the carpet by the door crack if I want to hear. “No, it’s not like that. We just, you know, like you and Mom – ”

“No,” Dad says. “Not like your mom and me.”

A thud. A hand slamming against the marble counter? Sam dropping his baseball helmet on the kitchen floor tiles? I can hear parts of words, vowel o’s and i’s slashing at each other from across the living room, but not much else. Whispers. Then Dad starts to pace, the heavy plod, plod, plod of his feet shuffling circles around the house. I bet he’s looking at the ground and cursing like he did when the van finally spat out its guts in smoke and broke down with us on the side of the road just an hour outside of Yellowstone. Sam was so eager to help, rambling on about learning this and that like he was trying to prove something. Finally Dad gave in and let him look around under the hood once the engine cooled some. Of course it didn’t do much good.

“That’s what you get for trying to be a show off,” I’d told him. He never said anything back. Now I bet Sam’s only looking at Mom, waiting for her to say something. But it doesn’t sound like that’s working, either.

Why did Sam have to look at me the way he did? Like he did before he told me to be quiet and just keep the door shut and locked, when he swore me not to leave my room ‘til he told them whatever he “had to” talk to them about now. I had just been reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, hoping he’d read it to me for a bit. He can do all the characters. He’s best as Hagrid, but he can even do You-Know-Who, the way he can click and slither the words through his teeth.

Anyway, instead of reading he just acted weird. If he had just stolen a stupid Snickers he should get it over with and let Dad call the school. But I don’t think that’s it anymore. He didn’t look good the way he crouched down in front of me, letting his long legs of his double under themselves. It’s like the way he kept staring out my car window after the game. He kept his hands against his thighs the whole way home. If he hadn’t been batting and running bases in the sun for the last three hours I’d swear he was freezing from the inside-out by the way he shivered in my room. It just didn’t make sense acting like that, with his bangs all damp and dark with sweat. It just didn’t make any sense.

But when I asked him what was wrong he just said, “I’ll try to explain it to you later.”

“Did you steal from the lunch line, too? What you do? You must have really messed up.”

Maybe he didn’t like the way I half smiled when I said it, but it’s just that I’ve never seen anyone mess up big before. Especially Sam.

“Maybe after I talk with Mom and Dad…”

“It’s not like I’m in the first grade anymore,” I said.

He stood up. “Just keep the door shut and it will be ok.”

“So you really did something wrong?”

“I don’t think so. No. I just think it’s time they know.”

“Know what?”

I could see his sweaty fingertips still shivering a little as he reached for the door. “We’ll talk later,” he said. “Just wish me luck.”

I keep trying to force the pieces together, but they don’t want to fit. If he didn’t steal anything, then what else could he have done? Maybe it has to do with Kyle. Sam invites him over all the time. Maybe it was Kyle who distracted the lunch lady while Sam filled his jacket with junk. Kyle doesn’t seem like the stealing type, though.

I remember one day he was trying to teach me how to pitch. I stood on this little hump of ground in the back yard and acted like it was a pitching mound. “I’m Babe Ruth,” I said, and threw the ball as hard as I could. It hit the ground then bounced into Sam’s shin.

“Babe Ruth wasn’t a pitcher,” Sam said. “So I guess you’re pitching about as good as he could.”

Behind me I heard Kyle laugh and then kneel down. “Here,” he said, spreading my fingers around the ball. “Like this.” He pressed my first two fingers on top the ball with my thumb under it and raised my elbow some.

“Ok,” I said. “I’m Sammy what’s-his-name.”

“Sammy Sosa?” Sam asked.

“Yep. That’s me.”

They both started laughing again. “He’s not a pitcher, either.” Kyle said.

Well, it didn’t matter because I threw that ball right into Sam’s chest. He never even saw it coming. He just fell over and got up smiling again. Then Mom poked her head out the screen door and yelled “Lunch!” even though when we ran inside the kitchen clock only said 11:00. We had pizza Lunchables that day. I was trying to make a smiley face out of cheese when Mom asked Sam and Kyle which girls they planned to take to the dance. Sam kept drinking his Coke like he didn’t want to answer. Kyle didn’t say much either, just unclasped his watch then put it back on again.

Or, maybe it had something to do with Kyle at the game today. He was sitting alone in the top bleacher by left field, watching and clapping. Once in a while he’d wave to Sam as he guarded third. After the game I was tip-toeing under the bleachers, looking for candy and quarters mostly, but kept finding empty popcorn bags and bottle tops instead. That’s when I saw them. They were holding hands and laughing to each other, but I couldn’t tell about what. Then I heard Mom and Dad crunching over the leaves a little ways off calling out for Sam. Sam and Kyle must have heard it because they stopped what they were doing. Sometimes I hold hands with my friends at school, too, and none of the teachers say anything about it. So if it’s alright to even do in school, I don’t know why they were acting so strange about it.

Now Sam starts shouting for the first time from the other side of the door. “Jesus Christ, Dad! I knew you didn’t…” More chairs scrape as they ready their battle stations.

Through the door crack I can see Dad’s big steel-toed boots lined up in front of Sam’s grassy cleats.

“Sam! Sam, I’m coming!” I jump up and throw open the door. Its loud thwack against the wall startles Dad so bad that when he turns to see me his elbow knocks over the counter lamp. CRACKPHSSS! Everybody jumps back at the sound as its shards scatter across the floor in all directions. They stop and look at me: Dad towering two feet from Sam, Mom standing by the kitchen cabinet, Sam shrinking away from them both, trying to shoo me back into my room with his eyes.

“Go back to your room,” Dad says. His face twitches when he looks at me.

“What’s going on? What’s the matter?”

Mom crouches down and puts her hands on her knees. “Go to your room, Tess.”

I bite my tongue and follow the lamp’s blue decorated pieces until I see its busted light bulb between Sam and Dad. One big chunk is missing but the other parts huddle near each other, as if to try and glue back together what’s been broken. Around the room I see more pieces hiding, flung under the La-Z-Boy or behind the counter. Everybody keeps staring at me and then at each other. I open my mouth to tell them it’s alright but Dad just gazes emptily down, not moving to clean the mess. They keep staring and I keep staring until all of it jostles into one giant jagged jigsaw puzzle that none of us can quite put back together.

“Sam…” Dad starts.

Sam doesn’t look at him. He just looks past Mom out the kitchen window, letting the street run cul-de-sacs in his eyes. More dead ends.

“Sam just got a speeding ticket, that’s all,” Dad says and looks to Mom like she’s supposed to fill in the blanks, like them talking to me is one of those dumb Mad-Libs they give me to do on long trips.

I look at Sam but he won’t look even look at me. “He and Kyle didn’t steal anything?” I ask.

When I say Kyle’s name Sam’s face starts to get puffy and he turns to leave but Dad cuts him off and stands in front of the door, spreading his blocky shoulders out. “No, Tess. Everything’s fine, just go to your room. Sam was, was just driving too fast and…and got a ticket. Isn’t that right?”

Sam doesn’t say anything as Mom pulls me by the hand back into my room. She shuts the door, smiles at me, and wipes her eyes. I ask her again what’s wrong, and for a second it seems like she’ll say what, or at least stay. But soon the door clicks shut. I can hear the lock clench from the outside. Now all there is to do is read my book and whisper the words to myself, trying to tell the story the way only he could.

Paul Waldhart’s Bio:

I was born and raised in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and spend my free time writing and being outdoors. I am a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and will be a Public Policy graduate student there in the fall. My prior publications include NOTA, The Fascicle, and REDzine.