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Excerpt from Boots and Pieces

Chapter 1

If Ty hadn’t kicked me in the head that day, I probably wouldn’t even have noticed when Stacy Sizemore disappeared. Heck, nobody else really seemed to, not at first anyway. Not until they found the pieces.

We were out in my front yard after school, just fooling around, practicing our karate moves. Not that either one of us takes karate. The karate teacher down at Jazzercise quit to open a lube shop three counties over. But we weren’t about to let that stop us — I mean, we watch kung fu on TV all the time. What’s to know?

Apparently a lot, because I’d barely even settled on a kung fu pose before Ty jumped up and kicked me right in the forehead. I have to admit, it was a great shot. I couldn’t appreciate it right then, though, since I was busy keeling over and nearly cracking my skull on Tootie, Mom’s plastic garden duck. I was glad Tootie survived, but I couldn’t even begin to do that “I’m okay” routine to make Ty feel better. Heck, Tootie was lucky she didn’t end up wearing the SpaghettiOs I had for lunch. It hurt that bad.

It was right about then that Stacy Sizemore came trotting out of her house. I say trotting because she had on her favorite pink heels — the three-inch ones with the bow on the front that make her take funny little baby steps. There I was, writhing in agony, and what does Stacy do? Without a word, Stacy Sizemore just steps over my head andstaggers into her car, leaving me on the ground choking in a cloud of her cheap perfume. Isn’t that great? She wasn’t even that careful about it. I’m serious — I could’ve lost an ear.

I’m actually surprised I didn’t; that’s the kind of thing that would happen to me. Years from now I’d be on the senior superlatives page in the yearbook, next to the kids voted Class Clown, Most Popular, Most Likely to Succeed — you know, the good ones. And there I’d be, Arlene Jacobs, plain kid, brown hair, missing that ear, voted Most Likely to Lose Another Body Part. And my class quote would be, “Gee, thanks, Stacy.”

So when she turned up missing the next day, I took particular interest. Okay, maybe it was part gloating — a see-what-happens-when-you-step-on-my-hair type of thing. (Because she totally stepped on my hair when I was lying on the sidewalk.) But I’m sure a little of it was real friendly concern.

At least I was nicer about it than Tina. Tina’s in the same grade with Stacy, and honestly, I couldn’t even tell if she’d heard Stacy was missing, that’s how unconcerned she was. It wasn’t until I saw her out back practicing her cheers that I knew she’d heard the news. Tina’s been trying to get on the cheerleading squad forever, but she’s convinced Stacy’s been blackballing her out of spite. With Stacy gone, Tina must’ve figured that spot on the squad was hers. But I’ll give it to you straight: I’ve seen Tina cheer. It isn’t spite. Tina just sucks, that’s all. But like I can say that, right? I like my head. I don’t want it bitten off.

Mom and Dad, on the other hand, were pretty freaked out about Stacy. When I got home from school the next day, the phone was ringing. It was Mom. Then, two seconds later, Dad called. They did the same alternating phone call routine every ten minutes for the next four hours, just to make sure we hadn’t been kidnapped or murdered for our snackie cakes. At one point nature called, and for obvious reasons, it took me a little longer to get to the phone. You should’ve heard Mom’s voice. She was so shrill, she sounded like Minnie Mouse.

It was hard for me to get all worked up, though. I mean, sure, Stacy was missing and all, but it wasn’t like I was looking over my shoulder every five minutes. If I wigged out over every supposed threat or rumor that went around this town, I’d be bouncing off the walls. Which of course my parents do.

Last summer, it was the gang of Jamaican drug dealers that we had to watch out for. Not that anybody ever saw a Jamaican drug dealer. That Reynolds kid with the blond dreadlocks was the closest I ever saw, but he’s lived here his whole life and doesn’t seem to do much except play the Galaga game down at the Happy Mart. And then the summer before that, there was a rumor that Michael Jackson was going to give a concert at the school auditorium. Which probably doesn’t rank as a threat exactly, but heck, I was freaked out.

None of them turned out to be true, of course, but the whole town was in an uproar anyway. And the Daily Squealer tabloid newspaper covered them like they were true. I don’t know of another town this small that’s able to sustain its own tabloid newspaper, but hey, what can I say. There’s really not a lot going on around here, so people take whatever excitement they can get.

It was like that all week — the parents and grown-ups went out hunting for Stacy while us kids were penned up inside like little fuzzy bunnies. It really ticked me off. Partly because I figured us fuzzy bunnies were the ones who actually had a clue where to look for her, but mostly it was because that meant I was stuck in the house with Tina and our dog, Mr. Boots. All week long. For hours. You have no idea.

Mr. Boots is a great dog, don’t get me wrong. We’ve bonded. We have a very cordial relationship. But I’m powerless to save him from the whims of Tina, and I think he holds that against me.

Mr. Boots is this weird-looking, runty Chihuahua with ears way too big for his head, and he has the misfortune of being the perfect size to fit into all of Tina’s old doll clothes. It’s really sad. I’ll put it this way — when Mom and Dad summoned us for an official “talk” Monday night, Mr. Boots came wearing a charming blue gingham dress with lace sleeves and matching bonnet.

“Girls,” Dad started, clearing his throat and trying not to stare at Mr. Boots, “it’s like this.”

“PTA!” Mom shrieked. Tina and I exchanged looks. Mom was definitely on the edge. I almost wanted to check the freezer in the basement for Filet o’ Stacy, that’s how weird she was acting.

Mom must’ve known she was cracking, because her face got bright red and she licked her lips nervously.

“It’s a PTA meeting, kids,” she said, obviously controlling herself.

Dad cleared his throat again, like he had some kind of condition. “Just a PTA meeting to talk about school issues.”

“Emergency meeting,” Mom squeaked.

Dad shot her a nasty look. “Nothing to worry about. Just school issues.”

“What, like dress code?” I said. I couldn’t help myself. I mean, like we couldn’t guess what it was really about.

Dad’s face turned a sort of dusty rose, the same color as Mom’s bathroom, and the vein on his forehead bulged out.

“So I can go out with Trey then?” Tina interrupted, glaring up from the squishy center of the couch. Tina has no patience for family meetings.

You’d think she’d just asked for permission to behead the neighbor’s cat from the way they reacted. Mom sucked her breath in so fast, she almost choked on her own spit, and Dad slammed his fist down on the mantel, accidentally squashing a mini Snickers bar that I’d had designs on all day. I don’t even know who’d stashed it there, but I’d been thinking finders keepers. Thanks to Dad, that mini Snickers was going to miss an important appointment with my stomach.

“You are staying right here until this gets straightened out, young lady.” Dad wiped caramel and nougat off his hand.

“Think about Stacy! Tina, please!” Mom cried.

Tina narrowed her eyes and stared at Mom and Dad coldly for a couple of seconds. “Peachy.”

Then she clenched her jaw for effect and inspected Mr. Boots’s toenails. Mr. Boots blinked his watery eyes in terror. Poor guy. He could see what was coming.

“That’s my girl,” Dad beamed, patting Tina on the head. I think he got nougat in her hair. “Arlie, you mind Tina now.”

“Great.” I tried not to sound surly. Dad gets mad when you sound surly. Unbelievably, my Little Miss Sunshine routine fooled him.

Mom and Dad kissed us good-bye like they were leaving on a world tour and headed out the door. Tina promptly scooped Mr. Boots up and stomped upstairs.

“Don’t bother me. I’m busy,” she yelled as she slammed her door behind her.

Like I would. Like I enjoy playing fashion model any more than Mr. Boots does. Believe me, the days of Arlie, Tina’s human doll, are far in the past. Besides, I had better things to do.

Ever since that little “missed evacuation” episode last year, when Tina’s phone habit almost caused the Jacobs family to be asphyxiated by poisonous gases (courtesy of the local chemical plant), we’ve had two phone lines — one for Tina’s all-important social life, and one for the rest of the family to make emergency phone calls. I figured this qualified.

Carla Tate is this girl who lives in the little squatty house across from the junior/senior high. Usually I think it must be lousy, but not on emergency PTA nights. She gets the scoop before almost anybody else, so that makes her super popular. I grabbed the cordless, sat down in the squishy center of the couch, and started dialing. And dialing. And redialing.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only person in the school with the idea of calling Carla. After about twenty minutes, I gave up and called Ty.

Ty answered on the first ring, so it pretty much confirmed my suspicions. “Carla, huh?” I said.

“You too?”

“Any luck?”

Ty snorted. “Yeah, right. It’s worse than a radio contest.”

“Tell me about it. What’d your parents go with? Mine went with an emergency PTA meeting.” Like there even are emergency PTA meetings.

“My dad said it was a meeting of PHAPT — Parents Helping Actualize Prom Traditions. He said it was pronounced ‘Phat’ but with a silent second P. I think he must’ve worked on that one for a while.”

Ty’s dad was pretty slick, I had to admit. That one was almost believable. Prom is the hugest deal around here, you have no idea. Swear to God, some girls start planning what to wear before they start junior high. There’s even a front-page “Countdown to Prom” spread in the newspaper every year. So secret parental prom organizations wouldn’t surprise me at all. I was still going with the Stacy theory, though.

I hung up with Ty and started dialing again. But just hitting redial can get pretty boring, so after a couple of minutes, I decided to make s’mores to help pass the time. I figured I’d alternate — s’more, dial, s’more, dial, and so on until Carla finally answered the phone.

Besides, I figured Ty would get more out of Carla than me anyway — he can be a pretty fast talker when he wants to and usually manages to charm the pants off people. Ty’s almost as big a klutz as I am, but he tried out for junior varsity basketball last year and actually made the team. Coach Miller was like, black kid, fairly tall, must be a natural. It didn’t ever seem to register with him that Ty (a) has no basketball ability whatsoever, and (b) never actually made a single basket. I think Ty’d still be on the team if he hadn’t decided that he looked dorky in the shorts. So I decided my primary focus should be the s’mores — that way, if I never got through to Carla, it wouldn’t be a wasted evening.

It’s really incredible how many s’mores one person can pack away, given the right circumstances. I ran out of graham crackers, that’s how bad it was. And I’d opened a new package. Thank goodness I’d had the foresight to make a special chocolate-free s’more for Mr. Boots before I started. I knew he’d need one after the torture Tina was putting him through.

Unfortunately, the lack of graham crackers didn’t stop my feeding frenzy. I had just stuffed four marshmallows into my mouth when Carla finally answered the phone.

“Yeah?” she said in this really cranky, irritated voice. I felt slightly offended.

“Cawwa,” I started, trying to swallow way too many marshmallows at once. Did I mention they were the jumbo size?

Carla didn’t even seem to notice my pronounced speech impediment. She sounded like a recording. A bored recording.

“Parents inside, no visible activity.” Carla sighed. “Two cop cars, plus Sheriff Shifflett’s there. The Walker’s there too, just pacing around outside, beats me why. It’s obviously about Stacy Sizemore. I’m guessing they found her since her parents drove in with Shifflett, but no official confirmation or details. That’s it.” Carla smacked down the phone before I was able to attempt another word. Like I could complain, though. Once again, my instincts were right on target. And now that I had the basic idea, I could just wait for the parents to fill in the details.

Ty hadn’t gotten through yet, so I called him and gave him the scoop. Then I sank back down into the squishy center and stared up at the ceiling, trying to ignore my stomach. It was making some pretty scary s’more-related noises. I could tell neither of us was going to be happy later on.

I was still lying there when my parents got home. I felt like algae on the side of a fish tank and looked even worse, but did my loving parents even notice my distress? Not on your life. They bounced around the room like they’d been sucking helium. I’m not entirely sure they hadn’t.

“Tina! Honey! Come down here!” Mom chirped up the stairs at Tina’s locked door. Then she flopped down next to me, totally ruining the perfect state of immobility that my stomach and I had come to depend on.

“Whoo!” Mom sighed. “What a night!”

I tried to look at her without turning my head too much. I could tell she was really relieved about something. Mom goes wacky when she’s relieved. Giddy even. “What?” I said.

“Wait for Tina, now,” Dad said. “Tina!”

Tina flung the door open so hard it smacked against the wall, and then she swept down the stairs, Mr. Boots skittering behind her. She threw herself into the armchair just as Mr. Boots ducked under the bookcase. His toenails were hot pink and glittery.

“Well,” Dad started.

“They found Stacy!” Mom piped up.

Dad glared at her for a second, but then he forgot to be angry. “That’s right, girls. It’s all over now. You’re safe.”

I glanced over at Tina, but she was inspecting her nails, maybe planning a glitterfest of her own later. I was glad I’d saved a treat for Mr. Boots, even though I had no idea how I was going to manage to feed it to him without spewing s’mores. Just the word “s’more” made my stomach turn over in protest. I tried not to think about it.

“So she’s okay then?” I said.

“Okay?” Mom looked at me like I was crazy. “Oh no, hon. She’s dead.”

“Oh.” I wasn’t crazy about Stacy either, okay, but I wasn’t thinking, Whoo! Dead! Party time.

Mom rolled her eyes at me like I was a moron. “I know it’s sad. A heartbreaking tragedy. But she wasn’t murdered, Arlie. She wasn’t kidnapped. That’s the point.”

“Oh.” It was all I could manage right then. Stacy being dead made those s’mores get awfully active down there.

Mom gave me a strangle hug. “We thought there was some crazed psycho killer out there after our girls! But you girls are safe, and that’s all that we care about.”

Tina looked up briefly. “So what, then? Give.”

Dad waved his hand in the air nonchalantly. “Oh, you know these reckless kids….”

“Sheriff Shifflett explained the whole thing. It was a rock-climbing accident,” Mom said. “Just as simple as that. She went out to the quarry, lost her grip, and fell.”

It was like the bottom dropped out of my stomach. Even Tina forgot to be cool and detached and just gaped at Mom. It boggled the mind.

“Excuse me?” Tina finally said. “Rock climbing?”

“Tragic, isn’t it? But she really should’ve known better. Cheerleading is one thing, but really, Stacy was just not athletic.”

Mom seemed to think that settled things, because she bounced off toward the kitchen. “Now who wants a drink?”

Dad did, apparently, because he heaved himself up and hurried after her. “Don’t you kids do any rock climbing, now, you hear?” he said, patting Tina on the arm as he passed. “Stay safe.”

The family meeting was obviously over, but Tina and I didn’t move a muscle. In my head I just kept seeing Stacy Sizemore that last day, tottering down the sidewalk. I stared over at Tina, and the expression on her face was as blank as mine. Neither one of us said a word. We didn’t have to. Because we both knew that nobody went rock climbing in high heels. Not even Stacy.

Copyright © 2008 by Emily Ecton

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